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Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Trip to the U.S.

Fred Patten outlines Hayao Miyazaki's career and rise to fame, culminating in his trip to launch the English-dubbed version of Spirited Away.

A meeting between John Lasseter (left) and Hayao Miyazaki (seen here at the recent Toronto Film Festival) 20 years ago led to the U.S. release of Spirited Away this year. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Berliner Studios.

A meeting between John Lasseter (left) and Hayao Miyazaki (seen here at the recent Toronto Film Festival) 20 years ago led to the U.S. release of Spirited Away this year. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Berliner Studios.

North American anime fans got a rare treat in September. Not only was Hayao Miyazaki's long-awaited Spirited Away finally released, but the man revered as Japan's greatest animation creator made an unprecedented public appearance. Miyazaki, along with Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki, held press conferences and answered audience questions at Spirited Away's premiere screenings at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th; at Disney's U.S. premiere at its showpiece El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on the 10th; and at a special benefit screening for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California on the 15th.

Miyazaki's name has been synonymous with anime's highest quality since the early 1980s, when it first came to the public's attention with his Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds. Miyazaki originally began this as a comic book (manga) serial in Animage magazine and then developed it as a 1984 animated theatrical feature. Even before that, his work stood out to anime fans who did not know his name. His first theatrical feature as director, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (released December 1979) was not only a hit in Japan (voted the top animation of all time by the readers of Animage), but studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha used it for test-marketing in the U.S. It was shown at the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, FILMEX 82 in Los Angeles, and other film festivals during the 1980s. It was widely gossiped by anime fans that Cagliostro's climactic battle in the clock tower inspired the very similar scene in Disney's 1986 The Great Mouse Detective.

Toshio Suzuki's name is not as well known, but he is much more than the business manager of Studio Ghibli. He was arguably largely responsible for the development of anime fandom. He was the founding editor of Tokuma Publishing Company's pioneering anime publications; Animage magazine (monthly since July 1978), and the series of Roman Album reference guides devoted to individual theatrical and TV anime titles. Although adolescent fan-oriented, their in-depth coverage of production data have made them continuously the leading sources for reference information about any anime theatrical or TV releases since 1978. They were the foundations of the popular attitude that animation was not just for kids but was worthy of as much serious consideration as any other genre of cinema studied in high school and college.

It was Animage's coverage of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro that introduced Suzuki and Miyazaki to each other. Suzuki proposed that he write/draw a manga for serialization in Animage. Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds began in the February 1982 issue and was an instant hit. Miyazaki had not originally intended it for animation, but readers assumed a movie would follow and began asking when it would be released. The response was so great that Tokuma Publishing decided to fund it as an independent feature, directed by Miyazaki. The success of Nausicaä led to Tokuma financing a new permanent animation studio in 1985 to be run by Miyazaki and his longtime friend and fellow animator, Isao Takahata. Suzuki's promotion of Miyazaki's films in Animage, as well as his close friendship with Miyazaki, eventually led to his transfer to Studio Ghibli as that company's president.

Toshio Suzuki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli and frequent Miyazaki collaborator, as well as the godfather of anime fandom. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

Toshio Suzuki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli and frequent Miyazaki collaborator, as well as the godfather of anime fandom. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

The Rise of A Master

Miyazaki was already a twenty-year veteran animator by this time. He was born in Tokyo on January 5, 1941. He joined the Toei Animation Company staff in 1963, rising from in-betweener to key animator on both theatrical and TV series projects. Among Toei's other young animators was Isao Takahata, with whom he formed a permanent friendship and working relationship. By 1971 both Miyazaki and Takahata were feeling creatively stifled working within Toei's animation assembly-line production. Miyazaki began producing comic-book stories (manga) on the side, where he had total creative control. Both quit Toei and went to work for other studios during the 1970s. Among their major projects during that decade were several year-long (52 episodes) TV animated serializations of classic children's literature for World Masterpiece Theater. Some of these, including Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Three Thousand Miles in Search of Mother (about a young Italian boy's search for his mother in Argentina), gave Miyazaki the opportunity to visit Europe and South America to sketch art references. A trip to Stockholm for a proposed Pippi Longstocking TV series that was never made gave Miyazaki lots of location and background art that appeared almost twenty years later in his Kiki's Delivery Service.

