No artist has explored the contradictions of humanity as sympathetically and critically as the Japanese animation legend. Now, at 80, he’s coming out of retirement with another movie.
THE SCREEN IS black, and then comes the first frame: Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animated filmmaker since the advent of the form in the early 20th century and one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, is seated in front of a cast-iron stove with a pipe running up toward the ceiling, flanked by windows propped half open. Sun burns through the branches of the trees outside. Three little apples perch on a red brick ledge behind the stove. He wears an off-white apron whose narrow strap hooks around the neck and attaches with a single button on the left side — the same style of apron he has worn for years as a work and public uniform, a reminder that he is at once artist and artisan, ever on guard against daubs of paint — over a crisp white collared shirt, his white mustache and beard neat and trim, and his white hair blurring into a near halo as he gazes calmly at me through owlish black glasses, across the 6,700 miles from Tokyo to New York.
I have one hour to ask questions. It is a rare gift, as Miyazaki has long preferred not to speak to the press except when absolutely necessary (which is to say, when he’s prodded into promoting a film), and has not granted an interview to an English-language outlet since 2014. Our conversation has been brokered by the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which mounted the first North American retrospective of his work in September, with Studio Ghibli’s cautious assent; Jessica Niebel, an exhibitions curator, cites him as an exemplar of an auteur who “has managed to stay true to himself” while making movies that are “approachable to people everywhere.” I know I am lucky to have this time, and yet it feels wrong to meet Miyazaki this way, at a distance (due to Covid-19 travel restrictions) and through a computer, a machine he has so famously shunned.
For, in an age of ever-advancing technology, his animated films are radical in their repudiation of it. From “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), with its vision of gentle friendship between two children and an enormous growling forest creature whom only they can see, to the ecological epic “Princess Mononoke” (1997), whose title character, a human raised by wolves, first appears sucking blood out of a wound in her wolf mother’s side (the hero, an exiled prince, takes one look at her blood-smeared face and falls in love), to the phantasmagorical fable “Spirited Away” (2001), in which a timid girl must learn pluck and save her foolish parents (who’ve been transformed into pigs) by working at a bathhouse that caters to a raucous array of gods, Miyazaki renders the wildest reaches of imagination and the maddest swirls of motion — the stormy waves that turn into eel-like pursuers in “Ponyo” (2008), the houses rippling and bucking with the force of an earthquake in “The Wind Rises” (2013) — almost entirely by hand. And unlike Walt Disney, the only figure of comparable stature in animation, Miyazaki, who is now 80, has never retreated to the role of a corporate impresario, dictating from on high: At Studio Ghibli, the animation company he founded with the filmmaker Isao Takahata and the producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985, he’s always worked in the trenches, as part of a team of around a hundred employees devoted just to production, including key animators and background, cleanup and in-between artists, whose desks he used to make the rounds of daily for decades. (His own desk is hardly bigger than theirs.) He still draws the majority of the frames in each film, numbering in the tens of thousands, himself. Only occasionally has he resorted to computer-generated imagery, and in some films not at all.
“I believe that the tool of an animator is the pencil,” he tells me. (We speak through an interpreter, Yuriko Banno.) Japanese pencils are particularly good, he notes: The graphite is delicate and responsive — in the 2013 documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” directed by Mami Sunada, he mocks himself for having to rely on a soft 5B or even softer 6B as he gets older — and encased in sugi (Japanese cedar), although, he muses, “I don’t see that many quality wood trees left in Japan anymore.” He adds, “That’s a true story,” then laughs, leaning in to the screen, and I think of the ancient, moss-cloaked trees in “Princess Mononoke,” cut down to fuel Lady Eboshi’s ironworks, and of their counterparts in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine on the island of Yakushima in the south, which Miyazaki visited while location scouting for the film. The oldest cedar there, 83 feet tall and nearly 54 feet in circumference, is believed to be more than 2,600 years old, making it one of the oldest trees on earth. (The forest of the film does not exactly correspond to the ravine, Miyazaki has said: “Rather, it is a depiction of the forest that has existed within the hearts of Japanese from ancient times.”)
