“I was frankly in a dilemma after my work on From the Apennines to the Andes  ended,” stated Japanese anime artist Hayao Miyazaki who found himself at a career crossroad. “I really thought I could never do any work that involved just layouts. But then I was asked if I’d like to try directing. Even today I don’t like being pegged as just a “director” or as someone who does scene designs or screen layouts. Rather than being seen solely as directing, if it’s something that I like to work on, I’d actually like to be thought of as an animator.”
Aided by the talents of his long-time collaborator Isao Takahata and their mentor Yasuo Ôtsuka, Miyazaki adapted Alexander Key’s The Incredible Tide into an animated television program known as Mira shônen Konan (Conan, the Boy in Future, 1978). “I still think of this series as basically a love story between Conan and Lana,” reflected the man who designed, storyboarded and directed nearly all of the twenty-six episodes, “but without depicting this part of the story properly, Conan and Lana would never have amounted to anything more than two people with crushes on each other. I realized what was missing, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had accepted the original idea of a post-Armageddon setting for an adventure story, but I did feel constrained by the burden of the heavy ending.”
Further revisions were made out of necessity. “You have a weird society where people dream of riding bicycles through desolate scenes of dark oceans, gray skies, and craggy boulders and rocks – it’s a bleak mental landscape,” explained Hayao Miyazaki. “And you have this weird society called High Harbour. I don’t think a boy like Conan would have ever been born in a world like that. Nature recovers and forgives humans, and even though “forgives” is a strange way to put it, I do think that nature creates the foundation for all life to exist, so that humans [who are also animals] can go on living. Conversely, in creating the setting for a character like Conan, I think it would have been better to have nature having already made its comeback. I have been told, however, that the idea that nature can recover by itself may be a very Japanese one.” There was another major reason to diverge from the pessimistic tone of the original story. “Even if someone’s lost all hope for the future, I still think it’s incredibly stupid to go around stressing this to children.”
“I can’t do the work unless I have an emotional investment in it,” admitted the animator. “I tend to pour myself into the characters. And when I do so, I start to emphasize with the characters.” Hayao Miyazaki had a particular concept he wanted to explore. “I wanted to have a young protagonist who takes over from the failed generation of older guys.” When it came to deciding upon the age of the title character, the creator of the science fiction fantasy series reasoned, “It seems to me that most boys are about eleven when they start imagining themselves as the heroes in stories where they have the traditional roles like saving princesses, etc., so that’s why I made Conan eleven.” The title character is grounded in reality. “Conan is not a superman. He’s an ordinary kid who mainly thinks about having fun in his life. But humans are complex characters. And one fact about Conan is that the conditions in which he lives amplify certain aspects of his personality. He doesn’t go looking for adventure, he just does his best to stay alive.” Miyazaki added, “He comes to embody the vitality, resolute spirit, and understanding of others that his world needs. I personally like the idea that it is because of Conan’s silent influence that Jimsy becomes happier, that Dyce tries to become more normal, and that Monsley is transformed.”
“I really wanted to make all the characters Japanese and, if not Japanese, at least have them all of the same nationality so we could totally forget about language barriers; to differentiate characters visually we did have some red-haired people appear,” revealed Hayao Miyazaki who was not entirely content with the overall look of the TV program. “I frankly feel a little frustrated by the fact that the world of Conan turned out looking a bit like the American West.” The transition to directing was far from easy for Miyazaki; production of the series fell behind and NHK had to insert a special program to pad the broadcast schedule. “The story began to go off in a different direction than I had initially planned, so we had to create the storyboards anew. The schedule slipped and I caused a lot of trouble for the staff and the production company. That was entirely due to my failings as I can only work by following my intuition and feelings.” The experience was not an entirely a bad one. “To Takahata’s credit, the storyboards he drew for five of the episodes were of a high level of perfection and in my exhausted state that was as much of a relief as rain during a draught.”
“When we started working on Conan, I would have quit the animation business if people had thought that what we were trying to do was boring,” declared the Tokyo-native. “But to my surprise even my sons became passionate fans of the show.” Support for the TV program was not universal in Japan. “I can sort of understand why the overall series ratings weren’t so good. We were creating something that went against the grain of the times. Of course, some people later said that the ratings would have been a bit better if we had shown more of the Giganto plane flying earlier in the story.”
His decision to join the Telecom Animation Film Company in 1979 was motivated by Hayao Miyazaki’s desire to bring a small screen character to the big screen; the end result was his feature film directorial debut Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro (Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979). Arsène Lupin attempts to rescue a kidnapped princess and find a treasure hidden since the fifteenth century.
“My responsibilities for this film started with creating the story,” began the animator. “In order to give form to my vague idea, I began drawing a bird’s-eye-view picture of the setting for the story: the lake and castle of a small country. When I completed this drawing, I was confident that the film would do well.” Alterations had to be made to accommodate the change in the media format. “In a work like Lupin, the storyline may be set, but the important thing is how it is depicted, how the characters enter and depart, and how the story’s hidden traps and subplots are portrayed. As such, plot changes are unavoidable when turning the story into a film.”
