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Animator Hayao Miyazaki moves beyond good vs. evil plots

The famous Japense director tells an American audience that he deeply mulls the stories behind his popular films, including the upcoming Disney venture, 'Ponyo.'

August 09, 2009|Charles Burress

Once the standing ovation died down, anticipation among the 6,500 people packed into a Comic-Con convention hall in San Diego was almost electric as they waited for the first words from the silver-haired alchemist of animation, Hayao Miyazaki.

To the opening question from Pixar leading light John Lasseter about how he develops his stories, the white-jacketed, 68-year-old director replied, "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking -- thinking about my stories for a long time." Then with an impish smile, he added, "If you have a better way, please let me know."

His answer sparked laughter and affectionate applause, if little revelation, and foreshadowed much of what was to come in Miyazaki's ensuing West Coast tour before thousands of fans in the last week of July, a visit that provided rare U.S. exposure for the reclusive Japanese creator of "My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away."

Before a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at UC Berkeley, "Japanamerica" author Roland Kelts asked Miyazaki about the perception that "true evil . . . if it exists, is very hard to pin down in your films."

The good-guys-versus-bad-guys formula often falls through the rabbit hole in Miyazaki stories, particularly the ones that suggest a moral philosophy in their portrayals of individuals caught in conflicts between destructive civilization and a mysterious powerful Nature. Kelts pointed to the wizard father in Miyazaki's newest film, "Ponyo," comparing him to Shakespeare's Prospero as "more of a troubled man than an evil one."

Miyazaki responded: "To have a film where there's an evil figure and a good person fights against the evil figure and everything becomes a happy ending, that's one way to make a film. But then that means you have to draw, as an animator, the evil figure. And it's not very pleasant to draw evil figures. So I decided against evil figures in my films." Again, laughter and applause.

Miyazaki, who refused to come to the U.S. to receive his Oscar in 2003, came this time, a bit reluctantly, to help promote Disney's Aug. 14 release of "Ponyo," about a goldfish princess who falls in love with a human boy and strives mightily to become human herself. Tickets quickly sold out for the man Lasseter has called "the greatest animation director living today, the greatest director living today." Many American children have spent hours on repeated viewings of "Totoro" -- featuring a cat-bus and a forest creature shaped somewhat like a giant pear with fur.

Many settings

Miyazaki's settings vary -- a contemporary Japanese seaside town in "Ponyo," a European-type village of the late 19th or early 20th century in "Castle in the Sky," and a post-apocalyptic community clinging to a medieval existence in "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind."

But all his films share a painterly aesthetic, hand-drawn with nuanced colors and exacting frame composition, to enhance his fantasy worlds that often blend myth, environmental destruction, shape-shifting spirits and complex human characters. The leading roles belong to independent-minded, resourceful young females, and several films reflect conflicted views of technology, partly embodied in fanciful flying machines seemingly dreamed up by an eccentric genius from the Industrial Revolution.

He has also spawned a growing body of academic analysis. "There are more people writing papers on Hayao Miyazaki in the United States than any other Japanese artist that I'm familiar with," said Frederik Schodt, a manga expert and co-translator of the newly published English version of Miyazaki's book "Starting Point." Miyazaki's "films are both popular and subversive, especially in regard to conventional gender coding," writes Tufts University professor Susan Napier.

While Miyazaki "bristles" at being described as the Walt Disney of Japan, Napier finds similarity but also key differences in the animation pioneers. Both sometimes draw on stories from other cultures, but unlike Disney's tendency to imbue the characters with American values, Napier says, Miyazaki creates "characters that, while retaining certain characteristics linked to Japanese society, are distinctively more independent in thought and action than the group-oriented characteristics traditionally celebrated in Japanese culture."

Similarly, Miyazaki himself reflects and stands apart from his society. His enormous popularity in Japan stems in part from his unsurpassed mastery of animation, a medium embraced by the culture at large and, at its best, regarded as more intellectually ambitious than its American counterpart. At the same time, in an environment that stresses group harmony, the outspoken director can be sharply critical of others in his field and unafraid of challenging traditional views, whether related to women's roles or espoused by the ruling political conservatives.

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