The Sensei Speaks: A press conference with Hayao Miyazaki
The genial grandpa of Japanese anime, Hayao Miyazaki gives interviews about as often as he turns out new films - which is to say, not nearly often enough. He made a rare appearance last Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, where he fielded a wide range of questions from domestic and international media. Though visibly uncomfortable when getting mobbed by photographers at the start of the talk, Miyazaki-sensei (as the Japanese media call him) soon warmed to the occasion, proving an amusing, rambling and occasionally provocative speaker. He also proved very adept at dodging questions, as you'll see.
Full disclosure: my MP3 recorder ran out of space early into the talk, meaning that I missed the half hour or so devoted to the future of Japan's children and Prime Minister Taro Aso's much-touted love of manga. (Okay, the latter subject occupied about 10 seconds of the running time.) The following, then, is just some excerpts from the press conference, as opposed to a complete transcript. This is all based on the consecutive interpretation provided during the event, but I've tidied up the translation to make it read better.
When we got together with our staff members to produce Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake no ue no ponyo), we found that one of them had just had a child. Therefore, in the production of this film, the members of staff were motivated to make something that would be the first film that that child would want to see.
The problems of the world come from the fact that nationalism feels that the world's problems are due to multi-ethnicity. So in my case, at least, I won't create films where peace comes about when people destroy evil. I feel that, when making films, you need to be well aware of the fact that all problems that exist, exist inherently within yourself, within your society and among your family members. It's possible that the towns or the country that we love may turn into something that's not good for the world as a whole. This is something which we learned from the past war, and it's a lesson which we should not forget.
Read on after the break for Miyazaki's views on commercial success, inspiration and Pixar.
There are cases where film directors feel that there is something good that they would like to create, and yet there's a difference between that and what sells. Have you ever felt that pressure, and if you have experienced it, how was it resolved?
The process of creating works of animation is not just a question of individual effort. There is a lot of cumbersome work that must be undertaken by groups of people - and there is a massive amount of work for the individual, too. So it would be really irritating and unpleasant if [the film] proved to be unprofitable. If something is not profitable then I won't get involved, because it's pointless for everyone involved to become unhappy as a result. I feel that it's my responsibility to embark on works that everybody feels good about being involved in. If you don't have that attitude, there's no point in working in an animation studio. So in regard to whether I feel a dilemma about this, my answer is no.
You've been quoted many times in the past saying that you intend to retire after the movie you've just completed. What's made you change your mind each time, and do you have any plans to do so, or are you going to keep making movies?
I feel I'm already retired. I think that it's better for me to live feeling that occasionally, because of the good will of the people around me, I'm allowed to work. When we create films, it's a risky task - rather, we are seeking risks. That's why we make films. Once I finish making a film, I'm totally exhausted, so I feel that I won't want to do that again, or that it won't be possible to do that again. And each time I've finished a film, I've said that [I would retire]. But it seems that I've said that too much, so I'll refrain from doing so from now on.
There seems to be a strong environmental theme in a lot of your movies. In parallel with that, there seem to be some movies that are inherently optimistic, and others that are more pessimistic. What are your views on this country's environmentalism? Are you optimistic looking forward, or more pessimistic?
I'm tremendously pessimistic, and then at the same time, I feel after that comes optimism. In other words, the thing I'd least want to become is the prime minister of Japan. It's a truly unrewarding job, because you can't tell the truth to people who don't want to hear the truth.
I believe that people will not learn until things become extremely bad. This country consumes more than it produces: it can only produce enough to support 32 million people. The others earn their livelihoods by creating automobiles or works of animation. That structure, where we don't have food self-sufficiency or the underwear we have is made in China, is at the core of our nation's uncertainty. Now, when we look at this structure, it's impossible to dramatically change it, so it is necessary to bring about changes gradually. But a long time is needed for this, and if we proceed slowly and take [too much] time in making those changes, I'm not confident that we will be able to stave off the end of civilization.
You mentioned that you won't go to the trouble of making a movie if you aren't convinced that it's profitable. Have you ever experienced an unsuccessful movie, and if so, how did you react?
