Hayao Miyazaki

Master class

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2005, 12:00am

WHEN HAYAO MIYAZAKI personally accepted the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival last weekend, observers were shocked. After all, the man rarely shows his face.

This master of personal expression and beauty in hand-drawn animation has avoided promoting his films at festivals - such as in Venice last year, when Howl's Moving Castle premiered, or in 2002 when Spirited Away won the Berlin Festival's top prize, the Golden Bear. He didn't even attend the Oscars, when Spirited Away won the award for animated film in 2002.

Yet, here he was in Venice, at the behest of festival director Marco Muller, an Asian specialist and regular visitor to Japan.

Miyazaki told a packed press room that he had come 'because of Marco Muller's passion in asking me'. But he has expressed disdain for awards.

'I hate sitting, worrying whether I'll get this award or not,' he says. 'I knew for sure that I was getting an award here, so that's why I came.' Miyazaki, a sprightly 64 year-old with an impish grin, has been described as the 'god of Japanese anime'.

Spirited Away is the biggest earner in Japanese box-office history, beating out Titanic. Miyazaki's previous feature, Princess Mononoke, held third place until it was overtaken recently by Howl's Moving Castle.

During the Venice festival, Tim Burton expressed his admiration for the Japanese director while presenting his stop-motion animated film, The Corpse Bride. Yet, when asked about Burton, Miyazaki didn't seem to know who he was.

Miyazaki doesn't watch movies. He draws his inspiration from the world around him and from European literature and painting. In any case, he works so hard - rising at 8am and working into the wee hours - he probably doesn't have the time.

He says he doesn't know how his friend and the pioneer of computer 3D animation, Pixar's John Lasseter, manages to do so much. The pair met in Los Angeles when they worked together on Little Nemo in the 1990s, and Lasseter has since been instrumental in furthering Miyazaki's international exposure, having pressured Disney into releasing an English-language version of Spirited Away.

'I think John Lasseter is doing a great job,' Miyazaki says, 'But I'm just worried about his health. He's working too much. When I came to Venice, I brought my wife, but usually I'm a workaholic. All I do is work, work, work and I don't take care of the home and the children. I really let my wife take care of that. While John Lasseter is also busy with work, he's a good father and he's also a good spouse. He contributes to the community and also puts a lot of time into his hobbies. I mean, that's five times more than what I do.'

Lasseter and Miyazaki agree to disagree on animation styles. 'I never tell him to do 2D and he never tells me to do 3D,' Miyazaki says. 'We have our own territories and that's good.'

Although about 90 per cent of Miyazaki's material is drawn, he uses 3D technology in the production of his films (although he tries to keep it to a minimum). But, unlike Lasseter and other Americans who create their movies as a team effort, Miyazaki personally sits down and draws each scene. Once they're set, he gives them to his staff to reproduce (at Studio Ghibli, the company he co-founded with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki in 1985).

Part of a dying breed of old-fashioned craftsmen, he likes to draw with pen and paper. 'A pencil isn't just made to draw one line,' Miyazaki says. 'It's like searching and finding the line that's inside you. But now there are few animators who bring out the subconscious in themselves. Young animators have seen too much virtual reality and they've succumbed to it. So, my kind of animation is a very senior industry now.'

His sense of traditionalism extends to his choice of stories, many of which are based on European fairy tales and set in the late-19th century.

In a recent New Yorker profile, he revealed that his idealised Europe - the rolling, green hills, the flower-filled landscapes - provided a childhood escape from the bombed ruins of war-torn Japan, where he grew up. 'I remade Heidi, I remade Pocahontas, I remade Howl's Moving Castle, all which were set in Europe, and were influenced by European traditions of music, art and culture,' he says. 'In Japan we grow up reading Russian, French and British novels, so these influences from different countries mix in.'

He isn't a stickler for one location. Howl's Moving Castle, adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, may have originally been set in Wales, yet the movie turned into a typically ethereal Miyazakian landscape.

'I've visited Wales several times, but I didn't want to set the movie there,' he says. 'I was more attracted to the buildings in Alsace and the landscape of Kazakhstan. This is a fairy tale, so we can mix everything up, and that's how I create the setting for a movie. I was walking on the Lido this morning, scouting around for things I might use for my next movie.'

Did he find anything? 'There are wonderful alleys here,' he says.

Despite his status in Japan, Miyazaki says he can live a normal life. 'I live the life of a very common man in his early senior life,' he says. 'I go grocery shopping every day and I go to local cafes to have a cup of coffee.' But he doesn't watch the work of other animators, or film and television. He's only vaguely aware of the books and fan sites devoted to his work.

'First of all, I don't have internet,' he says. 'So I can't answer anyone. I don't do e-mails, and I live in peace every day.'

He finds peace in a deserted house by a tiny Japanese port. 'It faces the sea and when you turn the lights off, you feel like there are other people coming out from the darkness.'

Miyazaki says he wants to make films of Japanese stories, but the modernisation of Japan makes it difficult. 'Everything has become very ambiguous and it's really hard to find the true Japanese stories. I'm still grappling with that project and don't feel I've made a film that has really portrayed Japan yet. I would like to make a film based on a story that my mother told me about an old farm.

'There's also a lot of Japanese literature I could draw on, but it portrays only the hardships people have to suffer and not the joy and happiness.' Miyazaki likes to tell well-rounded stories and says he loves people and animals, particularly pigs. His 1992 film Porco Rosso, about an Italian pilot pig in the second world war, was screened last week in Venice.

One of his trademarks is to have his characters' hair stand on end when they get excited. 'In Japan, there's a thing called 'hair rising up into the sky',' he says. 'I do believe that your emotions, your reactions come to the very tip of your hair. It's part of your body.'

He also makes women the central characters in many of his films. 'I love women,' Miyazaki says, unabashed. 'But I don't want to say too much - I believe women are a secret, basically.'

Miyazaki says he's working on three short animations that will be screened only in the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. They'll take him a year to make. It's the kind of work he loves, although he says 'the producers are really anxious about the money part'. Which is why he also has to make features.

One short is a love story featuring a water spider. 'The spider actually breathes with his derriere,' says Miyazaki, unable to stop giggling. 'When he comes up to the surface, he attaches an air bubble and goes down underneath like an aqualung. I saw a comic strip about a spider that lives under the water and that really stuck in my memory and now it's a film.'