America, Hiyao Miyazaki is a cult hero. In Japan,
hes a minor deity.
The 61-year-old animator and comic-book artist directs
thoughtful, gorgeous cartoon epics movies packed
with fantastic creatures and a love of nature, flight
and adventure that consistently break box-office
records in his native Japan. At least three of his
films 1992s Porco Rosso (The Crimson
Pig), 1997s Princess Mononoke
and last years Spirited Away
enjoy the distinction of having been the biggest-grossing
domestic hits of their respective years in Japan.
Steven Spielberg has gone on the record as a fan
praising Miyazakis debut feature, 1979s
rollicking Castle of Cagliostro, as one
of his favorite adventure movies. (Imagine Cagliostro
as the greatest episode of Speed Racer
youve never seen a violent, cleverly
plotted heist comedy starring a thief, a princess,
a samurai, a count and a gangster.)
will Miyazakis particular brand of visual poetry
play to American audiences? Miramax bet it would in
1999, bringing Princess Mononoke to America
and hiring Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver
and Billy Crudup to dub dialogue translated by acclaimed
fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. But the dense, morally
complex environmental allegory which won Japans
equivalent of a best picture Oscar in 1997
grossed only $2.3 million stateside.
Disney led by Miyazakis friend of two
decades, Toy Story director John Lasseter
is taking another stab at selling Miyazaki
to Joe and Jane Sixpack. Under Lasseters guiding
hand, The House of Walt is bringing Spirited
Away to these shores. An even bigger hit in
Japan than Mononoke, its the story
of a spoiled 10-year-old girl who stumbles onto a
ghost town/bathhouse run by gods and monsters while
on a road trip with her parents who are, incidentally,
turned into pigs. Its been described as Alice
and Wonderland filtered through Japanese mythology,
and it stands a chance at scoring with audiences turned
off by the somber, adult tones of Mononoke.
Focus scored an e-mail interview with the
mildly reclusive director, who spends much of his
time in a mountain cabin between projects for Studio
Ghibli, the animation house he helped found in 1985.
Heres what he had to say about making films
for 10-year-olds, working without a script, and the
differences between American and Japanese animation.
producer Toshio Suzuki said during the San Francisco
International Film Festival (SIFF) that Spirited
Away is for the people who used to be
10 years old and the people who are going to be 10
years old. Youve said in interviews that
there are no films made for that age group of
10-year-old girls. Whats important to
you about that particular age group?
There are five young girls, daughters of friends of
mine, and every summer they visit me at my cabin in
the mountains. This is a film I made for them.
to now, we have made a film for very young children,
My Neighbor Totoro. We have made a film
in which a boy sets out on a journey to find a lost
city, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. We have
made a film in which a teen girl learns to be herself,
Kikis Delivery Service. However,
we had not yet made a film for girls around the age
of 10 years old.
I read some girls comics such as Ribbon
or Nakayoshi that the girls left behind
at my mountain cabin. To my surprise, those comics
seem to contain only a certain kind of love story.
It seemed to me that we have been providing them with
nothing but a certain kind of cheap romance. What
passed through my mind was that the actual things
that 10-year-old girls really dream about are not
those kinds of things at all. Why cant we make
a more interesting kind of story where a 10-year-old
girl can actually play the leading role?
had been creating the leading roles in my films the
way I thought they should be to please myself. But
this time I wanted to have the leading role be a more
typical girl where a 10-year-old girl could actually
recognize herself in that role. It would be really
important that the leading role not be someone extraordinary,
but more like an everyday real person, though this
kind of character is actually more difficult to create.
girls are now 13 years old. They saw the film and
liked the film. I hope they told me the truth.
read that you start with sketches and storyboards
instead of a script building the story after
youve decided on visuals, creatures and characters.
Have you always worked that way?
Yes, I have. First I draw image sketches of the main
character or characters as well as the backgrounds
and any buildings that will feature in the film. Then
I start working on the storyboards, which I do by
myself. Our storyboards contain series of scenes done
in drawings which are called cuts, and
they include all of the necessary information to turn
each cut into a sequence of film, including camera
placement, dialogue, timing, sound effects
and special notes to the animators and cinematographers.
