Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Miyazaki's Turning Point: 1997-2008

Turning Point is the second collection in English of interviews and writings by Hayao Miyazaki.  It covers the period from Princess Mononoke to the pre-production of Ponyo.

The breadth and depth of Miyazaki's interests are on display here.  Where North American animators talk about the craft and the history of animation, perhaps also speaking of live action films, Miyazaki ranges much farther afield.  His interests include literature, Japanese history, social class, gender roles, consumer capitalism, geography, nature, environmentalism, economics, child rearing, mythology, religion and comparative religion. 

Miyazaki is conscious of his need for knowledge.  "It's up to the individual whether one reads books while a student, but the penalty for not reading will eventually come around for the individual. Increasing numbers of people think knowledge and cultivation are not strengths, but ignorance is, after all, ignorance.  No matter how good-natured and diligent you are, if you don't know about the world around you it means you don't know where you are.  Especially in our age, when each of us has to think about where we are going, there will be a heavy price to pay for ignorance about past history."

Miyazaki reflects on the people who enter the animation industry.  "We animators are involved in this occupation because we have things that were left undone in our childhood.  Those who enjoyed their childhood to the fullest don't go into this line of work.  Those who fully graduated from their childhood leave it behind."

The people who talk to Miyazki are not just reporters.  They include authors, academics and scientists.  It is a sign of the respect for Miyazaki and his films that he is not considered just an entertainer, but a social commentator with important things to say. 

It is Miyazaki's curiosity and wide-ranging knowledge that makes his films so satisfying.  He's not focusing on the box office or on story formulas.  He uses his films to try to figure things out and the uncertainty as to whether characters or events are good or bad lends a complexity to his films that is completely lacking in North American animation.  He says that American films "seem too manipulative, so I hate to give into that and get all excited.  And with splatter films, as soon as the music starts warning us about what's coming up, well, they just make me want to leave the theater."

"[People] delude themselves into thinking films are all about identifying with something and finding momentary relief in a virtual world.  But in the old days, people went to see films to learn about life.  Nowadays, when you go into a supermarket, you're presented with a dizzying array of choices, and, similarly, people think of the audiences for film as consumers who just grumble, or complain about things being too expensive or not tasting good.  But I'm not creating something just to be consumed.  I'm creating and watching films that will make me a slightly better person than I was before."

The seeds of future work are revealed in some of these interviews.  In an interview about cities made at the time of Mononoke, Miyazaki says, "I would like to see an expansion of workplaces for [older people] rather than insisting they have a comfortable old age.  A town where everyone, from children to the elderly, has self-awareness and a role as a member of the community is a town full of energy."  He's describing one of the main themes of his yet-to-be-produced feature Ponyo.

In writing about the 1937 book How Will Young People Live by Genzaburo Yoshino, Miyazaki reveals concerns that he dealt with in The Wind Rises.  Both are set in the Showa period leading up to the second World War. "When Yoshino poses the question of 'How will you live?' he means we should go on living, despite all our problems.  He isn't saying that if we live in a specific way that the problems will disappear and everything will be fine.  He is saying that we must think seriously about things and that, while enduring all sorts of difficulties, we must continue to live, even if ultimately to die in vain.  Even if to die in vain.  Yoshino was unable to write directly about the violence of his times, so all he could tell us to do when such times arrive is to keep living without giving up our humanity.  Genzaburo Yoshino-san knew that was all he could do."

I have one disappointment with this book.  The period of articles that date from the period when Howl's Moving Castle was produced do not cover that film at all.  It is a problematical film for me, and I was hoping that there would be a clue as to Miyazaki's thoughts that would serve as a key to that film.  At the time, Miyazaki was also involved in the creation of the Ghibli Museum and the day care centre for Ghibli employees.  Did these distract him from Howl?  Unfortunately, this book gives no indication.

I sincerely hope that there is a third volume, as I am interesting in reading what Miyazaki has to say about The Wind Rises.  In any case, this volume, and the earlier Starting Point, are essential reading for anyone interested in animation and particularly for those in the field.  Miyazaki's erudition shames us.  While many of us call for North American animation to break free of genre conventions, it will take more than wishes for it to happen.  It will only happen when animation artists engage more with the world as it is and let that be reflected in their work.

(For more Miyazaki quotes, please see my review of Starting Point.)


Anonymous said...

Miyazaki: "We animators are involved in this occupation because we have things that were left undone in our childhood. Those who enjoyed their childhood to the fullest don't go into this line of work. Those who fully graduated from their childhood leave it behind."

It's always seemed to me that many of the animators and cartoonists I've worked with suffered from some kind of arrested development. The loud shirts, the toys at the workstations… I think it's sometimes called "The Peter Pan Syndrome."

The last artistic revolution in the cartoon biz was 3-D animation, and the last content revolution was perhaps, South Park. (At least those South Park guys have something to say.) It's time for another new wave… but it won’t happen until the artists in the cartooning biz grow up and start making movies that say something besides "Family is good."

(Statistically, one half of the kids in the audience will eventually live in a broken home. I'd love to see the Dreamworks film that tells kids how to deal with *that.* But I digress.)

Getting back to growing up... Did you read the comments section of Cartoon Brew when they reported on Ed Catmull's wage fixing scandal? How many comments seemed to be written by sad fanboys who were disappointed in their cartoon hero? It was alarming. And these fanboys are a large percentage of the people who want to work in animation.

People talk about how animation has been around 100 years or more, but has not reached its potential. It never will until it starts to attract more writers and directors with something to say. Animation professionals like that exist in other cultures, but not here in North America. Here, animation is marginalized. I know adults who tell me they can't even stand to watch it. It's not relevant to them at all. Here in the USA, we have the animation culture and opportunities we deserve. Why would the current climate attract any body who could take the art of American animation to the next level?

Perhaps the web can change all of that. It would be great to find the animation equivalent of Robert Crumb or Richard Linklater, Louis C.K., Snoop Dogg or Bob Dylan. Where are they?

Not at the movie studios, that's for sure. Nick? Disney channel? Nope. They will have to come from outside the animation biz. They will have to be independent, because the animation biz in North America is aimed entirely at kids and their parents who apparently prefer that nothing challenging be on the screen.

So while more indie work is happening here in North America, especially on the web, it concerns me that what I see of it is not very ambitious - more like auditions for a gig at Cartoon Network.

I think animators can do better. Yes, we can blame the studios for making mindless entertainment, but until the animation biz grows up a bit, the medium will never attain the respect it deserves. And by association, animators won't be respected either.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this commentary Mark. I found Starting Point vastly interesting. I look forward to this one too.

Anon - I agree with your comments. I long for an American animation independant scene that has something to say. I wish I could contrubute but I'm just a fan. It seems for satisfaction one must look to the films coming from abroad. (sigh)