There was a time when Goro Miyazaki—son of Japan’s most beloved and successful filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, the man behind such hand-drawn animated masterpieces as the Academy Award–winning Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Howl’s Moving Castle—thought he should just change his damn last name.
The name Miyazaki connotes already-iconic images from the fantastical, box-office-breaking films that Goro’s father and his production house, Studio Ghibli, created over the past 28 years. A little girl riding a dragon over a bathhouse full of strange spirits (Spirited Away), Prince Ashitaka’s arrows slicing through enemy flesh and bone (Princess Mononoke), or a city called Laputa, eternally suspended in the sky (Castle in the Sky)—these all set very high expectations for an animator with no experience and a famous last name. For Goro, it meant that when the hammer came down after the 2006 release of his first film, Tales From Earthsea, it came down especially hard. Based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy novels and framed as an allegory about global warming, the film received horrific reviews. Calling it “slack and often incomprehensible,” the Village Voice surmised that Goro “certainly lacks his father’s charm and humor.” The New York Times began its review with the words “stolid and humorless.”
“I think if I didn’t have the last name Miyazaki, the critics would have been a little bit kinder,” Goro tells The Daily Beast through a translator. “But what my producer [longtime Studio Ghibli collaborator Toshio Suzuki] did tell me at the time is to not try to make a perfect film. He encouraged me to go out and do whatever I want, to get it all out there, and it will eventually benefit me later on.”
If getting it “all out there” means getting any amateur tendencies out of his system, Goro seems to have pulled it off. His second feature film, From Up on Poppy Hill (released Friday in New York and in wide release March 30) was the top-grossing film in Japan in 2011 and expertly carries forward the Studio Ghibli torch. With a script co-written by Hayao and adapted from the 1980 comic book by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama, the film takes place in 1963 Yokohama, a time when a palpable nostalgia for what was lost during World War II and the Korean War still permeated Japan, then preparing to host the 1964 Olympics. The era’s atmosphere of recovery and upbeat bravado is conveyed with jazzy period pop music and visually resplendent painted vistas—and Umi, a high-school junior whose father died in the Korean War, but she still sends up the signal flags that were used to hail him home every day.
At school, Umi meets Shun, an editor of the school paper who is leading the effort to preserve a Meiji-era building that the boys use as a clubhouse. Shun develops a crush on Umi, and after enlisting the female half of the student body to help save the boys’ building, Umi falls for Shun too—but a surprisingly devastating secret about their family past threatens to put an end their budding relationship.
More than any other Studio Ghibli film so far, From Up on Poppy Hill occupies a specific time and place, rather than the fantastical realm of witches, talking wolves, and bathhouse-frequenting spirits present in the production house’s other films. This was done, Goro said, because he approached the project as if it were a live-action film, part of which came down to expressing emotions through more than just words. “All of the decisions we made would be in order to express a particular, internal feeling in the character,” Goro says. “Decisions like: What time of day should it be? Should it be day or night, maybe morning? Should it be raining? What are the characters doing?”
But despite the odd lack of magic or enormous rabbit-things (à la Totoro), familiar Ghibli motifs abound nonetheless: a lonely young female protagonist, innocence, and the purest form of young love—not to mention the masterfully painted backdrops and naturalistic animation Ghibli is celebrated for.
The animation of Poppy Hill also offers a glimpse into the future of Studio Ghibli. With a post-Pixar animation industry now dominated by computer graphics, hand-drawn films like Poppy Hill—and the animators who create them—are on their way to becoming all but extinct. Of course, the legendary Hayao has no plans to stop making hand-drawn films (though he is officially “retired,” his World War II–era picture, The Wind Rises, is set for release in Japan this year). Significantly however, neither does his son, who admits a distaste for computer-generated, or CG, animation.
“There’s a part of me that thinks that [CG animation] is more of a trend,” Goro says. “I do think that hand-drawn animation has much more of a capacity for subtleties, especially when it comes to, say, facial expressions. There’s a certain amount that CG just can’t do at the moment, when it comes to, for example, hair or skirts blowing in the wind.”
Though this passion for hand-drawn films is a shared interest between Goro, 46, and his father, 72, it also makes them direct competitors—and their relationship can be described only as tenuous. Though Goro, now married with a 4-year-old son, initially intended to stay away from animation—he worked as a landscape architect before becoming an animator—he eventually succumbed to the family business when Studio Ghibli producer Suzuki asked him to direct Tales From Earthsea. Hayao is said to have opposed Goro’s helming of the project, and in 2006 the quiet feud between father and son burst into the public eye with a series of blog posts penned by the younger Miyazaki. In one post, titled “Zero Marks as a Father, Full Marks as a Director,” Goro described a father consumed by his work creating films for other children, but who largely neglected to spend time with his own. He laments, “I hardly ever had the chance to talk to him.”
Asked what the relationship has been like since then (and since the Earthsea feud), Goro simply says, “Frankly, it hasn’t really changed all that much from before. It’s still a workaholic father and a son. But I think that I understand better, through the work that I’ve done, the struggles that he experienced and the things that he used to talk about—though on the other hand it’s made it a little tougher to talk about those things too.” They’re tougher, he says, because “regardless of the fact that I’m his son, professionally speaking, I’m a competitor who’s wandered into the same path—and I can be really competitive as well.”
For the future of Studio Ghibli—and hand-drawn animation in general—Goro’s competitiveness can only be a good thing.