The genius of Hayao Miyazaki

Castle in the Sky (Movie Poster).jpg

Japanese poster for Laputa: Castle in the Sky

I remember the first time I saw a Hayao Miyazaki film. A cable network was showing several of the Japanese animator’s films one weekend. My wife and I stumbled upon Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). We hadn’t intended to watch it. It was a beautifully-drawn story of a search for a legendary flying city in a world of Jules Verne-era airships and other exotic flying machines. The dialog was in Japanese with English subtitles, and we had no idea whether we were watching a new movie or an old one. It was unlike any animated film we had ever seen. We were unable to look away.

If you aren’t a Miyazaki fan already, let this be your introduction to this amazingly creative storyteller and animator.

I wanted to include a clip from one of his films, but found only trailers on YouTube, and most of them were awful. Disney is now distributing English-dubbed versions of Miyazaki’s films, but unfortunately the trailers are made as if for American movies: jumpy, quick-cut editing with lots of action and incessant chatter. And that makes Miyazaki’s films look like low-budget versions of Disney films, which they emphatically are not.

The original Japanese trailer better captures the mood and look of the movie:

A trailer I like even better is one for My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Created by Kevin Chung for a class assignment, it captures the movie’s pacing and sense of wonder:

Spirited Away (2001) is often considered Miyazaki’s masterpiece, but Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is also fantastic. The climax of Princess Mononoke (1997) is awesome and very strange — Miyazaki said he didn’t expect children to fully understand it, but found that kids got it better than grownups did. I won’t even try to describe it. Rent the movie.

Miyazaki doesn’t give a lot of interviews, but this seven-minute BBC video includes a brief interview and is loaded with good clips, including the catbus scene from My Neighbor Totoro. What is a catbus? It’s a many-legged, Cheshire-grinning, hollow, living cat that serves as a bus. “This man is a genius,” I said the first time I saw that scene (which starts about about 3:00):

How does Miyazaki create? A 2009 article in The Independent (UK) spoke of his “lifelong struggle to interpret the world of children.” Miyazaki said, “I look at them and try to see things as they do. If I can do that, I can create universal appeal.”

Committed to traditional hand-drawn animation, Miyazaki

spends years buried away in this wood-panelled refuge [his headquarters at Studio Ghibli] in a leafy Tokyo suburb, painstakingly bringing his creations to life. The director was reportedly obsessed for months, for instance, over the colour and texture of the sea-waves that wash Ponyo ashore, where she is found by a five-year-old boy.

Ponyo, a girl who started out as a goldfish, runs across waves of giant fish in the movie’s climax.

Ponyo, a girl who started out as a goldfish, runs across waves of giant fish in the movie’s climax. (This is a still, not a video.)

The article continues:

Japanese poster for Spirited Away

Ghibli’s creative engine house is a reflection of its founder’s preoccupation with authenticity and distrust of popular culture. New talent (the studio has just added another 150 animators to its 270 full-time staff) is tested out in a sort of animation boot camp, where the use of cell phones, blogs, iPods and other electronic devices is forbidden.

“Young people are surrounded by virtual things,” he [Miyazaki] laments. “They lack real experience of life and lose their imaginations. Animators can only draw from their own experiences of pain and shock and emotions.”

He is known to lecture constantly on the need to find harmony between the human hand, eye and brain, and the ever-expanding computer toolbox. Ponyo, he says, is partly about living without technology. “Most people depend on the internet and cellphones to survive, but what happens when they stop working? I wanted to create a mother and child who wouldn’t be defeated by life without them.”

In a 2009 appearance at ComicCon, Miyazaki was interviewed by Pixar’s John Lassiter (who is a huge fan), and answered questions about his creative process. For example,

“I try to fish out my own dreams by dangling a fishing line into my subconscious, but they don’t catch very well. When I get stuck on ideas, I have to dig down deep into my subconscious, past the surface of my mind that no longer seems helpful, to find some interesting way to resolve the drama in my films. But to get there, it’s very difficult for me. It’s a constant struggle.”

Miyazaki is passionate about the environment, a prominent theme in many of his films. A vacation to Seto Inland Sea in Japan, he told the ComicCon audience, influenced the story of Ponyo:

“I saw how people have polluted the sea, and came back home angry. I don’t think we’re born with a natural tendency to protect the environment. I think it’s something we learn if we’re educated and brought up to have the manners to care for the world. At some stage in our lives, the greed factor became stronger, and that has led us to the horrible situation we’re in now. A change is necessary, and I believe my films convey that.”

One final video, above, “Behind the Scenes of Spirited Away,” a Japanese documentary with English subtitles, showing the painstaking process by which Miyazaki’s best-known film was created. Especially worthwhile is the scene, starting about 1:25, in which Miyazaki describes to his animation team how his imaginary dragon should move like a lizard, and twist like a snake when it falls. Realizing that his young animators haven’t seen a snake fall out of a tree (as he apparently has), he says, “If you want a clue, go to an eel restaurant and see how they clean an eel. It twists, you know.”

They didn’t know. “It’s the end of Japanese culture,” Miyazaki laments (wryly I assume), but I’m sure his team took the point: to create an imaginary world, you have to pay close attention to details in this one.

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