Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Hayao Miyazaki

Dark Places

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

September 17, 2002—How to describe the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest living animator, in mere words? Venturing into a Miyazaki world is like escaping the processed, stale air of a shopping mall and waking up in a field of wildflowers, but without all the cornball associations that go with that image.

If you've seen his 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro, you'll understand that one of the most poignant moments comes in a quiet scene. A girl waits at a bus stop in the rain and a big, round Totoro creature comes and stands next to her, also waiting for the bus. The scene has no dialogue, but it's bursting with texture, breath, humor and life.

Let me put it this way: John Lasseter, the mastermind behind the Toy Story films and A Bug's Life, stops working and watches Miyazaki films when he gets a creative block.

Miyazaki himself, recently in the Bay Area, shakes off the compliment. "Sometimes I stare at the TV screen without thinking anything. John may think he's watching my films, but he's probably thinking a whole different thing in his mind," he says, speaking through a translator.

The charming, 62 year-old, Tokyo-born filmmaker has a quiet demeanor and a bright smile, making him seem dreamy and thoughtful. He says that during his own creative blocks, his favorite thing to do is to take walks. He even says he doesn't watch that many films, though he sometimes watches TV and adores documentaries. "I have kind of a full life," he chuckles.

The new film Spirited Away -- which won the Audience Award at last spring's SF International Film Festival and opens Friday in a new English language version -- begins as a kind of Alice in Wonderland adventure. Ten year-old Chihiro moves to a new town and a new school. Her parents get lost and they decide to explore a tunnel that they think is an old theme park. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for us) it's actually a whole different world, populated by gods, monsters, and other strange creatures.

It's a film full of imagination, constantly raising the stakes every few minutes.

Describing his own writing process, Miyazaki mimes wiping away beads of sweat and laughs again. "While you're thinking and thinking, your brain looks for wording, the surface. What you have to do is keep thinking and working hard and you break through, falling through into the complete darkness. Only then, will you be able to see the light, open your mind, open your heart and see your images."

"That's why [writing] is a problem for me. My family life is a disaster!" he laughs again. Though he works all the time, he usually manages to get home before his family goes to sleep.

One thing that characterizes a Miyazaki film as opposed to a mainstream American animated film is the sense of slowness, as if he has all the time in the world to spend.

"I take it for granted," he says. "Sometimes the filmmaker falls into the old trap that they're very much afraid that the audience will become bored. You should not be defeated by that threat. That's why the American films are too much in the face, rather than keeping space. We do not have to speed up the tempo to make the audience involved in the film. As long as you really tap into the children's feelings and try to get the real essence, you will never lose their patience."

Miyazaki's American fans seem endlessly impressed that he continues to do everything by hand, while computers are increasingly invading most American films. However, I noticed a single computer-generated shot in Spirited Away, during which the heroine, Chihiro, watches a round, gnome-like statue go by from a car window. We see the statue from her point of view as it comes into view, rotates, and exits.

"That type of shot is impossible to do by hand," Miyazaki says, admitting to the minor computerized shot. "It's the point of view. The car is passing by. It it's a very short scene, we have done it before by hand. But this time I couldn't do it well."

Most of Miyazaki's films feature girls as the main characters: Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki in Kiki's Delivery Service and the title character in Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki shrugs. "I get that question all the time. I love girls! I can't think of any other explanation. I just genuinely love females."

Since the late 60s, Miyazaki has worked in some capacity on at least 30 short films, TV shows and feature films. And as they grow more and more elaborate, they're beginning to take longer and longer. Rumors have already begun flying around that Spirited Away will be Miyazaki's final film, just as he's beginning to become known in the West.

The filmmaker cleverly eludes the question. "I have a project in mind that we'll start in October. But whether or not we'll be able to do that, we don't know. It's not my decision. It's up to fate."

Partial Hayao Miyazaki Filmography:
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Whisper of the Heart (1995) [screenplay only]
Princess Mononoke (1997)
The Cat Returns (2002) [screenplay/storyboards only]
Spirited Away (2002)
Howl's Moving Castle (2005)
Ponyo (2009)
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) [screenplay only]
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) [screenplay only]
The Wind Rises (2013)

Movies Unlimtied