By Paul Cochrane in Beirut
Film maker Hayao Miyazaki hates the nickname that has been pinned on him in the West, “the Walt Disney of Japan”. He may have teamed up with Disney to translate and distribute his movies, but Miyazaki is certainly no Walt. If any monikor should apply it's the “Akira Kurosawa of animation.”
While a small man, at just 1.64 meters tall, Miyazaki is the towering figure of anime in Japan and renowned internationally for his children-orientated, yet agelessly appealing stories that continue to emerge from his sublime imagination.
Consider the train that traveled across the surface of an aquamarine sea in Spirited Away, the cat bus in My Neighbor Totoro, or in his latest film, Ponyo, of a girl leaping from one tsunami size wave to another. Pure movie magic.
Indeed, Miyazaki's work is anything but staid or formulaic; neither do his creations suffer like James Cameron's recent blockbuster Avatar did, from being visually stunning in portraying a fantastical “other” world yet weak in character development and storyline. Miyazaki's plots are entertaining, the characters are compelling and his artwork breathtaking in its scope and vision.
My Neighbor Totoro
Ironically it was because of a crap English language release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) in the US, which cut nearly 30 minutes of time, changed character names and watered down the film's themes, that Miyazaki's films were not available in English for an overly long time. The director was reportedly so angry about how the film had been butchered that he would only grant distribution rights for his movies - eventually to Disney - if there was a strict translation of the Japanese dialogue and no scenes were removed, even if they might puzzle the audience, as he admitted during an interview.
“I can't believe companies distribute my movies in America. They're baffling in Japan! I'm well aware there are spots where I'm going to lose the audience. Well, it's magic. I don't provide unnecessary explanations. If you want that, you're not going to like my movie. That's just the way it is,” said Miyazaki.
Given his commercial success it is exactly because his movies have that magical touch that Miyazaki's work has resonated with audiences worldwide. Yet while a multiple award winner in Japan, his talent was only recognized in the US in 2003 when Miyazaki won an Academy Award for best animated feature film, Spirited Away.
Castle in the Sky
What also makes Miyazaki's films stand out compared to the crowd-pleasing Disney films is his frequent references to nature, ecology, and pollution by humankind; his homages to the working class; and the promotion of peaceful dialogue over violence.
But in that Miyazaki (born in 1941) is not alone in Japan, part of a generation of artists that grew up in the wake of two atomic bombings that had profound impact on Japanese cinema and its depictions of a hypothetical, post-apocalyptic world. The difference between Miyazaki and his Japanese counterparts is that his imaginings of such a future is not of one destined to be a dystopia ad infinitum but can be overcome – the silver lining – by respecting and living side by side with nature, as in the film Nausicaä.
Miyazaki has also never let his own misgivings about the direction the world is taking or his own political stance – he famously refused to attend the 2002 Academy Awards out of protest over the US invasion of Iraq - result in a negative story.
“When I'm making a film, I don't want to transfer my pessimism onto children. I keep it at bay. I don't believe that adults should impose their vision of the world on children, children are very much capable of forming their own visions,” he said in an interview.
Miyazaki's opus very much indicates hope, of creating enchanting worlds and through letting his imagination run wild inspire the next generation to do the same, to imagine another world.
“Virtual reality is a denial of reality. We need to be open to the powers of imagination, which brings something useful to reality. Virtual reality can imprison people. It's a dilemma I struggle with in my work, that balance between imaginary worlds and virtual worlds,” he said.
Miyazaki's reliance on drawing in creating his anime reflects his stance, not allowing more than 10 percent of footage in his films to be computer generated (CGI). “I've told the people on my CGI staff not to be accurate, not to be true. We're making a mystery here, so make it mysterious,” he said. “Do everything by hand, even when using the computer,” he has said elsewhere.
There is also a degree of mystery in how he develops a film and the script. “I don't have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film. I usually don't have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops. It's a dangerous way to make an animation film and I would like it to be different, but unfortunately, that's the way I work,” he said.
Experience is a central part of Miyazaki's ad hoc method, something he has decried among contemporary animators. “When I think about the way the computer has taken over and eliminated a certain experience of life, that makes me sad. When we were animating fire some staff said they had never seen wood burning. I said, “Go watch!” It has disappeared from their daily lives. I don't think you can become an animator if you don't have any experience,” he said.
Miyzaki, curiously enough, studied political science and economics at university – no doubt giving him a taste of the big, bad real world – while his fondness for depicting flying machines (evident in Nausicaä, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky) stems from his early exposure to aviation due to his father being the director of a company manufacturing fighter planes.
Taking experience to a further level is that the majority of characters in Miyazaki's work are based on people he knows in real life. In Spirited Away, for instance, the main character, a young girl called Chihiro, is based on the daughter of one of his friends.
Miyazaki's belief in experience and relying on his own mind for stimulation has meant that he pretty much shuns watching contemporary pop culture, saying the only images he watches regularly are on the weather report.
Nevertheless, it was Miyazaki's incredible attention to detail, exceptional drawing ability and endless supply of new ideas that got his career started in 1963 as an animator at the Toei Douga studio in Tokyo. This lead to work at other studios until he brought out Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984.
The film's commercial success provided him with enough capital to establish Studio Gibli, from where he has developed all his movies since – such as Howl's Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart, and Princess Mononoke - while a few years ago creating the immensely popular Studio Gibli Museum in Tokyo. His next film, currently in post-production, is The Borrowers.