Meet Martin Hsu, kind-of-president of the unofficial Miyazaki Club
"Lily's Kitty" by Martin Hsu.
September 1st, 2011
09:42 AM ET

Meet Martin Hsu, kind-of-president of the unofficial Miyazaki Club

The illustrations he creates – on t-shirts, as art prints and even gallery paintings – make it easy to tell: Martin Hsu is an Otaku. He’s a nerd who is drawn to Japanese culture and obsessed with Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and he’s inviting like-minded people to smile with him at the images that celebrate a love for things Japanese.

Hsu is surprised when acquaintances or colleagues don’t know who he’s talking about when he evangelizes Miyazaki. It’s something almost every fan of Japanese animation has had to explain to those not in the know: Miyazaki is like the Walt Disney of Japan.

“That’s always the fastest way to get the point across,” Martin Hsu, an animator, designer and gallery artist out of Los Angeles, California, said. “But the funny thing is, whenever I tell them that in the back of my mind I’m like, “No! No, no, no, he’s not!”

Fittingly, like many Japanese and anime fans, Hsu calls his hero “Miyazaki Sensei.”

“Sensei means “teacher” or “instructor” in Japanese, and that’s what people call him in Japan because he is such this massive figure. Not just an instructor of art but an instructor for life. My love for Miyazaki goes so much beyond just his art. I have so much respect for him as a person,” Hsu said.

Art and iconography are the language Hsu shares with Miyazaki and fellow Otakus. The story Hsu has to tell through his art is complicated: There is horde of information to be gleaned in his designs, from overt anime and manga influences to the racial baggage that comes from being an Asian American who reveres a culture his grandparents fought.

Hsu was born in Taiwan, and said that because his family lived through the Second Sino-Japanese War it used to be very difficult for him to tell his cousins or grandparents that he was really interested in Japanese culture.

“When I go to Taiwan or I go to China, even when I go to Tokyo, sometimes people mistake me for being Japanese. And I have to act like I’m slightly offended. ‘How dare you call me Japanese?’ But inside of me there’s a glimmer of joy and satisfaction. ‘Oh! They think I’m Japanese!’ So that makes me think, why is that?” he said.

“Japanese culture is perceived as this rooty, cool culture. There’s such a long history of artistry and refinement, and that doesn’t just apply to manga or art. It’s architecture, it’s design, it’s food, it’s sake, it’s all these other things,” Hsu said. “It’s this foreignness that’s inspiring; it’s the strangeness that hits you. I want to find out more about it. I can’t speak for all the Asian American community, obviously, but I at least feel a little guilty, to admit to my family that I’m a Japanophile. I just love everything about Japan.”

And it turns out to be something that manages to bring people who are not Japanese together, Hsu said. “I don’t want to call Otakus outcasts, because I don’t think we are. These days just because someone reads manga at the book store or watches anime doesn’t mean they’re an outcast.”

“I do think being this kind of nerd or geek, Otaku offers them a space to connect,” Hsu said. “Maybe they are a little awkward when it comes to socializing with people on just a regular level. Maybe they need an injection of bizarre weirdness that manga offers or anime offers to connect to somebody. It’s an instant topic that you can relate to somebody about.”

Hsu’s most overt handshake to the Otaku community is a simple t-shirt that conveys his deepest desires. It has a drawing of Miyazaki’s face with the words “Miyazaki Club” written directly underneath.

“The design is actually inspired by the Mickey Mouse Club from the 80s. I’ve always sort of seen myself as more of a Miyazaki Club member than a Mickey Mouse Club member. And even though I wasn’t here in the US to join the Mickey Mouse Club, if I had to choose it would have been the Miyazaki Club,” Hsu said.

“I wanted to be in a Miyazaki Club, I wanted to be the first president of the Miyazaki Club, I wanted to recruit all the honorable members, like, the super nerds who were super into Miyazaki. I wanted them to be in on this with me. I even made these shirts for us to wear so we could show that we were part of the unofficial Miyazaki Club. And I get asked all the time, “Is that a real club?” In my mind it is!”

Hsu’s family immigrated to the US in 1991, when he first saw some of the Miyazaki movies. He had been voraciously reading and collecting manga since he was 10 years old and living in Taiwan, and at first was only casually interested in Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films.

Fast forward to Hsu’s college years, when he really started getting into the artistic ability of Miyazaki through animation classes. His fascination with the sensei took hold and Hsu said he’s been a fan ever since.

In particular, Miyazaki’s risk-taking inspires Hsu. As an animator who has worked for Nickelodeon and Disney, Hsu laments that American animation studios gravitate toward commercial ventures with lots of flashy explosions.

By contrast, Hsu describes Miyazaki’s films as, “these provocative movies dealing with current events and politics, involving nature’s relationship to humans. He gives us really strong characters. But I also love his quiet movies, the sort of everyday life movies which you never see in Western animation. We’re so used to seeing explosives and grand, huge action in these movies with really big stories that when you see a quiet movie that Miyazaki does, it is not mundane at all. It is, like, the most interesting movie,” he said.

