Director Miyazaki draws American attention
Originally printed in The Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 1999
BY ROGER EBERT film critic
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 "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.
Q. Why do you choose to make animation instead of live action?
Q. When you were a little boy?
Q. Do you remember the titles?
Q. In this country animation's for family pictures, but in Japan it's considered to be equal with live action. Is that true?
Q. I was told that Miyazaki-san personally drew about 80,000 of the frames in "Princess Mononoke." Is that. . . .
Q. What was your plan when you made your first film?
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.
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.
Q. So the boar monster is based on the artist himself? On you?
Q. So you think it should have a G rating? [It has been rated PG-13.]
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?
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.
Q. But "Princess Mononoke" was the biggest hit in Japan until "Titanic.". . .
Q. You had to develop your audience. . . .
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. Is "Princess Mononoke" based upon Japanese myths?
Q. Someone told me that Miyazaki-san is not going to make another film. Surely that is not true.
Q. But you have this staff, so you tell them to?
Q. They must love you, though, and want to work with you.
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.
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