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  AN ON-STAGE CONVERSATION WITH MIYAZAKI HAYAO
BY MICHAEL GUILLEN


As part of its 50-year anniversary, The Center for Japanese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley recently awarded internationally acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki with the 2009 Berkeley Japan Prize, which honors individuals from all disciplines and professions who have, over a lifetime, influenced the world's understanding of Japan. Hayao Miyazaki is the second recipient of the recently inaugurated Berkeley Japan Prize; the 2008 winner was novelist Haruki Murakami. In conjunction with his in-person acceptance of the award, Hayao Miyazaki was also honored with a series of events held on the UC Berkeley campus, celebrating his timeless body of film work.

One of those events was an onstage conversation in Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium between Hayao Miyazaki and Roland Kelts (Tokyo University lecturer and author of Japanamerica). My thanks to Peter van der Lugt for alerting me to the event and inviting me to transcribe the conversation for GhibliWorld.com. Further thanks to Duncan Williams, Chair of the Center for Japanese Studies, for arranging a last-minute pass to what had long been a sold-out event.

An on-stage conversation with Miyazaki Hayao

* * *

Still beaming from having received his award earlier in the afternoon, Hayao Miyazaki walked onto the Zellerbach Auditorium stage to a thunderous standing ovation. It's rare to see a filmmaker so beloved by such a diverse audience and it serves as a direct reminder of the universality of Miyazaki's vision.

Kelts started off the conversation by asking Miyazaki a question about an issue often discussed in the past. Many young people today in Japan and the United States live in virtual worlds. Their information, their entertainment, their communication, even their friendships on Facebook, are virtual. Miyazaki has previously stated there is a danger in living in a virtual world; one of the risks being that young people can lose their imaginations. As an artist of extraordinary imagination, Kelts wondered what Miyazaki felt the solution to this problem might be?

Conceding there are indeed many virtual aspects to today's world, Miyazaki recalled that his childhood-compared to 100 years before then-could also be thought to be virtual by comparison. "It's of no use to say, 'In my childhood it was like this, and now it's like this'," he opined. Even before the age of video games and television, when movies were perhaps the virtual experience, people still had problems, and before them older generations must have had problems as well. It's an essential point of civilization that it must deal with constant issues. Civilization progresses while encompassing these problematic areas of weakness. Of more recent concern to Miyazaki is that civilization might be approaching an end point and that we're coming to an end-of-the-world era. The theme of apocalypse, Kelts noted, runs through several of Miyazaki's films, if only as subtext. Miyazaki joked that it would be wonderful if he could see the end of civilization during his lifetime, but it doesn't seem like that's going to happen. Thus, he uses his imagination to envision the end of the world.

Ponyo's tsunami

Kelts wondered why in films like Nausicań and even in Ponyo there's a great tsunami that threatens to destroy the setting? Miyazaki responded that people tend to think they are separate from nature; but, he doesn't believe people are separate from nature. Nature is included within people. The nature that's inside Ponyo becomes the tsunami, which is the way she reaches the town where the boy Sosuke lives. The tsunami doesn't destroy the town or hurt the people there; it's more a magical tsunami that cleanses the town and the people who live there. Miyazaki finds hope in the power of nature.

Along with that idea of hope in nature, Kelts observed that-while there is an apocalyptic tendency in Miyazaki's films-there's also a theme of nostalgia, or a longing for lost worlds; worlds of-perhaps-natural purity and magic. Kelts wondered if-in Miyazaki's mind-apocalypticism and nostalgia might be connected? Miyazaki answered that-in the town where he lives-if there's a hard rain, the river rises and floods the area. It's at those times that the old people come out of their houses into the alleyways, extremely excited. The river rises to just below the knee so it doesn't really flood into people's houses. Eventually, however, it could probably flood into people's houses and-though that might be thought of as a disaster-it's at those times that people become nicest to each other and feel they have to save whoever is in trouble. The atmosphere of crisis makes them better people. Recently, Miyazaki and his wife rebuilt their house; but, they decided not to build it higher than their neighbors, opting to get flooded with those around them. He doesn't think it's a good idea to equate disaster with evil. After a flood, a lot of sediment is left in the forest and the plants and trees seem to benefit from it. So flood waters bring good things as well as bad. He doesn't equate natural disasters with calamity but rather as something to be lived through. Miyazaki admitted to having something of an evil side, however. When he goes to the top of one of the skyscrapers in Tokyo and looks at the city below, he thinks about how it would be better if the sea came a little closer and there were less buildings.

