The famous Japanese director tells an American audience that he deeply mulls the stories behind his popular films, including the upcoming Disney venture, 'Ponyo.'
By Charles Burress August 9, 2009
Once the standing ovation died down, anticipation among the 6,500 people packed into a Comic-Con convention hall in San Diego was almost electric as they waited for the first words from the silver-haired alchemist of animation, Hayao Miyazaki.
To the opening question from Pixar leading light John Lasseter about how he develops his stories, the white-jacketed, 68-year-old director replied, "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking -- thinking about my stories for a long time." Then with an impish smile, he added, "If you have a better way, please let me know."
His answer sparked laughter and affectionate applause, if little revelation, and foreshadowed much of what was to come in Miyazaki's ensuing West Coast tour before thousands of fans in the last week of July, a visit that provided rare U.S. exposure for the reclusive Japanese creator of "My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away.
Before a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at UC Berkeley, "Japanamerica" author Roland Kelts asked Miyazaki about the perception that "true evil . . . if it exists, is very hard to pin down in your films."
The good-guys-versus-bad-guys formula often falls through the rabbit hole in Miyazaki stories, particularly the ones that suggest a moral philosophy in their portrayals of individuals caught in conflicts between destructive civilization and a mysterious powerful Nature.
Kelts pointed to the wizard father in Miyazaki's newest film, "Ponyo," comparing him to Shakespeare's Prospero as "more of a troubled man than an evil one."
Miyazaki responded: "To have a film where there's an evil figure and a good person fights against the evil figure and everything becomes a happy ending, that's one way to make a film. But then that means you have to draw, as an animator, the evil figure. And it's not very pleasant to draw evil figures. So I decided against evil figures in my films." Again, laughter and applause.
Miyazaki, who refused to come to the U.S. to receive his Oscar in 2003, came this time, a bit reluctantly, to help promote Disney's Aug. 14 release of "Ponyo," about a goldfish princess who falls in love with a human boy and strives mightily to become human herself. Tickets quickly sold out for the man Lasseter has called "the greatest animation director living today, the greatest director living today." Many American children have spent hours on repeated viewings of "Totoro" -- featuring a cat-bus and a forest creature shaped somewhat like a giant pear with fur.
Miyazaki's settings vary -- a contemporary Japanese seaside town in "Ponyo," a European-type village of the late 19th or early 20th century in "Castle in the Sky," and a post-apocalyptic community clinging to a medieval existence in "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind."
But all his films share a painterly aesthetic, hand-drawn with nuanced colors and exacting frame composition, to enhance his fantasy worlds that often blend myth, environmental destruction, shape-shifting spirits and complex human characters. The leading roles belong to independent-minded, resourceful young females, and several films reflect conflicted views of technology, partly embodied in fanciful flying machines seemingly dreamed up by an eccentric genius from the Industrial Revolution.
He has also spawned a growing body of academic analysis. "There are more people writing papers on Hayao Miyazaki in the United States than any other Japanese artist that I'm familiar with," said Frederik Schodt, a manga expert and co-translator of the newly published English version of Miyazaki's book "Starting Point." Miyazaki's "films are both popular and subversive, especially in regard to conventional gender coding," writes Tufts University professor Susan Napier.
While Miyazaki "bristles" at being described as the Walt Disney of Japan, Napier finds similarity but also key differences in the animation pioneers. Both sometimes draw on stories from other cultures, but unlike Disney's tendency to imbue the characters with American values, Napier says, Miyazaki creates "characters that, while retaining certain characteristics linked to Japanese society, are distinctively more independent in thought and action than the group-oriented characteristics traditionally celebrated in Japanese culture."
Similarly, Miyazaki himself reflects and stands apart from his society. His enormous popularity in Japan stems in part from his unsurpassed mastery of animation, a medium embraced by the culture at large and, at its best, regarded as more intellectually ambitious than its American counterpart. At the same time, in an environment that stresses group harmony, the outspoken director can be sharply critical of others in his field and unafraid of challenging traditional views, whether related to women's roles or espoused by the ruling political conservatives.
And if you want to avoid his disfavor, don't call his films "anime." He calls them animation or manga films, saving the term "anime" for quickly made products of lesser quality, largely for TV.
One reason for fascination with Miyazaki may be his contradictions. The director whose films typically end with an uplifting affirmation of humanity suitable for children is the same director who told his Berkeley audience, "It would be wonderful if I could see the end of civilization during my lifetime." The man who is able to entrance children, and adults, with his animation is the same one who complains about children spending too much time with virtual reality instead of being outdoors in nature.
UC Berkeley honored Miyazaki with the Japan Prize, first given last year to writer Haruki Murakami, for contributions to the understanding of Japan. Miyazaki provided further fodder for academics in his brief acceptance remarks, which consisted of an extended metaphor about those in the entertainment field needing to insert a pipe down through the sheets of paper full of data and figures that fill our daily lives. "We have to start fishing from way down below where there is no paper," he said through an interpreter. "And the only way that we can really justify our presence and our work is to continue to make this effort to make this hole and go deeper and deeper."
He is highly revered in Japan, where the top-grossing films are typically American, except in years when Miyazaki's work is showing. "Ponyo" led last year's list, grossing about $160 million, nearly triple the amount pulled in by the top U.S. film, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."
Limited U.S. audience
And though he's also popular in the world at large, his work has seen only limited release and ticket sales in America. While "Howl's Moving Castle" grossed $230 million internationally, it pulled in only $4.7 million in the U.S.
But this time Disney is staging its largest ever Miyazaki debut with "Ponyo," in more than 800 theaters, and has assembled a constellation of talent for the dubbed voices, including Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neesom, Lily Tomlin and Betty White. The leading children roles, the goldfish/girl named Ponyo and the boy Sosuke, are voiced by Noah Cyrus (Miley's younger sister) and Frankie Jonas (kid brother of the popular singing trio). The dubbing is the only difference from the original, in line with the policy of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli that no cuts or other changes be made for the international market.
But is "Ponyo" representative of his work as a whole? The G-rated film seems targeted to young kids, with 5-year-olds as the two leading characters. GhibliWorld.com, a fan site, notes "an obvious change" in "Ponyo," where "character designs are clean and simple and shadows seem to have disappeared."
Asked if he is concerned about American audiences seeing "Ponyo" as typical of his work, Miyazaki said in a brief interview, "What I've been doing in a sort of haphazard way without much thought before, I've tried to clarify in 'Ponyo.' " For example, he said, Studio Ghibli returned to sole reliance on pencil drawing in "Ponyo," abandoning limited use of computer graphics in some films to supplement Ghibli's trademark cell animation. He didn't mention that he did a major part of the drawing himself.
What about those who see deep meaning and mythology in his work? "I don't intentionally make deep movies," he said. "It's not that I set out to make films that deal with myths, but as I develop the story, aspects of older stories or myths enter into the story."
Nor does he seek inspiration in the contemporary work of others in his field. "I don't read manga anymore, I don't watch movies, I don't even watch the animation of my friends these days," he said. When he did watch films, he says in his book, he was "hardly a high-brow person," preferring the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times" to art-house movies. He makes films, he says, for Japanese audiences, particularly children, and is happy when audiences abroad also enjoy them.
And if he seemed at times like Coyote Trickster during his visit, he can also be frank and refreshingly honest. Why didn't he come for the Oscars in 2003 but came this time, including appearing at a sold-out tribute to him in July at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? "In 2003, I didn't want to come to a country that had just started bombing Iraq," he said. "This time it's an order from my producer that I come." He chuckled and added, "Combined with my friendship for John Lasseter."