Miyazaki lives with his wife, Akemi, a former fellow animator — they met as colleagues at Toei Animation nearly 60 years ago on the movie “Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon,” and married in 1965; she stopped working to raise their two sons, at his request, and, he has said in the past, “hasn’t forgiven” him — in Tokorozawa, northwest of Tokyo, where the Totoro Fund (supported in part by donations from the Miyazakis) has purchased more than 10 wooded hectares, dense with oak and camphor trees, for conservation. But today he is speaking to me from the Tokyo suburb of Koganei, from a small building a short walk away from the headquarters of Studio Ghibli that he uses as a private atelier. He sometimes affectionately calls it Buta-ya, Japanese for “pig house.” (He is fond of pigs, and often sketches himself as one.) Out front he parks his cloud-gray Citroën 2CV, with a tiny nine-horsepower engine and a rollback roof that leaks when it rains (the model was discontinued in 1990); a wine-colored version of it appears in the careening cliffside chase scene in his directorial debut, “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979). Every December, he puts cuddly stuffed goats, mementos of his work on the “Heidi: A Girl of the Alps” TV series in the ’70s, in the kitchen window to greet passing children. When the Academy Museum requested a goat to display in its exhibition, he demurred: The children would miss them.
Buta-ya was meant to be a retirement office, where Miyazaki could pursue personal projects. He built it in 1998, after announcing that he would make no more feature films, then returned to Studio Ghibli the next year with the story idea that would become “Spirited Away,” the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history until last fall’s “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” (an extension of a popular manga franchise and part of a different strain of Japanese anime, focused on action and vengeance, with a video-game-like feel). “Spirited Away” won the 2002 Academy Award for best animated feature, the only film from outside the West to ever do so. In 2013, he said again that he was done with film, and that time, having directed 11 features in 34 years, he was taken seriously: Studio Ghibli shut down its production department.
Yet here he is now, making a new film. “Because I wanted to,” he says, and grins, like a grizzled thief come back for one last heist.
GORGEOUS, PROFOUND, BORDERLESS in possibility — yes, yes, but above all, Miyazaki’s films are thrilling. He is a master of suspense, whether sending a fugitive girl skittering down a rickety pipe that pops off the wall as she runs (“Spirited Away”), or swooping after a novice witch reeling on a broomstick because she’s forgotten how to fly and must quickly relearn so she can rescue her friend, a boy who’s dangling from a dirigible and about to crash into a clock tower (the 1989 “Kiki’s Delivery Service”). His visual style is at once commanding and intimate, a mix of fluid, loose lines and an accumulation of detail — in contrast to more mainstream anime’s labor-saving preference for caricature and clipped movement — that enables him to invoke the immediacy of life without being beholden to its precise contours. He deploys a palette of saturated colors, bright but never gaudy, standing out against cool grays and dun tones, and pays attention to quicksilver adjustments of light and shade, especially the shadows within shadows that give featheriness and depth to the night. He is equally expressive in close-up and panorama, and virtuosic in his open skies, creating clouds that are almost characters unto themselves, whether high-heaped loomers, broad swaths of rubble or voluptuous whorls like the heavy heads of flowers, stained by sunset or the deepening blues of day. (The Academy Museum’s retrospective includes a green-carpeted knoll where visitors may rest and gaze up at a video of passing clouds.)
And how easily Miyazaki slips from one register to the next, from hushed to clamorous, often in the same scene, as in the exquisitely timed comedy of towering Totoro, with his giant claws, standing beside two little girls at a bus stop in the dark. It’s raining; one girl offers him an umbrella, an instrument he has never encountered before. A toad stares at him from across the road, as if equally perplexed. We squint up at the trees to see a few particularly fat raindrops falling from a branch. They plonk down on the umbrella, loud, and Totoro startles. More drops come, a scattering of drumbeats, and his eyes widen. He heaves his body up in the air and lands with a boom, and all the drops caught in the trees come crashing down, his own personal storm. And then — because of course there’s more — the bus arrives, only it’s a scampering cat with headlight eyes and a door that opens in its side to whisk Totoro away.
