Bittersweet Sympathies


“It’s a great struggle to make movies for children,” says Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, who has always strived to reconcile an essentially pessimistic worldview with a sense of responsibility to his young audience. That such a filmmaker has a distribution deal with Disney is only the latest wrinkle in a story that’s been unfolding for three decades.

With the release this week of Princess Mononoke—Japan’s all-time box-office champ until Titanic showed up—many Americans will discover a man who’s become a cultural icon in his native country. Three years ago, Disney struck a distribution deal with Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki cofounded in 1985; Disney tested the waters by releasing a dubbed version of 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service on video last year. Now its subsidiary Miramax is trying to figure out how to sell to American audiences Princess Mononoke (1997), an epic, wildly ambitious effort dealing with the kinds of issues not usually associated with animated kid flicks. Set in medieval times, the movie takes its time (a leisurely two hours and 15 minutes) in telling the story of a man-made ecological disaster and nature’s subsequent retaliation; the film alternates between the sound and fury of ferocious battles and long stretches of exquisite visual beauty.

In town to introduce Princess Mononoke at the New York Film Festival (a rare honor for an animated movie), the 58-year-old Miyazaki was a quiet, thoughtful presence, though he quickly revealed a deadpan humor. Though he began his career in the ’60s, Miyazaki is best known for his six theatrical features, starting with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984 and culminating with Princess Mononoke. A genuine auteur, he not only writes and directs his films but painstakingly draws and paints his storyboards as well as an enormous number of film cels. As far back as the roguish title character in 1979’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, his creations rank with those in beloved children’s classics by Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Roald Dahl, or Tove Jansson. They include a daredevil princess fighting for her people (Nausicaä), gentle robots protecting a flying island (1986’s Castle in the Sky), furry creatures that make plants grow (1988’s My Neighbor Totoro), a 13-year-old witch and her talking cat (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and a pig who flies a hydroplane (1992’s Porco Rosso).

Not content merely with character design, Miyazaki is also a director’s director, an expert at pacing who knows when to speed up the action and when to sit back and contemplate light refracting in a stream or foliage rustling in the wind. He can slowly pan across luscious scenery right before launching into madcap action scenes, staging battles worthy of Akira Kurosawa (the siege scenes in Mononoke recall those in Ran). And yet melancholia often lingers after the end of a Miyazaki movie, even a lighthearted fable such as Totoro. Bittersweet emotions are never far from the surface, and tragedies are rendered as lucidly as moments of happiness: “Because I make movies for children I do not think it wise or appropriate to teach them despair,” Miyazaki says. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to preach to them some hope I do not have myself or some optimism that is impossible.”

Miyazaki is a keen observer of transitional moments, and most of his movies feature children or adolescents. For him “childhood should be what it is for itself, and not some preparation surrendered to a future adulthood. If you can create brilliant memories when you’re a child then it’s wonderful, because I believe that all that lies ahead for children is a boring adulthood. All children are tragic because they’re born with infinite possibilities, and really the process of childhood is about cutting off many of those possibilities. So I aim all my films at these tragic children.” But Miyazaki transcends this foreboding view by acknowledging the power of the individual to rebel against established structures and through his belief that life is ultimately worth a good fight—preferably an airborne one (he’s a dedicated aviation buff). “I’m very dubious about the future of us as a species,” he says, “but I’m always optimistic about an individual person finding a way to live their life.”

Miyazaki, who used to head an animators’ union, has never bothered to hide his radical leanings. In Porco Rosso, the title character braves fascists in late-1920s Italy—at one point his longtime paramour sings “Le Temps des cerises,” an anthem written during the Paris Commune. “I love that song,” Miyazaki enthuses, adding, “Compared to the Bolsheviks, the Paris Commune approached power as an absolute and abstract entity—they thought that no one man should retain power for too long. In many ways they had the most idealistic vision of revolution.”

Miyazaki may have the soul of an idealistic revolutionary, but his movies avoid the pitfalls of romanticism. The quests his characters undertake often have unintended repercussions. In Castle in the Sky, the young orphan Pazu dreams of finding a mythical floating island, but his success almost leads to the island’s destruction. “Progress” is a mixed blessing: in Princess Mononoke, the transition from a medieval world to a modern one is symbolized by the manufacture of firearms and the mutilation of the ecosystem. The iron-willed Lady Eboshi destroys the forest and its inhabitants, but also gives freedom and dignity back to prostitutes and lepers. “I think of her as the most modern character because she has no interest in the salvation of her soul,” Miyazaki says. “I think that for many modern people who no longer believe in the power of redemption, she’s a very compelling character.”

Potent words for someone who has never hidden his distaste for organized religion. For Miyazaki, “Dogma inevitably will find corruption, and I’ve certainly never made religion a basis for my films. My own religion, if you can call it that, has no practice, no Bible, no saints, only a desire to keep certain places and my own self as pure and holy as possible. That kind of spirituality is very important to me. Obviously it’s an essential value that cannot help but manifest itself in my films.” More than in any of his movies since Nausicaä, an animist spirituality imbues Princess Mononoke, from the forest’s spirits to the Deer God who can lord over both life and death.

But animated gods and spirits are not the only way spirituality surfaces in Miyazaki’s movies. His characters grapple with issues social, political, and even metaphysical. In Princess Mononoke, young San identifies with the wolves who raised her rather than with her fellow humans, while in Porco Rosso, the title character is a pig who used to be a man. While Miyazaki acknowledges that “the urge to abandon being human is a part of our collective human heart,” he also points out that there are many ways to express one’s humanity: “Even Porco Rosso does not give it all up, and he’s actually much more humane than many human characters.” For Miyazaki, the challenge then is to instill in children—his preferred audience—a sense of self-worth and the value of community. He explains that “in Mononoke, I presented myself with an unsolvable problem, which is that we have too many humans on the face of the earth. The tremendous contradiction is that civilization, which was created to protect human life, is now bringing us to the brink of extinction and disaster. If a child is raised in a village of only 100, then they can see that they have a value of one one-hundredth of this village. But when you get to a figure of 100 million, what’s one one-hundredth million? How do these children find value for their own existence? I felt that I needed to speak to them, and address that concern as an adult.”

Miyazaki’s movies have staying power because they never shy away from the sadness, loss, and alienation—from oneself and others—endured throughout childhood. Growing up also means confronting the evil men do: “How easy it would have been to complete the story of Princess Mononoke if I could have made the steel workers evil and ill-intentioned. In terms of what we know about entertainment, there should have been a villain that the hero conquers at the end. But that kind of euphoria is only momentary, and it’s like a drug. The fact that without a happy ending I was able to achieve such a fantastic audience remains a constant surprise.”