Taken from the February 2010 issue of Dazed:
Well-meaning westerners regularly commit cultural hara-kiri by referring to animation legend Hayao Miyazaki as “The Japanese Walt Disney”. Disney never actually sketched a single cell of his pioneering features; Miyazaki on the other hand has personally drawn on and supervised all ten of his animated films to date. Perhaps a more fitting comparison then would be that of Spielberg – a director of uncommon technical skill who has tapped into several generations’ collective fantasies. Combine that ability to engage emotionally with Disney’s animated legacy and you have an inkling of Miyazaki’s formidable talents. In the west, he’s still a cult figure, and is largely considered to be an arthouse filmmaker; in Japan, however, he’s the closest thing to a living deity bar The Emperor. Any other comparison is, frankly, a bit Mickey Mouse.
Miyazaki first started making features in the late 1970s, and his name has become synonymous with imaginative flights of fantasy. In Japan, every film he makes is a guaranteed hit, whether they are epic quests of sorcery (Castle In The Sky, Princess Mononoke), playful homespun fables about shape-shifting spirits (My Neighbour Totoro), or both at once (Spirited Away). Both Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) broke domestic box-office records, and the latter remains Miyazaki’s all-time national champ.
Disney’s effervescent showman persona is another anomaly with Japan’s modest maestro. Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s animation haven, resides in a couple of self-effacing residential-looking buildings in a non-descript suburb of west Tokyo. He rarely makes public appearances or grants interviews, so the select band of journalists summoned to Japan for the release of his latest film Ponyo are subtly reminded of their good fortune. Japanese friends of mine gape open-mouthed like koi carp at the thought that a mere gaijin (foreigner) should receive the ultimate honour.
When I’m granted my audience, it’s in a warm, wood-panelled den with an air-purifier puffing contentedly away in the corner. Miyazaki himself, sporting a mop of silver hair, neat beard and wide, black-rimmed glasses, smokes two cigarettes in our allotted hour, and mysteriously wears an apron that seems to suggest that animation is something he cooks up in the kitchen, rather than at the draughtsman’s table. He’s amicable and focused, but the strange distance he exudes comes from more than having a translator interpret his answers.
This wry fatalism is all the more fascinating, considering it’s almost totally at odds with the tone of Miyazaki’s films. People flock to them precisely because of their positive, life-affirming qualities. They’re enchanting but not fanciful; wistful but not maudlin; childlike without ever mollycoddling the audience.
Though youthful in spirit, Miyazaki-san is now approaching 70 years of age. He’s publicly retired at least twice, only to be drawn back in by a seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of creativity. “My arm is becoming very stiff and rickety and getting worse every day, so it will all end, whether I say I’m retiring or not,” he grumbles good-naturedly. “If I retired after Princess Mononoke, maybe I could have done more with my life. If you’re going to retire, retire early!”
It quickly becomes obvious that self-deprecating, slightly evasive and downbeat humour are Miyazaki’s default setting in public. A case in point are the impassioned environmental themes in his work. Nausicaä, Valley Of The Wind and Mononoke lament the destruction wrought by humans on their worlds; as does Ponyo (which is about a goldfish-girl who flees her polluted ocean home to join a young boy who lives on the shore). But press Miyazaki on these concerns and the rising global ecological movement and he’s less than enthusiastic. “I’m not cynical, but I do think there’s a limit to what we can do,” he says. ”For example, in Japan we spend enough to only sustain 30 million people, but there are four times that many people living here. And I think that Tokyo is going to sink underwater soon…”
Kids are sovereign in Miyazaki’s court, and, in a way, they are the audience he respects the most. In the beautiful Ghibli Museum, designed by Miyazaki himself, there’s a special raised step where small children can present their entrance tickets themselves, and many of the displays inside are at heights where adults have to crouch. He’s even opened an on-site Ghibli nursery school for employees’ young offspring. “I’ve learned that children bring you happiness,” he says simply.
Both the nursery and the Museum demonstrate Miyazaki’s insistence on the integration of practical work and creative inspiration, its reproductions of animation workshops focusing equally on the process of animation, as much as Ghibli’s stable of iconic cute characters. His films bring a naturalism to even the most extravagant scenarios. Magic and monsters vie for attention with houses in disrepair (Howl’s Moving Castle), employment struggles (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and family illness (Totoro). You can call it “domestic fantasy” but it’s easy to see how Miyazaki’s own upbringing influenced this aesthetic. He was born in 1941 to a middle-class Tokyo family, and his father was director of Miyazaki Airplanes, which made rudders for WWII fighter planes. Miyazaki exhibited an early fascination both with aviation and sketching aircraft. At university, Miyazaki studied political science and economics, but the animation bug had already bitten, prompted by a teenage viewing of Japan’s first colour anime feature, 1958’s Hakujaden (The Tale Of The White Serpent). Despite it appearing an odd move for an accomplished academic, in 1963 Miyazaki got a job in the art department at Toei Animation Studios.