1979 through 1982 were significant years for Miyazaki at the Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS) studio. He created their major theatrical feature Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, not just directing it but writing its script, designing the characters and drawing the storyboards. In 1981 TMS asked him to produce a children's TV funny-animal series based on the Sherlock Holmes stories, with the characters as dogs (Holmes, the Great Detective, released in America as Sherlock Hound), commissioned by Italy's RAI TV. By this time Miyazaki's connection with Suzuki had been established, and Animage heavily promoted Sherlock Hound as the latest masterwork by Miyazaki. Sherlock Hound was Miyazaki's final TV anime work. The project introduced him to RAI's representative, Marco Pagott, who became a close friend. Both the Italian connection and Pagott (as protagonist Marco Pagotti) appeared in Miyazaki's 1992 Porco Rosso.

Another 1981 TMS project which Miyazaki was asked to join was the theatrical feature Little Nemo. Miyazaki left it very early (TMS did not complete it until 1989), and began his work on Nausicaä for Animage. But his brief involvement with Little Nemo included a business trip to the Disney studio in Hollywood, where he met the young animator John Lasseter a meeting that would have great significance for Spirited Away twenty years later.

A significant indication of Miyazaki's tunnel vision on the creative aspects of his work is that Studio Ghibli's films for the first five years were critical successes but were only moderately successful at the box office, barely enough to keep the studio open. It was not until 1990 that a literal public demand for Totoro plushies and similar merchandise convinced him that maybe Ghibli should lower itself to (ugh!) merchandising. Not only did the studio almost immediately earn enough from licensing that it could begin plans for expansion, but the flood of Totoro and Kiki toys made the general public more Ghibli-aware than its movie's promotions ever had. Studio Ghibli's 1992's Porco Rosso, 1994's Pom Poko (directed by Isao Takahata), 1997's Princess Mononoke, and 2001's Spirited Away were all Japan's top box-office draws for those years.

Time to Talk

At the Spirited Away press conferences, Miyazaki made it clear that the intellectual and artistic aspects of his projects are still the only ones that really concern him. He and Suzuki had almost a comedy routine, with Suzuki mugging as an exasperated businessman trying to keep an idealistic artist under control.

Miyazaki made Spirited Away so that his 10 year-old granddaughter and her friends would have a sense of Japanese heritage and culture. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

Miyazaki made Spirited Away so that his 10 year-old granddaughter and her friends would have a sense of Japanese heritage and culture. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

Questions at the Hollywood premiere comparing Spirited Away with Princess Mononoke (did he think the English dub of Spirited was better than that of Mononoke; did he think that Spirited had a better chance of box office success in America) seemed to highly annoy him. He made it clear that each of his films has been made because of a particular creative inspiration. With Spirited Away he had noticed that some of his granddaughter's friends, girls about 10 years old, seemed very apathetic, only interested in passively watching modern popular culture, unaware of Japan's rich cultural past. He felt that he should make a film for 10-year-old girls that would both introduce them to their heritage and encourage them to develop a sense of self-reliance and responsibility. How he feels about the success of his films depends upon how closely he thinks each comes to achieving his particular goal for it. He does not compare his films with each other or with any other movies. "I frankly am not a big fan of valuing, evaluating a film's worth based on box office receipts," he said through interpreter Linda Hoagland. "I believe that a film should represent a very intimate personal encounter between what's on the screen and an individual's heart. To try to reduce the value of that to numbers on a page is not something that I can be a fan of." A query as to whether he was excited about the possibility of Spirited Away or a future film of his winning an Academy Award brought a dismissive, "Doesn't interest me." (Suzuki immediately added that it certainly interested him!) Another question as to whether Studio Ghibli would ever make any sequels to its popular movies, as Disney is doing today, drew an even brusker, "Never!"

Miyazaki strongly affirmed his commitment to traditional cel animation. One questioner commented on, " incredibly detailed Chinese-style vase. It's shockingly realistic looking, really beautiful; but it looks real and I'm guessing that it was done digitally. And indeed, in this film you seem to have used more digital effects than you have in any of your previous films. Maybe you could talk about the digital effects." Miyazaki replied, "You're wrong. That's hand drawn, that Chinese vase. It's also not Chinese; it's a Japanese vase from the Imari area. All of the drawings are hand-drawn. All of the artwork that's featured as design in the bathhouse in the film is all hand drawn. We've, you know, given it a little sort of elegance boost with digital technology."

