You all know the debate. Miyazaki is getting up there in age. He’s on almost assuredly his last film, if only because he won’t last long enough for another one. He’s a giant in the world of animation and one of the first true anime film directors with crossover western appeal, to say nothing of his enormous impact on Japanese animation. With him nearing the end of his career, the question becomes: Who is going to be the next Miyazaki?
There are several contenders. Makoto Shinkai is a popular one, the director of the brilliant film “Your Name”. Hiromu Hasoda, director of the excellent films “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and “The Wolf Children” is another contender. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the former Ghibli animator who made the perfectly cromulent films “The Secret World of Arrietty”, “When Marnie Was There”, and “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is another. These are all good directors, and Hasoda might even be a great director. Shinkai certainly has the potential to be a great director, and has already made one great movie.
None of these men are the next Miyazaki. Indeed, none of them are even close. That’s because people looking for the next Miyazaki are looking for precisely the wrong thing.
Hayao Miyazaki occupies the place he has in Japanese animation because of the particulars of the place and time he worked in. Miyazaki wasn’t who he was because of gentle, dreamlike storytelling, or fantastical settings, or even his brilliant visuals. It’s because he was doing things in animation nobody else was doing before – his films were more western influenced, more superversive, and more visually inventive (okay, yeah, I cheated a bit with the visuals, but you get my point). I don’t think westerners, even westerners who like Ghibli films, really understand just HOW influential Miyazaki was. It almost can’t be overstated. Geoff of Mother’s Basement calls “Castle in the Sky” the Japanese equivalent to “The Lord of the Rings”! Think about how influential “The Lord of the Rings” is to begin to grasp the impact of that statement. And it’s only ONE of his films.
When people look for the next Miyazaki they tend to look for directors who do things similar to what Miyazaki did (or at least, that people have an image of): Family friendly films accessible to western audiences with maybe a hint of the supernatural to them, leaning towards the superversive. There’s nothing wrong with movies like this, and these parameters are broad enough to encompass a lot of unique directing styles; Hasoda, Shinkai, and Miyazaki are all very different directors from each other (Yonebayashi was a Miyazaki disciple and so is actually not all that different from his master).
But none of these directors are innovators. They are all good to great directors, but none of them are doing to the industry anything close to like what Miyazaki was doing. The truth is, Hideaki Anno, the creator of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, is closer to being the next Miyazaki than Makoto Shinkai, because like Miyazaki Anno was an enormously influential innovator who made a deep and irreversible impression on the industry. In fact, the only real reason he ISN’T the next Miyazaki is that they happen to be contemporaries (man was THAT a generation).
If you want my best guess, we’re not going to see the next Miyazaki for awhile. He’s going to be a guy in Japan who starts off small but slowly gains a reputation for a different, quirky style that eventually takes off with some smash hit, and the rest of the industry is going to ride his coattails like crazy. Thing is, if he’s the sort of generational talent Miyazaki was said director will need to keep ahead of the curve by trying out new genres and structures, adapting them to his unique style and maintaining a standard of quality that his imitators can’t match. Eventually a generation of animators will grow up having been influenced by this guy and we’ll all see a dramatically different industry than we see today.
Unless, of course, you want to consider John Lasseter the next Miyazaki, which is far less unreasonable than you think, though maybe you’d disqualify him on the grounds of being a western director. Still, a guy like Lasseter is much closer to the sort of thing we’ll see when the next Miyazaki comes along – a giant who changes the industry forever, innovating in storytelling, animation, and style.
To give a ballpark prediction of what I think this next trend will be, I’d put my money on the idea that the next Big Thing is going to be a director who rejects western influence and stays within his Japanese roots, experimenting with different Japanese storytelling structures and art styles in his films. Maybe he’ll get into other Asian folklore as well. But I’m just guessing. Who really knows?
There is no next Miyazaki – not now, at least. It’s very possible there won’t be for decades, if ever. People who are looking for it in directors with similar styles are looking for it in the wrong place. To find the next Miyazaki, find the innovators, the risk takers, the sorts of people willing to try things nobody has ever really tried before. Only then will we start our search in the right place, and perhaps find the true successor to Hayao Miyazaki.
The Mother’s Basement video where Geoff compares “Castle in the Sky” to “Lord of the Rings”, for the curious.