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Miyazaki Talks Ponyo

Ponyo, the latest animated masterpiece from Academy-Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), debuted yesterday on Blu-ray & DVD from Walt Disney Home Ent.

Ponyo, the latest animated masterpiece from Academy-Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), debuted yesterday on Blu-ray & DVD from Walt Disney Home Ent.

On a rare trip to Los Angeles for the movie's theatrical release, the legendary director suggested that he was initially attracted to a children's book about a frog: "But as I worked on the story, it became something completely different… so I didn't pursue that direction. I have told the author of that children's book that that was the hint for this film, though. Sometimes, I test myself, wondering, if I get a death sentence if I don't make this movie, would I still make this movie. And that's where the frog came into play."

The lure of fairy tales still resonates strongly for Miyazaki. "When I work on a new story, I think I'm writing a new story, but when I scrape things away to its core, I realize that there are fragments of these old folk tales or legends that form my stories. It's not that I'm trying to resurrect an old legend, but naturally it's there at the core. I think it shows that I'm in the flow of human civilization."

And what inspiration did Miyazaki glean from the acclaimed Disney animated version of The Little Mermaid? "I watched the video of The Little Mermaid many years ago when I was first given it," Miyazaki continued, "but I haven't watched it recently. And, on purpose, I didn't watch it while making this film."

Not surprisingly, the 68-year-old animation master, who manages to find the time to draw monthly for a Japanese Manga magazine, still maintains the same disciplined approach to making his animated features. "I do all my work on storyboard, so as I draw my storyboard, the world gets more and more complex. And as a result, my north, south, east, west sense of direction kind of shift and go off base. But it seems like my staff as well as the audience don't quite realize that this is happening. Don't tell them about it," he joked.

For those who notice a much simpler graphic design to Ponyo, it's no coincidence. Ponyo marks Miyazaki's return to completely hand-drawn animation. "Actually, at Studio Ghibli, we dissolved the computer graphics section before we started production on Ponyo," Miyazaki explained. "So we had decided at that point to stick with hand-drawn animation… I think I can leave the computer-generated animation to [John Lasseter] and I can stick to the hand-drawn animation."

In fact, watching Ponyo more closely on DVD or Blu-ray will enable the viewer to see how exquisite the splashing waves look, which take on the sweep of characters. Miyazaki explained that the secret to the hand-animated waves in Ponyo was keeping the squiggly lines moving all the time.

And yet, Miyazaki's appreciation and love of nature is very evident in Ponyo. "It's not that nature or ecology has become a growing concern for me. I think it's just part of our natural surrounding and it's sort of a common thing to depict it. For example, I tell my artists and the team working together to make it smoggier. Then it looks more like the natural surroundings that we live in. It's not that I like smog. So it's the kind of landscape that our children and we are used to living in and whether we should do something about it or not is something that we should think about in real life rather than depicting it in a particular way in the stories on screen."

Even Miyazaki's depiction of villains remains generous in Ponyo. The goldfish's wizard of a father (voiced by Liam Neeson) is terrified that his daughter's transformation into a little human girl will upset the delicate balance of nature. He tries to use his magic to return her to the sea and her former self, rather than letting go and letting her exhibit her free will.

"When I start creating a villain, "Miyazaki explained, "I start liking the villain and so the villain is not really evil. The Fleischer brothers made Superman, and they have a scene where there's a steel making iron works right behind the Hollywood Hills. A bad guy -- the evil character -- who puts so much into creating such a factory and investing so much is somebody that should be lovable. And villains actually work harder than the heroes."

And with Ponyo, the director stresses the importance of family."The most important thing is, I think, that even within such an environment, children grow up, they learn to love and they enjoy living in that environment. I think what is most important is that parents and children see each other as being very valuable and very precious to each other, and if they can get that out of the movie that's fine."