Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most important filmmakers of all time. His work with Studio Ghibli will outlive all of us as future generations discover masterpieces like “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Castle in the Sky.” In 2013, at the age of 72, Miyazaki released the deeply personal “The Wind Rises,” which truly felt like a final film. Shortly thereafter he announced his retirement, but surprised everyone in 2016 when he revealed that he was working on “How Do You Live?,” which now appears likely to be his final film. What drew Miyazaki out of retirement? Nothing less than his favorite book as a child. Published in 1937, this Japanese children’s classic shaped Miyazaki’s career, and it’s now available in a new translation for U.S. audiences with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who wrote the English translation of “Princess Mononoke.” The book is a wonderful window into the career of a master, a moving story on its own that gains even more power for fans of Ghibli.
At first, How Do You Live? may not feel aligned with Miyazaki’s fantastical view of the world, one that often incorporates more from fairy tales than this relatively simple story of a boy and his uncle. However, one can see the Miyazaki influence right from the very beginning of Genzaburō Yoshino’s novel. Early in the book, our protagonist, a boy named Copper, is on a roof with his uncle, watching the cars travel the streets below them, and the vehicles start to take on the aesthetic of bugs, leaving and returning their homes. One can easily the Miyazaki sequence of cars turning into insects, forming waves heading in and out of the city. And one can see how this kind of mind’s eye fantasy would shape his animation.
Most of all, there's a simple, lesson-learning grace in How Do You Live? that feels intrinsic to the way Miyazaki tells stories. Copper is at that age wherein life lessons seem to come faster than he can absorb them, such as an incident with a schoolmate and a bully. Genzaburō structures his novel in that the reader experiences these incidents along with Copper and then presents a letter from his uncle that details the lesson learned. It might sound simplistic, but it’s surprisingly moving—the idea that we can only understand life when someone else’s worldview and expertise is allowed to weigh in, especially when we’re children.
The structure of How Do You Live? leads me to wonder how the event/letter dynamic will play out in Miyazaki’s film but I have no doubt that he’ll figure it out. After all, he’s been living with this book for most of his life. And, for us hardcore fans of Studio Ghibli, it turns out we have too.