A month barely goes by without me hearing something to the effect that such-and-such a talent is "the next X". For me this culminated when I saw an ad banner for Mamoru Hosoda's excellent Wolf Children, which proclaimed: "The Next Miyazaki". I've come to the conclusion that to call anyone the next Miyazaki — or to call anyone the next anything — is one of the biggest mistakes you can make with any creative personality.
I don't think we have any kind of malice aforethought when we do this. We call someone the next X as a form of critical shorthand, a way of telling people "if you liked that, you'll like this". It is a basically sincere, but I also feel wrong-headed, way to bring someone of interest to the attention of others. Sincere, in that again there is no attempt to maliciously misrepresent the artist in question. Wrong-headed, in that it is far from the best way to do it, and that in the long run it creates more problems than it solves.
In the time I've been writing, I've seen no less than two different directors referred to as "the next Miyazaki". One was Hosoda; the other was Makoto Shinkai. Shinkai went so far as to wear his Miyazaki on his sleeve with Children who Chase Lost Voices, which took some time and perspective on my part to realize it had a lot less going on that wasn't simply homage. Both times, I felt the label was misleading — not because the comparison wasn't apt, but because there was so much else about these men and their works that was far more interesting to talk about, and to see, than to simply invoke Miyazaki as a reference point.
The power and peril of analogy
Before I get further into this, I should say that I'm not making an argument against using analogy to describe someone's creative work. I'm just pointing out that it has side effects we may not be initially aware of — that it can unconsciously shape our expectations of someone's work, and in ways that make it difficult to see it for what it really is. It is not a problem to say this or that person's approach is "Miyazakiesque", but I still feel it says that much less about what the artist in question is actually doing, and that much more about our choice of analogy for the topic.
Analogies are not evil. Analogy is a big part of how people understand things. Movie pitches use analogies to previous films to get funded and made. If you're lucky, the film that's made becomes, in turn, its own analogy. But anything truly original about the film still has to stand on its own two legs. Likewise, when we look at any original artist's work, it's difficult not to see both their influences and the folks they have influenced in turn as well. It's how we place the works of everyone involved into a bigger context. What I'm arguing for is becoming all the more conscious of this in action.
I say this because of an observation that may come off as cynical: people value the idea of the new more than the new thing itself. They pay lip service to creativity, individuality, newness, maverick-ness, breaking molds, shattering barriers — and then too often, when they encounter the honest-to-god new thing, they find it too much of a pain in the ass to actually deal with. They fall back on talk of the old to describe the new, because no better way to do so presents itself.
Real creativity is always difficult to appreciate, and critics and lay audiences alike fall into this trap constantly. AKIRA and Evangelion and Angel's Egg bored and confused at least as many people as they enthralled and inspired; I imagine they all still do. But in time we learned how to see them for what they were — so much so that we, in turn, now use them as points of reference. In Evangelion's case, it's become such an indispensible point of reference that I despair for anime to ever get out from under its shadow. (In the case of Egg, perhaps not enough of one.)
The new new thing
One of the side effects of dealing with things by way of analogy is how it blinds us to the real qualities of the new thing. The more we think of Hosoda as being a successor to Miyazaki, the less we think of him as being ... well, Hosoda. And if someone inherits the Miyazaki mantle, does that mean they inherit all of our negative and positive feelings about Miyazaki? That's cruel and unusual punishment, if you ask me. It puts us into the habit of thinking about the future as a mere extension of the past.
If we're to approach Hosoda, or Shinkai, or whoever else comes along, we should do it without shoehorning them into any role dictated by their predecessors. I want all of those people to bloom on their own and find new directions that Miyazaki, or anyone else that came before them, for that matter, would never have been able to reach.
Maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing, because in the end, such lines are used only as shorthand or advertising slogans. Perhaps all of this is already tacitly understood by those who would make claims about the new this or the new that. But I'd rather say it out loud, and find better ways of talking about the genuine qualities (and problematic drawbacks) of any artist, rather than let such unchallenged assumptions influence our thinking about these subjects a good deal more than we ought to.
There will be no "next Miyazaki" for the same reason there will be no next Osamu Tezuka, no next Satoshi Kon, no next Gō Nagai, no next Yoshitaka Amano, no next anyone. The best way to think of the successor to any individual is to see them as individuals themselves.
Let's not think about who's next to inherit the Miyazaki mantle. Let's think instead about what lies beyond Miyazaki, for both our gain and our loss.