Because everything necessary is included, they are
regarded as the blueprint for the film.
a related note: Youve also said that you find
rather than tell the story. Do you see
what you do primarily as an act of discovery or as
an act of creation?
Once you create characters, these characters tell
me what they want to do or how they feel. I just follow
their wishes. I just follow their feelings and behavior
and write the story.
did you and John Lasseter meet? How has he helped
you in America?
I met him about 20 years ago in L.A. at Disney. He
was all by himself quietly working on the development
of a 3D animation project. I was very fond of him
because he was very much devoted to something he believed
in at a studio where 2D animation was it.
Since then, he has been a good friend of mine.
Princess Mononoke, there were no clear
heroes or villains. The viewer could understand each
characters point of view. Is Spirited
Away similar in that respect?
In a real society, human beings are complex, and nobody
is just good or bad. I try to create stories which
reflect that reality.
Whats next for you?
You occasionally threaten to retire, but do you have
any new film ideas youre considering?
I am currently working on several short animated films
as well as a special exhibition for the Ghibli Museum,
which opened last October. One of the short films
we have just about finished is about the character
Mei from My Neighbor Totoro and her encounter
with a baby cat bus. The new exhibition
has to do with imagined flying machines from 19th-century
works of science fiction in the style of Laputa:
Castle in the Sky. I have also just begun to
work on another feature-length animated film, but
Im afraid I cant tell you at this moment
any details about it, except that I am working on
Most Japanese animation that
makes its way to America is obsessed with technology
and issues related to technology. Akira
is perhaps the best example, I think, of that sort
of film. But your work is striking for being equally
obsessed with the natural world. Even in such early
work as Castle of Cagliostro, there are
moments in your films where the characters pause and
contemplate nature just before that movies
famous opening car chase, for example. How did your
fascination with nature develop?
Industry and nature have coexisted ever since the
human race came into being so to me, it is
a natural relationship, and natural to want to illustrate
both aspects in a film.
am not exactly an environmentalist or a nature-lover,
and I do not deliberately seek to make nature a central
theme in my films. If I have to draw a building, I
prefer to draw a building made of natural materials
like wood rather than one made of concrete. And I
would rather have trees surrounding it, than other
buildings. Thats all.
America, animated features are strongly targeted toward
a young audience with simple moral structures
and uncomplicated jokes. In Japan, comics and cartoons
are targeted at all age groups, and dont necessarily
have to be funny; in Princess Mononoke,
for example, there are adult themes, scenes of violence
and no singing animals. Why do you think the Japanese
are more accepting of emotionally mature
Animated films and manga (comics) were regarded as
for children for a long time here in Japan.
As for animated films, I think that the background,
the history and the fundamental concept of animated
films are all very different in Japan than they are
in the U.S.
the U.S., an animated film is an offshoot of the musical
genre of film. But Japanese animation has largely
been created under the influence of European animation,
and made to be essentially narrative theater in which
straightforward story-telling and theme are important
elements much more like live-action films.
This tendency applies not only to feature-length animation,
but also to animated TV series, and has even influenced
manga, as well.
the difference between making a movie for children
and making a movie for adults?
In my opinion, animation is the most appropriate medium
for entertaining as well as communicating ideas to
children, and I have always wanted to make films for
children. However, if a film is really appealing to
children if it doesnt underestimate what
they are able to take in and appreciate it
will probably also be appealing to adults as well.
do you feel are the new rising stars of
Studio Ghibli just released a new animated film The
Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi).
It is directed by a young man named Hiroyuki Morita.
I chose him to direct the film when this project came
up. He did a good job.
the English translation of Spirited Away,
will you be working with the same team that translated
I dont really have much involvement with the
process of translating or making the foreign-language
versions of our films. We have a few people here in
the studio who do that, one foreigner who can speak
English pretty well, I hear. They meet with me at
the beginning, and I give them any instructions or
advice about the translation I can think of. But this
time John Lasseter was kind enough to help us with
the English version of the film, and I think he appreciates
and understands what I mean to do in my films
so probably he has gotten the kind of English words
and voices into it that will be right for the film.