|

An audience with Miyazaki, Japan’s animation king

by Mark Schilling

Hayao Miyazaki says he doesn’t like giving interviews, but the Oscar-winning, megahit-making animator has strong opinions he isn’t shy about sharing, as a packed room of reporters learned when he appeared at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo on Nov. 20.

After the event, his most widely quoted remark was a dig at Prime Minister Taro Aso, who has often publicly proclaimed his love of manga. “It’s an embarrassment,” said Miyazaki. “He should do that sort of thing in his private time.”

Miyazaki also lamented that today’s children live too much in the virtual worlds of TV, games, e-mail, mobile phones and comics, and too little in nature. “It takes away their strength,” he said.

In other words, he occasionally sounded more like a cranky 67-year-old (his actual age) than someone who has devoted his entire adult life to creating manga and anime himself, including such celebrated classics as 1988′s “Tonari no Totoro” (“My Neighbor Totoro”) and 2001′s “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”), as well as his latest box-office smash, “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (“Ponyo On the Cliff by the Sea”), which has grossed nearly ¥15 billion since its July release. In other words, millions of kids in Japan and elsewhere have logged many indoor hours in front of screens because of this man.

Is there a contradiction somewhere? Not so much for those familiar with Miyazaki’s work, which hymns the beauty and mystery of the natural world. Also, though films such as 1997′s “Mononoke Hime” (“Princess Mononoke”) look back into the mists of Japanese history and folklore, Miyazaki is also an enthusiastic overseas traveler (“I prefer places where I’m not limited in what I can wear, though,” he commented), especially to his beloved Europe.

Several of his films, such as “Majo no Takyubin” (“Kiki’s Delivery Service”) (1989), “Kurenai no Buta” (“Porco Rosso)” (1992) and “Hauru no Ugoku Shiro” (“Howl’s Moving Castle”) (2004), feature fantastic Old World cityscapes whose delightful jumble of architectural styles look more inviting than the real thing (though the inhabitants may include a creepy wizard or two). The unspoken message: The real world is a terrific (if sometimes terrifying) place to explore.

Miyazaki stressed this theme in person, telling the press that, before they are stuck in classrooms, kids should be outside messing around with fire, climbing trees and tying ropes. In short, experiencing the sort of outdoorsy, unstructured childhood Miyazaki’s own generation enjoyed.

“I’d even like them to have places where they could buy cheap candy and other things their parents wouldn’t approve of,” Miyazaki added with an impish grin.

Not surprisingly, Miyazaki was also critical of the course Japan took after World War II: single-mindedly pursuing consumerism, while sacrificing the environment. “A lot of people now are nostalgic for Japan as it was in the Showa ’30s (1955-1965), but it was actually an unhappy period for me,” he said. “Why? I was frustrated because nature — the mountains and rivers — was being destroyed in the name of economic progress.”

The only paradisaical time for him — when he could say time should have stopped — was infancy. “That’s when you’re protected by your parents and unaware of the problems around you,” he explained.

Those problems, from war to ecological catastrophes, have made Miyazaki “always pessimistic.”

“I’m not confident that we can stave off the collapse of civilization, though we must make the maximum effort,” he said.

Despite the gloom and doom of his world view, Miyazaki still takes a fierce pride and joy in his work at Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he cofounded in 1985. “We want to make films that people can’t forget for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Those films, he stressed, are not made thinking of the international audience or in competition with foreign rivals, past or present. (Speaking of one such rival, whose work he used to disparage: “Walt Disney was an outstanding producer, which I am not.”) Instead, he makes them, he said, “looking at the children in front of me,” who happen to be Japanese, and trying to understand their world. “If I can do that,” he added, “I can create something with universal appeal.”

At the same time, Miyazaki does not expect his films — or any films — to find wide appreciation 30 years after their release. “That is, audiences today can no longer enjoy films that are more than 30 years old, save in a historical sense,” he said.

When an elderly journalist countered with the example of the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” Miyazaki was unfazed.

“The films you value can be lifelong friends, but if “Casablanca” were released now, it wouldn’t be a hit,” he said. “If (Yasujiro) Ozu were making his movies today, they would play in one theater.”

That may be one reason why Miyazaki, despite his frequent hints at retirement (“I’ve said I’m retiring too many times, so now I refrain,” he joked), keeps returning to the drawing board — and staving off the day when his work starts its final countdown to oblivion. “I feel as though I’m already retired,” he added. “I like it better if I feel I’m allowed to work.”

He has not formally appointed his successor at Studio Ghibli, though his son Goro, who made his directorial debut in 2006 with the hit fantasy “Gedo Senki” (“Tales from Earthsea”), is the obvious heir apparent.

“I don’t favor him because he’s my son,” Miyazaki said, with a hint of irritation. “He’ll face his true test (as a director) the next time around.”

To further ensure its survival, Studio Ghibli is recruiting a new crop of 20 young animators, who will join it in April. Instead of working under their seniors at the main studio in the Tokyo district of Higashi Koenji, they will train at a new facility outside the city. “When young people come to Tokyo for the first time, they find it a bit stressful,” Miyazaki explained.

Some of Miyazaki’s own stress comes from balancing his personal interests against the needs of the group and the demands of the market. If a film pleases him, but not the public, he explained, then the entire staff at Studio Ghibli suffers.

“It’s silly if a film is unprofitable,” he concluded. “If I think that’s going to happen, I don’t want to be involved.”

Spoken like a true professional — and Japan’s current box-office king.