“It’s a reflection of reality but it’s a really hard story to tell. But I think when it’s told right, with strong characters, it’s so compelling. It takes you back to a period of time you can relate to,” Hsu said. “They definitely bring me back to Asia, back to grandma’s house in the countryside, outside, running around with my cousins. I miss those days, it’s very nostalgic.”

So how does Hsu mix provocative current events, politics, nature and nostalgic stillness? In a cute and unsettlingly grotesque mixture of animals that immediately make an Otaku’s eyes widen and have them telling Hsu that they get it. Hsu calls his creations “The Crakens.”

“The Crakens are made of half land, half sea animals and they have the ability to adapt to any environment. They can survive on land and in water. The reason for that is that they’re actually the result of pollution by the humans. And of course, in my fantasy, Miyazaki would do a move about this, going back to his sensibility on the environment. It’s being influenced by the environment and current events and seeing where it takes you. For me, it was Crakens,” Hsu said.

Some of his Crakens include mixtures of a pufferfish and a cat (Puffer Puss), a bunny and an octopus (Octobunny), and a panda bear and a crab (Crabby Bear.)

“They live in a dead zone, this area of the water where no oxygen exists, but they do. Even though they might look a little vicious, they’re actually nice folks and they’re kind of cute. But they’re able to live in any environment, and that’s probably what it’s going to come to for us at some point. If I had to track where that expression comes from it would probably have to go back to some of the Miyazaki movies. They allowed me to do something like that, something that is so weird that it takes five minutes to explain to people what these creatures are and why they are half land, half sea animals. And trust me, there’s a story!”

But Hsu knows his fellow Otaku nerds see that there’s a story in his art. He hides many stories in his art, almost like a treasure map that only nerds can read.

“There’s a reason why nerds are cool, right? It’s because we think we’re better than everybody else. We’re into all these perceived-as-weird-by-the-public things but I find cuteness and kindness in these creatures. When I tell people stories about the Crackons, they do get it about the environment and how it has to do with things we’re doing today. Nerds are nice people. They might not act like it all the time but they know what’s going on around the world. And they can relate to this sort of tenderness in creatures,” Hsu said.

“We’re sort of ambassadors for tenderness in a way. It’s kind of like, “Yeah, you can pick on me all you want, and I might react to it, I might not react to it, but I still want to show you why I’m this way. I want to show you why I read manga, why I collect anime. I want to bring you into my world because it’s so fantastical. It’s so much more than reality.” That’s how I think when I do my art, I want to bring people into this fantasy world, it’s what I believe in. I just want to show it to people.”

Hsu’s favorite story to tell is that of “Lily’s Kitty.” It’s a large painting he did in 2009 that shows a gigantic koi fish in a pond full of lily pads. On one of the lily pads is a little girl.

“She’s holding an umbrella because it’s about to rain. And she’s got a little cat tease, one of those feather things tied to a stick. The little girl’s name is Lily. Now why is it called “Lily’s Kitty”? Because this koi fish - which I call the Tiger Koi, because it’s got tiger stripes - is coming out of the water and it’s greeting her. And it’s glowing, it’s absolutely glowing,” Hsu said.

Here’s where the Miyazaki comes in. “I like it because part of it is actually inspired by “Ponyo,” one of the newest movies by Miyazaki,” Hsu said.

“You know how her mom glides through the water and she’s glowing? That was one of my biggest inspirations because I love that. Not just the fact that she’s radiant, this creature, but the warmness, it’s like she’s so warm because she’s a mom. She glows and she’s cozy,” he said.

“So Tiger Koi, is coming out of the water to greet Lily because that is her secret pet and nobody knows about it. In this giant, massive pond it’s surfacing, but only when Lily comes. Tiger Koi is this mysterious, prehistoric koi fish and comes from the deep, the very bottom of the lake, up to greet her. It’s this fantasy.”

Like Miyazaki movies, “Lily’s Kitty” takes the observer into another dimension, Hsu said. “It’s still a reflection of reality but everything is a little off, a little twisted in the most wonderful way.”

How do we sign up for the unofficial Miyazaki Club, again?

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Filed under: Otaku
soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. asgardshill

    The only Miyazaki movie I honestly never "got" was The Castle of Cagliostro. Everything else? Total brilliance.

    September 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  2. Nightsky

    I'm introducing my new housemate to Miyazaki. It's going *spectacularly* well. Most recently was "Porco Rosso"; this weekend I'm thinking "Howl's Moving Castle".

    September 2, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  3. kukai

    If anyone wants more information about Miyazaki and wishes to connect with others, comsult

    September 1, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  4. Takahata fan

    Takahata > Miyazaki

    September 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • The Bestest

      Why does one have to be greater then the other? Everyone should simply enjoy each artist.

