I published my first interview with animation legend Hayao Miyazaki on September 21st, 1999. Since then, he’s done pretty much no American press for any film he’s released here, and it’s always seemed to me like he was perfectly content to not worry about the American reaction to his films. He just never seemed to care. He makes movies for a Japanese audience, primarily, and if other countries enjoy them, that’s just a nice bonus, not his main goal.
When Disney asked me if I was interested in putting together a special screening of “Ponyo” at Comic-Con this year, I didn’t hesitate. I know how much it means to people to get a chance to see Miyazaki in person, and how uncommon that experience is. Introducing him to a Comic-Con crowd sounded like a truly worthwhile way to spend some of my time in San Diego this year.
So many people showed up for that screening that the theater ended up playing the movie three times in a row. I wish Miyazaki and I could have stayed for all three screenings to introduce them, but he was on his way out of town, and I had my family with me.
Speaking of which… one of the strangest moments of the entire San Diego experience this year was when Miyazaki first arrived at the Gaslight, the theater where we held the event. He came in with a group of people, including his translator, and walked up to where I was standing with the lovely Mrs. McWeeny and the infamous Toshi. For weeks, Toshi practiced saying “Miyazaki,” and as this titan of cinema walked up, Toshi waved at him and said, “Hi, Meee-ya-zaki!” Miyazaki considered this tiny greeting committee for a moment, then one of his people handed him a long flat white box. He offered it to me, and as he spoke, his translator said, “Miyazaki-san is very pleased to be here this evening, and thanks you for hosting this event for him.” When I walked my family into the theater to sit down, we opened the box, which turned out to be a beautiful “Ponyo” watch from Ghibli, which Toshi and his mommy promptly explained was not mine. Toshi’s been wearing it every day since, and every morning when we put it on, he asks me to tell him what time it is on his watch, and what time it is where Miyazaki lives.
[more after the jump]
After I introduced him to the eager audience, and after he said a few words to them, we walked into another empty theater, where we sat down to talk for a few minutes before he had to leave. In the following conversation, obviously Miyazaki-san has been translated from Japanese, so those few minutes seemed to move slower than most interviews of the same duration. Still, any time with a master like this is time well-spent, and I felt especially happy I got to ask him about one of the things we discussed a decade ago:
Drew McWeeny: Ten years ago, when you were here for “Princess Mononoke,” I was still very new to your work and had only seen three of your films when I interviewed you. It was a great early interview, though, because you gave me the most thoughtful answers of any film maker that I’d spoken to until that point.
Hayao Miyazaki: Hai. Thank you.
There was one question in particular that I wanted to come back to, though. I asked you if you felt that “Mononoke” had been successful because obviously it was out in Japan and it was very financially successful at the time. You said it would be ten years before you knew the answer, because you felt like you needed to see the kids who had watched “Mononoke” grow up to see if they had internalized what you were saying to them in the film. So you told me to ask you again in ten years. Well… here we are…
[laughs] Japanese young people have become more and more unhappy and discontent. It’s the kind of problem that will not be determined by having seen one movie.
It seems to me that in the decision to make the move back to 2-D animation, there’s a choice which is… the technology is available, there’s no question of that. This is an artistic choice. I think we are technologically mad to a certain degree in our culture right now. How much of this choice is a reaction to that?
Yes, exactly, I am making that artistic choice. It’s as if our brains have come out and we have all this technology surrounding our brains that we use, and then of course even here we have all this kind of… electronic currents and various signals that are going back and forth… the wireless radio type signals… and so among all that technology, I don’t think we need to become slaves to that kind of technology or be used by that kind of technology or participate in it.
With “Ponyo,” one of the things that I responded to so strongly as a parent in sharing it with my child is there’s no villain in the film. There is no easy antagonist. The film is instead about choices that we make, and I love that you frequently don’t set up what Hollywood always does with the bad guy. And it seems like that’s a very difficult choice for dramatists to make. How do you create drama without a villain?
It’s become more and more difficult for me to create an antagonist or an evil character. It would require me to make it sort of artificially, in terms of the kinds of stories that I create. It’s hard to make a story anyway, and even with “Ponyo,” there’s hardly a real plot that makes it a fully developed story.
That’s one of the things I always find unique about the films… they’re experiential. I recently… the first of Miyazaki-san’s films that I introduced my son to was “My Neighbor Totoro”. And there’s something so… it’s like you’ve just spent time with them. It’s not a forced drama. It is not the traditional shape of drama. And I think the indelible imagery is what we take away. Do you work from the images? Are there things… images that appear to you first or characters that appear to you first, and then you work backwards from that?
I first set an entry point. And then I pull, pull, pull from the entry point and sort of go deeper and deeper and deeper. And there may be some things that are sort of unrelated that come up and then I get rid of those. And then I keep searching and pulling up what is related to that story. The story doesn’t come fully developed in my mind. So there are times during the film creating process where for a long time nothing catches. And at those times I keep working away and working away at it, and then I think “This is no good, this is no good, this is no good.” Initially I think, “Okay, the easiest way would be to have an evil character appear, an antagonist appear, or to use some kind of trick to make the story progress. But then that easiest way isn’t the best way. So I keep trying over and over again to try to make it an interesting to me story. The scene where Guranmamare is talking to Lisa… I wrote the script for that and what they were talking about, and I wrote a complete scene for that, but then that would mean that Lisa would have a sad look on her face because she knows that she has to be in the center of the trap to get Sosuke into the final scene. And so my staff said they didn’t want to see Lisa having a sad face, or having a sad expression. Ponyo and Sosuke had come this far being very active and very positive kids, and they didn’t want to have to draw and create Lisa feeling sad.
So I just got rid of all that. So we don’t know exactly what Guranmamare and Lisa were talking about, but we just know that they’re talking in the background. And it seems like it was a really bold and sort of unthoughtful, kind of just a spur of the moment type of decision, but I think it was the correct one at this point now that the film is made.
My final question is that my favorite thing in your work is flight and the sense of flight in your films. I always find it so beautiful. “Ponyo” is one of the few where it’s really not a part of it, but in the underwater world, especially in the scenes where the towns are flooded, it’s as if we’re still flying. There’s still that sense of it even though you’ve chosen to make a film around water. Is that something that was intentional, or is it just that once you’ve moved underwater there’s still that feeling, and it satisfied some of the same emotion for you?
There was no necessity in the film for anybody to fly.
I intentionally made the sea, the surface of the sea and the horizon, higher and higher in the film so there’s very little sky showing because I wanted to make it a story about the sea. So there’s a lot of sea or the waves or the point of the horizon was very high in the film.
Well, it’s a beautiful movie and I deeply appreciate your taking the time to speak with me tonight. Thank you for being here, sir.
Oh so brief, but then again, spending time with an artist like this, it’s always going to feel like the conversation got cut short.
I sincerely hope it’s not another decade before we sit down to talk again, but whatever the case, it was a real honor to have the time with him and to introduce this lovely, gentle film to an audience who seemed fully primed to enjoy it.
“Ponyo” opens nationwide on Aug. 14th.
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