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Director Miyazaki draws American attention

Most movie interviews are a job or work for the journalist, but sometimes you find yourself in the presence of a genius, and then you grow still and attentive, trying to remember everything. So it was when I interviewed Bergman, Hitchcock and Fellini, and so it was again in September, when I interviewed Hayao Miyazaki in Toronto.

The name is unfamiliar to you because, while you love movies, you have not yet discovered that you would love his movies. He and his Studio Ghibli collaborator Isao Takahata ("Grave of the Fireflies") are arguably the greatest directors of animation in the world. John Lasseter, who directed "Toy Story," says when he's stuck for inspiration, he watches a Miyazaki film and the log jam breaks. Miyazaki's most recent film, "Princess Mononoke" (opening Friday at the McClurg Court), broke every record at the Japanese box office, passing even "E.T." before finally being dethroned by "Titanic."

Yet few people in North America know his name because when we think of animation (which the Japanese call "anime"), we think of Disney. And although we spend a quarter of a billion dollars on each new Disney cartoon, we are shy of work by anyone else. So let me point out that Miyazaki's lifework has been purchased for this continent by Disney itself, and "Princess Mononoke" is being released by Disney's Miramax. Since it comes with the Disney seal, just pretend it's the next title after "The Lion King" or "Tarzan."

Actually, it is much more than that - a visionary epic set at the dawn of the Iron Age, based on Japanese myths about a time when men could still speak with the spirits of animals and nature. It is not a "children's movie," although any child old enough to have an intelligent conversation about a film will probably love it. It is a real movie, using animation instead of live action, but expressing the vision of its maker, a man whose work has given me some of my best moments as a moviegoer.

He is standing in the room with me now, giving a little half-bow like a businessman, smiling, indicating his translator with an apologetic hand. He is known as a taskmaster, a workaholic who personally approves every one of the tens of thousands of drawings that go into his films. I expect someone exacting, like Bergman, or forbidding, like Hitchcock, and here is a man who seems pleased as punch to be at the Toronto Film Festival.

Q. I think that "Princess Mononoke" should be nominated for best picture.

A. (Little bow.) Thank you.

Q. Why do you choose to make animation instead of live action?

A. Because I had my heart stolen by animated features.

Q. When you were a little boy?

A. When I was 10 and when I was 23.

Q. Do you remember the titles?

A. The "White Serpent Story." It was the first Japanese animated feature ever made. And when I was 23, there was a Soviet film called "The Snow Queen." I loved the Disney films, but they never moved me to make this my life's work. They didn't have that effect on me. Technically, obviously, "White Serpent Story" was far below anything that Disney was creating. I could understand and sympathize with the hearts of the people who were portrayed on the screen. I think that's why they stole my heart.

Q. In this country animation's for family pictures, but in Japan it's considered to be equal with live action. Is that true?

A. It's actually not true that anime is perceived as always fitting for adults. Unfortunately, of the many films in the anime genre, there are very few that I could actually recommend to you wholeheartedly. There's a lot of sexual exploitation of women, and explicit and graphic violence for its own sake. And of course with anime TV series, the budget is so low there's no room to maneuver or play.

Q. I was told that Miyazaki-san personally drew about 80,000 of the frames in "Princess Mononoke." Is that. . . .

A. I've never actually counted how many I physically drew myself, but I'm deeply involved in checking and redrawing and touching up all the artwork that comes from the animators. So that's maybe where that legend comes from.

Q. What was your plan when you made your first film?

A. I thought I'd take a first step, calmly measuring that step without thinking about the long, long road ahead.

Q. In "Princess Mononoke" there is a marvelous monster, a boar monster with flesh of snakes, and it's one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen in a film. It couldn't be done with "realistic" special effects - it would look like a mess. Only animation could make it clear.

A. You're absolutely right. We tried to let the computer handle it, but it didn't work out at all, so we all joined forces and created the monster.

Q. I didn't even mean special effects with animation, but special effects in a live action picture. If you tried to make a live action picture with that monster, it wouldn't show up; you couldn't see the individual snakes. It seems that animation can make things more clear than reality itself.

A. That's what I was striving for! I'm a very emotional person, and when I get enraged or furious, I feel like black insects crawl out of my pores. My staff are more peaceful, so it was difficult for them to imagine what it feels like to be taken over by uncontrollable rage.