But Miyazaki is a realist, too. Toward the end of his 2004 film, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which is mostly devoted to magic — a girl is transformed by a witch into an elderly woman, a wizard shape-shifts into a dark man-bird, a castle uproots itself and clanks around on clawed feet — a great-bellied airship looms into view and starts dropping bombs on a cobblestone town. Black clouds and flames surge over houses; the sky hangs red. No war takes place in the source material, a 1986 novel by the British writer Diana Wynne Jones. This is Miyazaki’s memory.
He was born in 1941, the same year that Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was 4 years old when American planes attacked the city of Utsunomiya, where his family had been evacuated from Tokyo. He recounts in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” how he saw a glow at the window and hid under a bridge, his legs in a ditch. With the incendiaries still falling, his father carried him up the riverbank and to a small truck so they could escape. As Miyazaki and his father settled into the vehicle’s bed, a woman with a child asked if they could come, too, but they were left behind. “We left them behind,” Miyazaki says. A month later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. More humiliations followed: the emperor’s renunciation of divinity, the dismantlement of the country’s armed forces and a formal abjuring of war, enshrined in the Constitution.
Although Miyazaki was too young to comprehend the magnitude of what was taking place, that time remains a cornerstone of his work, as it was and has been for many Japanese artists who came of age during the war or in its aftermath. The late antiwar painter Tatsuo Ikeda, who was born in 1928 and conscripted as a teenager to become a kamikaze pilot — the country’s defeat saved him — started out making portraits for American soldiers from snapshots of their girlfriends or wives, and went on to create eerie black-and-white tableaus that bristle with malformed animals and punishing machines. Haruki Murakami, born in 1949 in Kyoto, the former seat of the imperial court, writes novels of deadpan humor that surreally interrogate the legacy and persistence of Japanese nationalism.
And perhaps the most harrowing Japanese war film ever made is Studio Ghibli’s 1988 “Grave of the Fireflies,” adapted by Takahata from a 1967 short story by Akiyuki Nosaka about two children left homeless in the wake of an air raid. It bears the freight of Takahata’s own memories of fleeing a firebombing as a 9-year-old — he was born in 1935 — as his feet were burned by melting asphalt, and wandering without food for two days. “No one gave him anything, not even potato vines,” Miyazaki recalls in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.” (Astonishingly, in its first release, “Grave of the Fireflies” was paired with “My Neighbor Totoro” as a double bill: anguish and solace.)
Arguably, the rise of Japanese animation itself, in both its monster/superhero and more lyrical veins, was a direct response to the shock of defeat and anxiety over atomic fallout and the threat of genetic mutations. The monster Godzilla first appeared in a live-action 1954 film as a dinosaur, roused from the bottom of the ocean by an American hydrogen bomb test, who spews radiation over Tokyo in a visceral re-enactment of an air raid. (Miyazaki tells me that he remembers watching the movie and being reminded of American warplanes “dropping bombs from high above, out of reach.”) If Godzilla was fear and rage incarnate, Astro Boy — known in Japanese as the Mighty Atom, and introduced by the animation pioneer Osamu Tezuka in a 1951 manga, followed by an animated TV series starting in 1963 — sublimated anxiety into heroism: A boy robot whose body is powered by nuclear energy gets abandoned by his maker (giving him kinship with the war’s many orphans), but learns to use his abilities to fight for peace.
Miyazaki’s movies, with their warplanes and intrusions of Western décor and dress, keep circling back to the traumatic moment when Japan, which until the mid-19th century had kept itself closed off to the outside world, was forced to embrace the West and Western values. The devastated population complied in confused haste, as if to erase the shame of recent history and their own complicity in a war waged by a nationalist government out of a belief in Japan’s cultural superiority. (Some saw this as a capitulation to the West and a fatal loss of dignity; in 1970, the writer Yukio Mishima died by ritual suicide in protest, after shouting, “Long live the emperor!”) Niebel, of the Academy Museum, suggests that Japanese audiences are drawn to Miyazaki’s work because it’s essentially nostalgic. There’s a yearning, faintly mournful, for an older Japan, one free of both imperialistic hubris and Western materialism.
