Japan's anime master makes powerful films

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One of the first side trips animation master Hayao Miyazaki took upon arriving in Los Angeles was a tour of the animation studios at The Walt Disney Company.

"I love watching my colleagues at work," he says with a tranquil smile.

It is a fitting, if ironic, start to the American visit of a man whom younger disciples of the art form around the globe regard with awe-like reverence.

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The directors of Disney's animated film "Mulan" remarked in a recent tribute that "Miyazaki is like a god to us." Over at Pixar, the studio responsible for the animated features "Toy Story" and "a bug's life," the feeling is similar. "When we have a problem," director John Lasseter has said, "we often watch a copy of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films for inspiration. And it always works. We come away amazed and inspired."

Now the maestro is on an international tour to bring attention to the English-language release of his wildly successful Jap-anese masterwork, "Princess Mononoke." (Its 1997 Japanese release set box-office records there with more than $150 million in earnings, second only to "Titanic.")

At the moment, he is ensconced in an elegant hotel suite exuding a Buddha-esque calm at the center of a considerable storm of activity. Half-a-dozen assistants flutter around him, and his personal translator warns that the master's time is extremely valuable and that "He does not suffer fools [gladly]." The lights and cameras of a Japanese film crew record the scene for posterity. The team is trailing its country's acknowledged king of animation to document his life story for Japanese television.

Miyazaki takes it all in and reflects on his reasons for becoming an artist of this particular form. "I want to capture the essence of movement," muses the magician of the hand-drawn cell. "Animation is a manifestation of that desire."

He has pursued that desire over a period of decades in his native country, perfecting his anime style, the comic book-based animation that was born in Japan. This particular form differs from the American Saturday morning cartoon or even the more sophisticated feature-length films first produced by Disney and now by several other studios.

Anime generally has complex story lines, with detailed characters who routinely discuss life-and death-matters such as religion and the afterlife. The figures are usually drawn with oversize eyes reflecting the Japanese belief that the eyes are the windows to the soul.

And, anathema to Western audiences, the good guy occasionally loses.

In true anime style, the conflicts within "Princess Mononoke" are deep. The story follows an inexperienced feudal prince who sets out to undo a curse placed upon his dying village. During his journey, he meets Princess Mononoke, a girl raised by wolves, who has taken the side of the animals in an Olympus-size battle between man and nature.

The film is populated by a pantheon of gods and creatures, neither group of which is purely good or evil. The filmmaker takes two hours plus to explain the destructive power of greed on both sides. The film, which shows medieval Japanese forests and villages in elegant, detailed watercolors, sets new technical standards for anime with its depth of saturated color and hand-drawn detail.

Miyazaki, the creator of this mythical world, says he chose the ancient setting because it allowed him to make a larger statement about current world affairs.

"There can be no happy ending between the rampaging forest gods and humanity," Miyazaki says. But even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, he adds, "There is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things exist." Like his own films, for example.

Despite his pessimism about human nature, he is a great believer in the role of the artist in society. While he acknowledges the growing presence of computerized animation, he maintains the artist will always have a singular role to play. "No computer can write a wonderful story," he says.

Miramax Films, which is handling the American release of "Princess Mononoke," arranged some familiar voices in the English-language version of the film, including Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Gillian Anderson.

Miyazaki is pleased with the translation into English because he is eager to get his films before more eyes. "I believe in the power of the artist," he says, noting that despite his success, he has always been an artist before a businessman. "You have to rely on your core values and make the best films you can."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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