Hayao Miyazaki made an appearance at AMPAS a couple weeks ago, and participated in a Q&A that included clips from his films. In general, he was soft spoken and not especially forthcoming with his answers (my wife assures me he was playing the part of the distinguished Japanese gentleman), but I found several of his comments illuminating, particularly on the subject of his multifaceted villains.
In most cases, Miyazaki’s films are notable for avoiding Good and Evil stereotypes, emphasizing instead the limited and selfish reasonings behind human conflicts. During the Q&A, he told us his primary reason for doing this was because in their efforts to visualize faces, animators often mimic the expressions of the characters they draw for days on end, and he simply didn’t want to create Evil characters who would plunge him into long periods of grimacing and frowning. I thought this was a funny but insightful position, especially if it inspired more nuanced stories. (For more coverage of Miyazaki’s California tour, check out Michael Guillen’s excellent round-up of links.)
Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, opens in US theaters this week, and even though I found it a disappointment after the ambition and complexity of his most recent works–Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle–its release has occasioned VIZ Media’s English translation of the excellent Starting Point: 1979-1996, a compendium of Miyazaki’s writings and conversations. The book’s most notable feature is probably the diversity of sources (essays, lectures, interviews) and topics (history and aesthetics, reviews, memories, confessions) that offer a wide-ranging portrait of the animation master who studied economics and political science and worked his way up the ranks of Japan’s anime industry. Miyazaki is a thoughtful and eloquent writer, as passages like these reveal:
• Advice for beginners: “One of the things about drawing is that, if you put in serious effort, you will become good at it, at least to a certain extent. But that’s all the more reason to study a variety of things that interest you while you have time, before you enter the professional world, in order to develop and solidify such fundamentals as your own viewpoint and way of thinking. If you don’t do this, your life will be treated as just another disposable product.”
• “. . . when I talk with American animators, I sense that they tend to interpret objects in a very different way. They tend to want to look at the volume and the three-dimensionality of objects first. But we Japanese tend to think of the lines used to represent the objects.”
• “You may have to draw explosions when creating animation, but you have to draw a lot of other things too. The most important thing of all, it seems to me, is to have an interest in people, in how they live, and in how they interact with things. . . . But if you’re creating an animated work just to get the chance to draw explosions or airplanes, I have to say that your thinking is a bit warped.”
• Notes for The Man Who Planted Trees Japanese laserdisc: “In the cel animation production we are currently working on, we’ve found drawing plants to be very difficult. If we draw just the plants waving in the breeze, it looks formulaic. Plants exist in the weather and light rays that surround them–waving in the wind, shimmering in the sunlight. I am always puzzling over how to draw such things. . . . But Back has taken this problem head on and mastered it. For that alone, I say, ‘Hat’s off!’ His imagery is beautiful.”
• 1991: “I had thought that, thanks to us having lost the war, we Japanese might have finally become a little more skeptical about national claims of ‘righteousness’ and ‘just causes.’ Watching [George H. W.] Bush, I can only think he is possessed by the ghost of John Wayne, telling him that ‘this is the way a real man should act.’ Saddam Hussein’s sense of righteousness is the same.”
• For the Ikiru Japanese laserdisc: “There are many memorable scenes in Ikiru, but to me the essence of the film is composed in this single shot, of a man stamping a mountain of documents. If [this shot] had just been some silly way to ridicule working in a government office or leading a meaningless life, the scene would never have the emotional impact it does. . . . If you consider the scene to be meaningless, you have to consider how much difference there is between a life spent stacking up a mountain of documents and a life spent stacking up film cans.”
• “There is, first of all, the reality that I’ve been powerfully influenced by [Osamu] Tezuka. When I was in elementary and middle school, I loved his manga more than those of anyone else. . . . [However,] I found myself disgusted by the cheap pessimism of works like Ningyo (Mermaid), or Shizuku (The Drop) . . . What had once been imaginative for the creator between 1945 and 1955 had simply become another trick in his toolbox.”
• Project plan in 1986: “My Neighbor Totoro aims to be a happy and heartwarming film, a film that lets the audience go home with pleasant, glad feelings. Lovers will feel each other to be more precious, parents will fondly recall their childhoods, and children will start exploring the thickets behind shrines and climbing trees to try to find totoro. This is the kind of film I want to make.”
Despite his fame as an anime director, I believe Miyazaki’s greatest artistic accomplishment is his seven-volume manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which has been compared to such genre epics as Dune and Lord of the Rings. Miyazaki wrote, illustrated, and serialized the manga’s fifty-nine episodes from 1982-1994 (his classic 1984 film adaptation is only based on the first two volumes). Starting Point includes some surprising revelations, such as how much of the manga was improvised: “In the beginning, it was a work that I wasn’t sure I could complete. But since I had decided that I could stop working on it at any point, you could also say that I was able to create the story without worrying about the future. . . . I was always under the pressure of lots of tight deadlines; several times I didn’t realize until much later the true significance of what I had actually written.”
The manga’s darker and more complex tone might be attributed to his attitude in the early ’80s at the height of Japan’s economic success (“In addition to being upset by environmental problems, I was also concerned about where humanity was headed, and especially about the state of Japan; most of all, I suspect, I was angered by the state of my own self”), and his narrative was later informed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Bosnian War.
“I actually feel as though working on Nausicaä may have made it possible for me to create those films,” he says. “Of all these works, Nausicaä weighed the heaviest on my shoulders. Going back to the world of Nausicaa after stopping work on it was so difficult that I found myself not wanting to. . . . I won’t go so far as to say that because I had something as heavy as Nausicaä to work on, I deliberately created lighter works. I do think, however, that if I didn’t have Nausicaä to work on, I probably would have been floundering about, trying to incorporate somewhat more serious elements into the films.”