Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is set to release this year, and this one might actually be his final, final movie. With that caveat, How to Live is probably set for Academy Awards recognition in the Animated Feature Category.

It took the Academy quite a while to realise that such a category ought to exist, and in the time that’s passed since its creation, this event may well have done a disservice to the ‘genre’ in the minds of movie goers by separating the medium of animation from the ‘real’ movies.

Miyazaki Character Development

Still, Miyazaki is a revered figure in the field, who was invited to join the Academy for a discussion on his famously loose and intuitive writing and production style, by way of a translator (so it’s appropriate to make accommodations along these lines).

Miyazaki is specifically inquired about the process of developing a character for a story (an utterly essential element of a Miyazaki film, and a large part of why his projects have crossed the language barrier so fruitfully). The interviewer is John Lasseter, a friend of Miyazaki’s and pioneer of Pixar who’s helped bring the Japanese master’s works to U.S. theaters on several occasions. Lasseter is curious about the possibility of folk-tale inspirations behind Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, in which only young children can see the mythical Totoro.

Miyazaki gives probably the most truthful answer possible: an incomplete one. “Rather than trying to depict these magical creatures, my intention in making My Neighbour Totoro was to show my appreciation and my love for nature, which I had pretty much ignored up to that time.” It’s nigh-on impossible to imagine Miyazaki divorced from a spiritual awe for the natural world, and more so from his environmentalist themes, so this personal inspection resulted in a career pivot that would change the face of animation and world cinema forever.

“I had a couple of fragments – someone waiting at the bus stop with a strange creature standing right next to that person, and a small child who sees a partially transparent creature. Those fragments were in my mind for about ten years.” I’m sure we’re all familiar with the back drawer of ideas, but who would guess one of those would be the very start of a legacy, ten years after the fact?

“The child at the bus stop needs to be an older child, because a very young child would not be going to the bus stop to wait for a parent to come home. The one who sees the partly transparent creatures needs to be a really young child. For a long time I wondered how to connect those two fragments. Finally, I came upon the idea of making them sisters, and then the story started evolving. But it took me a long time to come to that point.”

If there’s anything to learn from Miyazaki’s elusive creative process as explained here: it’s that the smallest things can wind up making a career. Take nothing for granted.

Hayao Miyazaki: Developing Characters