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Japanese Animation Poised for Breakout in U.S.

October 31, 1999


TORONTO -- "You should feel honored," declares a publicist. "You are the first American journalist to interview Mr. Miyazaki."

This, it happens, is not the literal truth. Hayao Miyazaki, who might be the most revered animator in the world, has spoken to many U.S. journalists, just not on North American soil. Miyazaki's appearances at the Toronto International Film Festival, and subsequently the New York Film Festival, to promote his amazing "Princess Mononoke" mark the first time the anime pioneer has been in North America in almost 20 years. His first visit -- to Los Angeles -- came on the heels of the success of 1979's "The Castle of Cagliostoro," his first film as a director, when he was being wooed to work in the United States.

"Fortunately," says Miyazaki, through his translator, "I escaped."

This quip, along with everything else the silver-haired, 58-year-old Miyazaki does in public, is captured by the documentary crew that has been following him for a year to make a film about his life and work. It is generally considered that "Princess Mononoke," which opens in metro Detroit on Friday, is the pinnacle of both.

An animated epic pitting man against nature that's set in a fantastic feudal Japan that exists only in Miyazaki's fertile imagination, "Princess Mononoke" became the biggest hit in Japanese history when it was released there in 1997. Its $160-million gross has since been surpassed by "Titanic."

The US release

The film's U.S. distributor, Miramax, is convinced "Mononoke" can be the film that breaks anime -- the name applied to the serious strain of Japanese animation that draws heavily on Asian mythology and philosophy -- out of the cult status it has enjoyed in the United States for 25 years and into the mainstream.

To that end, Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein sought Miyazaki's approval to commission a new English-language script, then hired stars like Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and Minnie Driver to re-voice the characters. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the self-contained animation studio that is home to Miyazaki and other anime masters, demanded approval of the script and the casting. Miyazaki and producer Isao Takahata were so distressed over the alterations made to the Miyazaki adventure "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds," released in the United States in 1986 as "Warriors of the Wind," that they refused all requests to release their films in the West for a decade.

Yet when Miyazaki settles in for the interview after accepting a ceremonial gift of a silver Tiffany ashtray from an absent Weinstein, the director says it is inevitable that his movie, hailed in Japan as a masterwork, will be changed by translation.

"Shakespeare, unfortunately, is not the same in Japanese as it is in English," says Miyazaki, who wastes no time inaugurating his new ashtray. "Not, of course, that I would ever equate myself with Shakespeare. But there are cultural changes that are inevitable, no matter how scrupulous one tries to be."

What was more important to him, he says, was that the film not be edited.

"Making any cuts in this film was unacceptable," says Miyazaki. "This I could not approve."

That proved problematic for Disney Studios, which has a worldwide distribution deal with the Japanese production company that releases Miyazaki's movies. For one thing, "Princess Mononoke" runs 2 hours and 13 minutes, almost an hour longer than many U.S. animated films. For another, the film has several violent scenes in which extremities are severed and blood is plentiful. So Disney has given the job of promoting Miyazaki and anime to Miramax, its independently operated subsidiary.

Magic and whimsy

"God bless the person who can tell their stories in 90 minutes," says Miyazaki. "But I could not, epecially in this story, which is very complex. The violence, this was something new to me, because my movies do not usually have this. This particular story required it, however. And I believe it belongs in it. So I insist it remains. In your country, it is thought that all animation must be acceptable for very young children. That is not the case in Japan. There, animated movies are not always for children."

It is, in fact, a popular misconception in the West that all anime is violent and sexual. This is due in part to the cult that has grown around anime, which tends to be made up of the same teenage and young adult males who are drawn to fantasy and science fiction. But even though Miyazaki's interest in cartooning and animation was spurred by the post-World War II explosion of manga, the Japanese comic books read by adults, his films have always tended more toward the whimsical.

Prior to "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki's most acclaimed work was "My Neighbor Totoro," in which two little girls are invited into the wondrous world of creatures called Totoros, who soar above the natural world on spinning tops.

"I was very in love with (Hans Christian) Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid' when I was a child," says Miyazaki, whose father ran a company that manufactured airplane parts for the Japanese army's Zero fighters. He says his earliest attempts at drawing comics were almost always devoted to stories of girls, and, according to anime expert Helen McCarthy's new illustrated biography "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation" (Stone Bridge Press, $18.95), he fell in love with the heroine of the first color animated movie produced in Japan, "Legend of the White Serpent."

Getting a start

Miyazaki majored in economics at prestigious Gakushuin university, but says he didn't really study because he had no interest. Still, he expected to become part of Japan's economic revival, mostly, he says, "because I had no confidence in myself as an animator. To be truthful, I still have no confidence. I still believe everything I do is terrible. I always have to be convinced otherwise."

This opinion obviously was not held by the studio that hired him after he graduated from the university, where he rose from in-betweener -- the person assigned to fill in the hundreds of animation cells between the first and final frames of any action movement -- to key animator on a popular television series. He also wrote and drew mangas, and that first film, "The Castle of Cagliostoro," featured characters from the popular manga "Lupin III." But the stylized look and the literary allusions in the film were Miyazaki's. During the next decade, he found himself at the forefront of an animation revolution.

"At that time, American animation had gone into a long decline," says Miyazaki. "And myself and the people I worked with were naturally contrasted with that, and since we believed there was still a place for beautiful artistry and compelling stories, we were given a lot of attention.

"Not all of it was deserved because not all of what we did was so good. I would change something in every film I have ever made if I were allowed to. But what we did was very different. For example, we didn't feel that every movie had to have talking animals. I have had movies with talking animals, but I don't want to have to do this, which was a restriction on the Americans, I think. I was free of these rules."

Th worldwide success of "My Neighbor Totoro" and the subsequent "Kiki's Delivery Service" (both released in the United States on video) gave Miyazaki the confidence to mount "Princess Mononoke," which he says was inspired by a desire to correct the impression that ancient Japan was all samurai and warlords and to "restore the farmers to the prominence they deserve in the country's history and folklore." He also wanted to tackle a mature love story, to attack nationalistic "righteousness" and to address the primal power of nature. It was an ambitious order for a genre some still dismiss as cartoons.

The meticulous Miyazaki pronounces himself satisfied with the finished product, his first to employ computer-generated animation. He says if he had his way, he would have had every frame drawn by hand, but "we would have been working on the movie for another 10 years."

"Walking into the studio and seeing these people using the computers puts me in a foul mood," he confesses. "It is disagreeable to me. So we must now learn how to make the computer our electronic pen, to make it work for us as opposed to instead of us. There must always be some human in the machine because the computer is the champion of the weak. It can assume a God-like role if we let it, so I have to make it my adversary, to use it against its nature."

Miyazaki is curious to see how the West responds to "Princess Mononoke," but says its failure or success will not affect his desire to "tell truths in an emotional, involving way."

"It is not my job to make people think differently about animated movies," he says. "My work is in making us aware of our subconscious worlds. It is always there. I'm just drawing it."

TERRY LAWSON can be reached at 313-223-4524 or

Re-printed with the kind permission of Terry Lawson and The Detroit Free Press.

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