Up until a certain time, I was confident that our works of animation wouldn't be commercially successful. During that time, I thought that that was the way things worked, and there was no intention on our part to change the direction we were pursuing. With My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no totoro), when our plan to create that film was approved, it was a coincidence. It was almost like getting a pin through a small hole in one try. Judging by the common sense of Japanese cinema at that time, that film should never have had an audience.
I would like to ask about the post-war period in Japan. Is there any period after World War 2 that you feel nostalgic about? If not, is there any other period in Japanese history that you feel nostalgic about?
I did search around a great deal to find which period was the best. I was trying to find out where we should have stopped. And I realized that it was impossible to stop. For example, there are people who feel nostalgic about the 30s of the Showa Period - that's the period between 1955 and 1965. People have the delusion that things were good in those days, yet actually, it was a very unhappy period... I've come to realize now that, for us, paradise is memories of our childhood. In those days, we were protected by our parents and were innocently unaware of the many problems around us. Therefore, when we seek paradise, it's necessary to go back to the memories of childhood.
Many overseas and here in Japan perceive you and your studio as artisans. But at the same time that your studio has been successful, overseas, there has been a push to greater computer graphics, with studios like Pixar taking off. How do you view their contribution to the craft of animation right now? Is it as honest or sincere as what you're doing at Ghibli?
John Lasseter at Pixar is a friend of mine - not just a friend, but a very close friend - and so is Nick Park at Aardman Animations in the UK. I look at the efforts that they make, and I pride myself in being the person who is most capable of understanding those efforts. I can understand the efforts they make as well as their fears - by which, I mean their fear of whether what they're doing will be accepted or not. I can truly share that sentiment with them.
As for my drawing pictures with a pencil, John Lasseter himself has said that since you're able to draw pictures, you should do so. So I think that he would appreciate what we are doing. That's what the world of animation is about: these are works which are created by friends.
Your cartoons are hugely popular all around the world. Do you take that international appeal into consideration when making a film? Do you think there is a difference in what appeals to Japanese and to international audiences?
I don't know anything about this. What I do is look at the children in front of me. But there are cases where I can't see them, and in those cases I end up making films for middle-aged people. What's necessary, though, is to look at the children. Our animation has been viable because of the fact that we currently have a population of over 100 million people in Japan, so we are able to operate viably here, and we see international [success] as a bonus effect that can be derived after that. But what we have to do is always look at Japanese society and at Japanese children - and above all, the children right in front of us. If we're able to do this properly, then it will be possible to create something that has universal appeal and, perhaps, to have an impact on the world.
In your movies, I see a lot double standards and double personalities - people who at the same time are both evil and great. Could you elaborate on how you conceive your characters?
I feel that films should not be made for a temporary sense of catalysis. In other words, they shouldn't be like action films, where things end happily after having cut someone up or shooting someone. That's not the type of film that I want to make, and even if it is made, it will not be remembered. What I look for is a world that I have never been to or seen before, but which is something that is beautiful and will be acceptable to children.
It seems that most of your productions appeal to a Japanese audience, but what comes to mind when watching some of your movies is that the settings remind me of places I've seen on my travels to Europe, particularly central and eastern Europe. I wonder, given your very busy schedule, if you have a chance to travel around the world, and how you get the ideas for the settings in your movies?
If you feel that there is a common thread, this may be because of the many similarities that people's societies have. [Ponyo] was mainly focussed on western Japan. When I made the film, it was the result of a discovery I made as I traveled around the country. When we think about it, Tokyo is an area that was a pioneered village, so it may well be that the very area that we are standing on now used to be part of the sea. Was that actually a reply to your question? (Laughs) I'm not very good at responding to interviews, but I love traveling. And I don't want to go to a place where you're limited in what you're allowed to wear.
Is there a place that you've traveled to that has influenced or left a mark on you?
Yes, there are. In fact, I've been influenced by all the places I have been to. However, this may not become evident in my films immediately, but may appear many years afterwards. Ireland was great, Estonia was great, Switzerland was great... I've also been to France, and although this has not been incorporated into a film, I had wonderful experiences there. And I haven't been to Croatia, but I have actually - irresponsibly - made a film (Porco Rosso) that was set there.
On commercial success...