True evil-as it exists, if it exists-is difficult to pin down in Miyazaki's films; Ponyo being a perfect example. Ponyo's father-Fujimoto the sea god-reminds Kelts of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, in that he is more of a troubled man than an evil one. To have a film where there's an evil figure that the protagonist fights against to achieve a happy ending, Miyazaki responded, is one way to make a film. However, that means you have to draw the evil figure and that's never pleasant. That's why he has decided against evil figures in his films. Fujimoto, Ponyo's father, is based upon (and fits) the film's chief animator Katsuya Kond˘ who is likewise having a difficult time raising his small child. Kelts asked Miyazaki if he often uses staff members as inspiration for his characters and Miyazaki drolly answered "yes" (in English). Miyazaki described Noboru Yoshida-who handled the art direction for Ponyo, including several of the backgrounds-as an incredibly nice, good person who, at first, drew extremely perfect pictures. Miyazaki encouraged him to let his childishness come out; to let his drawings explode with childishness. Now Yoshida is having a hard time re-entering this reality.

Fujimoto and Kondo Katsuya

Describing Ponyo as colorful, Kelts claimed that-though there are brilliant colors in all of Miyazaki's work-Ponyo takes the color to another level, almost as if the colors of the film, the colors of the sea, have become a character. Miyazaki stated that Noboru Yoshida loves the colors red and green and always puts them somewhere in his drawings. The rest of the crew make a game of searching for where the red and green will appear. When Yoshida draws clouds, he always draws five clouds. His is a na´ve, childish way of drawing; but, Yoshida's drawings made Miyazaki happy. Miyazaki's encouragement that Yoshida become even more na´ve and childish in his drawing has inspired Yoshida to make even more wild drawings that convey vivid worlds. That kind of childish, na´ve vividness is Miyazaki's aim.

It occurred to Kelts while watching Ponyo that the main character Ponyo-though allegedly a gold fish-doesn't look like any gold fish you would find in a pet store or a pond. Likewise, in Miyazaki's films there is a creature called a Totoro that no one would find in an encyclopedia, or even Wikipedia. Miyazaki admitted that the character Ponyo actually started out as a red tin toy frog; but, he couldn't come up with a story with a frog so Ponyo became a fish. Or rather, if he had used a little red tin frog that hops, the story would have ended up being completely different. Had Ponyo been made by Disney or Pixar, Kelts suggested, the audience would be expected to know that Ponyo was a gold fish. She would be drawn to look like a gold fish. In many American animations, the characters are rooted in biological models: Mickey is a mouse; Bugs is a bunny; Donald is a duck. But Miyazaki's worlds are inhabited by fantastically imaginal creatures like Totoro and Ponyo. Miyazaki responded that-when he draws animals-he has to draw their eyes. In order to simplify the process, some animators draw eyes that people can understand and look into. But nature is beyond our understanding and goes beyond human psychology. When they were making My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki told the animators to make sure no one would know where Totoro was looking. Miyazaki explained that they had to make Totoro so that the audience wouldn't know if he was smart or really stupid. He might be thinking deep thoughts or thinking nothing.

