At age 73, Hayao Miyazaki is still capable of surprises. He has an atelier, just behind the main Studio Ghibli building, on a narrow and quiet street in a suburb of Tokyo. Surrounded by trees, it looks like the sort of rustic resort cottage a well-off Japanese with European tastes might build in the mountains. When his assistant escorted Variety through the gate, Miyazaki was in the midst of chopping wood — his preferred method of stress relief. With a big grin and a firm handshake, he walked his visitor into his studio and work space in the center of huge, high-ceiling room. On a big wooden table (imagine a picnic table with chairs instead of benches) was a holder containing dozens of colored pencils and other drawing paraphernalia. Without missing a beat, Miyazaki sat down and started penciling a sketch for a manga that has occupied him since his retirement last year. The esteemed animator talked about his Governors Award (which he will receive Saturday night), the Oscars, about his future animation plans and the changing world of films.
Q: What was your reaction on hearing about Oscar’s Governors Award?
A: I thought, “Somebody must have been pulling strings.” Maybe John Lasseter. He’s my No. 1 supporter there, so I thought he must have been behind it, though that’s pure speculation on my part. I’m not the kind of person who wants more awards. (laughs) Lasseter invited me over to his place, since this may be my last (trip to the States). I don’t want to go, to be honest — I don’t like riding airplanes. (laughs)
Q: The Tokyo Intl. Film Festival is screening a Hideaki Anno retro this year. Not long ago your producer, Toshio Suzuki, said Anno would be the leader of the Japanese animation industry for the next ten years. Do you agree?
A: Anno is a friend of mine so I wish him the best of luck. It will be hard work though. The kind of animation he loves, made with paper and pencils, is dying. I still plan on doing small projects with paper and pencils, but no more feature films.
Q: You were talking about making short films for the Ghibli Museum.
A: We’ve already released a few and I will continue to make them. I have plans for other projects as well.
Q: Do you have working titles? Any details you can share with me?
A: Not yet.
Q: I’ve heard that you’re working on a new manga.
A: Yes, but it keeps getting pushed behind other projects (laughs). I can’t work on it as much as I’d like to.
Q: Is it set in the samurai days?
A: Yes, it is but I have my doubts as to whether I can finish it or not. I wanted to put a lot of effort into it, ignoring costs, like a hobby. I thought I’d have free time, but I keep getting project offers. Not necessarily lucrative ones, but they have a significance for me.
Q: Are you here every day?
A: Yes I am. I’ve recently changed my work schedule to five days a week. I didn’t know what to do with myself taking three days off a week. (laughs) I try to take Saturdays and Sundays off, though.
Q: So you don’t go on long trips?
A: Well I’m going to go to Kamikochi (a mountain resort area north of Tokyo) for a week. It’s the off season then, so there are less people.
Q: When I visited Studio Ghibli in the past, it was always busy. What is the atmosphere like there now?
A: We’ve just finished a project (Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “When Marnie Was There”), so it’s kind of empty now.
Q: There are rumors that Ghibli is going to focus on managing intellectual rights and abandon feature filmmaking.
Assistant: That’s not going to happen.
A: I’m working with the museum staff, but as for the whole of Ghibli, I don’t know anymore. I don’t want to get involved in that sort of thing. I’ll be here as long as they let me do what I want to do.
Let me show you what I’m doing now (holds up a drawing of a globe on the back of a turtle). See, this is an island called Kumejima in Okinawa. In this picture, Kumejima is on the top and the rest of Japan is upside down. I don’t know what the islanders will think, but it’s a symbol I made (laughs). It’s a very beautiful island. They made a recreation facility so that they can bring over children and their parents from Fukushima (the site of the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster). There they can play outside, get stronger, and toughen their immune system. There are parts of Fukushima where children can no longer play outside, you know. I’ve been asked to help with this project so I agreed to make this symbol for them. (laughs) This has occupied me quite a bit.
Q: Is your son Goro going to take over Studio Ghibli? It seems that he has been preparing for that role. (Note: Goro Miyazaki has directed two films for Studio Ghibli, both box office hits.)
A: No, I don’t think like that. Individual ability should be the deciding factor. It’s not something to inherit like property. I think my son would be against the idea as well.
Q: Goro has teamed up with the digital animation studio Polygon to make “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” for television. He made use of 3-D computer graphics, though the program has the look of traditional Japanese animation. What do you think of that trend?
A: I think talent decides everything. More than the method, what’s important is the talent using it. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about a method, whether it be pencil drawings or 3-D CG. Pencil drawings don’t have to go away, but those who continue to use the medium lack talent. So sadly, it will fade away.
I intend to work until the day I die. I retired from feature-length films but not from animation. Self-indulgent animation (laughs). It’s nice that I have the mini-theater in the museum. Most of the museum visitors attend the mini-theater screenings and we’ve never had a complaint about the quality of the films. I’d like to continue to make films that leave the audience satisfied, but I also think it’s pointless unless I offer them the kind of animation they can’t get anywhere else. They’re fun to do. They’re short so it’s less stressful.
Assistant: Have you ever started making a short film and it became longer than you intended?
A: A little bit, but I know the limits I’m working with and some stories have to be told succinctly. It’s a good opportunity for me to experiment and learn. I won’t be in charge of the massive staff at Studio Ghibli, but I will continue to make short films for the museum.
Q: It seems that with the bigger projects, made with a bigger staff, you have to think more about appealing to the audience. If the audience doesn’t come, you can’t make those kinds of films.
A: It’s challenging, but you always have to appeal to your audience. You always have to consider how well your project will do in terms of admissions. I abandoned many stories because of that. But I don’t get too down about it. It’s something I accepted from the time I decided to work in films. I could always do something else if I got sick of it, like draw manga, or make my own films like (the late Canadian animator) Frederic Back. But my own tastes are more pop than art (laughs) and that’s how I’ll continue to work. I found it pointless sitting in my house not working, though I’d like to go on extended vacations from time to time.
Q: It takes a lot of perseverance to do what you did.
A: Yes, I have more perseverance than I used to think I did. I think my work toughened me. I learned to find time to switch off, by chopping logs.
Q: You’ve said that too many young animators are otaku (obsessed fans) who have little real-life experience. All they know is the world of anime.
A: That trend still exists and it takes away from the power of Japanese animation and manga. It was inevitable, though. I managed to work for 51 years with just paper, pencils and film. My wife told me the other day that I should be thankful for that.’You’re a lucky man,’ she said. My son’s generation and the one coming up after can’t work with just paper and pencils any more so I can’t tell you how that’s going to turn out. I managed to avoid using a computer. I don’t even have a cellphone. I feel lucky I managed to live like that. (laughs)
Q: Some generations have it better than others, that’s true.
A: Yes, my elders had to quit their jobs to go off to war. Many couldn’t fulfill their ambitions because of circumstances beyond their control. I’ve managed to keep working using the same methods and tools for 51 years, right up until the time film became obsolete. I’m very lucky in that regard. I attribute my success to luck. Who knows how my making films for the museum will turn out, but you don’t have to know the future. I’m just mucking about, trying to figure my next project. (laughs)