Hayao Miyazaki

Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki: Japan's political shift drew me out of retirement

Anime master, 74, talks to Julian Ryall about new film he's working on - a CGI short - and about his opposition to the redrawing of Japan's pacifist constitution and expansion of an Okinawa air base

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 8:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 12:17pm

Hayao Miyazaki was, arguably, born in the wrong era. The acclaimed filmmaker's works are full of steam trains, horse-drawn carriages and propeller-driven aircraft. His characters are straight out of the 1950s - think trilby hats instead of baseball caps and picnic baskets rather than rucksacks - while the views are those of an idyllic childhood of yesteryear.

The past still permeates Miyazaki's present; sitting in his wood-panelled studio, in the west Tokyo suburb of Koganei, we are surrounded by a loudly ticking grandfather clock, a grand piano and a coal-and-wood fired stove.

Now 74, the media-shy director has never disguised his pro-environment and anti-militaristic opinions - even when Japan's far right attacked him as "a traitor to his country" - but, after the release in Japan in 2013 of what he described as his final film, The Wind Rises, Miyazaki was expected to once again ensconce himself in his own privacy.

A little over a year later, however, he has been roused to such anger that he cannot sit back and say nothing.

Miyazaki is not a man to raise his voice or physically demonstrate that anger, but his opposition to the policies and actions of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, are clear. Revising Japan's pacifist constitution is "a very unfortunate development", he says, in a masterstroke of understatement, while halting the enlargement of the United States Marine Corps' Camp Schwab, in Okinawa, is "essential to the creation of a peaceful East Asia".

This artist wears his politics on his sleeve.

"I believe the situation in Okinawa is very clear," says Miyazaki. "More than half of the people of Okinawa are against the Camp Schwab plan, and that is why the Henoko Fund was set up, to enable everyone who is against the development to do everything in their power to stop it happening."

The Henoko Fund, named after the town in northeast Okinawa that is closest to Camp Schwab, was launched on April 9, by local politicians, businesspeople and residents. The aim of the fund is to financially support the prefectural government's opposition to relocating the functions of the Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station, in the heart of the town of Ginowan, to an enlarged base at Camp Schwab.

The group is taking its campaign to the US by publishing adverts in major newspapers and lobbying in Washington, but it received a major boost in May, when Miyazaki agreed to join as joint chairman.

Asked if his decision has prompted more criticism from conservative circles, Miyazaki smiles and shakes his head amiably.

"I have not received any negative reactions," he says. "But … people have come up to me and quietly whispered in my ear, 'Thank you.' Part of me wonders why they feel they have to whisper that thought.

"Before I made my decision, my wife never said anything about it to me but, after I put my hanko [personal seal] on the documents, she said she was very proud of me."

The US military realignment in Okinawa will turn the prefecture into "the front line of any conflict with China", says Miyazawa, while the changes to Japan's constitution made by the Abe government mean that the Henoko base will "be used by Japan's self-defence forces [SDF] in a time of war". And that, he believes, will make the base and the people living nearby a military target.

"I believe very strongly that the Futenma base should be closed and I believe just as strongly that the enlargement of the base at Henoko should not go ahead," he says. "When the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama promised that all of Japan would share the burden of the US bases; I believe that promise is still in effect."

There seem to be more challenges to peace in the region now than there have been in many decades but the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war is an opportunity for all sides to move towards conciliation, believes Miyazaki, and it is up to Japan to take the first step.

"I believe that the statement to be released by the government on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war should reflect the reality of Japan and China today," he says. "But that idea is very different to the concepts of Mr Abe, whose ideas are a reflection of his preoccupation with history. I hope very much that the declaration that will be made [in August] will include clear phrases that show Japan feels great regret for the suffering that was inflicted on the people of Asia and China, and that it was a war of aggression."

He has little faith that will actually happen, however, even though, last month, Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi Materials apologised for having forced American and Chinese prisoners of war into slave labour in the 1940s.

When asked about the government's decision to make changes to key legislation that will permit Japan's SDF to come to the assistance of an ally under attack, a situation known in Japan as "collective self-defence" and previously outlawed under the constitution, Miyazawa once again says, "I think that is a very unfortunate development."

BORN IN A SUBURB of Tokyo in January 1941, Miyazaki was the second of four brothers, whose father was director of a company that made aircraft parts, including the tail assembly of the feared Zero fighter. Miyazaki has pinned his life-long fascination with aviation, and the frequent use of flying in his films, on his early exposure to aircraft. It can be no coincidence that The Wind Rises is the fictionalised biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter.

Miyazaki's early love of books was stimulated by his mother's reading habits and an inquiring and open mind. For about eight years from 1947, the family was forced to move home frequently as his mother received treatment for tuberculosis. Again, the parallels emerge in his work; the mother in the family that is at the centre of his 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro suffers from the same illness.