An on-stage conversation with Miyazaki Hayao

Kelts then queried about one of the most violent scenes in a Miyazaki film: the scene in Spirited Away where Chihiro watches her parents gorge on food and transform into pigs. Miyazaki replied that his friend-the model for the scene-had actually accompanied him to the States this visit. One of the models for Chihiro was his friend's daughter, though she is now quite grown up. Of course the daughter loves her father who says that-if he can turn back into a human-okay. Kelts asked if Spirited Away was a comment on rapacious consumerism? The parents, in fact, use credit cards to buy their piles of food. Miyazaki viewed the situation as normal and asserted it was not meant to be satirical. He wanted to show that there were more valuable moments in life that children can have. Very soon after that scene, Kelts continued, Chihiro enters another world and Kelts asked if Miyazaki could speak to how these realms of fantasy appear in his work? When making a fantasy, Miyazaki answered, the simplest way to show it as a fantasy realm is to have the characters go through a tunnel or open up a door to another world. In Spirited Way, Miyazaki sought a better entrance point; but, then the scene got too long and Miyazaki realized it was better to start the story with her being thrust into the fantasy world. So he threw away the long scene and kept the tunnel entrance, even though he felt he was cheating a bit for taking the easy way out.

Kelts noted that Chihiro is one of many strong, independent, curious, ambitious young female protagonists in Miyazaki's films. Miyazaki offered that at Studio Ghibli they are now in the process of training new animators. In April earlier this year the studio hired 22 new animators and, of those, only four are men. Since there are so many strong women now, Miyazaki might have to start making films about men. In the world of films, the roles of boys and girls are different. In Ponyo, the boy Sosuke makes a promise too Ponyo that he will protect her. He faces many hardships and becomes heroic in the way he protects Ponyo; but, he's not much appreciated for his efforts. Miyazaki believes it is important to fulfill the promises you have made to others. Even though he's broken many promises within his own lifetime, making a promise and holding true to that promise is an important factor in life. In this case, the boy values that promise and makes that commitment. Kelts added that Sosuke's mother in Ponyo is also a strong, loyal woman. Miyazaki hoped that women who become mothers will be strong like the mother in his film.

Sosuke and his mother Risa

Fans of anime-in its broad term for Japanese animation-know that most anime films are adaptations of manga series or graphic novel series. Yet Miyazaki has abandoned that familiar approach of basing an animated feature film on a manga and has gone his own way, developing his own ideas as original feature films. Kelts asked why Miyazaki had made that decision not to adapt mangas? Miyazaki explained mangas can be enjoyed just by reading them as they are. Of course, if you animate a manga, you can add features to the manga; but, if you can avoid making money by manga animations, it's better. Manga and animated films have very different conceptions of time and space and-unless you are aware of that-the ultimate product will become boring and uninteresting. You have to know about expanding time, condensing time, compressing time. Space as well is very different in the two media. In animation, and especially in manga, that sense of the extension or condensation of time is a significant feature. In animation, time and space are invested into the drawing of the frames and animators are intent on noting that. That's the important difference to keep in mind.

U.S. animation films tend to be storyboarded by committee where storyboards tend to be done by a group of artists. Miyazaki, on the other hand, does his own storyboards. Kelts wondered if there was an advantage to having a single artistic vision dominate a storyboard? In Japan, Miyazaki ventured, it is normal to have a director draw his own storyboard. Occasionally there might be different people working on it; but, that's not the usual method. In fact, it's almost a condition to become a director to be able to draw a storyboard. If a person can't draw a storyboard, he'll be thought as being unnecessary to the production of a film, even if he is the director.

Miyazaki's water color storyboard for Ponyo

Kelts acknowledged all the thought Miyazaki applies to come up with the original ideas for his films. He wondered how Miyazaki knows when he has the first illustration that he can develop into an entire feature? What is it that tells him that he has something? Miyazaki qualified that it depended on the film-each is different for him-but, it's only when he has tried something and realized he can't continue on that path or push the idea any further that he abandons it and finds something else. He advises his staff that-even though it might be a loser's way of thinking-they have to struggle hard against what is seemingly useless and impossible until they find something. At Studio Ghibli, they want their characters to end up being happy; but, that can't happen in an unpersuasive way. They have to satisfy their own wishes and the audience's wishes so that they'll believe the characters have overcome something and achieved happiness. Whether it's by effort or by accident, they have to find the best ending. Or perhaps the best ending finds them in some mysterious way?