John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer for Disney and Pixar, is a great admirer of the picture. “That car chase up the hill is still one of my favourite scenes,” enthused Lasseter. “Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass…and then you hear this GHEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a ‘What was that?’ look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment right before. That’s pacing.”
“The Castle of Cagliostro was like a clearance sale of all I had done on Lupin and during my Toei days,” confessed Miyazaki. “I don’t think I added anything new. I can understand why people who had followed my work were extremely disillusioned. You can’t use a sullied middle-aged guy to create fresh work that will wow viewers. I realized I should never do this again. Neither did I want to. Even so, I did two more [Lupin television episodes in 1980], and it was hell. With every piece I made, it was obvious that I was just trotting out everything I had done before. 1980 was my year of being mired in gloom.”
Indulging in a different artistic medium in 1982, Hayao Miyazaki authored a serialized story called Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) which was sporadically published in Animage magazine over a twelve-year period. “I began drawing the original magna without thinking of making it into an animated film, and as a result I didn’t know how to respond when the possibility first came up. But I knew if a film could express the themes I was exploring in the comic, then I had to make it.” Comparing the futuristic saga set in the twilight era of humanity where “a girl who, while being drawn into battles between human beings, comes to look far beyond the human state” to a previous project he worked on, Miyazaki stated, “Little Norse Prince  deals with problems between humans while Nausicaä deals with the problems between people and nature.”
Revealing the inspiration for the title character of his 1984 picture, Miyazaki remarked, “Nausicaä is the name of a Phaeacian princess who appears in the Odyssey. I first learned of her from Bernard Evslin’s book Gods, Demigods & Demons, and I was instantly attracted to her.” Describing the mythological figure, the animator said, “Nausicaä is a fleet-footed, fanciful, beautiful girl. She loves her harp and singing more than any suitor or ordinary happiness, and her extraordinary sensitivity leads her to delight in playing amid nature.” Miyazaki referenced a cultural figure from his homeland when developing the tale. “In learning about Nausicaä, I recalled a certain Japanese heroine [featured in a number of eleventh century short stories]…She was known as a princess who loved insects and apparently ran about in nature even after coming of age, delighting in watching such things as caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies. As a result she was also viewed as quite eccentric.” When asked how the young royal family member would be perceived in modern times, the animator replied, “These days, a girl like Nausicaä probably wouldn’t be treated as someone particularly odd. Even if she were a little different, she’d still be able to find a place in society – as a lover of nature or as someone with an individualistic hobby.”
Reluctant to label himself an environmentalist, Hayao Miyazaki admitted, “I thought it would be interesting to overturn the concept of defenseless plants always being destroyed and instead create a forest that was on the offensive.” A prevailing public attitude troubles the anime artist. “The idea that nature is always gentle and will give birth to something like the Sea of Decay in order to restore the environment polluted by humans is a total lie. And I believe the idea that we should cling to such a saccharine worldview is a big problem. That, at least, is what I felt while writing Nausicaä.” Questioned about the Sea of Decay, Miyazaki answered, “In the story of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the Sea of Decay [an artificially made ecosystem] was supposed to have been created by humans a thousand years earlier to cleanse the environment. But even the ancient people who made it had no way of predicting how the Sea would be transformed.”
“I do like animism,” explained Hayao Miyazaki. “I can understand the idea of ascribing character to stones or wind. But I didn’t want to laud it as a religion. That is why Nausicaä isn’t Joan of Arc. She acted for her own sake, not for the sakes of those in the Valley of the Wind, but because she could endure no more. Rather than considering the risk to her own life, Nausicaä felt that unless she returned the baby ohmu to the pack, the hole in her heart would never be filled. That’s the kind of person I think she is.” Responding to the negative reaction to the conclusion of the film, the animator declared, “Even if a film like Nausicaä is criticized for ending like a religious movie or a miracle movie, it still has to conform to the basics of filmmaking and it must follow a logical development. I’m one of those who feels that a film should show some problem being overcome, even if it’s a small one. I think, as filmmakers, that it’s a type of business ethic we have to maintain.” Even with the destructive societal unrest depicted in his pictures, Miyazaki is not one to give into a message of despair. “What is hope? And the conclusion I’d have to venture is that hope involves working and struggling along with people who are important to you. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I think this is what it means to be alive.” Collaborating with music composer Joe Hisaishi for the first time, Miyazaki produced a box office hit which ran into trouble with U.S. distributors; the poorly dubbed English print renamed Warriors of the Wind had over twenty minutes of footage removed and the names of the characters changed.
Not entirely leaving behind his television background, Hayao Miyazaki directed a re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth with Meitantei Holmes (Sherlock Hound the Detective, 1984). The Japanese-Italian co-production took place in Victorian-England with humanized dogs serving as the majority of the cast members. Hindered by legal problems, the TV series was eventually broadcasted.
Encouraged by the theatrical commercial success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Japanese publishing firm Tokuma Shoten decided to bankroll a new animation company to be run by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki.
Continue to part three.
Starting Point 1979 to 1996 – a collection of essays and sketches by Hayao Miyazaki.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.