I truly believe that commercial success doesn't have any meaning. Some commercial results are necessary in order to continue our work, but that itself is not the goal. I would hope that, at least, we can create films that will be enjoyed by audiences for thirty years. I don't think that we can transcend that and expect more, because although works that are more than thirty years old may have historical significance, they are things that audiences are no longer able to enjoy. We have to work with that kind of limitation, and still continue to do our best as we move forward.
It's said that people who are currently developing robots were influenced by Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy). What kind of jobs do you think the children who see your films will choose in the future?
It'll be fine if they just become ordinary people.
I understand that your son is also a director at Studio Ghibli and has created a film. What do you expect from your son, and do you see him as a successor to the studio in the future?
There are subtle issues there. I do not favor him just because he's my son, and I think that he will face a true trial the next time around. That's all. (Laughs)
You've had the highest grossing Japanese film in history, and your new films, whenever they come out, will make 2, 3 or maybe 4 times as much money at the box office as the second highest ranking Japanese film that comes out in the same year. I was wondering: what do you think other Japanese filmmakers are doing wrong?
I don't really know. It just seems that we have been tremendously lucky, and that kind of luck could easily turn into something that is unlucky. That is something which we must not forget.
You just said that films that are older than thirty years old are worthless - that people don't like them. I can think of all sorts of films that I like which are over thirty years old: Gone with the Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Casablanca... Have you ever seen Casablanca?
Yes, I know it. I believe that a film that you value can become your lifelong friend. And yet, if Casablanca were to be released today, I don't feel that it would be a success. For example, the works of Yasuhiro Ozu are outstanding films, and yet if they were released to the general public today, they would probably only be shown at one theater, and it isn't possible to make films for only one theater. Of course, I respect Ozu - that hasn't changed - because he was able to impress me. But that isn't relevant to commercial success. And I think it's even more ridiculous if you think of trying to do a remake of Casablanca. Films are a product of their time.
And Ingrid Bergman's dead.
(Laughs) Yes, that's right.
What is the current state of animation in Japan? A lot of it's exported or outsourced to Korea and China, and you've said in newspaper articles that they're losing the craftsmanship of the Japanese animator. On top of that, a friend of mine who's a director at Studio Pierrot told me never to get into animation because it's long hours and low pay. Could I get your comments on that?
I'm not in a position to talk about the state of animation in general in Japan, so I'd just like to talk about my own circumstances. The labor conditions for animators in Japan are, in general, too harsh. We want to make things better, and have tried to do so, but the ground we can cover is too narrow. Having said that, though, we are hiring over 20 new animators, and they will be receiving normal wages. We can't immediately tell their aptitude for the job. However, for a 10 day period in Hongo in Tokyo, we had people come and carried out a range of tests to test their aptitude for the work. So, starting from April, there will be 22 new animators joining us. In order to train them, we'll be having them involved in the production of a work, and after that we'll continue such efforts. At any rate, what we want to do is not to depend on the outside world and take advantage of the gap that exists in the labor conditions [between Japan and other countries]. We are not going to do anything to that effect.
Dr Drago Stambuk, Ambassador of Croatia. I would like to use this opportunity first to ask why you chose to use the backdrop of Croatia for your picture, though you didn't go to visit the country, and would also like to use this opportunity to invite you to visit Croatia...
When I made the film Porco Rosso, the setting was in the Adriatic Sea. There were flying boat fighter planes that were used for that film, and yet in World War I, it was only the Italian and Austrian air forces that took advantage of such aircraft, so that gave us our setting. We thought that, because of the setting, it would be obvious that the hero would have some place to hide among the islands of Croatia. I didn't actually visit Croatia, so I stared at aerial shots of the country for so long that there must now be holes in those photographs. But I fear that, if I actually go there, it will be considerably different from what was depicted in the film.
I originally intended to create a relaxing film, but after we started production, the conflict in Yugoslavia began, and there was much attention focused on the bombings in Dubrovnik in Croatia. Our film ended up being heavier and gloomier in nature. However, I'd like to express my happiness at seeing the peaceful state that Croatia is now in.
And when do you intend to go to Croatia?
(Laughs) I'm not in a position to reply at this point. After going back to my studio, I'd like to discuss that very carefully with my producer.