In 2003, Spirited Away was the first anime film (Japanese animated movie) to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. For many Americans, the director, Hayao Miyazaki, was an unknown despite the fact that his seven previous full-length animated features had made him a household name in Japan. Disney Studios had tried in the past to expand Miyazaki’s American audience, and in 1996 negotiated with Miyazaki and his animation company, Studio Ghibli, to bring nine of their films into wide release for English-speaking audiences. The first film to be distributed was Princess Mononoke, which succeeded critically but failed at the box office. Disney was reluctant to release any more Studio Ghibli films—until the success of Spirited Away. The film’s fine storytelling and breathtaking animation made it the highest grossing movie of all time in Japan, and Disney hoped it would create wider appeal for Japanese anime in the U.S.

Born in Japan on January 5, 1941, Hayao Miyazaki grew up in the shadow of World War II. Miyazaki’s father, Katsuji, headed the family’s airplane factory, which produced wingtips for Zero fighters. The factory made his family wealthy, but Miyazaki was ashamed that his family profited from the war when so many others suffered. In 1944 the entire family was forced to evacuate the city and flee to the country, and after the war Miyazaki’s family moved several more times. Miyazaki started school in 1947, the same year his mother was hospitalized due to spinal tuberculosis. In spite of her illness, she had a strong influence on Miyazaki, who rarely saw his busy father.

Miyazaki’s interest in art and animation grew from two major influences: Japanese comic books, called manga, and his schooling at Gakushuin University. Manga were a profound cultural phenomenon when Miyazaki was growing up, embracing complex themes and often targeting an older audience. Miyazaki decided he wanted to draw manga for a living when he was in high school. Later, inspired by the full-length Japanese animated features that were becoming increasingly popular, he changed his mind and decided to become an animator. At Gakushuin University, Miyazaki’s economics and political science studies shaped the cultural, artistic, and political sensibilities that influenced his later works. As part of his economics major, Miyazaki researched Japanese industry and the war’s effect on his country. He later incorporated this and other material into movies such as Princess Mononoke, where a city of women produces nothing but weapons and iron. He also joined the children’s literature research society, a club for aspiring manga writers and illustrators.

Shortly after graduating in 1963, Miyazaki landed a job as an inbetweener—helping to create seamless frames—at Toei Douga, Japan’s leading animation studio. But just as important to Miyazaki’s career was his role as chief secretary of Toei Douga’s labor union. His involvement with the union, and the union itself, deviated from Japan’s cultural programming, which insists on absolute subordination to one’s employer. As a labor leader, he made many valuable career connections and met his future wife, animator Akemi Ot. In 1971, Miyazaki left Toei Douga for A-Pro, an animation studio owned by two of his former Toei Douga colleagues. At A-Pro and subsequent studios, Miyazaki honed his skills as a storyteller and animator in both television and film. He also became a popular author and creator of manga.

In 1984, Miyazaki released his first full-length feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, which was based on his popular manga series. It was so successful that he was able to establish Studio Ghibli. More importantly, the success of the movie revived feature-length animation in Japan. For some time, television anime had threatened to render animated movies obsolete. Miyazaki’s films helped to reverse this trend, and the success of each new Miyazaki film has surpassed its predecessors. Princess Mononoke received the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film and was the highest-grossing domestic film in Japan’s history until Spirited Away supplanted it.

Now in his sixties, Miyazaki shows no sign of slowing down. His films are still not commercially successful in America, possibly because American audiences have difficulty identifying with the Japanese culture he explores. However, his influence on the art of feature-length anime has given it a quality unrivalled in American animation.