He elaborated in reply to a second question about what percentage of Spirited Away was digital. "Fundamentally, the animation is all pencil drawn. In a few scenes we turned to digital, for instance to create patterns on the waves or to show bubbling water, water bubbling up. 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.' And there is a fundamental difference in thinking and approach between 3D movies and 2D, and I'll give you an example. For instance, I don't know if you noticed, but Yubaba's head, large as it is, is not identically the same in every scene. Depending on my mood and her mood, the size of her head changes. This is an emotional relationship that we developed to scale with the audience that we'd have to abandon if we wholeheartedly embraced 3D. I'm holding on to my pencil."

At the Mic

My initial question for Animation World Magazine was unexpectedly stonewalled. Q: "It's been announced off and on that Studio Ghibli and you will be making a film from the British juvenile novel Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I understand that this is your next project. I was wondering how you discovered this novel. Did you read the novel on your own and decide this would be a good picture, or did someone suggest it to you?" Suzuki answered, "Actually, the next project has not yet been formally announced in Japan so unfortunately I can't answer any questions about the next project." (Considering that Japanese bookshops are advertising the Japanese edition of Howl's Moving Castle as, "Read the novel that will be Studio Ghibli's next feature," I am not sure of the distinction between a formal and an informal announcement.) Miyazaki added as an exaggerated aside which drew laughs, "You know, I'm going to be doing it as usual. The real reason he doesn't want to talk about it is because he's not sure I can handle it." (Ghibli's formal announcements only say that the studio has been temporarily closed following the release of its Summer 2002 feature, The Cat Returns. It will reopen in February 2003 to begin production of its next feature, planned for a Summer 2004 release.)

My second question was, "There has been one new Studio Ghibli film released in Japan since Spirited Away, just a couple of months ago [July 19th]: The Cat Returns, I believe is the official English translation of the title, Neko no Ongaeshi; directed by Hiroyuki Morita. This is the first film from Studio Ghibli directed by someone besides yourself and Isao Takahata, and unfortunately the only one film by Yoshifumi Kondo. [Kondo died shortly after directing Whisper of the Heart.] Are you grooming more directors, and are there any plans to release The Cat Returns in the U.S.?" Suzuki replied, "For starters, yes, if there's young talent we're more than happy we're delighted, in fact, to embrace it and nurture it. And thankfully, The Cat Returns did quite well at the Japanese box office. We're in discussions about we're considering a possible U.S. release."

On John Lasseter and Pixar

All questions about how Miyazaki had prepared Spirited Away for its American release were waved away with a repeated variation of the comment that he didn't have anything to do with it; he didn't care whether it was released in the U.S. or not; the American release was entirely due to his good friend John Lasseter. "You know, our presence here today, your being able to see the film today, all of this and the North American release, I owe to the unflagging dedication and determination of my dear friend John Lasseter who bulldozed his way through every obstacle to make this release happen." On what he thought of the Lasseter-directed English dub, "I haven't seen it. This is not just about this film, this is not limited to Spirited Away. I never watch my movies after I watch it with my staff after it's done, at the end. So I'm not discriminating against Spirited Away. The fact of the matter is that I so deeply trust John Lasseter that I don't need to watch the film."

The cast, such as Daveigh Chase who performed the voice of Chihiro, took the time to listen to the original Japanese-language version of Spirited Away for inspiration and authenticity. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

The cast, such as Daveigh Chase who performed the voice of Chihiro, took the time to listen to the original Japanese-language version of Spirited Away for inspiration and authenticity. © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.

Miyazaki's and Lasseter's joking comments about each other have made it clear that Lasseter's relationship to Spirited Away is much closer than that of a prestigious American animation creator brought in as executive producer on a straight work-for-hire basis. In fact, Lasseter's reputation as the major creative developer of the Pixar CGI studio, and director of the CGI hits Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, seems to be partially responsible for the mistaken assumption that Spirited Away contains lots of CGI. Lasseter met Miyazaki in 1981 (Miyazaki: "I actually met John Lasseter twenty years ago when I came to Los Angeles to work on a job. I didn't encounter him through my work. He was off in a small studio, I think he had been dispatched by Disney to go, and he was working alone trying to develop 3D animation. Unlike the John Lasseter of today he was a very slender young man ..."), and their personal friendship broadened to Lasseter's adopting Miyazaki as a sensei, his tutor, as Miyazaki's features appeared in Japan while Lasseter was building Pixar. Lasseter became involved with Spirited Away right from its start.

In a telephone interview from his Pixar office in July, Lasseter told me, "We have a really close creative connection at Pixar with Studio Ghibli. We often look at the Japanese laser disks of Miyazaki's movies to be inspired.

