Saturday, September 24, 2011

Trevor Hogg: Drawn to Anime -- A Hayao Miyazaki Profile

Drawn to Anime: A Hayao Miyazaki Profile
by Trevor Hogg
Flickering Myth


For the debut production of the fledgling animation studio, Hayao Miyazaki wrote in the original story proposal dated December 7, 1984 that, “If Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [1984] is a film for older audiences then Pazu is targeted mainly at elementary school-aged children. If Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was designed to be cool, clear, and vivid, then Pazu will aim to be a fun, intensely thrilling classic action film.” The project was rechristened, Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (Laputa: Castle in the Sky, 1986) in honour of the “floating island in the sky, depicted in the third part of Gulliver’s Travels.” Summarizing the story which takes place around the time of steam engines, the animator stated, “A man [Muska] schemes to get hold of the levitation crystal, becomes the head of an empire in the sky, and thus lords it over the world. A girl [Sheeta], a descendent of ancient Laputa royalty, finds herself pursued by the man. And a boy [Pazu], an apprentice mechanic who dreams of becoming an inventor, becomes entangled in the struggle over the mysterious levitation crystal.”

To research the setting of the tale, an international scouting expedition was deemed necessary. “Isao Takahata said that if we were going to set the film in the days of the Industrial Revolution, we probably should go to England. We got all exited about the idea of going to see the coal mines in Wales and the apple blossoms in Sussex along the coast south of London, and we decided to actually go.” The trip occurred while Britain was engaged in an infamous mining strike under the reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “In the film there is a somewhat forced scene showing Pazu’s boss and Charles getting into a fight and involving the whole town, and I don’t think we would have included a scene like that if we hadn’t visited the area. I felt a real sense of solidarity with the mine workers!”

“I personally find airplanes cool and I love flying scenes. But despite Castle in the Sky being set in the sky, it really has few real flying scenes,” acknowledged Hayao Miyazaki who has himself a major supporter in John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer for Disney and Pixar. “In all of his films he gives us an incredible sense of scale,” admired Lasseter. “Castle in the Sky, especially, is a masterpiece in this way. Take another look at those flying ships. There is no question that they’re huge. And you can just tell that they weigh an enormous amount too. I mean, look at them, you can feel their weight. It’s not just perspective. It’s movement, it’s size, it’s weight.”

“I wanted to show the military as large-as-life as possible, because no matter what Pazu tried, there was no way he could ever have won against them,” said Hayao Miyazaki. “We had to draw them as solidly as possible. Even Dola and her gang could never have beaten the military head-on. Pirates don’t argue with the military, and besides, in this case our pirates only had flaptors. I don’t like the military, so I drew their nastier side.” As for the portrayal of robots in the picture, the animator observed, “Humans make machines the extension of their own hands, but at the same time we make something that will give us unlimited devotion. It’s too simplistic to consider them living beings, but I feel that we are making things that could be prototypes for living creatures.” Miyazaki added, “I think that honour and bravery are very important in the relations of people. But I’m sure that these qualities are not exclusive to human beings.”

The anime artist wanted to break movie genre conventions when depicting the levitation crystal. “In science fiction stories, the core section of an object like this would often be depicted as something like a nuclear reactor,” explained Miyazaki. “We agreed that wouldn’t be very interesting, though, and eventually wound up with the design seen in the film. Then we began discussing the idea of having a levitation crystal with tubes running out of it, but that seemed weird too. So we wound up with tree roots wrapping themselves around the crystal.” Another major story element had to be addressed. “Right around the time we were trying to come up with a good ending, and we were afraid that if Laputa flew off into the sky that children watching the film would be afraid that the little animals like the foxes and squirrels would all die. So that settled how we decided to end the story the way we did. We told ourselves it was okay because the story is set in an age before people went into space in the Apollo program, so nobody really knew what the view would be like from what is in effect an artificial satellite.”

Laputa: Castle in the Sky served as significant influence on the 1998 sophomore effort by Pixar Animation Studios. “In A Bug’s Life,” began John Lasseter, “the character Flick assembles all the bugs together in an attempt to save a little ant named Dot. For reference, we sat down and studied the rescue sequence in Castle in the Sky very carefully. We didn’t copy it, but we tried to pick the scene apart to identify why it worked so well. I know what’s going to happen. Of course, she [Sheeta] gets rescued. I know that. But every time I see it, I get the chills. It inspired us.” Admired by film critics the movie established Studio Ghibli’s international reputation though the modest box office returns meant that the company had yet to achieve financial independence when developing future projects.

Having trouble to secure financing for the movie deemed to be childish and lacking in conflict, a compromise was reached when Studio Ghibli agreed to also adapt the semi-autobiographical Naoki Prize-winning Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies,1988) by Japanese novelist Akiyuki Nosaka. In the project plan dated December 1, 1986, Hayao Miyazaki wrote, “My Neighbour Totoro aims to be a happy and heartwarming film, a film that lets the audience go home with pleasant, glad feelings. Lovers will feel each other to be more precious, parents will fondly recall their childhoods, and children will start exploring the thickets behind shrines and climbing trees to find a totoro.”

Explaining the storyline, the animator stated, “Satsuki, a third grader, and Mei, five years old, move to the outskirts of town. They are awaiting their mother’s release from the hospital in a house where the air is clean. Kanta, a boy from the neigbouring farmer’s house, tries to frighten Satsuki by claiming that the house is haunted. And he is right. While playing in the yard, Mei is surprised to find a pair of strange creatures about her height, walking in front of her. Goblins… Mei follows them.” Nicknamed by Mei, totoros are mysterious beings that can live for a thousand years and grow over two meters tall; the creatures as described by Miyazaki are “covered in fluffy fur, they look like giant owls or badgers or bears. You can say they are goblins, but they don’t frighten people as they live an easygoing, carefree manner. They inhabit caves and hollows of old trees in the forest and cannot be seen by humans. But for some reason they are spied by the young sisters Satsuki and Mei.”

“I didn’t have a close relationship with my mother like Satsuki,” revealed Hayo Mizayaki. “I was overly self-conscious, and my mother was that way too. When I went to see her in the hospital, I couldn’t rush to hug her. It’s natural for Satsuki to feel a bit shy and not go directly to her mother’s side. Then what would Satsuki’s mother do? She might brush Satsuki’s hair or something. That’s one way she could show physical affection. That is what gives Satsuki support.” Regarding the scene in which Mei disappears and her older sister goes looking for her, the moment was derived from an actual event. “Once we went to a festival and my little brother didn’t make it home with the rest of us; fearing that he had been taken by someone, we all split up to search for him…I still recall how I felt when I thought we might not find him…It’s episodes like this that make up this film. There’s no need for a plot. I wish I could have made a ninety-minute film. If I could have, I would have expanded the section on Satasuki and Mei’s everyday lives.”

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