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Hayao Miyazaki versus Alan Moore

Andrew Osmond referees the battle of the beards

Hayao Miyazaki

They’re world-famous practitioners of pictorial media. They started out labouring in despised sub-cultures, then rose to become full-blown artists with establishment respect. Oh, and they both have really impressive facial hair. Miyazaki prefers to keep his beard neatly trimmed, but Moore’s magnificent bristle evokes a shaggy primeval forest, housing a Paleolithic shaman from Northampton or a bouncing bellowing Totoro. Or possibly both.

But we’re not comparing Miyazaki and Moore because of their beards, but because they’re both unwilling ambassadors for their respective media. Moore is associated with comics, particularly superhero comics. He’s critically acclaimed for works such as From Hell and A Small Killing, but more people still know him for The Killing Joke (Batman x Joker) and, of course, for Watchmen. Miyazaki’s dubbed an anime pro par excellence, linked with landmarks from Heidi to Princess Mononoke.

Alan Moore

The works of both men are often presented as a gateway for newbies, and a paradigm of how good their media – attacked by snooty pundits and geek-bashing haters – can be. Miyazaki and Moore are de facto champions of, respectively, anime and superheroes. Until you look at what they say about anime and superheroes.

To take Miyazaki first, he’s slated anime for at least 25 years. His definitive statement is an essay, ‘Thoughts on Japanese Animation,’ published in Japan in 1988 – the year of Totoro and Akira – and translated in the book Starting Point. Miyazaki acknowledges that he fell in love with animation in his youth, with films like Japan’s Hakujaden (Legend of the White Serpent) and Russia’s Snow Queen. Notably, Miyazaki didn’t encounter them as a child. He fell in love with them in his late teens and twenties, when some people might think he was already too old for such passions. Nonetheless, Miyazaki often emphasises the impact of animation, good or bad, on young children.

“I still think that encountering wonderful animation as a child is not a bad thing,” Miyazaki wrote in 1988. “Yet I’m also acutely aware that this profession is actually a business, targeting children’s purchasing power. No matter how much we pride ourselves in being conscientious, we produce visual works that stimulate children’s visual and auditory senses, and whatever experiences we provide them are in a sense stealing the time from them that might otherwise be spent in a world where they go out and make their own discoveries or have their own personal experiences. In the society in which we live today, the sheer volume of [animated] material being produced can potentially distort everything.”

Watchmen

As for Moore, people may think of him as a superhero guy. However, he told The Guardian last year that superheroes are now pop-cultural abominations. “They don’t mean what they used to mean,” he said. “They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men… I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12 year-old boys of the 1950s.”

So Miyazaki thinks cartoons are bad for kids, and Moore argues that comics – superhero comics, at least – are bad for adults. Of course, one of the many ironies in both men’s positions is that Moore is commonly credited with helping ‘adultify’ superheroes, while Miyazaki showed the mainstream that anime could be child-friendly. There are get-outs, though they seem rather half-hearted. Miyazaki says it’s okay for a kid to watch one of his films on a special occasion, provided he or she goes outside afterward to catch rhinoceros beetles. Moore’s supporters, meanwhile, argue that a strip like Watchmen is not a superhero comic; rather it’s a literary attack on superheroes. This sounds like the discredited saw that if something is literary, it can’t belong to a vulgar pop-genre like fantasy or SF.

Spirited Away

Beyond the question of whether kids are better off rewatching Totoro or playing with chainsaws (seriously! – Miyazaki let fifth-graders play with a chainsaw at his mountain cabin, summoning up visions of Totoro meets Evil Dead), Miyazaki has other beefs with anime. His 1988 essay attacks the same stylisations which would inspire the Wachowski Brothers, dissing anime “where vaporous and extremely deformed characters inhabit distorted and flashily colourised worlds, where time is infinitely expanded.” Miyazaki gets especially fed up with combining robots and wild-coloured hairdos, pointing out the such ‘innovations’ turn into creative straitjackets, making anime ‘frighteningly similar’ to each other.

In 1988, Miyazaki pulled some of his punches, admitting there’s some good Japanese animation out there. By Turning Point, a second book published in Britain earlier this year by Viz Media, he’s got grumpier. The book includes an interview with the late American film critic Roger Ebert, who naively suggests that animation is on an equal level to live-action in Japan, Miyazaki swiftly rebutts him; he says he would only recommend a few anime and decries anime’s sex and violence.

In another Turning Point interview (p70), Miyazaki specifically denies his films are anime at all. “We have consistently tried to make films not anime… We try to find ways of representation understandable to a country grandpa watching our film for the very first time.” Miyazaki contrasts this with what he claims are the fannish, enclosed tropes of anime, where outsiders “can’t figure out what is going on.”

Over to Moore. In an already infamous interview last January, conducted by the blogger Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Moore makes similar gibes against enclosed superhero comics. Watchmen’s author attacks their audience ashaving given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in” instead obsessing over the “sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics.” Of course, this is rich considering Moore’s work on a comic like Supreme, which Moore turned into a Superman pastiche festooned with fan-flattering in-jokes. Evangelion’s Hideaki Anno would have loved Supreme; we’ll get to him later in the discussion.

