hayao-miyazakiFor many people, the name “Hayao Miyazaki” is synonymous with the word “anime”. And understandably so: Miyazaki has been responsible for some of the finest examples of the artform, both in terms of aesthetics and storytelling, in the last three decades. But considering the fact that Miyazaki is nearing his seventies, and that he’s “threatened” retirement on several occasions, folks are naturally wondering who will follow in the master’s footsteps; who will pick up where he left off and enthrall and inspire future generations?

Many expected Yoshifumi Kondō — who directed the wonderfully enchanting Whisper Of The Heart (1995) and had worked on several of Miyazaki’s titles, including Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Princess Mononoke (1997) — to take over Miyazaki’s role as one of Studio Ghibli’s senior filmmakers. Sadly, however, Kondō died of an aneurysm in 1998. Not only did the world of animation lose a tremendous talent, but it also lost the most obvious successor to Miyazaki.

In recent years, several other names have been bandied about. Of course, there’s Miyazaki’s son, Gorō Miyazaki. But there seems to be a lot of hesitation surrounding him. He’s not an animator by trade, having deliberately chosen to not follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he works as a landscaper (if you’ve ever been to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, you’ve seen his work). But that didn’t prevent him from being tapped to direct Tales from Earthsea (2006), a loose adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels.

The elder Miyazaki responded harshly to the decision, and father and son were not on speaking terms throughout the film’s production. While the rift between the two seems to have healed somewhat, the film itself didn’t fare too well at all. It won “Worst Movie” from Japan’s equivalent of the Raspberry Awards, and Gorō Miyazaki won the “Worst Director” award. Additionally, the film did poorly at the box office — for a Studio Ghibli release.

Many, including myself, have called Makoto Shinkai — Voices of a Distant Star (2002), The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) — the “new Miyazaki”, due to his skills as an animator, his focus on poignant storytelling, and his auteur-like tendencies (like Miyazaki, Shinkai is very much “hands on” in the creation of his films and even produced Voices of a Distant Star on his own).

But even with a couple of films under his belt, it’s really too early to make that sort of proclamation (indeed, Shinkai himself downplays the label). Make no mistake: Shinkai’s films are impressive, especially when you consider his young age and humble origins, and they do bring an original voice to anime — but they’re also somewhat repetitive and rely very heavily on high school-esque melodrama and tropes associated with young, unrequited love. With his most recent feature, 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), Shinkai seemed to have reached the culmination of such themes. Hopefully, his future films will branch out a little more as he matures, but he’s off to a solid start.

In 2007, the anime magazine Protoculture Addicts ran an article entitled “Top 9 Anime Directors (Who Aren’t Hayao Miyazaki)”. At the top of the list was Satoshi Kon, a former manga artist and writer whose big break came in 1998 with Perfect Blue, an adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel. A twisted and twisting psychological thriller, Perfect Blue drew comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch and announced the arrival of a unique new talent.

Since then, he has consistently been one of the most original voices in anime, and has created some of the most enthralling and intriguing anime titles in recent memory, including Millennium Actress (2001), the Paranoia Agent TV series (2004), and Paprika (2006). That being said, it’s difficult to think of him as the “next Miyazaki” because his work, as captivating as it may be, tends to be much darker and deal with more mature themes than Miyazaki’s, often focusing on the alienation, dehumanization, and loss of identity prevalent in modern society.

Earlier this week, though, critic Mark Schilling threw another name into the ring, another potential successor to the throne: Mamoru Hosoda. In his review of Hosoda’s latest feature, Summer Wars, Schilling writes:

Hosoda and his team, including animation director Hiroyuki Aoyama, action animation director Tatsuzo Nishida and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, have produced scenes of animated spectacle that, in their dazzling fluency of motion and untethered brilliance of invention, makes the usual SF/fantasy anime look childish and dull. At the same time, the film’s universe is thoroughly grounded in reality, with all its fantasy confined to the online sphere (though some of the wackier visual gags push the boundaries of the possible).

Hosoda’s previous feature — the sci-fi high school romantic comedy The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) — garnered immense critical accolades, including “Animation of the Year” at the Japan’s equivalent of the Academy Awards and the “Animation Grand Award” at the Mainichi Film Awards. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is certainly worth checking out; it’s an enjoyable film that works both as an affecting high school comedy and as an intelligent (and humorous) sci-fi/time travel film.

Of course, this discussion is primarily academic and perhaps even pedantic. Hayao Miyazaki is a legend for a reason, and as such, noone will ever be able to replace him — indeed, the idea of the “next Miyazaki” is ultimately a foolish one. Perhaps the only real benefit of this sort of exercise — other than the opportunity it provides to reflect upon and appreciate Miyazaki’s talent — is a reminder that anime doesn’t begin and end with Miyazaki — or any other filmmaker, for that matter.

It’s true that anime oftentimes seems bereft of creativity and overridden by clichés (e.g., giant robots, ridiculously endowed female characters) — especially if you’re walking down the aisles of Best Buy or Blockbuster Video. But the truth is that there are a number of directors out there who are continually developing and maturing as artists, and all the while delivering stirring, imaginative stories and stunning animation1.

1. This article has focused on directors working primarily in the feature film arena. I’ve said nothing of those who work primarily in the TV/OVA arena, such as Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) and Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).