Meeting Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's greatest living director, is nothing like watching a Miyazaki film. The man dresses entirely in gray, chain-smokes and has a bleak, fatalistic sense of humor. The films, meanwhile--"My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke," his masterpiece "Spirited Away"--are enchanting, radiantly colorful fever dreams. The 64-year-old director is a legend among American animators, and back home he's the equivalent of Steven Spielberg. Miyazaki rarely speaks publicly, but as his latest miracle, "Howl's Moving Castle," arrived in U.S. theaters last week, he made an exception and sat down with NEWSWEEK's Devin Gordon.
GORDON: Why this change of heart?
MIYAZAKI: I figured, "Oh, what the hell." [Laughs] And I feel sorry about making my producer do all the interviews.
Are you hoping your films will enjoy the same success here that they do in Japan?
I think only about my Japanese audience when I make a film. Of course, I'm delighted that people from other countries also enjoy my films. But I try not to think of this as an international business. [Laughs] Somewhere my producer is probably saying the exact opposite.
Were you surprised "Spirited" won an Oscar?
Actually, your country had just started the war against Iraq, and I had a great deal of rage about that. So I felt some hesitation about the award. In fact, I had just started to make "Howl's Moving Castle," so the film is profoundly affected by the war in Iraq.
It's also the rare children's film that addresses the subject of aging. Your protagonist is a young girl who's turned by a witch into a 90-year-old woman.
I made this film so that I could show it to a young girl of 60. [Laughs] What's wonderful about the story is that the happy ending isn't that the spell is broken and the girl is young again. It's that she forgets her age.
The film doesn't follow Western storytelling conventions.
A lot of people say they don't understand the film, and what that means is just that they have a set definition of how a story is supposed to be told. When the story betrays their anticipations, then they complain. Which I find ridiculous. My father, in his old age, only watched TV programs where he could figure out the story in the first three minutes. He'd say, "I can understand this. I can follow it." But I think it's a waste of time to try to change people.
In an interview, "Ghost in the Shell" director Mamoru Oshii claimed that, deep down, you dream of "destroying Japan" and making movies with lots of bloodshed.
[Laughs] It's not that I want to destroy Japan. It's that I predict that it will be destroyed. Oshii and I are friends, so we always dis each other.
OK, but what makes him suspect that you have such feelings about Japan?
Maybe it's because I say things like "Oh, I wish the big earthquake would just hurry up and get here." [Laughs] My thoughts are very pessimistic, yes, but my general state of being is very positive.