Hayao Miyazaki Talks “Ponyo”

When it comes to legends, they don’t come close to the genius of Hayao Miyazaki, whose latest film, “Ponyo”, opens shortly in its Americanized Disney version, but was previewed at last month’s Comic Con. His latest, and possibly his last film, centers on a 5-year-old boy and his relationship with a goldfish princess who longs to become human.

At 68, the esteemed director who influenced the likes of Pixar’s John Lasseter, says that the main difference between Ponyo and his previous work, “is that I have aged,” he says smilingly in a room at San Diego’s Convention Centre. “And this is a film as a result of my aging, that I made.” Asked if this was his most personal film, Miyazaki is thoughtful. “Ponyo just touches the entry point of my personal qualities and you’d have to go much deeper in order to get more personal.”

There is no doubt that Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s greatest animation directors. The entertaining plots, compelling characters, and breathtaking animation in his films have earned him international renown from critics as well as public recognition within Japan. The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to introduce the films to the rest of the world will let more people appreciate the high-quality works he has given the movie-going public.

Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo on January 5, 1941. He started his career in 1963 as an animator at the studio Toei Douga studio, and was subsequently involved in many early classics of Japanese animation. From the beginning, he commanded attention with his incredible drawing ability and the seemingly endless stream of movie ideas he proposed.

In 1971, he moved to the A Pro studio with Isao Takahata, then to Nippon Animation in 1973, where he was heavily involved in the World Masterpiece Theater TV animation series for the next five years. In 1978, he directed his first TV series “Future Boy Conan” (Mirai shonen Konan) then moved to Tokyo Movie Shinsha in 1979 to direct his first movie, the classic “The Castle of Cagliostro” (Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro).

In 1984, he released “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (Kaze no tani no Naushika), based on the manga (comic) of the same title he had started two years before. The success of the film led to the establishment of a new animation studio, Studio Ghibli at which Miyazaki has since directed, written, and produced many other films with Takahata and, more recently, Toshio Suzuki.

All of these films enjoyed critical and box office successes. In particular 1997’s “Princess Mononoke” received the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Film and was the highest-grossing (about USD$150 million) domestic film in Japan’s history at the time of its release.

In addition to animation, Miyazaki also draws manga. His major work was the Nausicaa manga, an epic tale he worked on intermittently from 1982 to 1984 while he was busy making animated films. Another manga, Hikoutei Jidai, was later evolved into his 1992 film “Porco Rosso”.

Miyazaki’s other films include 2001 Oscar winner “Spirited Away”, 1988’s “My Neighbor Totoro”, 1986’s “Castle in the Sky”, 1989’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and 2004’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones. At the time of that film’s release, he indicated it would be his last film, but here we are six years later discussing “Ponyo”, one of his most narratively straightforward films. Most of his recent work was released in the US with American actors dubbing the Japanese original.

In Toronto, prior to the premiere of Spirited Away, he was critical of Disney’s interpretation of his work, but backs away from any such criticism today. “I don’t think I criticized the English version before, because I think they’ve always done a good job.” Though he concedes “Spirited Away” was tougher to Americanize because of its complex themes and structure. “I think that Spirited Away was a very difficult film to understand, but I think they did the best they could, and they did a good job of it, so I don’t really feel critical of what’s been done in the English language versions.”

Asked about his future plans, all that Miyazaki said that hinted of semi-retirement was “I’m not making any feature-length films right now. I’m supporting our young staff, and I’m also training, teaching young animators right now.” One can only hope he changes his mind.