Kelts asked if that process had become any easier for Miyazaki over the decades? Miyazaki admitted that each time he makes a film, he feels that he can just barely get through it and he hopes people won't detect the weaknesses of that. After a film is made, he doesn't want to see it again. He tries to forget about it as soon as possible.

Kelts mentioned that with every Miyazaki film, especially recently, fans have been warned this may possibly be the last. Nor recently, Miyazaki protested. He told his wife when he was making his second film Nausicań: Valley of the Wind that he didn't want to go through that kind of pain again; but-since he says this every time for every film-he's become least persuasive at home. Thus, he's tried not to say this at home at least.

Regarding the up-and-coming animators being trained at Studio Ghibli, and having recently written about the animation industry in Japan, Kelts expressed his belief that one of the challenges the industry faces today is finding and keeping young talent. Miyazaki stated that it's actually been difficult to keep young animators satisfied since the beginning of animation. Nowadays they avoid the problem by sending out work to China and Korea; but, the problem hasn't been solved and neither have conditions improved. At Studio Ghibli, they're determined to keep the method of drawing with pencil. They promote the hypothesis, which has no basis at all, that they can actually keep going like this. At the very least they want to insure people's wages and a place to work so that this work can continue to be done within Japan.



Kelts asked Miyazaki to lay out for audiences accustomed to CGI animation what the value is of hand-drawn animation? Miyazaki responded that-since drawing by hand can be sheer drudgery-they considered the option that it might be easier to use computer graphics. They hired a young person to explore computer drawing; but, soon realized they could draw faster by hand than by computer. For Miyazaki, it's a matter of thinking that animators should be more casual about drawing animation. He thinks an animator is more free drawing by hand. When a character is feeling downtrodden, an animator can draw the character thin and small, and when a character is feeling full of confidence, they can draw his head bigger and show his feelings. It's difficult for computers to intuit human feelings.

Kelts wondered if hand-drawn animation was an aesthetic particularly or peculiarly Japanese? Rather than have many of his colleagues rush out and learn the computer, Miyazaki believed from the start that it was better for them to keep drawing by hand. At Studio Ghibli they've extended that belief to justify training young animators who want to draw by hand. That being said, Miyazaki couldn't confirm that this is a particular or peculiar Japanese aesthetic because he hasn't looked into or studied that. They make their animations for a Japanese audience who supports them and-when they take their films to other countries-it's definitely a bonus; but, Miyazaki wants to continue to eat his rice in Japan.

Kelts asked if there was danger in outsourcing animation duties to Korea and China and other parts of Asia. Wouldn't that mean that Japanese animators would be essentially training their future competition? No matter how equal you try to make it, Miyazaki responded, the side that is handing out the money is stronger and the side that receives the money feels inferior. It's difficult to have an equal relationship. Perhaps within the European Union, you would find that kind of cross-country collaboration working well; but, in East Asia, it's not viewed like that, so it's difficult.

Ponyo Exhibition at Ghibli Museum

Kelts asked Miyazaki's opinion on the Japanese government's recent endorsement of "soft power"? The Japanese government, Miyazaki cautioned wryly, will soon change. So much for soft power.

As for the most important piece of advice Miyazaki could give someone just starting to learn about animation, he answered that a young animator must sketch what they see with their own eyes and have someone who will strictly critique their sketches, without coddling them.

