How does Hayao Miyazaki create such remarkable worlds in his films?

The legendary Japanese animator is known for the complex, beautiful worlds of his films. Why do they stand out?

Sajid Khan
Published : 5 Jan 2023, 04:59 AM
Updated : 5 Jan 2023, 04:59 AM

The great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, was born on Jan 5, 1941.

In 1963, a young Hayao Miyazaki, who expressed interest in manga and animation from an early age, joined Toei Animation. After the success of his film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Miyazaki co-founded the now legendary Studio Ghibli in 1985 alongside veteran director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. With astounding creativity, masterful storytelling, and stunning technical prowess, the studio and Miyazaki would go on to create remarkable films.

Effective fantasy stories with compelling characters often require an immersive world to be built upon. Crafting such a world, especially in the short span of a movie, requires attention to detail. Over the past 37 years at Ghibli, Miyazaki has consistently created many a masterpiece that has repeatedly blended the boundary between fantasy and reality. But what makes his movies stand out so clearly?


Motion is the very essence of the animation medium and through movement, Miyazaki develops the physical worlds of his films. His works revel in the physicality of motion, of small details that lend heft and weight to their drawings. In Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), our titular witch glides above her adopted seaside town, flowing through the wind as it flutters her dress. In Princess Mononoke (1997), San charges alongside a rush of boars into battle, sharp and sleek amidst the thunderous hooves. Though animation cannot imitate real life with complete accuracy, the sense of movement created in these films grounds us in the physical reality of these often fantastical worlds.  

The small mannerisms and expressions of characters also imbue them with the illusion of life, of specificity and purpose. Without the particularities of character animation or the wind flowing through the background, the scenes would not look as lively. In many films, Studio Ghibli manages to capture distinct fantastical worlds through this approach.


"Colour has a meaning and it makes the film more easily understood."

- Michiyo Yasuda, animator and colour designer on many Studio Ghibli films

Animation often uses a visually pleasing and rich colour scheme. To make his work more vibrant, Miyazaki uses watercolours to raise their resonance. The colours enrich the diverse landscapes that his films wander through, giving texture to the evergreen grass, the linings of valleys, and the darkness of the shadows.

Pops of colour also enhance the emotions of his characters, such as the dark lines of angry eyebrows, the rosy cheeks of embarrassment or the sickly yellow of fright.  

The way these colours complement and contrast helps convey the mood and atmosphere of his settings. The choices are very deliberate, both in the selection of individual shades and the collective hues of their palettes. These palettes lend depth and dimension to his stories.


Studio Ghibli often takes inspiration from real-life locations in Japan and other countries, trying to lend detail to the environment, even in minor ways. The seaside town in Ponyo (2008), for example, takes inspiration from Tomonoura, a port town in Hiroshima Prefecture, while Totoro’s forest in My Neighbor Totoro (1988) was inspired by the Totoro no Mori woods in the Sayama Hills. The underlying verisimilitude of these spaces grounds the films, giving them the feeling and texture of the real world in more fantastical settings.  


Music in Ghibli movies ranges from rousing orchestrations that crescendo in climactic scenes to simple folk melodies that tug at your heartstrings. Esteemed composer Joe Hisaishi, who has worked with Miyazaki since 1984, has written scores for all but one Ghibli movie. For most of their runtimes, Hisaishi’s soundtracks are light and nostalgic, allowing viewers to relax into the story, but at pivotal moments, the music picks up alongside the action and drives the film forward. While working in familiar moulds, Hisaishi can change rhythms to attune to characters, atmospheres, and emotions, accentuating them. Without this music, the films would lose much of their lustre.


The various creatures in Ghibli movies are distinct and unique, drawing on recognisable iconography while carrying particular touches that fit their particular worlds. Whether it is a lost river spirit in the form of a white dragon, a giant, walking castle, or a transforming forest god, Miyazaki can introduce, establish and flesh out these creatures in his stories and make the audience feel connected to them, despite their wild and unusual natures.  


Although Miyazaki’s films look out of this world, the themes and ideas they portray are direct meditations on our world. The recurring elements in his movies - the preservation of the environment, love between individuals, the importance of family, the weight of history, the connections among friends, the interactions of cultures, and the tragedies of war – dissect and criticise the real world.

The cautionary tale of The Wind Rises (2015), based on a true story, which incorporates the idea of attainable dreams, or the anti-war messages of Howl's Moving Castle (2004), draw direct parallels to talk about society today.

The result is that Hayao Miyazaki’s films, with their exciting visions and grand spectacle, also have at their core an emotional intelligence and attunement to the real world. This is what has endeared his movies to millions across the world and brought him near-universal acclaim throughout a long and illustrious career.  

This article was written for Stripe,'s special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.