Kacey Musgraves on Her Hayao Miyazaki Super-Fandom

The superstar rhapsodizes on anime godfather Hayao Miyazaki, and shares personal shots from her Totoro-themed Tokyo adventures.

Having pilgrimaged to Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli museum, Musgraves heeded our birthday wish to expound on the Japanese director, as part of our new “Director’s Cut” series. Here, the country superstar and closet culture-vulture rhapsodizes on anime godfather Hayao Miyazaki, ahead of his retrospective at L.A.’s soon-to-be Academy Museum.

V You’ve been a massive fan of Hayao Miyazaki since childhood. What was the first Miyazaki film you remember watching? How and at what age did you discover it?
KACEY MUSGRAVES It was the early ’90s—I must have been around age eight or nine. One night my dad brought home the English version of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) on VHS that he’d rented from the library. He said he’d thought the cover looked interesting but he didn’t know anything about the movie. My little sister and I were absolutely mystified by it and watched it over and over.

V What about the film captivated you at the time?
KM Growing up, we lived in a little old house in the woods under giant trees, and spent most of our days running around barefoot, finding treasures in the dirt, staring at tadpoles, climbing trees, and laughing a lot. We never had cable TV, and dial-up internet didn’t come until way later. My mom never felt sorry for any whining about boredom. Riding bikes, writing poems or playing with paints were her go-to suggestions.

I think my sister and I really saw ourselves in Satsuki and Mei, the two sisters in My Neighbor Totoro: they seemed uncannily very similar to us, but just happened to be on the other side of the world, in the countryside of Japan. Every kid hopes to find the magic that’s hidden under the surface. The invisible stuff that proves there’s a world way beyond the black and white. The stuff grownups say isn’t real; kids naturally see it. We were always looking to find a bit of our own and this movie made me feel like I had.

One thing I love about Studio Ghibli movies is that they don’t cater to young, small attention spans. The pacing of scenes and even the details and elements that the animators choose to include never hurriedly spell things out in the way that American animation does. 10 artful, quiet minutes could go by where a scene or plot slowly unfolds. Other creators commonly get too worried about losing their viewers’ interest and dumb things down. This is why I believe that Miyazaki’s movies are classics and appeal to every age.

V After that first discovery, how did your appreciation for Miyazaki evolve?
KM We binge-watched My Neighbor Totoro until we wore out the tape. It wasn’t until I got older and came to realize the scope of Miyazaki’s art and cult following that I watched more. At the core of every Miyazaki film are the most vital and delicate of human virtues played out in sometimes super surreal and trippy environments. I dig that juxtaposition a lot.

V Give a sense of your present-day Miyazaki fandom. What would you hope to see in a Miyazaki museum retrospective?
KM I’m an even bigger fan to this day. And after visiting Japan three times, I have an even greater affinity and love for the culture. These films were the first to give me that intrigue and then I got to experience it in real life. While in Tokyo, I went to visit the Ghibli Museum. And also a Totoro- themed cream puff bakery where we met a beautiful elder Japanese woman making adorable Totoro-shaped pastries wearing tiny edible hats who just happened to be Miyazaki’s sister-in-law! I think I fan-girled over her harder than I have [for] any “star” I’ve met.

The Ghibli Museum was so incredible. The generous attention to detail was mind-blowing and the visit was borderline emotional for me. Seeing the depth of his reach in person…parents and children both fawning over it all like they’d finally been let in on the unveiling of a happy mystery. I’ll never forget it. Anytime I’m needing to feel a bit of heart and wonder and fresh inspiration I look for a Miyazaki lm I haven’t seen yet (there are still many). But if I’m needing nostalgia I return to my favorites.

V What are your top three favorite Miyazaki films and why? Is there a particular sequence in said films that stands out most to you?
KM It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite but I really love My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away (2001) and Ponyo (2008). Most recently, though, I saw The Red Turtle (2016), which is stylistically a lot different than other Miyazaki films I’ve seen and I found it to be breathtaking. I loved that there was no dialogue throughout the entire film.

V As a lifelong musician/music lover, do you always pay attention to the music (scores, soundtracks etc.) in a film? Is your affection for Miyazaki films based to some extent on their musical scores?
KM Absolutely. When the same special attention to visuals has been applied to a score it makes for such an impactful experience. Miyazaki’s melodies and musical landscapes always perfectly encapsulate the emotions he and the animators lay out. They can be sweeping and larger than life— exhilarating and dramatic and then sparse, melancholic and gentle when appropriate.

V Have you ever written a song with Miyazaki’s work or artistic sensibility in mind? How would you approach composing an original song for a Miyazaki film?
KM I definitely have some musical ideas that are inspired by the characters or feelings I get from the imagery of the movies. One song I just wrote started with me thinking back on my rural Texas childhood and the enchantment I felt in those woods with my sister. My Mei. The hurt I still feel about having been a brash older sister and the dumb fights we had growing up. We eventually became really close and she is one of my dearest creative collaborators to this day.

It would be a great honor to lend my voice or creative personality to a piece for Studio Ghibli someday. I would approach [the process] like I would my own music or any other project I take on. I fight to make sure the heart and space between all elements are speaking the loudest. I love a creative challenge and the shaping of a project until it feels just perfect, but not overdone. Exploring that balance is my favorite part of the creative journey.


Kacey Musgraves in Toyko (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Caricature drawing of Musgraves from Sanrio in Toyko (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves’s Totoro doll (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Souvenirs from Musgraves’s Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves visited a Miyazaki-themed bakery on her Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves visited a Miyazaki-themed bakery on her Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves visited a Miyazaki-themed bakery on her Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves visited a Miyazaki-themed bakery on her Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
Musgraves visited a Miyazaki-themed bakery on her Tokyo trip to Studio Ghibli (photo by Kelly Christine Sutton)
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