In the summer between 8th grade and 9th — which for me was in 2002 — I saw my first Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movie. I rented it from a local video store, which is unfortunately no longer in business. It changed names at least once in my lifetime, but its original name was Video Stop.
It was a neighborhood institution, frequented by everyone in the community. It wasn’t like Blockbuster, where they’d charge you a small fortune for your rental and force you to keep it for almost a whole week, even though you’d be finished with it that night. No, Video Stop was a local mom-n-pop place, where each rental, movie or game, was only a dollar a day.
This was the place from which I’d rented countless NES, Genesis, Saturn, N64 and GameCube games. I never owned a Super NES in my youth, so I’d always stare at the SNES game boxes with intrigue and curiosity whenever I was there. But I didn’t just rent games, of course. I also rented plenty of movies, too. And it was here, in this small video store, where I stumbled upon something truly magical.
I was fumbling through the animated movies when I found it. I can still explicitly remember gazing upon the black plastic of the VHS box, when its cover art stopped me in my tracks. What I saw was Spirited Away’s iconic box art, with Chihiro — in her reddish-pink kimono, and white tasuki — staring me in the eyes, and Kaonashi peeking out from behind her.
This was at a time when I had just started to realize my affinity for Japanese media, and I knew from the art style that this movie was anime. I also knew from the ‘Walt Disney Studios’ (who produced the American release) label stamped on the front that it was likely to be an entertaining movie.
So I went home that Friday night — I know it was a Friday because that’s when we always went to the video store — and put the movie in. My parents watched it with me, which I only remember because my mom commented on something Chihiro’s parents said to her near the beginning. When it was over, even my parents said they liked it. But I didn’t just like it. I loved it.
This movie served as fuel to a fire that was already burning strong. I had, all my life, been in love with Japanese media, and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know that all the video games I’d played so passionately were almost exclusively designed, developed and produced in Japan. I didn’t know that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show was actually a single season’s entry in a long-running Japanese series called Super Sentai, which was part of a larger genre of television shows called tokusatsu, and had only been adapted for an American audience. I didn’t know that Dragon Ball and Pokémon — animated series I’d watched with dedication throughout elementary and middle school — were Japanese imports. I just didn’t know.
[Image courtesy of Nicole Carnival]
That is, until I saw the pre-movie greeting from Pixar’s John Lasseter, introducing viewers to Hayao Miyazaki. But even then, it didn’t really sink in until I watched the special features “making of” segment on the Spirited Away DVD I’d been given for my birthday that same summer. I’d fallen so in love with that movie, I just had to see it again. I had to own it.
And when I watched that segment, which chronicled everything about the movie, from start to finish, it finally dawned on me; like a bag of bricks falling upon my entire self, both body and mind. This movie was the sole creation of Japanese people. The human beings who made this film — Miyazaki-san, the writers, animators, original voice actors, and everyone in between — were all Japanese. It was an epiphany.
So when my friend Kenny and I went to the beach that same summer, we got bored one evening and went to the nearest video store. What I found while perusing their wares was yet another anime movie with Hayao Miyazaki’s name emblazoned on the front. “He has another movie?!” I thought. So we watched Princess Mononoke that night, and I quickly added it to my list of all-time favorites.
From there, I voraciously consumed any and all Japanese media I could find — more video games, anime, manga and music. As time went on, I became much more studied and versed in all facets of contemporary Japanese art. I knew game designers, anime directors, manga writers/illustrators, J-Pop and J-Rock artists, all by name.
I joined message boards and regularly discussed my newly-realized passions with people who were just as enthusiastic as I was. Many of my friends began realizing that they, too, shared a passion for these same things. I even made new friends in school because of a shared love for everything Japanese.
One such friend, who I met in the 9th grade, is now one of my best friends. Since meeting in our freshman year of high school, it has been the goal of Matt and I to one day visit the country we’ve loved longer than we even realized. I have a handful of friends who’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan, and one who actually lived and studied there for a year. It may take the rest of my life to get there, but I will get there. It is a dream I will not give up on.
My love and passion for the nation of Japan extend far beyond the pop culture from which it derived. Because of this, I took courses in college to study the history, art, literature and people of that great nation. But I’m not one of those oddballs who considers everything Japanese to be superior to the what the rest of the world has to offer. And I certainly don’t reject my American, Scottish, Irish or English heritage in an attempt to “become Japanese,” although people like that definitely exist (Ugh).
However, many of my interests and hobbies are of Japanese origin. And while I was already heading down the path to becoming a Japanophile at the time I discovered Miyazaki, picking up that copy of Spirited Away in the video store played a larger role than I ever could have imagined. His work captured my heart, soul and imagination in a way nothing else ever has. Without exposure to his stories and art, and the inspiring music of Joe Hisaishi, I may never have developed such fervor and zeal for the other things I now hold dear.
Right now, my copy of From Up on Poppy Hill, the latest from Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, is headed to my mailbox. When it arrives, and I can finally view it for the first time, my anthology will be complete for the time being.
Then I wait for Miyazaki’s final film, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) and Isao Takahata’s latest, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Story of Princess Kaguya), to be released, and I’ll I own every film Miyazaki, Takahata and Studio Ghibli have ever been involved in; everything from pre-Ghibli movies, like The Little Norse Prince and Grave of the Fireflies, to all things much more recent; even the films that were never released in North America, which meant I had to not only import those movies, but I had to buy a region-free DVD player just to view them. These were small inconveniences, however, because it meant I got to watch more Studio Ghibli movies.
I’ve even read Hayao Miyazaki’s book, Starting Point: 1979 – 1996, which was a fascinating look inside the mind of a man I consider to be of unequaled brilliance. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when, upon waking up yesterday morning, I learned he’d announced his retirement. But at 72 years old, he’s worked diligently into his later years, providing some of the greatest tales and animation I’ve ever experienced. In fact, his work is unparalleled.
There is so much more about his legacy to be extolled, but suffice it to say, he will be dearly missed by people all over the world — especially by the 14-year-old boy whose life was changed he stumbled upon a movie in a family-owned video store, where the suburbs meet the country, in a small town in Western North Carolina.
Hopefully Miyazaki-san can still have a presence at Ghibli even in retirement. Now have some rest, sir. You’ve earned it.