Hayao Miyazaki Prepares to Cast One Last Spell (Published 2021) (2024)

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No artist has explored the contradictions of humanity as sympathetically and critically as the Japanese animation legend. Now, at 80, he’s coming out of retirement with another movie.

By Ligaya Mishan

THE SCREEN IS black, and then comes the first frame: Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animated filmmaker since the advent of the form in the early 20th century and one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, is seated in front of a cast-iron stove with a pipe running up toward the ceiling, flanked by windows propped half open. Sun burns through the branches of the trees outside. Three little apples perch on a red brick ledge behind the stove. He wears an off-white apron whose narrow strap hooks around the neck and attaches with a single button on the left side — the same style of apron he has worn for years as a work and public uniform, a reminder that he is at once artist and artisan, ever on guard against daubs of paint — over a crisp white collared shirt, his white mustache and beard neat and trim, and his white hair blurring into a near halo as he gazes calmly at me through owlish black glasses, across the 6,700 miles from Tokyo to New York.

I have one hour to ask questions. It is a rare gift, as Miyazaki has long preferred not to speak to the press except when absolutely necessary (which is to say, when he’s prodded into promoting a film), and has not granted an interview to an English-language outlet since 2014. Our conversation has been brokered by the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which mounted the first North American retrospective of his work in September, with Studio Ghibli’s cautious assent; Jessica Niebel, an exhibitions curator, cites him as an exemplar of an auteur who “has managed to stay true to himself” while making movies that are “approachable to people everywhere.” I know I am lucky to have this time, and yet it feels wrong to meet Miyazaki this way, at a distance (due to Covid-19 travel restrictions) and through a computer, a machine he has so famously shunned.

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For, in an age of ever-advancing technology, his animated films are radical in their repudiation of it. From “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), with its vision of gentle friendship between two children and an enormous growling forest creature whom only they can see, to the ecological epic “Princess Mononoke” (1997), whose title character, a human raised by wolves, first appears sucking blood out of a wound in her wolf mother’s side (the hero, an exiled prince, takes one look at her blood-smeared face and falls in love), to the phantasmagorical fable “Spirited Away” (2001), in which a timid girl must learn pluck and save her foolish parents (who’ve been transformed into pigs) by working at a bathhouse that caters to a raucous array of gods, Miyazaki renders the wildest reaches of imagination and the maddest swirls of motion — the stormy waves that turn into eel-like pursuers in “Ponyo” (2008), the houses rippling and bucking with the force of an earthquake in “The Wind Rises” (2013) — almost entirely by hand. And unlike Walt Disney, the only figure of comparable stature in animation, Miyazaki, who is now 80, has never retreated to the role of a corporate impresario, dictating from on high: At Studio Ghibli, the animation company he founded with the filmmaker Isao Takahata and the producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985, he’s always worked in the trenches, as part of a team of around a hundred employees devoted just to production, including key animators and background, cleanup and in-between artists, whose desks he used to make the rounds of daily for decades. (His own desk is hardly bigger than theirs.) He still draws the majority of the frames in each film, numbering in the tens of thousands, himself. Only occasionally has he resorted to computer-generated imagery, and in some films not at all.

“I believe that the tool of an animator is the pencil,” he tells me. (We speak through an interpreter, Yuriko Banno.) Japanese pencils are particularly good, he notes: The graphite is delicate and responsive — in the 2013 documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” directed by Mami Sunada, he mocks himself for having to rely on a soft 5B or even softer 6B as he gets older — and encased in sugi (Japanese cedar), although, he muses, “I don’t see that many quality wood trees left in Japan anymore.” He adds, “That’s a true story,” then laughs, leaning in to the screen, and I think of the ancient, moss-cloaked trees in “Princess Mononoke,” cut down to fuel Lady Eboshi’s ironworks, and of their counterparts in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine on the island of Yakushima in the south, which Miyazaki visited while location scouting for the film. The oldest cedar there, 83 feet tall and nearly 54 feet in circumference, is believed to be more than 2,600 years old, making it one of the oldest trees on earth. (The forest of the film does not exactly correspond to the ravine, Miyazaki has said: “Rather, it is a depiction of the forest that has existed within the hearts of Japanese from ancient times.”)

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Hayao Miyazaki Prepares to Cast One Last Spell (Published 2021) (2024)

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