But part of his films’ greatness is that they can also be loved by viewers who never sense the dark current below. In “Porco Rosso” (1992), the hero may be an embittered war veteran, but he’s also, literally and delightfully, a pig flying a plane, and is spectacularly good at it.
MIYAZAKI’S FATHER WAS not a bystander in the war. He ran a munitions factory that produced wings for the military’s fearsomely acrobatic Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes, which in the last months of the war were converted for kamikaze missions. In a 1995 newspaper essay in The Asahi Shimbun, Miyazaki describes his father as something of a grifter, bribing officials to accept defective parts. After Japan’s surrender, when there were no more planes to furnish, his father used leftover duralumin, an aluminum alloy that had helped keep the Zero lightweight and dangerous, to make flimsy spoons, which he pawned off on impoverished customers desperate for household goods. Later, he briefly turned the factory into a dance hall, before bringing the family — Miyazaki is the second of four sons — back to Tokyo.
Although Miyazaki never set foot in his father’s factory, which was off limits as a military site, he was entranced by airplanes and the liberation of flight from an early age. (Ghibli is both the hot, dusty wind that sweeps through the Libyan Desert and the name of an airplane, the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli, a World War II Italian reconnaissance bomber.) This obsession has manifested in almost every film, in humans who turn into flying creatures or simply walk on air; in fanciful machines like the flaptors in “Castle in the Sky” (1986), propelled by four translucent wings; and in reproductions of real-world aircraft, as in “Porco Rosso,” in which the hero’s wrecked seaplane, inspired by the 1920s-era Italian racer Macchi M.33, is rebuilt by an all-female crew to ready it for a climactic dogfight, and in “The Wind Rises,” which tells the (not entirely) true story of the designer of the Zero, Jiro Horikoshi, who in the film as in life opposed the war and whom Miyazaki portrays as reluctant to see the beautiful machines he’s created deployed as emissaries of death — a stand-in for Miyazaki’s father, or the man he might have been.
As Miyazaki grew older, he found fault with his father both for profiting off the war and for never expressing any shame or guilt. (He shares this troubled inheritance with the writers W.G. Sebald, born in 1944 in the Bavarian Alps, who had to grapple with his father’s past as a soldier in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and the Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, born in the suburbs of Paris in 1945 not long after V-E Day, whose own father kept company with collaborators and profiteers.) And yet, Miyazaki wrote in 1995, “I am like him” — a man of contradictions: a filmmaker who condemns the proliferation of images even as he contributes to it; an artist who has devoted his career to children but was rarely home to take care of his own; an environmentalist who can’t bear to give up his cigarettes or wheezing car; a professed Luddite who revels in the mechanics of modern vehicles but tries “not to draw them in a fashion that further feeds an infatuation with power,” as he has written; a pacifist who loves warplanes; a brooder with a dark view of how civilization has squandered the gifts of the planet, who nevertheless makes films that affirm the urgency of human life.
This embrace of contradictions may be why Miyazaki’s movies, although beloved in the West (if not as wildly successful as in Japan, where his last five films combined took in close to 100 billion yen in their first release, or around $873 million), in some ways thwart the Western mind. Absent are the dominating themes of monotheism — a fall from an original state of grace, followed by redemption — and a clear dichotomy of good and evil. “I’m not a god who decides on what is good and bad,” Miyazaki tells me. “We as humans make mistakes.” In his world, there are few outright villains or even truly bad characters, only characters who do bad things. Lady Eboshi wreaks havoc on the forest in “Princess Mononoke” but also gives sanctuary to brothel workers and those afflicted with leprosy. No-Face, the gliding black shroud who eats people in “Spirited Away,” turns out to be simply lonely and, when soothed, spits out his victims. Even the mutant stampeding army of trilobite-like behemoths from the toxic jungle in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984), who kill the heroine by flinging her into the air and trampling her underfoot, end up restoring her to life with the touch of their golden antennae.