      September 2, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  5. zoundsman

    I'm glad Hsu unloaded some of the convoluted racial insanity that circulates the planet. The younger generation
    always is bewildered with good reason-they had nothing to do with it. Fantasy, imagination, romance-whether
    you like it or not-is part of the human experience, "reality" as some wouldn't believe. Laugh all you want, your
    parents had you, possibly because of "romance." Others? Just lucky.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  6. Emelia Kanson

    Hayao Miyayaki's works are timeless. You can enjoy them regardless of age. Even when I'm grey and wrinkled, I will continue enjoying his works. He pays attention to the story, the characters and their developement, the theme. He pays attention to all the things that make a good story. Joe Hisaishi composes most of the music for his works, and I could listen to some of those soundtracks for hours and not get tired of imagining the scene. His films are beautiful, ageless and universal.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  7. John

    Miyazaki is one of the best directors in the world, and maybe the best animator of all time (contentious, but he has a case). He's definitely the ultimate bridge for anime fans and non-anime fans alike. Show any of his films to anyone (seriously, choose one at random), and they'll probably be enchanted, even if they otherwise have no interest in anime.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  8. judy1064

    I love giving Miyazaki movies to my nieces and nephews. They haven't seen them all a hundred times, like the Disney movies, so they really enjoy them. My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Kikki's Delivery Service, etc., and I can't wait to get them Arietty when it's available. Spirited Away is still my son's favorite, and he's 16 now. I can't say I'm into anime or Japanese culture because I know very little about either, but Miyazaki movies are great!

    September 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  9. satyromaniac

    boob dammit – boob

    September 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  10. kathleen

    Hayao Miyazaki is one of my Favorites and I Love All his movies ( altho some more than others ) .
    Too bad they take forever to crank out .
    I would love to have a new one every month !

    September 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Same her. I am a big fan of Howl's Moving Castle (although it bears only a slight resemblance to the book, it is still a beautiful piece of animation cinema that stands on its own merits). The only one I have seen that I do not care for is Princess Mononoke.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  11. satyromaniac

    is it just me or that thing looks like a bood with a nipple on a quick glance?

    September 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Its just you. You've been a at sea far too long apparently.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  12. miranda

    miyazaki is amazing~ his movies are just pure art ^-^

    September 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Buster Bloodvessel

    Miyazaki let A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA be ruined. I never saw another of his movies after that.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Harry

      Wrong Miyazaki. Earthsea was done by his son and not by himself.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      It was his son, and it wasn't Wizard of Earthsea Trilogy, but the books on that subject beyond that. And, it wasn't ruined, but a very beautiful and inspirational movie, much better than the live-action TV series that came out several years ago. If you read the books beyond the Trilogy, that is.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Buster Bloodvessel

      He bought it from Ursula LeGuin, and then let his son work out on it instead of doing the quality production he promised her. He lied. LeGuin hated it, and the live-action one too. She said she will never license any of her work again.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
      • judy1064

        Disney changed all the classics, too. Compare his works to the original Brothers Grimm and you'll see a lot of free license there too. Some are very different, not just minor changes. They all do it, no matter who they are or where they're from.

        September 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      the Sci Fi channel did that before the son of Miyazaki. This is not a reflection at all of Hayao Miyazaki. Even though Howl's Moving Castle was not so like the book, it was still a beautiful piece of art to be judged on its own merits.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Karess

      Too many copmelimnts too little space, thanks!

      September 21, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  14. Lani

    The Mickey Mouse Club from the 1980s? How young is this guy? The ORIGINAL Mickey Mouse Club (with people like Annette Funicello) is from the 1950s!!!

    September 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  15. Junggg

    Miyazaki is a master. His films are inspiring. It's great to see his style of storytelling live and flow through other people.

    September 1, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  16. Bandit

    Someone definitely said Weeaboo.

    September 1, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  17. ObammaAlabamaSlamma

    Did somebody say 'weeaboo'? 'Cause I think I heard somebody say 'weaboo'.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Pragmaclast

      You said it. Hands out and bend over.

      September 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
      • Mick

        Awesome, lol. Though, to be fair, I'd like to think the Miyazaki films as 'wee-a-boo' proof.

        September 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • John

      Come on guys. If we we waste any more time on weeaboo, we'll be bankrupt by the end of the month!

      September 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  18. Evil Grin

    Miyazaki's movies have always been among my favorites. He's got just a great style which connects with both children and adults. It's great to see more artists imitating his style. I'm not sure if they can capture the soul of imagination the way that Miyazaki always has, but I love to see the style.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      Remember the Disney movie about Atlantis, that was almost an exact copy of the Japanese film?

      September 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Tak

      Posted on Its just wonderful to see how three best difenrs wind up in a storythats just so complicated and poetic. I was amazed by the outcome ofevery situation and I think there should be more movies like this one.Even the music was perfect for the movie. I also really like it whenthe makers put something useful to know in the movie and in this one,they certainly did, but what I liked most is that the piece that themouse (or rat) played in the story, without it, the movie would havebeen less meaningful and I think its really great that people can comeup with these things to put in their movie which completes it without it, the film wouldnt have been the same. great piece ofwork

      March 4, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  19. jon

    Miyazaki-san is the master! I'd sign up for the club! I have pretty much all of the Studio Ghibli classics on video. I even visited the Ghibli museum in Tokyo last year.

    September 1, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Elizabeth

      Lucky you. There are lots of anime fans; including at many conventions such as Ohiocon, which draw very large crowds.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm |