In America, Hiyao Miyazaki is a cult hero. In Japan, he’s a minor deity. The 61-year-old animator and comic-book artist directs thoughtful, gorgeous cartoon epics – movies packed with fantastic creatures and a love of nature, flight and adventure – that consistently break box-office records in his native Japan. At least three of his films – 1992’s Porco Rosso (The Crimson Pig), 1997’s Princess Mononoke and watch Spirited Away online – enjoy the distinction of having been the biggest-grossing domestic hits of their respective years in Japan.
Even Steven Spielberg has gone on the record as a fan – praising Miyazaki’s debut feature, 1979’s rollicking Castle of Cagliostro, as one of his favorite adventure movies. (Imagine Cagliostro as the greatest episode of Speed Racer you’ve never seen – a violent, cleverly plotted heist comedy starring a thief, a princess, a samurai, a count and a gangster.)
But will Miyazaki’s particular brand of visual poetry play to American audiences? Miramax bet it would in 1999, bringing Princess Mononoke to America – and hiring Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver and Billy Crudup to dub dialogue translated by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. But the dense, morally complex environmental allegory – which won Japan’s equivalent of a best picture Oscar in 1997 – grossed only $2.3 million stateside.
Now Disney – led by Miyazaki’s friend of two decades, Toy Story director John Lasseter – is taking another stab at selling Hiyao to Joe and Jane Sixpack. Under Lasseter’s guiding hand, The House of Walt is bringing Spirited Away full movie to these shores. An even bigger hit in Japan than Mononoke, it’s the story of a spoiled 10-year-old girl who stumbles onto a ghost town/bathhouse run by gods and monsters while on a road trip with her parents – who are, incidentally, turned into pigs. It’s been described as Alice and Wonderland filtered through Japanese mythology, and it stands a chance at scoring with audiences turned off by the somber, adult tones of Mononoke.
InFocusMag.com scored an e-mail interview with the mildly reclusive director, who spends much of his time in a mountain cabin between projects for Studio Ghibli, the animation house he helped found in 1985. Here’s what he had to say about making films for 10-year-olds, working without a script, and the differences between American and Japanese animation.