On Creative Zen: Hayao Miyazaki

"Don’t let criticism and praise disturb your heart."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There is this almost fixed understanding of how to produce creative work. The final product has been brainstormed, outlined, and revised multiple times. Regardless of the medium — visual, written, or consumer — we go about it in much in the same ways, as a project manager. The accepted mode of work is engineering creativity, relying on formulas and trends, carefully calculated, planned, and manicured.

Listen to a TED talk, a thought leader, read a productivity blog (or book), and this is the standard answer. We liken creativity to the construction of a building because it's tangible, it's manageable, and it works. It's how I would recommend it to most people, but — there is this other way.

Can you make something great without a plan? Can you jump out of a plane without a parachute? We fear it just the same. We fear starting, so we bog ourselves down with the preparation — prepping to begin. Starting is fun, but "failing" is not, so we attempt to form guarantees. (No matter what we do, we are only fooling ourselves if we believe there will ever be guarantees.) We will predetermine everything beforehand, eliminating fun and problem solving out of the process. The stuff that made creative work enjoyable, the reason many of us started. That is the paradox, to keep doing this thing while eliminating the parts that got us started on this thing. No outline, no script, no parachute, can you just jump and make a leap of faith that things will turn out okay, in the same way, the heroes of stories and myths do?

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

Zen philosophy and martial arts alike is about yielding, yielding to the unknown. Artists, poets, and writers have used this as the foundation of their process for thousands of years.

The Mind of a Child Only Has Imagination

Hayao Miyazaki is arguably one of the finest filmmakers of all time. His animated films include Ponyo, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, The Wind Rises, and My Neighbor Totoro. The richness of Miyazaki's cinematic world transcends the confines of his medium. (Time magazine has twice ranked Miyazaki among the world’s most influential people.) He doesn't make movies in the typical sense; he builds imaginative worlds that are both new and familiar.

Speaking in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 6,500 fans, Pixar Animation chief John Lasseter asked Miyazaki about his filmmaking process. Miyazaki said:

My process is thinking, thinking and thinking. [Laughs] Thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.

On what he does to keep his inspiration, Miyazaki told a British interviewer:

I look at children and try to see things as they do. If I can do that, I can create universal appeal. We get strength and encouragement from watching children. I consider it a blessing to be able to do that, and to make movies in this chaotic, testing world.

In Zen, this is called shoshin, the "beginner's mind." Much like a white belt, sometimes they can create new methods and perspectives because all a white belt has is imagination. Rules can help, but they can also hold us back. Through a conscious effort to cultivate shoshin, Miyazaki's work maintains elegant simplicity.

Daily Calisthenics Rather Than Creative Meetings; One of the Many Differences at Studio Ghibli

A supple and playful body leads to a supple and playful mind.

A rebel knows the rules but breaks them as an act of defiance. It would be inaccurate to call Miyazaki a rebel, as there is a sense he never knew the rules, and he has no interest in defying them. Instead, he watches nature and lets her dictate his methods. Playing by the same rules as everything else.

Rebels Break Rules; a Child Doesn't Know Rules

These ideas gave me an impression of Miyazaki, but it was in watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, when I learned Miyazaki breaks the cardinal rule of filmmaking: No script!

It was completely counter to the rules. Where was the outline, the formula, the endless amounts of notes, opinions, and second guessing?

In an excerpt from The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, we are shown a glimpse into Studio Ghibli and a day in Miyazaki's working life. Even in the Japanese world of animation, Miyazaki is considered quite strange. Without a script, Miyazaki draws storyboards in their place. Production begins over a year before storyboards finish.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

We see Miyazaki painting his storyboards with the help of his assistant. He laments to himself:

Look at this, I must be insane. Some of the staff say it’s baffling. Some even give up trying to understand.

The filmmaker asks about editing dilemmas. Miyazaki answers:

Not like I have a script. I’m really not working off of any guidelines, you know. I honestly don’t know what kind of film we’ll end up with.

Without a script, no one, including Miyazaki is aware of how his films will end. He just paints and draws, present in the moment. In psychology, this is referred to as "flow" state. Miyazaki's assistant asks:

Like the film writes itself through you?
Spirited Away

Spirited Away

As if possessed, there is no break in Miyazaki's workflow:

That’s right. Otherwise we’d be in trouble. This may sound ridiculous but I’ve had staff tell me they have no idea what’s going on in my films. When we were making ‘Spirited Away,’ even I didn’t know. The way I see it, we may never understand them. What does one know about this world? ... The world isn’t simple enough to explain in words.

And women ask, how could a man understand how a woman feels? Those subtle nuances.

In reference to Kiki's Delivery Service, a film about a child witch and her familiar, Miyazaki's assistant presses him:

Kiki’s emotions felt so real.


It’s pretty transparent to me.


Say, why couldn’t Jiji speak at the end?

[Jiji is the name of Kiki's cat. In the film, Kiki temporarily loses her powers, including her ability to speak with Jiji. She later regains her powers but not her ability to speak to her cat.]


Sometimes we become speechless. When they’re together at the end, there’s nothing to say.


He didn’t say anything.


But he came, right?


Yes, but —

Miyazaki interrupts:

— What could he possibly say?


Well, maybe that her magic is —


— That her magic is back? Her magic deepened, you see. Would you prefer if Jiji said something like, ‘See what happens without me?’ [Laughs] That’s annoying. You’d tell him to shut up. [Jiji could have said] ‘When you gain you also lose.’ That sounds cool right? Or ‘Quit talking with a cat!’

In realizing he has been working and chatting at the same time, Miyazaki thinks out loud:

Should I be chatting away while drawing storyboards? Thankfully, my brain is compartmentalized.

But then Miyazaki reexamines his work and notices it's different from how he intended it. The talking affected his work, yet he is not upset:

Look, the scene totally changed.




Right? Films sure are organic.

The Art of Art: A Zen Anecdote

(  My Neighbor Totoro   | Studio Ghibli)

(My Neighbor Totoro | Studio Ghibli)

In Zen Antics: One Hundred Stories of Enlightenment, author Thomas Cleary tells the story of Zen master Tetsuo. Famous for his brush paintings, he told his students:

You must remember the saying, ‘If you want to avoid depending on society, don’t let criticism and praise disturb your heart.’ When you can cultivate your art without leaving any mundanity at all in your chest, then mind and technique will naturally mature, and you will eventually be able to arrive at the subtleties. This is the way out of darkness into light.


Hayao Miyazaki yields himself to the process and allows it to flow through. In a less esoteric comparison, it isn't that different from a beat reporter for a newspaper. They observe then write what they see, sculpting the bulk of it in their head and writing as they go. It is no wonder so many of them have become some of our greatest journalists, novelists, screenwriters, essayists, and producers. It is no wonder Miyazaki is a modern master.

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