Q. So the boar monster is based on the artist himself? On you?

A. Perhaps. I believe that rage and violent aggression are essential parts of us as human beings, and I think it's absolutely impossible to eliminate that impulse. The issue we confront as human beings is how to control and manage that impulse. I know that small children will watch this film, but I intentionally chose not to shield them from that very obvious and apparent reality.

Q. So you think it should have a G rating? (It has been rated PG-13.)

A. In Japan we don't have that kind of rating system. We have adult films, but that's the only category we have. When I began making this film I thought I didn't want it to be seen by young children. But the closer I came to completion, the more I began to believe that younger children would be able to intuitively understand the message. What my producer decided, for the TV advertising in Japan, was to show the most shocking scenes. Of course that works as a marketing technique, but also we really wanted parents to know what they were getting into, so there wouldn't be any nasty surprises and they could make an intelligent decision.

Q. I'm frustrated that in North America people automatically go to the new Disney picture, but it's very hard to get them to go to any other animation. For example, "The Iron Giant" didn't do too well recently. What are you doing to spread the word that "Princess Mononoke" is the film to see, even if it doesn't have the little Disney logo?

A. (Smiles.) You see me here. That's what I'm here for.

Q. Every video store in North America has an anime section with hundreds of tapes. Yet these films rarely play in theaters. Who is watching these tapes? There must be millions of fans hidden away somewhere because even in the small towns they have Japanese anime. It must be an audience that has discovered them without any media push.

A. The situation isn't that different in Japan. If you play anime in the theaters, not all that many people come to see it, even if there are tremendous video sales of the same product. So maybe in their own minds they've created a delineation between those movies you see in a theater and those you enjoy at home.

Q. But "Princess Mononoke" was the biggest hit in Japan until "Titanic.". . .

A. Frankly, that left me baffled. I have no idea why that happened. None of our films at Ghibli Studio up to "Totoro" were able to make back their budgets simply from theatrical releases. We got into the black from secondary rights. The first time we went into the black from theatrical was with "Kiki's Delivery Service." So it's not like we started in Japan with some ready-made brilliant active theatergoing audience for anime.

Q. You had to develop your audience. . . .

A. Not exactly. At Ghibli the direction we've always intentionally taken is that every time the audience develops an expectation of what we're going to deliver, we immediately betray it with the next film.

Q. In your drawings you often exaggerate the mouth and eyes to convey extreme emotion; in Disney's new "Tarzan" picture, baby Tarzan seems to look exactly like a Miyazaki character, as if the Americans have been studying his work.

Q. (Chuckles.) Actually our work depends on how much we can appropriate from other people's work! Painting, music, films, literature . . . it's all grist for the mill. We think of our work not as individual creativity but like a lifelong baton relay. Your work passes through your body and your life; you transform it into something, and then you pass it on to the next generation.

Q. Is "Princess Mononoke" based upon Japanese myths?

A. So much of what I've absorbed as myth is now a part of myself that it's difficult for me to delineate what's original, what's myth, what's history, what's me, what belongs to the past. But I think that many of the elements in the film were commonsense, intuitive understanding for Japanese people of my generation. The fact that there were Japanese people at that time working in the woods, felling trees in order to have the fire to make forged steel and iron, that is historical fact. Fortunately, Japan is blessed with abundant rainfall, so we could keep on felling trees without losing the forest, and the forest myths.

Q. Someone told me that Miyazaki-san is not going to make another film. Surely that is not true.

A. I make every film believing that it will be my last. But the truth is at my age (58) I can no longer afford the intensive labor that I spent on the last one. If my staff will agree to my participating as a director without the intensity of labor, then there are many more films that I would like to do.

Q. But you have this staff, so you tell them to?

A. (Smiles.) Not that easy.

Q. They must love you, though, and want to work with you.

A. I'm always a dictator.

Q. One last question. My wife and I were in Japan and we were able to meet two men who had been appointed Living National Treasures - a man who makes pots and a man who makes kimonos. You must be a national treasure, too.

A. Don't make me a Living National Treasure, please! Because I want to be able to always have the possibility of making outrageous films.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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