x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hayao's moving castle

Books Kai-Ming Cha reads the collected writings of the director Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated films have established him as the living master of drawing emotion frame-by-frame and second-by-second.

"I'm struggling desperately to create something better." Hayao Miyazaki walks past an advertisement for his most recent film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.
"I'm struggling desperately to create something better." Hayao Miyazaki walks past an advertisement for his most recent film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.

Kai-Ming Cha reads the collected writings of the director Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated films have established him as the living master of drawing emotion frame-by-frame and second-by-second. Starting Point: 1979-1996 Hayao Miyazaki Translated from the Japanese by Beth Cary and Frederik L Schodt Viz Media Dh110 There is a scene in Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, in which the titular character, a goldfish, transforms herself into a human girl and leaps to the ocean surface, creating a tsunami in the process. Ponyo runs along the top of the waves towards a car driving along the coast - in its passenger seat sits the boy with whom she's fallen in love. As she chases him, clearly enamoured with her new legs, feet and freedom, the waves take the shape of enormous fish that appear to follow her whims. Drawing closer to the shore, she directs one of the fish-waves onto the road, but soon after making contact with the asphalt, it dissolves into a normal wave. Without breaking stride, Ponyo leaps away, confident that something (in this case, another fish-wave) will catch her.

A fish-girl sprinting joyously toward love across a team of fish-waves: I would be hard pressed to think of an image that more perfectly encapsulates Miyazaki's oeuvre, a beautiful land populated by magic, strong female protagonists, powerful emotions, and meditations (some more explicit than others) on interactions between humans and the environment - all painstakingly rendered in hand-drawn animation. Running is perhaps the quintessentially Miyazakian act: a direct, effortful extension of will into movement through a physical environment. As he put it in a 1980 essay for Gekkan Animeshon (Animation Monthly): "Running expresses the very act of living, the pulse of life."

The expressiveness of running, however, was long ago flattened by the realities of the animation business, in which the methods of representing common actions were standardised early on to facilitate speedy production by deadline-pressed drawing teams. "A sequence of four running steps over 24 frames per second - that is, six frames per step - is the most established way to convey a running rhythm," the Gekkan Animeshon essay continues. "Yet... it should be possible to have a five-frame-per-step or a seven-frame-per-step style of running." Indeed it is: in Miyazaki movies we find an endless diversity of running styles: a grown wolf-child scuttling across a rooftop like an insect; a young prince leaping and bounding like a stag through the forest; and a small child scurrying through the house on stubby, short legs.

This essay now appears in English for the first time in Starting Point: 1979-1996, a collection of Miyazaki's essays, lectures and interviews that was translated from Japanese to coincide with the international release of Ponyo (already the biggest box-office success in Japanese history, having shattered previous records set by three prior Miyazaki films: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle). The animator has a reputation as a curmudgeon who is reluctant to meet either his fans or the foreign press. Here, however, he comes across as a loquacious (if not modest or self-effacing) writer, speaker and interview subject. To sit with this book is to have a pleasant conversation of sorts with Miyazaki about the first half of his career to date - about, in other words, his development into the living master of how lines become drawings, drawings become animation, and animation becomes emotion.

Originally, Miyazaki had wanted to make manga (comics). But in the 1960s, when he was incollege, the only avenue for a serious minded mangaka lay in gekiga (literally "dramatic pictures"), despairing narratives of industrial Japan's postwar woes. Miyazaki was put off by gekiga's unremitting bleakness; he wanted to instil his audiences with hope. Beyond gekiga, however, there was little room for sophisticated themes or long story arcs. But a small light burned in the emerging animation industry, and Miyazaki took notice.

In 1958 Toei Animation, Japan's leading animation studio at the time, released the country's first full-colour feature-length animation, Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent), an adaptation of a Chinese fairy tale about a young man in love with a snake who has taken human form. The animation, to quote one critic, "gave Walt a run for his money" (Disney's Bambi had been hugely popular in Japan), and the story refused to label any of the characters as simply "good" or "evil". Miyazaki loved it; after graduating from college in 1963 with degrees in political science and economics, he went to work for Toei.

There he received his apprenticeship in hand-drawn animation's wrestling match between art and time. Drawings, however detailed, cannot capture every facet of a complex human activity such as, say, running. 24 frames per second, though dauntingly labour-intensive, turns out to be not very many frames. Every second of movie-time poses a dozen questions about what can be crammed in and what can be left out.

For example, in a 1988 interview, Miyazaki recounts a conversation he had with his longtime art director Kazuo Oga during the making of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), which focuses on interactions between two girls and a variety of wood spirits in rural postwar Japan. The two were agonising over how to make a camphor tree not just sway in the wind, but shimmer in the sun at the same time: "We were convinced that we could show the movement in three frames and draw the shimmering in one frame. If we did that we could show the leaves waving on the branches and the light dappling through. But there was no way we could have enough time to do that."