Miyazaki was asked his remedy for creative block and he answered that all he can really do is think and-when he thinks really hard-he can smell blood in his nose. By thinking really hard, something else might come to him, though Miyazaki asserted that this is something despite the thought process. In order for that to work, Miyazaki must be up against the wall and truly troubled. His own theory is that we do most of our thinking with the surface of our brain, but then there's the subconscious, and an even deeper darker place than that. What we really want to say can only be said when we go to our subconscious. If we get stuck there, we have to go deeper. That deep place is the most difficult to get to. That's when he smells the most blood. As for whether traveling to specific locations inspires him, Miyazaki admitted that nowadays just walking around his house suffices.

Asked if he believed that children 50 years from now will still relate to his films, Miyazaki expressed that it would be wonderful if he could make a film that a grandmother would recommend to her grandchild, "This is a wonderful movie. You should see it." Maybe he could do that. But he's not sure he can make films where the mother would make the same recommendation to her child.



Kelts quoted Miyazaki as having said that one of his goals in making his animated films is to give children the power of dreams. He wondered if that goal had evolved over the years? Miyazaki prefaced that-rather than saying they are "his" films, he preferred to describe them as "our" films. By "our", he's not thinking of people on his current staff, but the people he worked with when he started out in his 20s. It was in their discussions back then that they argued against making trashy films and asserted their desire to make better films. Many of them are no longer working in animation, having retired or whatever; but, it was the colleagues of his youth who decided upon creating films that would satisfy each of their specific roles.

With the concept of "true love" arising in a majority of Miyazaki's films, Miyazaki was asked if he could define it? If he believed in it? True love, he answered, is at the end of all our difficulties and problems. That's where it's found. When they finished making Ponyo, his staff joked that Sosuke was going to have difficulty being with Ponyo from now on; but he countered, "He'll be all right."

Asked what his hopes are for the future of anime film, Miyazaki asserted that those who want to make films, should be making films. He doesn't like to discuss or theorize about the future and believes focus needs to be on what we can do now.

Moebius and Miyazaki Hayao

Kelts recalled that Miyazaki exhibited with the French animation giant Moebius and has written essays on French-Canadian filmmaker FrÚdÚric Back. He wondered which artists have influenced Miyazaki? Miyazaki replied that he has been influenced by many people but can't exactly remember what he has taken from each of them. Since he is in the realm of making entertainment films, and even though he's tried to break out of the mold or restraints of the genre, Miyazaki established his difference from both Moebius and Back. Among contemporary filmmakers, those he considers his peers include Pixar's John Lassiter-even though they're doing totally different types of animation-as well as the claymation animators at Aardman, like Nick Park. He considers them his comrades-in-arms.

As for whether Miyazaki has any interest in making a live action film, he admitted that he would have to turn the Japanese landscape back 50 years to be interested, which is difficult to do to make a live action film. Kelts asked if that was due to the Japanese landscape having become corrupted? Miyazaki mused that the roads, the railroads, the factories, the inlets, the clouds, everything was different and would require a lot of computer technology to change it, which seems ultimately too difficult. Even people's faces are different now. Kelts asked if that why so many of Miyazaki's settings seem to be colored by-if not directly based upon-European scenes? Miyazaki emphasized that he creates animation so-when he sets his films in Japan and uses Japanese settings-he changes them from reality.

As for what fans can next expect or pray for from Miyazaki, he answered that people often say he is active and energetic for his age; but, he often feels tired. Whatever he might make in the future can't be decided just by himself or by his own will. He hopes to keep drawing and to flop down dead in the middle of drawing, even though that's not a cool way to go.

ABOUT MICHAEL GUILLEN: Based in San Francisco, Michael GuillÚn is a film critic for Twitch. Next to bringing countless insightful reviews, he brings highly interesting interviews with with directors like Darren Aronofsky, Park Chan-Wook, Ang Lee, Kyoshi Kurosawa and Steven Soderbergh. Next to these being published at Twitch, cross-publishing also takes place at Michael GuillÚn's personal film blog The Evening Class which gains attention from around world, for example at Focus Features' website Film in Focus.