So Disney was never an influence. (Miyazaki has gone so far as to say, in a 1988 lecture, that he hated Disney’s movies and their easy sentimentality: “To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.”) Instead, Miyazaki looked to works like the French animator Paul Grimault’s “The King and the Mockingbird” (released in different forms in 1952 and 1980), in which a chimney sweep and a shepherdess flee from a vain and despised tyrant king through a cavernous 296-story castle while a coterie of animals mounts a revolution, and the Armenian animator Lev Atamanov’s “The Snow Queen” (1957), whose heroine self-effacingly sacrifices her shoes to a river to beg for help in finding her lost friend, and whose gleefully amoral, knife-wielding Robber Girl — who captures the heroine and steals her bonnet and muff, then is horrified and furious to find herself moved to tears by her victim’s tale of woe — is a forerunner to the wolf girl of “Princess Mononoke.”
Curiously, considering the limitations on women’s professional progress in Japan (which makes the country an outlier among developed nations), Miyazaki’s heroines outnumber his heroes. Within the world of anime, these characters are called shojo, girls of an in-between age, no longer quite children and not yet women; but where shojo were typically passive figures subject to romance narratives, Miyazaki’s girls display formidable know-how and independence. They take on jobs, organize households, fight battles and rescue boys from near death — all matter-of-factly, without ever trumpeting notions of girl power. Although some are princesses, they resist the trappings of fairy tales: Princess Mononoke doesn’t live in a palace. Chihiro, in “Spirited Away,” is awkward and lacks the big eyes that traditionally signify beauty and vulnerability in anime, while Sophie, the mousy milliner in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” spends most of the movie in the guise of a stooped old woman. Even when the spell is broken and her youth returns, her hair remains gray. It’s a reminder that something has been forever lost; that, even with the most powerful magic, there can be no reset, no starting over.
American animated films of today, by contrast, still tend to culminate in a happily ever after, or at least a vanquishing of foes. (“We have a desire for closure,” Niebel says.) Miyazaki offers something more nebulous and even unsettling. The resurrection in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” is a stark exception, for elsewhere in his oeuvre, death is not defeated, only at best delayed. Prince Ashitaka in “Princess Mononoke,” whose body has been progressively consumed by the dark stain of a curse, is never completely cured; a shadow remains on his arm, and he is separated from the girl he loves by a sense of duty — he to the humans of Iron Town, she to the wolves of the forest — although they promise to visit each other. Cruelty, too, is not so much punished as neutralized, as when the youthful-appearing Witch of the Waste in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is reinstated to her true age and revealed to be a doddering old lady, whom Sophie spoon-feeds without complaint, despite still suffering from the witch’s curse. Recovery may be possible, but not full restitution.
In a 1991 directorial memo for “Porco Rosso,” a farce that includes a preening American pilot eyeing a career as a Hollywood star and a snarling gang of sky pirates who prove helpless when confronted with a gaggle of schoolgirls, Miyazaki cautions, “We must treat every character respectfully. We must love their foolishness. … One common mistake — the belief that to draw a cartoon is to draw someone sillier than oneself — must be avoided at all costs.” At the heart of the film is a hard-bitten bounty hunter who takes on the guise of a pig out of a sense of guilt at having survived World War I while his fellow pilots died. (Miyazaki describes the film to me as “a boy’s dream.”) The woman he loves but doesn’t believe he deserves laments this “curse,” but only he can free himself from it, by no longer condemning that part of himself.
“In the town that I live in, I have precious friends, but I also have people I detest,” Miyazaki tells me. “That is what human society is all about.” Even his friends are flawed, and not just them. He says, “It’s a mirror of who I am.”
IT IS TEMPTING to read Miyazaki’s protestations as simple humility, and to cast him, against his will, as a sort of secular saint. In many ways he fits the part: the benevolent neighborhood uncle who brings joy to children through his work, picks up trash from the river on his days off and, over the past two and a half decades, has made quiet pilgrimages to a sanitarium near his home for patients with leprosy who, for much of the 20th century, faced segregation by law in such facilities. One patient became a friend, and Miyazaki held his hand when he was dying.
