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Interviewing Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's Greatest Animation Director

01/21/2014 09:50 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

I'm sitting in a garden courtyard at Studio Ghibli interviewing the famous anime director Hayao Miyazaki. The only problem is that the garden is in pitch darkness, sort of like my mind which, having been for days in high gear frantically preparing about a million questions in Japanese for the interview, has suddenly gone blank. I start wondering if I should just slink away under cover of darkness. Just then we are interrupted by an aerial invasion: dozens of American women soldiers start parachuting into the courtyard and shooting their guns into the air, lights and noise flashing all around. I am shouting at them "Stop! Stop!" Then I wake up and realized that the day I had been waiting for since over three years has finally arrived.

I am writing a book on Miyazaki and for the last four months have been trying to get an interview with him. Finally, I've succeeded, the day has come, and I'm so nervous I can barely button my boots on this cold January morning. And what the hell does the dream mean?

Darkness? Flying girls? Guns? At the very least, the real interview probably won't devolve into a shoot em up. If it's true that dream characters are all really manifestations of ourselves then perhaps I am the flying American girl[s] and the guns are the myriad questions popping into my mind.
In fact the interview turns out to be -- not just interesting and enlightening but actually, dare I say -- fun? When I think about it, perhaps it's not that surprising. Miyazaki at his best is charming, funny and fascinating. It helps that we had met before and that Ms. Mikiko Takeda, who works at Ghbili and assisted me in arranging the interview also participated. The interview therefore became more like a relaxed three way conversation than an intense one on one question and answer session.

But perhaps most crucial was the fact that I had spent seemingly thousands of hours reading about Miyazaki in English and Japanese. I have watched his films, read his manga, visited the locations that had inspired his works, and even read many of the multicultural myriads of books that have influenced him. Consequently, the chance to actually talk to the man in person was so exciting and so, well, fun. There were moments when it felt like I was catching up with an old friend whose tastes and interests matched my own to an astonishing degree.

Of course Miyazaki is not a friend -- he is an eminent and exceptional artist whose announcement last summer that he would retire spurred an international outpouring of encomiums, ranging from the British newspaper the Guardian's sober reporting on his political views to an imaginative and funny tribute in a recent episode of the The Simpsons.

The Simpsons episode was particularly impressive and, in a way, intimidating. In a minute and half the series managed to touch on at least two thirds of Miyazaki's oeuvre. In an hour interview how could I begin to dig into the richness of this director's imagination?

Even the smaller adjunct atelier where we met contained hints of an imaginative world. The first floor reminded me of Zeniba's house in Spirited Away. It consisted mostly of a single large room with a soaring ceiling and a roaring gas fire. Miyazaki San put me at ease immediately by greeting me with "Ohisashiburi" (nice to see you again) and taking my coat. He, Takeda San, and I sat down at a large wooden table whose only ornament was an ashtray and a box of cigarettes that Miyazaki occasionally fingered but never lit. Since I know that he enjoys smoking I was touched that he would abstain during the hour and fifteen minutes that we actually spoke.

I decided not to start with the obvious, i.e., his retirement and his last film The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) which will open in wide distribution in the U.S. in February. I figured that these topics would arise inevitably in the course of the interview and indeed they did.

Accordingly, I started by presenting him with a tiny book that I had picked up at a library in the provincial town in Shikoku two summers ago. Seeking a cool refuge on a hot day, my daughter and I had stumbled by pure chance into an exhibition of Miyazaki's top fifty favorite children's books, complete with explanations in his handwriting about why he had chosen them. The book I showed Miyazaki was a miniature compendium of his favorites and I asked him if there were any that he particularly wanted to comment on at this point.

The books ranged enormously, from lesser known works like Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners about a group of British children in WW II who discover a lost German machine gun and decide to fix it (with rather startling consequences), to such classics as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The majority were written by English writers but writers from France, Poland, Germany, and of course Japan appeared as well.

Unsurprisingly, most of the works were fantasy so our discussion drifted naturally into the role of fantasy, not only in Miyazaki's own work but in the world around us. I reminded him of a declaration he had made in an interview last summer. A journalist had asked why Miyazaki's new and presumably final film was historical rather than fantastic. At the time Miyazaki simply replied that he could no longer create fantasy in today's world.

This seemed worth probing. Fantasy to me seems like a vital part of our imaginative life so I told him I was sorry that he seemed to be rejecting it. He pondered for a while. "It's not that I disagree with you," he said "But the problem is the commercialization of everything these days including fantasy." He went on to talk about how the studio had sponsored a wedding for a Ghibli employee at midday in the studio itself. "The children at the nursery school next door were all excited," he explained, "especially the girls, who loved the bride's long dress. They all wanted to dress up in it and twirl around." His point seemed to be that there was nothing wrong with fantasies of long gowns and twirling but that the commercial culture that created the bridal fantasy (and he might have mentioned the whole "princess" phenomenon) exists to make money rather than provide an environment that stimulates the imagination.

I worried that Miyazaki had soured completely on fantasy so his next words came as both a relief and a revelation. "As a matter of fact," he said "I spent all New Years holiday reading The Tales of Hoffman."Apparently, Miyazaki had become fascinated by Tchaikovsky' s Nutcracker Ballet, especially the weird and enticing image of the nutcracker itself, a doll that metamorphoses from a small wooden plaything to a human size soldier and finally into a handsome prince. Inspired by the ballet, he had gone back to the original source, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,written by E.T.A. Hoffman, the nineteenth century German writer known for his vivid and frightening fantasies.

I must admit that I felt a trickle of excitement going through my brain when he said this and, looking over at Takeda San, I thought she felt it too. It is one thing to talk to a friend or a colleague about a book of fantastic stories but it's another thing to talk about it with the man who is widely considered the world's greatest animator. What if Miyazaki came out of retirement and created an anime from this strange, grotesque but utterly gorgeous story? Perhaps that's my own fantasy but it's a nicer dream than girls with guns. (To be continued)