Miyazaki took his new position very seriously, even becoming chief secretary of the workers’ union. It was at Toei that Miyazaki met his mentor and colleague Isao Takahata, as well as his wife and fellow animator Akemi Ota. There, he made stately progress through the world of Japanese animation, from shorts and TV episodes, to Miyazaki’s first feature as director, The Castle Of Cagliostro (1979), effectively a sequel for the existing manga character Lupin. Cagliostro is a solid, inventive debut, but his next film, 1984’s Nausicaä, Valley Of The Wind is where everything clicked.
Adapted from Miyazaki’s own unfinished comic series, the project was unprecedented in scale and ambition – and still a huge commercial hit. It established many of the Miyazaki tropes – a courageous young female protagonist, weird and wonderful creatures, ingenious flying craft, fluid, complex concepts of good and evil and prescient ecological underpinnings.
Nausicaä’s success led directly to Miyazaki and Takahata founding Studio Ghibli the following year (the name taken from the word the Italians used for their World War II Saharan scouting planes, itself derived from the “sirocco”, the hot wind that blows through the desert). Although it quickly shook up a somewhat stagnant Japanese animation industry, Ghibli showed little interest in renewing the scene through new technology. Indeed Miyazaki’s signature style is his hand-drawn, beautifully detailed, watercolour-like vistas. The issue of 2D or not 2D is not even a question at Ghibli, even now, when 3D computer-generated animation threatens a wholesale takeover of the genre. “There are so many ships in the animation sea that are computer-driven,” he says. “I think at least one can be a raft that we row by hand.” In truth, the last few Ghibli films had sparingly used CG to supplement their techniques, but before Ponyo began production, the studio dissolved its computer animation department. The results, however, suit the film’s impressionistic, innocent style and validate Miyazaki’s faith in more organically intuitive methods.
None of which has stopped Miyazaki becoming idolised by those at the cutting-edge of new animation, namely Pixar Studios and its head honcho John Lasseter. “He is one of the great filmmakers of our time and has been a tremendous inspiration to our generation of animators,” says Lasseter. “At Pixar, when we have a problem that we can’t seem to solve, we often look at one of Miyazaki’s films.”
“At Pixar, when we have a problem that we can’t seem to solve, we often look at one of Miyazaki’s films” – John Lasseter
Aardman’s Nick Park is another acolyte, quoted on the 2002 UK release of Spirited Away as saying: “Miyazaki reminds me that it is always good to plunder the depths of the childlike imagination and in doing so, he helps me get back to where all my work comes from in the first place.” And French comic book legend Jean “Moebius” Giraud even named his daughter Nausicaä in a Miyazaki tribute. It’s Lasseter whose fervour burns the brightest. He first met his idol in the early 80s when Miyazaki made an aborted effort to work in California (“I didn’t think the project was going anywhere,” is all he’ll enigmatically utter on the subject). Now, from a position of unparalleled influence (bestriding Pixar and Disney Animation), Lasseter seems to be on a personal crusade to get Miyazaki the same adulation in the US as he enjoys back home. Promoting Miyazaki’s work at every turn, he’s in part responsible for gathering the A-list Hollywood casts who dub Ghibli films into English (which, on Ponyo includes Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett).
One senses that Miyazaki appreciates Lasseter and Pixar’s patronage, but is entirely content and self-sustainable without it. After all, when Disney had earlier tried to appropriate the Ghibli back catalogue, they badly neglected it. As the legend goes, when infamous film hacker Harvey Weinstein requested changes to Princess Mononoke, he was sent a katana samurai sword, with the message “No Cuts”.
And when Spirited Away won the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003 – the only non-American film ever to do so, despite its campaign being buried so as not to overshadow Disney’s homegrown rivals – Miyazaki didn’t bother to turn up.
It’s not false modesty either. I spy Spirited’s Oscar statue stuffed at the back of a glass cabinet alongside its Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival, in the office of Miyazaki’s long-time producer Toshio Suzuki. “I still have my back and shoulder aches,” Miyazaki shrugs. “If it had given me a cure for my body then great, but I haven’t changed at all.”
You can believe him. For all his grandfatherly charm and modesty, Miyazaki is an artist used to excelling in his chosen field, and to getting what he wants. The uncompromising nature that helps produce such rich, painstaking work can come with a price. For all his adulation of other children, rumours abound of a strained relationship with his own son Goro, the director of a recent, less well-received Ghibli anime, Tales From Earthsea. “He needs to win the right to make a movie on his own,” Miyazaki Senior says with a startling lack of empathy. “Just because he’s your son doesn’t give him special treatment.” Ghibli have recently employed a batch of young talent – intriguingly, all but four out of 22 are women – and the boss knows he can’t go on indefinitely. For now, though, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli remain bywords for animation excellence. And though he remains a benevolent, if inscrutable, autocrat, perhaps Miyazaki’s greatest gift of all is to convince us to picture a world in which we don’t envisage an all-powerful emperor controlling everything; but rather an arena of boundless imagination where we’re all joint rulers of our own magic kingdoms.
The Wind Rises is in cinemas today