But Takahata, Miyazaki’s mentor at Toei Animation in the ’60s and ’70s and, eventually, his greatest rival, dismisses this hagiography in the afterword to “Starting Point” (1996), a collection of Miyazaki’s early interviews, lectures and essays, writing, “Hayao Miyazaki is a man who struggles. … He weeps, is playful, loves people, expects too much of their talents, howls at his broken dreams, becomes enraged.” The brilliant and notoriously perfectionist Takahata, who once took eight years to finish a film, died in 2018, but he still casts a shadow; Miyazaki spent 15 years working with Takahata before becoming a director himself, and even though his movies at Studio Ghibli consistently outperformed Takahata’s at the box office, he still craved his mentor’s approval. (Suzuki, in a 2014 memoir, insists that Takahata is the only viewer whom Miyazaki has ever wanted to please.)
To Takahata, Miyazaki’s contradictions made sense: Miyazaki is both an auteur, able to control and perfect every detail in his films, and an idealist endlessly disillusioned by the real world that eludes his grasp, and thus he rants, “yells destructively nihilistic things and blurts out statements that make him sound as though he aspires to become a dictator.” Miyazaki himself has always acknowledged his capacity for anger. To help his staff of animators understand how to draw the rampaging boar god turned demon in “Princess Mononoke,” whose flesh writhes with leechlike forms, he explained that he himself sometimes experienced a rage so strong it could not be contained inside his body.
Takahata recounts how in his early days at Toei Animation, Miyazaki would sometimes scare colleagues “by suddenly screaming, ‘Let this damned studio burn down!’” This wasn’t an entirely metaphorical statement, Takahata points out, given Tokyo’s history of earthquakes and fire, and Japan’s precarious position at a place where four tectonic plates creep and shift. If Miyazaki was speaking then with the impishness of the provocateur, later in his career his insistence on facing certain realities took a serious turn. J. Raúl Guzmán, an assistant curator at the Academy Museum, learned while helping to put together the retrospective that some Japanese viewers were shocked by Miyazaki’s depictions of a violent ocean storm in “Ponyo” and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in “The Wind Rises,” which his father lived through as a boy. The scenes were painful reminders of the country’s vulnerability — so painful that after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the broadcast network Nippon TV banned “Ponyo” from the airwaves for months.
In the wake of the meltdown, Studio Ghibli hung a banner from the roof with a statement rejecting nuclear power. But the country was divided on how to respond to the disaster. By exposing Japan’s weaknesses, Fukushima also heightened sentiments of neo-nationalism. There were calls to revise Japan’s postwar Constitution, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” and to allow the country to once again establish offensive military forces. Miyazaki has strongly and publicly voiced his opposition to remilitarization, earning a ferocious backlash from right-wing commentators online. But they’re shouting into the void: Miyazaki doesn’t even own a computer. He isn’t there.
AFTER THE WAR, Japan was shattered, occupied by the enemy, its cities in rubble. Food shortages left many hungry; American G.I.s handed out candy to children on the streets but, Miyazaki has written, he “was too ashamed” by Japan’s defeat to approach the soldiers. He was a shy, sickly boy — at one point, he nearly died — who took sanctuary in drawing, the one skill with which he could earn the attention and admiration of his peers. His mother was ill, too, suffering for years from spinal tuberculosis, and spent long stretches hospitalized like the mother in “My Neighbor Totoro” and the young wife in “The Wind Rises.” But the money his father had stockpiled from government wartime contracts helped keep the family in comfort, and in 1959 Miyazaki wound up at the prestigious Gakushuin University in Tokyo, which was originally established in the 19th century as a school for the nobility and whose students have included Emperor Naruhito and the singer and artist Yoko Ono.
