Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Academy of Miyazaki

This past Tuesday, Amy and I spent a delightful evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of a sold-out audience to master American animation director John Lasseter's interview of master Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki.

The evening was punctuated by several of Lasseter's favorite clips from Miyazaki's movies, such as the incredible bus stop/catbus sequence from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO; Pazu's rescue of Sheeta from CASTLE IN THE SKY:LAPUTA; the Hotel Adriano scene from PORCO ROSSO; and the bit from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE that begins with Sofie quietly mending hats and ends with her literally walking on air arm-in-arm with a wizard.

The clips illustrated the magic of Miyazaki's films. Miyazaki dares to focus on quiet moments, such as a little girl falling asleep while waiting for her father at a rainy bus stop, or a pig-faced pilot pouring a glass of wine for an old friend who's learned that her husband has died. We watch such sequences, because (a) they're beautifully realized and (b) we know something incredible is going to happen next.

Miyazaki was charming. He embraced his old friend Lasseter at the beginning and end of the evening. When the audience gave him standing ovations, he bowed and applauded the audience. When a question called for a complicated answer, he would bow his head and rub his brow, as if crafting the perfect response. We learned fascinating tidbits. He felt he was "tricked" into directing his first feature, CASTLE CAGLIOSTRO (the assigned director came to him and asked for help); and he completed the film in four-and-a-half months -- an incredible feat for a film Steven Spielberg once hailed as one of the best action movies he had ever seen. (When he was done, Miyazaki said, he had forgotten to walk by putting one foot in front of the other.) He related that starting his studio, Studio Ghibli, was easy; he and his partners only had to rent a building, and the staff would gather for each project. (It got more complicated later on, he said.) The plot for TOTORO, according to Miyazaki, started with two images in his head: a girl chasing a tiny spirit through a forest; and another girl waiting at a bus stop and encountering a magical creature. He thought the first girl had to be a little girl; and that the other had to be a slightly older girl, to be waiting at the bus stop. He connected them by deciding they were sisters. After that, the story fell into place.

We ended the evening by walking through the incredible exhibition at the Academy, "Anime -- High Art and Pop Culture." The exhibit was a broad survey of the field, and included lots of rare art and cels. The exhibit runs through part of August; and if you're in the Beverly Hills area, I highly recommend you see it. Best of all, it's free.

Miyazaki's Beverly Hills gig was the last stop in a three-stop tour of California that included an appearance in Northern California, and another at a Disney panel at the San Diego Comic-Con. I missed the Comic-Con appearance (it was in the 6,000 seat Hall H, and I never ventured into that hall during this year's con), but the kind folks at Anime News Network have posted a video of it.

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