Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in the fourth of a five part feature… read parts one, two and three.
“I certainly do not make animated films just so they will be popular with children,” stated Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. “I try to create what I wanted to see as a child or what I believe my children want to see. We have all heard folktales. You can tell when you read them that they are a kind of encouragement; they assure us that somehow things will turn out alright. Even if something terrible happens, someone will come and save us – Cinderella and Snow White are good examples.” Revisiting the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, the Japanese filmmaker wrote in a planning memo dated April 19, 1995, “Mononoke-hime [Princess Mononoke, 1997] does not purport to solve the problems of the entire world. The battle between rampaging forest gods and humanity cannot end well; there can be no happy ending. Yet, even amid the hatred and slaughter, there are things worthy of life. It is possible for wonderful encounters to occur and for beautiful things to exist.”
Miyazaki had a particular era and goal in mind when developing the project; he wanted to “depict the unchanging nature of humans by overlapping the turmoil of the Muromachi period [1336 to 1573] – just as the medieval framework collapsed – with the upheavals of our era as we head into the twenty-first century. This is a vivid period of action-adventure woven from two threads – a vertical thread of the struggle of humans and spirits over a beast god [boar god], and a horizontal thread of the meeting between a girl [Princess Mononoke who is raised by wolves and is a fierce fighter who despises humans], and a boy [Ashitaka, who has a death curse placed upon him]. This meeting is the key to their liberation.” When describing the central characters, the Tokyo-native, remarked, “The pivotal figure in the story, the Great Forest Spirit, is an entirely imaginary creature with a face of a human, the body of a beast, and horns made of trees. The boy protagonist is a descendent of the Emishi, who disappeared in ancient times after being decimated by the Yamoto regime; the girl looks not unlike a type of clay figure of the Jômon period.”
Desiring to break free of the clichés and biases associated with period dramas, the anime artist placed the castles, towns, and farm villages with rice paddies in the background. Hayao Miyazaki was attracted to the Muromachi era because, “It was a period of mobility, when the distinction between warriors and peasants was less entrenched, and – the paintings show women as craftspersons – society was more broadminded and free.” The animator was inspired by the villains featured in Victorian-age novels. “The evil characters that appear in them are truly dashing. They are lighthearted, generous, and good-looking – the epitome of cool everyone idealizes in our modern society.” Miyazaki added, “I’m frankly so sick of stories where the most negative characters appear with scary faces.”
To illustrate his vision of the picture, the animator created a series of transparent water-colour image boards which were later published in an illustrated book. “In the beginning I wanted to do a fantasy rather than a period drama set in Japan,” revealed Hayao Miyazaki. “However, when I said, ‘Now, let’s do it.’ I didn’t have the heart for it. Because when you do a Japanese setting, you can’t escape from how to style the kimonos and how to represent various other things. Besides that, I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t the right time.’ But while I was putting it off, I changed my way of thinking and the core subject gradually changed, so the direction I wanted to take became very clear…I thought that I must make a deeper, more authentic movie. I continually thought about this as we entered the 90’s. As I plunged in deeper, I came to look hard at the issue of the true nature of humanity, and to depict the relationship between man and nature and between man and man. Not just superficial ideas like ‘When nature is abundant, humanity will be happy.’” Miyazaki sees tale as being etched in reality, “This film is just reenacting what humans have done historically. After Shishigami’s [Great Forest Spirit] head was returned, nature regenerated. But it has become a tame, non-frightening forest of the kind that we are accustomed to seeing. The Japanese have been remaking the Japanese landscape in this way.”
Until the release of Titanic (1997) a few months later, Princess Mononoke was the most commercially successful film in Japan, where it became the first animated movie to win Best Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. At the Mainichi Film Concours, the picture was lauded with Best Film, Best Animated Film and the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Film. Hayao Miyazaki’s refusal to tone down the violence by cutting out footage caused Disney to release the movie under the Miramax label. The legendary American animation studio had nothing to worry about as the film grossed $159 million in worldwide box office receipts.
“There is a book for children, Kirino Mukouno Fushigina Machi [A Mysterious Town Over the Mist by Sachiko Kashiwaba],” recalled Hayao Mizayaki as to the origins of Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or Spirited Away, 2001). “It was published in 1980, and I wondered if I could make a movie based on it. That was before we started work on Mononoke-hime. There is a staff member who loved this book when she was in fifth grade, and she read it many times. But I couldn’t understand why it was so interesting; I was mortified, and I really wanted to know why. So, I wrote a project proposal [based on the book], but it was rejected in the end. After that, I thought it would be better to have a more lively character, so I wrote a proposal called Rin and the Chimney Painter. It was a contemporary story with a heroine who was a little bit older, but it was rejected as well. It ended up being a story with a scary old woman sitting on the Bandai [a seat on a raised platform where the manager of a bath house sits] of a bath house.” The animator has had a childhood fascination with the pivotal setting in the movie. “For me, a bath house is a mysterious place in town. The first time I saw an oil painting was in a bath house. And there was a small door next to the bath tub. I wondered what was behind that door.”
“We have made Totoro , which was for small children, Laputa , in which a boy sets out on a journey, and Kiki’s Delivery Service , in which a teenager has to live with herself,” said Hayao Miyazaki. “We have not made a film for 10-year-old girls, who are in the first stage of their adolescence.” Chihiro attempts to rescue her parents who have been turned into obese pigs in a supernatural world overseen by a haggard sorceress and dictator Yubaba. While residing in his mountain cabin, the animator developed the concept. “I felt this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year-old girls, though, and looking at my young friends, I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.” As for why he chose to have a bath house as place where the gods visited, Hayao Miyazaki chuckled, “It would be fun if there were such a bath house. It’s the same as when we go to hot springs. Japanese gods go there to rest for a few days, then return home saying they wished they could stay for a little while longer. I was imagining such things as I made the images [for the film]. I was thinking that it’s tough being a Japanese god today.”