It was a time of upheaval for Japan, with traditional agriculture giving way to heavy industrial development and the economy growing at breakneck speed. Studying Japanese industrial theory, Miyazaki began thinking of himself as a Marxist. He was drawn to the Anpo demonstrations of 1960 against Japan’s security treaty with the United States and authoritarian measures by the Japanese government, although he remained on the sidelines. He had started drawing manga in high school and, after graduating from university, took a job at Toei, where he quickly became the secretary general of the animators’ union, negotiating for better working conditions. Although he would eventually move away from Marxism — “no matter what class people are born into, idiots are still idiots and good people are still good,” he said in 1994 — he still thinks “there are many things we can learn from it,” he tells me; it’s just that no one philosophy in the world “would enable all of us to live happily.”
Miyazaki does not like to frame his work in explicitly ideological or moral terms. The mission of his films, he says, is to “comfort you — to fill in the gap that might be in your heart or your everyday life.” But his movies are haunted by his grief over the damage humans have done to the natural world. This may in part be a vestige of Shintoism, the indigenous faith of Japan, which holds that kami — at once specific supernatural beings and the divine essence within them — reside in all things. (Miyazaki follows no specific creed, but he has said that “sweeping the garden clean is already a religious act.”) As a teenager in the late ’50s, Miyazaki walked the streets of a Tokyo under constant construction, choked with dust. In 1964, when he was organizing workers at Toei, Japan hosted the Olympics and introduced the first bullet trains, which ate up the 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka in four hours. By 1968, Japan was rich, second only to the United States in gross national product, and one of the most polluted countries on earth. (Thanks to the passage of strict environmental regulations, it is now one of the least.)
In “Spirited Away,” an oozing, fetid spirit comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed, and the intrepid heroine seizes what she thinks is a thorn in his side but turns out to be a bicycle. This unleashes a torrent of trash from his sludgy form: a refrigerator, a toilet, a traffic light. He is in fact an ancient river spirit, poisoned by pollution. Haku, the young apprentice, is a river spirit, too, but has forgotten his origins since his river was filled in and paved over to make way for apartments. Near the end, the film presents a fantasy of a world reclaimed by nature, as water fills a dry riverbed and spreads out into a vast sea — as if a visual riposte to the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s desolate urban piazzas — untroubled save for a train that skims across its surface.
There is a curious mix of fatalism and hope in Miyazaki’s work. The forest spirit in “Princess Mononoke” is murdered, despite the hero and heroine’s hardest efforts; yet the forest lives on. “For me, the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness deep in my heart,” Miyazaki said in a 1988 interview. “I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness inside my heart would also disappear, and my existence would grow shallow.” At the same time, Miyazaki resists romanticizing nature as purely benign, again rejecting a binary of good and evil. The boars, wolves and apes in “Princess Mononoke” can’t agree on how to protect the forest, and when the boar god is struck by a bullet, he succumbs to hatred and attempts to ravage Prince Ashitaka’s village. Even then, Ashitaka’s first instinct is not to kill him but to plead with him to leave. “When you meet something that is very strange that you haven’t met before, instead of being scared of it, try to connect with it,” Miyazaki tells me.
Where in the ’50s the still-raw memory of wartime destruction gave rise to monsters like Godzilla, specters of failed imperialism, Miyazaki’s work is notable in its insistence that we can learn to live alongside unfamiliar, even terrifying figures. Miyazaki once said that he wanted to make a version of “Beauty and the Beast,” only his interest was the beast. A trace of the fairy tale appears in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” in the desperate scene when the heroine follows bloody bird footprints down a dark hallway to find the wounded wizard in a feathered heap, unable to change back to his fully human self, trying not to die in his glittering lair embedded with the toys of the boy still buried inside him. Ashitaka, in “Princess Mononoke,” must wrestle a beast of his own: When he lets his arrows fly at the boar god turned demon, he gets too close and is infected by the creature’s rage. He, too, will begin to hate, the growing mark on his arm informs him. The only way to save himself is to master the true monster: within.