Miyazaki started at Toei as an in-betweener: the person who draws the frames that connect the "keyframes" upon which action is based. From there, he progressed steadily to key animator, then co-director, to director. In 1984, he released his first full-length animation, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, an adaptation of a manga he had been serialising since 1982. In it, a young princess who is an avid botanist finds her small kingdom pulled into war and encroached upon by a toxic body called the Sea of Decay. Critics and audiences thrilled to the battles of this unsmiling, morally serious princess-scientist; one year later, Miyazaki cofounded a production company, Studio Ghibli, with his longtime collaborator Isao Takahata (known best for his 1988 anti-war masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies).

Since then, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have become the darlings of the animation world. The enormous commercial success of his films has given him the economic freedom to finance and pursue whatever projects he chooses, at whatever pace. The majority of Japanese animation studios have no such leeway: their films are less works of narrative art and more accessories to marketing franchises involving music, video games, clothing and toys. A shimmering camphor tree might look nice - but how much is it worth paying a team for? For Miyazaki, the answer is clearly "however much it takes". At the level of detail he demands, a five-second scene can easily take days or weeks to complete.

The reward for this effort is a bounty of true-to-life and emotionally rich details. San, the protagonist of Spirited Away, puts on her trainers by shoving her feet into them, then tapping her toes against the floor. In Ponyo, Sosuke kicks off his flip-flops with a careless flick of his ankles as he wades into the water to save a little goldfish. When Mei, one of the girls in My Neighbor Totoro, screams and cries upon hearing that her sick mother is not ready to come home, it is the tantrum of a three-year-old who is denying the truth because it has betrayed her. Similarly, when Sosuke cannot find his mother, his crying is punctuated by anxious sniffles. It is in some sense a fool's errand to describe the perfection of such scenes in writing, but here's something telling: they contain no music, no rising strings to orchestrate our emotions: all we have to do is watch.

Several of the interviews and essays in Starting Point address Miyazaki's childhood. He was born in Tokyo in 1941. The family business - owned by his uncle, run by his father - was Miyazaki Airplanes, a company that made rudders for Mitsubishi's A6M Zeros, the fighter planes used during kamikaze missions toward the end of the Second World War's Pacific campaign. "He had unskilled workers mass-produce parts, many of which were defective," Miyazaki writes of his father. "But he told us that if he bribed the people in charge, the parts were usually accepted." With the money he made, Katsuji Miyazaki was able to move his family into the countryside during the Tokyo fire bombings, saving himself, his wife and his children from death.

Such moral ambiguities - people doing bad things in the service of good causes, or vice versa - permeate Miyazaki's work. In Princess Mononoke, for example, the protagonist, Ashitaka, journeys deep into a forest to find an iron factory that is polluting the water and air around it. The factory is run by an imperious woman whose goal is to kill the forest god, enabling her to expand the factory. Though she is clearly greedy and ruthless, she staffs her factory almost entirely with women, many of them lepers and former prostitutes who would not be able to make a living wage elsewhere.

"The battle between rampaging forest gods and humanity cannot end well," Miyazaki writes in a memo outlining his plans for the film (which had not yet been released when the book was published in Japan). "There can be no happy end. Yet, even among the hatred and slaughter... it is possible for wonderful encounters to occur and for beautiful things to exist." This sentiment is echoed in the movie when a leper tells Ashitaka: "Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still you find reasons to keep living."

For Miyazaki, of course, a primary reason has been animation. Contradictions abound here as well: in seeking to push audiences into a greater awareness of the outside world, he spends gruelling hours inside Studio Ghibli; a creator of canny movies about the joys and terrors of childhood, he (by his own admission) left the rearing of his two sons to his wife, Akemi Ota. Akemi used to be an animator too; when they married, Miyazaki promised her she wouldn't have to give up her career. "I still feel contrite about breaking my promise," he wrote in a 1992 essay with the blunt title "I Left Raising our Children to my Wife".

At a rare onstage interview over the summer at the University of California, Berkeley, where Miyazaki was awarded the Berkeley Japan award for his life work, he described his creative process as follows: "I think," he told the audience. "I think and think and think... When I'm thinking really hard, I can smell the blood in my nose." This sense of visceral effort is mirrored in Ponyo. When Ponyo uses magic, it is never graceful or effortless; her little body tenses with urgency, and she is constantly struggling against the danger of tiring out and reverting to her goldfish form. Afterwards, she falls deep asleep, recovering from the shock to her system.

On a number of occasions, Miyazaki has announced that he is done with the tiring magic of directing and is working on his last movie. Each time he has turned around and recommitted to animation. Princess Mononoke, released shortly after Starting Point in Japan, incorporated some computer-generated imagery, and his last several films have used digital paint: before Miyazaki began production on Ponyo, however, he dissolved Studio Ghibli's computer department and resolved to return to 100 per cent hand-drawing.

"I'm struggling desperately in the hope of creating something a little better," he writes. "I believe my dilemma is a yoke similar to what audiences - who yearn to be liberated from their daily lives - must bear. It requires a strong will. So that's why I believe that the only solution for me is to go back, again and again, to my starting point."

Kai-Ming Cha is the manga editor at Publisher's Weekly.