“As usual, after the production started, I realized that it would be more than three hours long if I made it according to my plot,” revealed the anime artist. “I had to cut a lot from the story, and make a complete change. I’m also trying to make this film using an ordinary man’s eye this time, so I reduced the eye-candy as much as possible and made it simple. I didn’t want to make the heroine a pretty girl, but even I was frustrated at the beginning of the movie: I thought, ‘What a dull girl she is’ [laughs]. When I saw the rushes, I thought, ‘She isn’t cute. Isn’t there something we can do?’ But as the film neared the end, I was a bit relieved to feel, ‘Oh, she will be a charming woman.’”
To clarify the theme of the picture, Miyazaki made use of a real life analogy. “I think this story is similar to that of a girl who comes to, for example, Ghibli, and says, ‘Let me work here.’ For us, Ghibli is a familiar place, but it would look like a labyrinth to a girl coming here for the first time, a scary place. There are a lot of grumpy people here. Joining an organization, finding your own place, and being recognized there requires a lot of effort. In many instances, you must use your own strength. But that’s a matter of course, that’s living in the world. So, I am making the film with the idea that it is the world, rather than bad guys or good guys. The scary woman, Yubaba, who looks like a bad guy in this film, is actually the manager of the bath house where the heroine works. She’s having a hard time managing the bath house; she has many employees, a son, and her own desires, and she is suffering because of those things. So I don’t intend to portray her as a simple villain.”
“All of the design that is featured as artwork in the movie is hand-drawn,” stated Hayao Miyazaki. “We have given it a little elegance boost with digital technology. In digital technology, the color hues remain profoundly unstable so I instructed my staff to never trust the computer screen, only the way the color looks to their own eyes on paper. Fundamentally, the animation is all pencil-drawn. In a few scenes we turned to digital to create patterns on the waves or to show bubbling water. As we headed into production on this film, I gathered my staff and I said to them, ‘This is a two-dimensional film. This is our strength.’ There is a fundamental difference in thinking about how to approach a 2-D versus a 3-D film. For example, Yubaba’s head [large as it is] is not always the same size in every scene. Depending on my mood and her mood, the size of her head changes. This is an emotional relationship we develop through scale with the audience, one that we would have to abandon if we wholeheartedly embraced digital technology. I’m holding onto my pencil, thank you.”
“Creation is always a series of regrets,” admitted Miyazaki, “but Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi was an exception. I felt really good when I was creating it. I’d always wanted to visualize a train running on the surface of the sea, and I think we came up with the scene that perfectly matches that image.” Always keen to entertain audience members, the filmmaker stated, “If they find this movie to be exciting, it will be a success in my mind. They can’t lie. Until now, I had made ‘I wish there was such a person’ leading characters. This time, however, I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize, someone about whom they can say, “Yes, it’s like that.” It’s very important to make it plain and unexaggerated. Starting with that, it’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances… I wanted to tell such a story in this movie. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.”
Earning $275 million worldwide, Spirited Away became an awards and box office sensation. At the Japanese Academy Awards, the picture won Best Film and Best Song while the Mainichi Film Concours honoured it with Best Film, Best Animated Film, Best Director, Best Musical Score, and the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Film. The movie was lauded with the Oscar for Best Animated Picture and the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Film. Spirited Away was also given the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Saturn Award for Best Animated Feature, and the Annies for Best Animation Feature, Best Director, Best Music, and Best Writing.
Desiring an outlet which would allow for creative experimentation without the worries of commercial appeal, the Japanese animation company established the Ghibli Museum in 2002. Stating the main objective for the project, Hayao Miyazaki remarked, “A museum that is interesting and relaxes the soul. A museum where much can be discovered.” Visitors are greeted by a giant Totoro; a roof-top garden features a robot from Laputa, and a vast collection of storyboard, animation cells, and background paintings from the studio’s various pictures are on public display.
The most unique feature at the Ghibli Museum is the specially-made selection of short films screened exclusively at the eighty-seat Saturn Theatre. A group of school children build a play boat only to find themselves tailing a whale in Kujira tori (The Whale Hunt, 2001); Hayao Miyazaki narrates the history of flying with the help of a pig pilot reminiscent of the hero of Porco Rosso (1992) in Kûsô no Sora Tobu Kikaitachi (Imaginary Flying Machines, 2002); spirited puppy Koro gets lost in the city when his owner fails to lock the house gate properly in Koro no Daisampo (Koro’s Big Stroll, 2002); and a sequel to My Neighbour Totoro where five-year-old Mei befriends a child kittenbus and is reunited with Totoro in Mei to Konekobasu (Mei and the Kittenbus, 2002).
“Making a true children’s film is a daunting challenge because we need to clearly portray the essence of a truly complex world,” observed Hayao Mizayaki. “A really dedicated children’s film is something that adults will also find rewarding whereas films made for adults, which consist simply of a kind of adornment and decoration, will leave children deeply dissatisfied. I oppose simplifying the world for children. The fact of the matter is that children know, somehow they intuit and deeply understand the complexity of the world we live in. So, I would suggest that you not underestimate children.”
Enraged by the American war with Iraq, Mizayaki found his follow-up project being profoundly affected by the global conflict.
Continue to part five
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.