A Japanese animator with a timeless style

Hayao Miyazaki's folklore films have been hugely successful in Japan. His latest, 'Spirited Away,' opens in the US next month.

He has sometimes been called the Walt Disney of Japan. But while the works of Disney are rarely mentioned in the same breath as those of Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the films of Hayao Miyazaki frequently are.

Mr. Miyazaki, who has directed 12 feature-length animated films and four TV series, is seen as the master in a country with a passion for animation. Indeed, animated films account for about 60 percent of Japanese film production.

Miyazaki's appeal extends far beyond the Japanese culture. He has achieved critical acclaim and garnered devoted fans worldwide. His latest film, "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" ("Spirited Away" in English) was lauded in France and Asia earlier this year. It is scheduled to open in the United States Sept. 20.

The film is about a pony-tailed 10-year-old girl who finds herself toiling in a bathhouse frequented by Japanese spirits when her parents are put under a curse and turned into pigs.

In Japan, the movie has been a sensation. During its eight-month run, it has sold more tickets than any other film in Japanese history – $214 million (US) – surpassing "Titanic," the previous top-grossing film there.

Miyazaki's work has gained global popularity for many reasons.

He is a skilled craftsman, and one of the few directors in the world of animation who personally checks every key frame, reworking ones that are not to his satisfaction.

On the storytelling side, he has also succeeded in creating protagonists – often, as in "Spirited Away," young girls – who move and act and think like little girls, and who offer the kind of role models adults are happy to place before children's eyes.

But some say the real magic of Miyazaki's tales lies in the way that they speak to adults, often arousing a sad but sweet sense of nostalgia, a longing for the mysterious, timeless land of Miyazaki's own imagination.

"He speaks to certain late 20th-century and early 21st-century hungers," says Susan Napier, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese studies at the University of Texas in Austin. "He incorporates European and Japanese elements to create his own Miyazaki world."

Miyazaki's movies tend to bridge generations, as do films like "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings." Japanese viewers say Miyazaki's works offer adventures for children wrapped around plots that stir genuine adult emotion.

"For the children, it draws them in," says Yumi Ogawa, who, earlier this year, waited in line for the film with her two small daughters clad in matching pink coats. "But for us adults, it makes us think of the old Japan and that is very appealing."

"There's something in it for every generation," says Ted Yashima, who, with his wife, Yoko, took their two children to see the film.

And while Mr. Yashima agrees there was something compellingly Japanese about the film, he says he was also moved by elements that struck him as more Chinese.

"I thought it was more Oriental rather than just Japanese," says Mrs. Yashima.

American audiences

In the United States, Miyazaki's has yet to make a strong showing, leaving some Hollywood executives dubious about the Sept. 20 US debut of "Spirited Away."

Though time will tell, the film may be too long and too Japanese for US viewers, they fear.

One of Miyazaki's recent films, "Princess Mononoke" – a monster hit in Japan – drew scant attention in the US.

On videotape, however, the Miyazaki films "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service" have found a small, devoted following in the US. "Totoro" is the story of two young girls and their father who move into a beautiful old house in the Japanese countryside in what appears to be the 1950s.

The story draws heavily on a mixture of what Miyazaki sees as the natural and playful spiritual world in the Japanese countryside.

Many of the movie's fans insist that the color and warmth of the film's setting appeal not just to a Japanese sensibility but to a post-industrial longing found in many nations today.

"[Miyazaki] has an ability to bring up the past in a way that is nostalgic and moving and richer and more magical than the real past," says Professor Napier.

"It's all the more poignant because there is a sense of loss," Napier adds. "He has an agenda. He wants to wake people up to what they're losing – the environment, the family."

And yet, she points out, his messages are not antimodern or anti-Western. On the contrary, one of his great loves is for Italy, and European castles and images permeate many of his films.

One of the surprises for some Western viewers is that Miyazaki's adventure stories don't deal in simple good and evil dualities, but rather, create more nuanced characters and situations in a fashion that some say mirrors traditional Japanese folklore.

Certainly much of Miyazaki himself, his own childhood and his personal passions are reflected in elements repeated in his work.

Before World War II, his father was an airplane manufacturer and a love of flying and especially of old planes is found throughout Miyazaki's work.

His mother was long an invalid, and the fear of the loss of a parent is another influence.

Images of Italy, pigs, raccoons, "gallant" young female protagonists – all of these feature prominently in Miyazaki films, along with sporadic references to Japanese gods and spirits.

Sprinkled throughout these motifs are hints that the earth is fragile and needs protecting, and that a beautiful world could be created and preserved if mankind were inclined to work harder at it.

"All these Miyazaki movies always fit in worlds that are very old but with 20th-century technology," says Simon Hollander, a management consultant originally from New Zealand who now lives in Tokyo. "That's a metaphor for Japan itself."

A true storyteller

As a foreigner, Mr. Hollander says he thoroughly enjoys Miyazaki's films but sometimes feels frustrated watching them, as he misses things like references to certain Japanese gods or spirits.

But that's also what he admires about Miyazaki – the feeling that he's just trying to tell his story, and not worrying about speaking to Western audiences.

It is really to children that he most hopes to speak, Miyazaki once told a Japanese interviewer.

He would like to show them the world as it might be, rather than as it really is. His real motive, he said, is simply to give them hope.

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