I remember the day I watched Spirited Away for the first time. I was 7 years old and my sister brought home the DVD because her friend had let her borrow it. It was the most outrageous, exciting, and heart wrenching film I had ever seen. I’ve probably watched it around 20 times by now. The story is one of those timeless, beautiful things that I will show my kids, and hopefully, even their kids. And it would never have been as magical as it is without Michiyo Yasuda.
Michiyo was the mastermind behind the vibrant colours and seamless design of some of Hayao Miyazaki’s most loved works. And after hearing the news of her passing last week, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to one of the most prominent women in animation history, in true Anthem style.
Michiyo was born in Tokyo, 1939. Growing up then, women had sensible roles such as bank workers, and rarely held positions of power. However, her parents actively strayed away from traditional Asian child rearing practises, and encouraged Michiyo to pursue her love of the arts.
She began her career in animation straight out of secondary school with Toei Doga, nursing an active aversion to the ‘boring’ paths other women were pursuing. Toei Doga, a company not often heard of in the UK, were behind some major animations such as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. Not only that, but a handful of other renowned animators including Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli founders), and even Leiji Matsumoto (the artist behind many of Daft Punk’s iconic music videos) also spent their early days there.
Michiyo began her career like most in the media field; at the bottom. Doing the laborious, time-consuming jobs with little recognition (shout-out to my media pals), but it soon paid off. In 1968, Michiyo Yasuda, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata worked all together for the first time on the Little Norse Prince (1968) for Toei Doga. Although the film was not particularly popular after its release, Film4 heralded it a ‘key film in the history of anime’. And that it was. This was to be the beginning of the two most important business relationships for Michiyo, making striking and unique visual media to enchant the world.
Michiyo was a part of Studio Ghibli from the very beginning. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) was written by Miyazaki, and is often credited as the foundation of Studio Ghibli due to its incredible success in Japan. Michiyo by this point had sharpened her skills, and dedicated her attention to the incredible colour palettes of the films she worked on.
In an interview with the LA Times, Michiyo stated ‘Colour has a meaning, and it makes the film more easily understood. Colours and pictures can enhance what the situation is on-screen’. Despite this passion for colour and the clear importance it plays in Studio Ghibli’s work, Michiyo was rarely recognised as a major contributor in the company’s work. Many did not know her name and yet millions were touched by her enchanting work. From the painfully sad Grave of the Fireflies (1988) to completely confusing and adorable My Neighbour Totoro (1988). And let’s not forget the dazzling and exciting (and my personal fave) Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Michiyo’s legacy lives on. Her colours subtly brought Studio Ghibli’s stories to life, without screaming to be acknowledged.
Although retiring after Ponyo (2008), she could not resist returning to work on The Wind Rises (2013) as a final contribution to Hayao Miyazaki’s work before his own retirement. Her work will forever pay a stunning tribute to the beauty of nature, and the wonder that can be seen in the most mundane of things.
She is an extraordinary example of a woman who worked her way up from the bottom, and even more so in such a male-orientated field. And she will forever inspire me to see the loveliness of things we so often take for granted.
Words by Jessica Yang
Images courtesy of Studio Ghibli