Moore’s recent barrage of bile and insults is meaner than anything Miyazaki has said, but then his anger runs deeper. Most comics fans know about Moore’s decades-long rights wars with corporations such as DC, which he sees as toxic to creators. Interviewed by Kurt Amacker for Seraphemera Books, Moore described the superhero world as built on creative theft, “toys pried out of the fingers of dead men.” Miyazaki has been far luckier than Moore. Though Miyazaki was bolshie in his youth, a unionist troublemaker at the Toei studio – in Turning Point, he recalls fighting “against the old guys who had interviewed me when I was a newly graduated greenhorn” – by the mid-80s, he could create, make and release his own work in a company tailor-made for his talents.

The Ballad of Halo Jones

Yet there are interesting parallels between Moore’s and Miyazaki’s careers. For example, while they were developing their individual voices, they each created acclaimed female lead characters in comic strips, placed in far-future worlds, at a time when they were unfashionable. Moore, though, invented a resilient everywoman – Halo Jones of The Ballad of Halo Joneswhile Miyazaki went for the idealised fantasy of Nausicaa. And by the time of Halo Jones, Moore was already defined as a writer, handling the words and giving the drawings to his current collaborator. Miyazaki, meanwhile, is a writer-artist; Moore’s modus operandi is more like Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata’s, who doesn’t draw but works with draughtsmen to explore a range of art styles.

Both Miyazaki and Moore burnished their early reputations by taking existing characters and making them over as their own; Miyazaki with Lupin the Third in the 1970s, and Moore with Marvelman (aka Miracleman) and Swamp Thing in the 1980s. And Moore’s opus Watchmen is comparable to Miyazaki’s long strip version of Nausicaa. Both push into the darkest territory, with much contemplation of human extinction, moral ambiguity and criticism of the whole notion of a ‘hero.’

But Watchmen and Nausicaa bring out a spectacular difference between Moore and Miyazaki. Twenty-five years after Watchmen was published, Moore furiously denounced DC when it launched Before Watchmen in 2012, a prequel by other hands including J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). In the Seraphemera interview, Moore declared his “complete contempt” for anyone who might want to see how someone else might treat his characters. “If you are a reader that just wanted your favourite characters on tap forever, and never cared about the creators, then actually you’re probably not the kind of reader that I was looking for.”

Moore’s key argument is that Before Watchmen reflects DC’s theft and exploitation of his work. But leaving that aside, his comments are echoed by Miyazaki in Turning Point (page 76), where Miyazaki mentions a girl who saw his Kiki’s Delivery Service. The girl was swept up in the little witch’s adventures; “I want to keep on watching to see what happens next.” Miyazaki was unhappy. He’d meant Kiki to encourage kids to carve out their own lives, not to live second-hand through a fictional character. Miyazaki responded by making Spirited Away, even though children might watch that film just to see what happened to Chihiro next.

And yet! Miyazaki shocked fans by saying in a TV interview that he would be happy for a Nausicaa sequel film to be made by someone else. He named that someone; Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, an anime fanboy par excellence (though he’s capable of making Moore-ish comments; see our Anno interview). We’ve looked at Anno’s relationship with Miyazaki previously: sometimes they’re colleagues, sometimes rivals. Miyazaki briefly refers to Anno in Turning Point (page 257). In a 2002 interview, he calls Anno’s animation “self-deprecating and honest in the deconstructive style that it employs” but also “the stylistic equivalent of a dead-end street.”

Don’t worry about Anno. He already gave Miyazaki back as good as he got, in an essay for the Studio Ghibli box-set, translated unofficially by Mark Neidengard. Anno accuses Ghibli and Miyazaki of being superficially feelgood, cut off from the visceral passions of the best anime, self-loathing and emotional complexes among them. This is the maker of Evangelion speaking, remember.

It’s irresistible to look at Miyazaki and Anno – who are such friends today that Anno voices the lead character in The Wind Rises – and contrast the current feud between Alan Moore and superhero comic star Grant Morrison (author of Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human). This feud is laid out at huge length from Moore’s side in the last section of his interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid. In it, Moore calls Morrison a “medicinal leech,” “an idiotic s**t” and someone, who is “metaphorically speaking, continually masturbating on my doorstep.” Morrison’s side is here.

We won’t go into the merits of the argument (or metaphor) here – that would take an article about ten times the length of this one – but it’s notable that Miyazaki could have used some of the same ammo on Anno. For example, Moore accuses Morrison of shadowing Moore’s own career with psychotic closeness. Miyazaki could easily say the same of Anno, whose early hit Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water was inspired by a discarded Miyazaki story (though in fairness Anno strove to make Nadia different, as he explains here). Later Anno’s Evangelion quoted/stole from Nausicaa (see here), and so on. Add Anno’s cheeky comments about Miyazaki above, and remember that Moore trashed Morrison for “simultaneously borrowing heavily from my work and making studiedly controversial statements about me.”

In contrast, Miyazaki has publicly let Anno make the Miyazaki equivalent of Before Watchmen, should Anno ever get round to it. Superhero comics adore ‘what would have happened if?’ scenarios. Perhaps Miyazaki represents a luckier version of Moore, who didn’t have to endure the same bitter industry experiences which seethe through Moore’s recent interviews. Consequently, Miyazaki can jab at the ‘otaku’ mindset without (metaphorically speaking) spitting in fan’s faces and exploding like a New York squid. Instead, Miyazaki fans with a lot of time on their hands set out to make his anti-anime arguments for him. Enjoy…

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