STUDIO GHIBLI MIGHT never have existed had Suzuki, now 73, not found a way to get past Miyazaki’s anger. The two men met in 1979, when, as the editor of an animation magazine, Suzuki showed up at Miyazaki’s workplace to procure an interview. (I speak with Suzuki in a separate online session, in which he is as loquacious as Miyazaki is evasive.) As Suzuki recalls, the filmmaker, in the throes of preproduction for his first feature, wanted nothing to do with him and accused him of “ripping off children” by making them buy his magazine. Rather than give up, Suzuki grabbed the desk next to Miyazaki’s and started working on the magazine there. The men sat hunched without speaking all day and into the night, until finally Miyazaki stood up to go home at 4 a.m. He told Suzuki he’d be back at 9 a.m., and so Suzuki returned then, too. Another day passed in silence. Only on the third day did Miyazaki start to talk.
Thus was born a friendship that would turn into an intimate creative collaboration: For his next film, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” Miyazaki consulted with Suzuki on matters from the intricacy of the drawing style to the final scene, which Suzuki persuaded him to change (in the first version, the heroine simply dies, which Suzuki thought deprived the audience of catharsis). After that film’s release, Suzuki realized they would have to start their own studio because no one else would foot the bill for such labor-intensive productions. Although he has held different positions at Studio Ghibli over the decades (among them president and, currently, producer), his true role is as Miyazaki’s confidante and consigliere. They used to talk almost daily and now meet once a week — during my conversation with Miyazaki, he notes that Suzuki is sitting beside him, off-screen, urging him to finish his new film, which has thus far taken four years — and when they disagree on an idea, Suzuki, at least by his own account, tends to win.
Suzuki tells me that when Miyazaki came to him just over a year after retiring to say he wanted to make another film, “I was like, ‘Give me a break.’” He tried to talk him out of it, suggesting that Miyazaki’s best work was behind him. When his last film, “The Wind Rises,” came out in 2013, it did well at the box office but fell short of his previous four features, perhaps because it dealt directly with Japan’s culpability in the war, still an uncomfortable subject. But ultimately Suzuki caved in because, he says, “The whole purpose of Studio Ghibli is to make Miyazaki films.” What will happen, then, when Miyazaki does retire for good? His older son, Goro, 54, has made a few films for the studio, including the entirely computer-animated “Earwig and the Witch,” released in the United States last winter to mostly critical reviews that took less issue with the film itself than with the break in Ghibli tradition. (Miyazaki’s younger son, Keisuke, 51, is a printmaker.)
But Suzuki also points out, when discussing the differences between Japanese and American animation, that in the West, we always need to know how things end. At Ghibli, the last scene is often a mystery. Because each movie requires so much drawing, production must begin before Miyazaki is even halfway through his storyboards. When he was making “Spirited Away,” No-Face was at first just a spooky passer-by; only later did Miyazaki decide to promote him to a major character. Later, the director of animation begged him not to draw any new characters, so he came up with the idea of Yubaba, the coldhearted bathhouse operator, having a kindhearted identical twin, which turned out to be both a crucial plot point and a sounding of a favorite theme: that in all of us there is a duality and the potential for both good and bad.
Neither Miyazaki nor Suzuki will share much about the forthcoming film, beyond the fact that it is based on a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino. The story concerns a 15-year-old boy in Tokyo, small for his age and fond of mischief, whose father has recently died. In the English translation by Bruno Navasky, published in October, the boy gazes out at the city and is overwhelmed: “The watching self, the self being watched, and furthermore the self becoming conscious of all this, the self observing itself by itself, from afar, all those various selves overlapped in his heart, and suddenly he began to feel dizzy.” The actual content of the film could be anything — Suzuki has described it as “fantasy on a grand scale” — since Miyazaki doesn’t so much borrow stories as liberate them from their origins. (In the pseudobiographical “The Wind Rises,” he gives the real-life Jiro Horikoshi a fictional wife dying of tuberculosis.) All Suzuki will share is that he recognizes himself in one of the characters, who is not human.
It is time. Miyazaki rubs the top of his head and lights a cigarette, one of his signature king-size, charcoal-filtered Seven Stars. I am allowed one last question. “The title of your next film is ‘How Do You Live?,’” I say. “Will you give us the answer?”
The smile comes only after he speaks: “I am making this movie because I do not have the answer.”