Tokyo — Optimistic old guy, that Hayao Miyazaki.
Japan's most famous animator is forever dropping his characters into a world of hurt, a place where potions turn girls into crones and mothers betray their daughters, where war blackens the landscape and cynical adults "forget they ever knew how to cry." Yet by the time he gets to the credits, Miyazaki always finds a way to leave his heroes and his audience caressed by hope.
The 64-year-old director has done it again with "Howl's Moving Castle," which has been pulling in Japanese audiences at a blockbuster pace since its release in late November (an American release is planned for this summer). "Howl's" is Miyazaki's first movie since "Spirited Away," the Academy Award-winning feature that debuted in the U.S. in 2002, and once again he has created a film that offers his antidote to a spiritually ailing world.
It's love, actually. And as usual, precocious children blaze the path to salvation.
"Howl's Moving Castle" presents another installment of Miyazaki's feel-good storytelling, which long ago garnered him comparisons to Walt Disney. Japanese audiences clearly cannot get enough. "Howl's" has been a rocket at the box office, selling 1.1 million tickets in its first two days and 13 million in all through last Sunday.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Anime director -- The last name of Japanese anime film director Mamoru Oshii was misspelled as Ishii in a headline in Sunday's Calendar section.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 27, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Anime director -- The last name of Japanese anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii was misspelled as Ishii in a headline last Sunday.
But Miyazaki's latest success comes at a testing time for Japanese anime, an art form he has done so much to drag from the artistic ghetto into the mainstream. While the rest of the world fetes anime's global cool, some in Japan are wondering if it has peaked creatively.
"Animation studios are surviving, animators are getting better paid, but the quality of new works is not improving," says Mamoru Oshii, a director whose reputation was made on anime's darker side, in chaotic worlds where the apocalypse seems never more than a rogue computer away.
"On the surface, it's thriving," the 53-year-old Oshii said at his Tokyo studio. "But in reality, there's very little new happening." Oshii's anime is edgier -- more violent, really -- than Miyazaki's family fare. He happily plays Tarantino to Miyazaki's Disney.
Along with manga artist-turned-anime director Katsuhiro Otomo, they constitute what could be called Japan's animation establishment. All released movies last year -- each eagerly awaited by devoted fans -- in what should have been an anime celebration.
Instead, there is muttering among veteran directors and producers that anime has nothing fresh to offer adult Japanese audiences that have grown up watching their movies.
Listen to Oshii on Miyazaki:
"From a directors' viewpoint, we cannot expect anything new from Miyazaki. He is like a very old man, almost retired now." Or to Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki's longtime collaborator, on Otomo, whose new anime feature, "Steamboy," will be distributed in the U.S. in March: "There is only one theme in all his films: the conflict between adults and children. It's an old Japanese theme: The child fights against society, fights against evil. Otomo's thinking is rather old." (Otomo declined to be interviewed for this article.)
It is hardly Kobe versus Shaq versus Phil. But the criticism from within is evidence of an unsettling sense that, having acquired a global platform for their art, Japan's animators may have nothing terribly profound to say to the world.
"The tragedies of Japanese anime," Suzuki says, "are not too serious."
Where's the blood?
"I think inside his head Miyazaki wants to destroy Japan," explains Oshii, dressed in baggy jeans and sitting in his studios near Tokyo.
"But even though he knows his generation has created a nasty society, he has this hope that children will make a better world. So he makes movies that families and the children can enjoy.
"And it won't change until he makes the movies he really wants to make: bloody works; lots of bloodshed." Oshii knows blood. When Quentin Tarantino needed a Japanese animator to create a 10-minute anime interlude for "Kill Bill Vol. 1," he turned to Oshii, who produced a gore-fest of butchered bodies.
"I think I am a model citizen in real life, but in my brain, that's different," Oshii says with a big smile. "Everybody has a fantasy of doing something bad. Sometimes I want to launch missiles into every building in Tokyo, so I create a movie like that. I am making films about what I am thinking about: missiles hitting buildings.
"But Miyazaki is hiding. He has a passion to destroy Japan, but he's not making what he really wants to make."
Oshii is the godfather of a futuristic anime style called cyberpunk, and the synapses of anime fans are still quivering from his "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," released last year to great fanfare in Japan and a more cautious critical endorsement in the U.S.