Hayao Miyazaki and the Giant Robot

That scene with the giant robot from Toei's 1969 anime The Flying Ghost Ship got me thinking. Geoff Nickerson wondered if Brad Bird's movie The Iron Giant was influenced in any way by Miyazaki's giant robot in Castle in the Sky. I don't know if that's the case; if so, that would be pretty interesting when you consider the checkered history of Miyazaki's giant robot.

Miyazaki's original inspiration came from Superman. He and his peers were great fans of the Fleischer studio, and you can see that influence in productions like Animal Treasure Island, Sherlock Hound, and Porco Rosso. You may find more examples if you dig around. The giant robot appeared in the 1941 cartoon, "The Mechanical Monsters," where a giant robot robs banks under the control of a mad scientist. It's really a classic, and one of the great Superman cartoons.

Wow! I forgot how much I loved these Superman cartoons! The only good thing to come from the live-action movies was General Zod. Everything else was a wash.

Anyway, Miyazaki paid tribute to the Fleischers in "Farewell, Beloved Lupin. The 1979 Second Series finale also featured a giant robot which is robbing banks. This time, the robot is under the control of - surprise! - Miyazaki's Heroine, clad in blue, thoughful and moody as always. She was being manipulated by certain mysterious actors, who have framed Lupin for the crimes.

You can see how Miyazaki often works around similar motifs, either revisiting or recycling older ideas years later. The relationship between the Heroine and her robot in the Lupin finale is echoed strongly, many years later, as Nausicaa and Ohma, in the final volume of the Nausicaa manga. These are the smartest and wisest of the "Ghibli Riffs," because the complex relationship in one work is re-examined in another. There's a synthesis of meaning, an added dimension of depth. In this sense, much of Miyazaki's more serious work is part of a greater conversation, one life-long epic poem.

This is why it remains so difficult to truly understand the filmmaker until you have studied all of his work, and why Westerners who have only been exposed to My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away assume Miyazaki to be a Japanese Walt Disney. I've said it many times, and it's a crucial lesson to hear. Hayao Miyazaki is not Walt Disney.

Back to the Superman robot. Most Ghibli Freaks will also recognize it in Castle in the Sky, where it practically steals the show. Its scenes are probably the most memorable in the entire picture, blending adventure, suspense, and pathos all at once. Perhaps there's a bit of King Kong in that character, the giant monster who remains understood to all except the girl.

The idea for the giant robot was already sketched out for Nausicaa, as we can see from the 1984 film, even though Ohma emerges as a much deeper, richer character (this is another brilliant example of one work influencing the other - you cannot truly appreciate Ohma without knowing the movie God Warrior). But the character was placed, almost fully intact, into the first Studio Ghibli film, Castle in the Sky.

And there the story ends, except for one final appearance. The giant robot now stands as a statue at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan. The studio released a DVD documentary about the museum in 2005. On the cover is a photograph of the famous robot. Seated at its foot? None other than the legendary animator, Yuri Norstein.


David Bernal said...

love to hear about all this history! and how it all links! very inspiring! :)
would love to see that statue so AWESOME!!

Elchinodepelocrespo said...

Some people suggest a direct relation between the robot from Paul Grimault´s La Bergère et le ramoneur (1952)and the one in Laputa. Miyazaki admited this film to be one of his greatest influences. Have a look to the stills at the end of the post:

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

It's true that Grimault has had a tremendous influence upon Miyazaki and Takahata, as well as their peers. The King and the Mockingbird is probably the best known example. Ghibli even released that movie to DVD in Japan, and maybe even a theatrical run as well.

The Japanese were greatly influenced by French and Russian animation, probably more so than the Americans. On the American side, I'd say the Fleischers were more popular than Disney. But they were all an influence to some degree.

Nate B. said...

Great post!! Just an added comment: The Fleischer cartoons are finally getting re-released with a quality transfer (here's hoping anyway.) It won't be out until April but it will be released under the title: Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942 and is supposed to have at least one featurette about the animation on the DVDs. I think it will be a blind purchase for me...

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