"I visited Studio Ghibli in March of 2000 when I was in Japan for the release of Toy Story 2. I had my two sons with me. They were just beginning production on Spirited Away. It looked fantastically exciting. Ghibli is a fairly small studio, and Miyazaki does not have a separate office. He works in the same studio with the other artists, at a desk in a corner. [...]

"There was a camera crew on hand to film the director of Toy Story 2 visiting the director of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki sent them away. He drove me and my sons, and Suzuki to a nearby re-created traditional village in a large park. When old buildings have to be removed for new construction, they try to preserve them by moving them here instead of just tearing them down. Miyazaki led us down this street to a bathhouse, and he described to us the tradition of the village bathhouse as a communal center in old Japan. This was to be one of the main points in Spirited Away."

Animage, Japan's monthly anime magazine started in 1978 by Toshio Suzuki, first made the public Miyazaki-conscious and promoted all Studio Ghibli's features after 1985. © 1987 Tokuma Publishing Co.

Animage, Japan's monthly anime magazine started in 1978 by Toshio Suzuki, first made the public Miyazaki-conscious and promoted all Studio Ghibli's features after 1985. © 1987 Tokuma Publishing Co.

Miyazaki revealed at the press conference in Toronto that a living lantern which appears briefly late in the movie, hopping along a dark road to light Chihiro's way, is an ingroup joke for Lasseter; a reference to his Luxo, Jr. Miyazaki may not have cared whether Spirited Away was released in America, but Suzuki certainly did. As Lasseter explained: "Suzuki came to Pixar with a subtitled film print of Spirited Away when it had just been released in Japan. We showed it in the 235-seat screening room at Pixar. This was its first screening anywhere outside of Japan. Everyone was blown away. We were familiar with Miyazaki's previous films, and we felt that he had topped himself.

"I reported to Disney the reaction at Pixar. Disney was considering whether to release Spirited Away in America. They were concerned about American audiences not understanding some of the Japanese traditional cultural elements in the story. I felt that it would be particularly accessible to Western audiences because it is seen from the point of view of a modern, materialistic young girl who is unfamiliar with her own cultural past. The way the story is told, it works as an introduction to a fascinating, rich culture whether it is the viewer's own ethnic heritage or not."

Lasseter's job as executive director included supervising Disney's English dub directed by Kirk Wise. The supercritical anime fan reaction to the Spirited Away dub is that it is Disney's best yet; considerably better than those for Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke. Those were professionally excellent, but some of the voices seemed to give the characters different personalities. For example, comedian Phil Hartman's reading for Jiji, Kiki's black cat, gave Jiji a brash, sardonic personality very different from the shy, meek voice of the Japanese dub. Disney's Spirited Away press kit quotes the opinion of Daveigh Chase, the voice of ten-year-old Chihiro (also of Lilo in Disney's Lilo & Stitch), "On doing a movie that she heard originally in Japanese..." This indicates that the American voice cast listened to the original Japanese voices and studied their intonations. Fan interviews with the voice actors of many American anime dubs have revealed that they are often not given time to listen to the original Japanese dubs. The American voice director simply leads them to do readings of their lines that he likes. "[T]hat she heard originally in Japanese" shows Lasseter's and Wise's determination to make the English-language dub as close to the Japanese dub as they could.

Miyazaki's and Suzuki's publicity tour ended with a small fundraising screening at Pixar Animation Studios' screening room for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. A report on the Website of No-Name Anime, the nearby San Jose anime club, explained that this charity has a personal significance for John Lasseter and voice actor John Ratzenberger (the froglike Bathhouse Assistant Manager in Spirited Away), both of whom have children with diabetes. Lasseter told the audience that, since Miyazaki's love of old-fashioned airplanes is well known, they had arranged for him while at Pixar to take a biplane tour over Northern California's wine vineyards. (

So now America's anime fans are crossing their fingers and hoping that Spirited Away will do better at the box office than Princess Mononoke did. The initial results of its September 20 release are encouraging. The September 20 - 22 weekend box office report on the Box Office Guru website ( is: "The Japanese animated blockbuster Spirited Away sparkled in its North American debut grossing $449,839 from only 26 theaters for a vibrant $17,302 average. Buena Vista released Japan's highest-grossing film in ten major markets this weekend and looks to add another ten next weekend as it continues its steady rollout."

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).