While on his Ponyo press tour last month, Hayao Miyazaki was honored as part of the annual Marc Davis animation lecture series. Seated with an interpreter, the reserved, charming and witty Miyazaki chatted about his career with John Lasseter, his long-time friend, supporter and chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, who has been instrumental in expanding his works in the U.S. through English-language versions. They discussed Miyazaki's early beginnings as an in-betweener (he first worked on a canine version of 47 Ronin), how he trapped his way into directing, the formation of Studio Ghibli, his concern for preserving the environment and his passion for animation.
Here are some gems from their conversation:
John Lasseter: What was the path to [directing the Castle of Cagliostro feature]?
Hayao Miyazaki: It's difficult to explain. A senior colleague of mine came to my house one night and he said, "I'm supposed to make a movie of Lupin, but it's not going well and so would you help a little?" And I said, "Well, OK, I can help." And I sort of casually mentioned that I could help and I ended up directing it. When I thought about it later, it must've been a trap. And in four-and-a-half months, I completed [the movie].
JL: Four-and-a-half months!?
HM: I was really, really busy.
JL: This is around the time that we first met. Just after you finished Castle of Cagliostro, you and a number of artists from Japan came over here to Los Angeles for about a month or more to study how American animation was done. I'd love for you to talk about that trip a little.
HM: I came to L.A. to get some lectures on that and to also visit various studios and that's when I met the young John Lasseter.
JL: I remember them coming to the studio and we talked and showed them everything that we were doing. And we met with Brad Bird as well and most of the young animators that were working at the studio at the time. And today you mentioned something that I found interesting: we were expressing our frustration with at the Disney Studio at the time… and those in charge were sort of suppressing all the young people that were coming out of Calarts. And you mentioned that you were having a kind of similar experience.
HM: The people who give the money are very conservative and aren't apt to new ways of doing things. So I think you and I were both trying to get them to release their money so that we could do things that were new and interesting to us.
JL: How did Studio Ghibli get formed because that was right around [the same time]?
HM: After we made The Valley of the Wind, we established a studio along with producer Toshio Suzuki…and we could form a studio by just renting a studio at that point because the staff would gather for each production and then scatter after each production was over. Of course, later on, that didn't work so well. And while we were making My Neighbor Totoro, John Lasseter had been at the Hiroshima Film Festival and came by to see it. I think it must've been a hardship for you to go to Hiroshima in the mid-summer… it was so hot there.
JL: Really hot. But it was fun coming to visit the studio. There wasn't really anyone at the studio who could translate really well for us, but we were speaking the language of animation and really got by. I'll never forget him taking me into the background department…and the backgrounds for Totoro were so beautiful and I was just amazed by the paintings. He walked over with this kind of Miyazaki glimmer in his eye and smiled and just showed me a cel of the Catbus. "It's a bus that's a cat? Or a cat that's a bus? I can't wait to see this film?"
I remember when we were making the English-language version of Spirited Away, you had mentioned that there was a young girl -- the daughter of a friend of yours -- that was kind of representative of girls in Japan that were kind of apathetic… didn't really care about things. You mentioned that you wanted to make a movie for them.
HM: I know a girl who is like the girl who is in this film and now she has become a strong woman. I don't think it's because of the film… but she turned into a decent, strong adult. I seem to model my characters on people who are around me that I know. And a friend who's the model for the father, who eats so much that he turns into a pig, is actually here with me today.
JL: In many of your films, you show a great concern with ecology and the human impact on the environment… has this been a growing concern throughout your career?
HM: 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.
JL: You mentioned that one of the inspirations that you have for your films goes back to fairy tales…
HM: 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.
JL: Is My Neighbor Totoro inspired by a folk tale [because of the magical creatures that only children can see]?
HM: Rather than trying to depict the magical creatures, my intention in making My Neighbor Totoro was to show my appreciation and love of nature, which I had pretty much ignored up until that time. I had a couple of fragments: somebody that's waiting at the bus stop and a strange creature standing right next to that person. And a small child who sees a partially transparent little creature. And those two fragments were in my mind for about 10 years. So the child at the bus stop needs to be an older child because a really young child would not be waiting for a parent to come home. And so the child that needs to see transparent creatures needs to be a young child, so for a long time I wondered how to connect those fragments. Finally, I came upon the idea of making them sisters. And then the story started evolving.
JL: In your films even your villains are so appealing. Could you talk about, as you're creating a villain, what you're thinking?
HM: When I start creating a villain, 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.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.