Monday, September 7, 2009

Miyazaki's Starting Point

This book, a collection of articles and speeches by director Hayao Miyazaki as well as interviews with him, is one of the most important books on animation ever published. It contains almost no pictures; instead it is a book of philosophy and observations that reveal Miyazaki to be as perceptive and articulate as anyone who has worked in animation.

It isn't necessary that creators be able to write or speak intelligently about their work. I greatly admire director John Ford, who actively disliked interviews; he would take sadistic pleasure in abusing interviewers and left no writings of any consequence. Anything Ford wanted to say he put on the screen and that was more than enough to earn him respect.

However, when a director reveals himself in words as well as films, it can lead to an enhanced appreciation of the person and the work. I have admired Miyazaki for quite some time, but I have to say that my respect for him increased enormously after reading this book.

Miyazaki has a broad range of interests. Of course, he talks about animation (with interesting perspectives on Disney, Dave Fleischer and Tezuka), but he also talks about politics (Marxism and Yugoslavia), history (particularly Japanese history), technology, children, audiences, mentors, economics and the environment.

I can't do better than to extensively quote Miyazaki to give you a flavour of the thoughts that this book contains. Here he is on the relative importance of content and technique:
Having said all this, if someone were to ask me what the most important thing is when creating a new animated work, my answer would be that you first have to know what you want to say with it. In other words, you have to have a theme. Surprisingly, perhaps, people sometimes overlook this basic fact of filmmaking and overemphasize technique instead. There are innumerable examples of people making films with a very high level of technique, but only a very fuzzy idea of what they really want to say. And after watching their films, viewers are usually completely befuddled. Yet when people who know what they want to say make films with a low level of technique, we still greatly appreciate the films because there is really something to them.
I was particularly taken with this paragraph on running. There are many animation textbooks that will explain how to do a run, but this single paragraph says more about why you would have a character run than any animation book I've read.
The running of surging masses on fire with anger, the running of a child doing his best to hold back tears until he reaches his house, the running of a heroine who has forsaken everything but the desire to flee -- being able to show wonderful ways of running, running that expresses the very act of living, the pulse of life, across the screen would give me enormous delight. I dream of someday coming across a work that requires that kind of running.
What Miyazaki is talking about here is the emotional heart of animation -- the emotions that literally animate a character -- not simply the path of action of a foot or the spacing between drawings.

Miyazaki takes a dim view of the production conditions for television.
What does seem to be a big problem to me, however, is that both the film and TV worlds are always desperately running after whatever carrots are dangled in front of them. The carrots for the TV world are particularly small, truly piddling overall, and for both TV and film projects that pass muster tend to be low risk and highly disposable. For TV today, the biggest problem is the huge increase in the number of shows being made. Everyone's confused about what is being done. No one knows who is making what, or where. And no one is watching what others are making. If you watch something for three minutes, you feel like you know everything about it, even what went on backstage, and then you don't feel like watching the rest.

In reality, it's impossible for creators to keep working at the same pace year in and year out. The harder it is to try to make one good program, the more difficult it is to achieve that same level of quality over and over again. If you really want to create good shows year in and year out, you have to create an organization or system that makes this possible. But in the world of TV animation, it's physically impossible to create a series where each episode is like a theatrical feature. Since we have to cram shows into a system of mass production and mass marketing -- and keep pumping episodes out in such a tight cycle -- it's only natural that the works eventually become anemic. I think that's the point where the industry is now.
Miyazaki considers the appeal of animated films.
I like the expression "lost possibilities." To be born means being compelled to choose an era, a place, and a life. To exist here, now, means to lose the possibility of being countless other potential selves. For example, I might have been the captain of a pirate ship, sailing with a lovely princess by my side. It means giving up this universe, giving up other potential selves. There are selves which are lost possibilities, and selves that could have been, and this is not limited just to us but to the people around us and even to Japan itself.

Yet once born,there is no turning back. And I think that's exactly why the fantasy worlds of cartoon movies so strongly represent our hopes and yearnings. They illustrate a world of lost possibilities for us. And in this sense I think that the animation we see today often lacks the vitality of older cartoon movies. Economic constraints in production are often said to be the main reason, but it seems to me that something spiritual is also missing. It would be stupid to turn my back on the times in which we live and act arrogrant about it all, but I always find myself thinking that the old cartoon movies were indeed more interesting and exciting that we have today.
But while animation can serve a spiritual purpose, it's also tainted by commercialism.
After working in cel animation for so many years, I've recently become more away of the things I have been unable to do, rather than the things I have been able to do. I still think that encountering wonderful animation as a child is not a bad thing. Yet I'm also acutely aware that this profession is actually a business, targeting children's purchasing power. No matter how much we pride ourselves in being conscientious, we produce visual works that stimulate children's visual and auditory senses, and whatever experiences we provide them are in a sense stealing time from them that otherwise might be spent in a world where they go out and make their own discoveries or have their personal experiences. In the society in which we live today, the sheer volume of material being produced can potentially distort everything.
Miyazaki's view of life is nuanced.
I think there is is no way we can live and "not cause difficulties for others," as the saying exhorts us. I have come to think that even when we are overflowing with love and goodness, the world of human beings is one in which we cast our shadows onto each other, giving each other troubles as we grow and live.

The question then becomes, what it is hope? And the conclusion I'd have to venture is that hope involves working and struggling along with people who are important to you. In fact, I've gotten to the point where I think this is what it means to be alive.
As I said above, it isn't necessary for a director to say anything beyond what's on the screen, but reading Miyazaki, I'm convinced of the intelligence behind his films. I wish that intelligence was more widespread in animation today.

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