Miyazaki says his interest in animation dates back to his school days, when he saw the film The Tale of the White Serpent, the first full-length, animated, colour film produced in Japan. He had already developed his sketching skills to render impressive images of warships and aircraft, but now turned his attention to perfecting pictures of the human form.

At Gakushuin University, from where he graduated in 1963 with degrees in political science and economics, he was a member of a literature club that was the closest thing at the time to a club for fans of anime, or manga.

In the same month that he graduated, Miyazaki started work at Toei Animation, as an artist on the oddly titled Watchdog Bow Wow animated series. The following year, while working on Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon, he felt that the ending to the story did not fit with the narrative and proposed an alternative version. His suggestion was adopted, his story-telling skills having been recognised for the first time.

Miyazaki's left-wing politics came to the fore in 1964, after he led a labour dispute with the studio and was elected head of the union. His political beliefs have rarely been far below the surface in his works, notably in 1992's Porco Rosso, which is set in Italy in the 1920s and pits an anti-fascist pilot who has been transformed into a pig against air pirates and an American mercenary.

After the success of Gulliver's Travels, Miyazaki's reputation grew as he designed scenery, storyboards and plot lines for other directors. In 1971, he moved to the A Pro studio and jointly directed six episodes of the Lupin III television series, which developed in 1979 into his first full-length feature film based on the Lupin franchise, The Castle of Cagliostro.

Five years later, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind became the first film that Miyazaki both wrote and directed, giving him complete mastery of the themes that to this day permeate his tales: pacifism; the impact of mankind on the environment; ambiguous characters, notably in his villains; and feminism.

Building on the box office success of Nausicaa, Miyazaki and long-time collaborator Isao Takahata set up the animation production company Studio Ghibli, in 1985. It has since become synonymous with some of the best-loved titles in animated movie history.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky tells of two orphans trying to find a magical castle-island that floats in the sky; My Neighbour Totoro is about two sisters meeting a variety of forest spirits; and Kiki's Delivery Service recounts the adventures of a girl who leaves her hometown to become a witch in a big city.

In all of his works, there are two stories within each tale. On the surface there is the story that appeals to children, of woodland sprites, witches and flying pigs, and then there is the story that is aimed squarely at the adults. That alternative story is more subtle and touches on politics or the themes of education, economics or the environment.

Miyazaki's work had already attracted international attention when, in 1997, he released Princess Mononoke, which again examined politics and ecology, and particularly the way in which humans negatively affect the natural world. The film won best picture at the Japanese Academy Awards - and Miyazaki announced the first of his several retirements.

It wasn't long before he returned, though, with the hugely popular Spirited Away, which was released in 2001 and immediately shattered box office records in Japan, taking US$300 million from 23 million viewers. The critics also liked it and Spirited Away won Miyazaki a second Japanese Academy Award, the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and the coveted Oscar for best animated feature.

Howl's Moving Castle premiered at the 2004 Venice International Film Festival and opened in November of the same year in Japan - taking a staggering 1.4 billion yen (HK$88 million) in its first two days.

His working relationships - including with his own family - have not always been smooth, however. A certain tension developed between Miyazaki and his son, Goro, over the 2006 film Tales from Earthsea, which was the latter's first animated movie.

Clearly uncomfortable about the project, Miyazaki admitted at the time, "It's a difficult problem. I do not favour him just because he is my son and I think he will face testing times in the future. That is all."

Miyazaki reportedly believed that his son did not have the experience to direct a feature-length film. He attended the premiere of the movie, however, and went a long way to healing the rift with Goro by describing it as having been made "honestly" and "good".

Hayao Miyazaki's subsequent film was Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which again fared well at the box office and at the hands of the critics, while it took a further five years for him to complete The Wind Rises.

And that, he insisted, was most certainly his last film project. Only it seems that it wasn't.

Miyazawa confirms that along with stepping into the political fray over the US bases in Okinawa, he has re-emerged from retirement and returned to his studio. His new project is a 10-minute animated film.

"I'm trying to make a story about a tiny, hairy caterpillar, so tiny that it could be easily squashed between your fingers," he says. "It's the story of a little caterpillar clinging to a leaf."

The project will also mark a new first for Miyazaki; it will be a fully computer-generated film. And that is something of a disappointment, he admits.

"We no longer use water colours and soon production of poster colours for backgrounds is going to halt," he says. "I cannot find good brushes any more and the quality of drawing paper has declined.

"It seems the world has fundamentally changed."

Miyazaki's philosophy on his homeland and its people, however, remains simple, he says.

"I believe we are a people who live on a small group of islands at the furthest reaches of the Earth and we should be able to live peacefully. We have the water that surrounds us and enough resources to lead that peaceful life.

"We should possess the wisdom to live in our corner of the world in peace."