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For fans of Japanese animation filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, each movie he creates is both an entry into a new fantastic world—and a return to a familiar universe. His eleven feature films, including worldwide hits such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, have redefined animation, and brought Japanese anime to mainstream audiences in America.

Now Susan Napier, Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has written a new book on Miyazaki and his films, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (Yale University Press). It’s partly a biography, but mostly a film-by-film analysis of Miyazaki’s wondrous creations, a celebration of his animation and storytelling.

Napier, whose previous books include Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle and The Fantastic in Japanese Literature, has taught a seminar on Miyazaki for a number of years. She was waiting for someone else to write a book about his life and works in English, and finally decided to take it on herself.

“He’s a very complicated and passionate man,” she said. His works, she said, often invoke “the elegiac, a sense of lament or loss, which is much more pervasive in Japanese than American culture. You wouldn’t think of cartoons as being elegiac, but they are, and I would say Miyazaki has elegiac work.”

As she learned more about Miyazaki’s life, she began to think about his films in a different way. “I could start understanding more about why he emphasized certain things in his films, why he was fond of particular kinds of stories,” she said. “He’s a very well-read, cultivated individual, and very interested in current events, and he takes them and his own story and then creates something completely original—these extraordinary, idiosyncratic, unusual works of art.”

Tufts Now talked recently with Napier about Miyazaki and Miyazakiworld, which is being translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.

Tufts Now: Miyazaki’s films are animated, and there’s a presumption that animation is for kids—and there are kids in these movies—but they seem more adult than not. Why is that?

Susan Napier: Up until his very last film, he wanted to create for families. He does have a message that he’s trying to convey to both children and adults. In general, though, anime is not necessarily seen as a children’s medium. It kind of developed in Japan initially for children, but starting in the sixties, it went into a much more adult direction, really encompassing dark, tragic themes.

American animation and movies tend to go for simple ideas and happy endings, but Miyazaki certainly doesn’t.

In American animation for children—and even Hollywood cinema in general—we expect the happily-ever-after ending. But that doesn’t always happen in Japan, and in particular in Miyazaki’s middle-to-late works like Princess Mononoke, for example, where you have two protagonists who do not live together happily ever after. They care about each other, but the world is so complicated and so challenging that they can’t live together. And that’s shocking for Americans.

Even in Spirited Away, which is more of a children’s fantasy, you have an almost-romance between the young girl protagonist and her fantasy dragon helper protagonist. But again, it doesn’t go anywhere; again they are separated at the end. I think it’s terribly important: When you are growing up, you would like things to be perfect, but they are not necessarily perfect, and sometimes you have to learn that, and work through that.

I think that’s a really important process that many Americans don’t give their children, because we are so uncomfortable with ambiguity and we are uncomfortable with tragedy. Anime became much more mainstream in America after 9/11—it was that sort of tragic, all-encompassing event that didn’t turn out happily, that really made young Americans look for entertainment that wasn’t all whitewashing or kind of forcing things into a happy-good-guys-win kind of framework, and reflected the real world.

Themes like love of nature, the brutality of mankind, the loss of innocence, seem a common thread in his movies.

The Japanese poster for “My Neighbor Totoro”Those are very important themes. Miyazaki hates being called Mister Ecology—but at the same time, he’s very aware of environmental loss. Even his early My Neighbor Totoro is in a way an elegy for a lost Japan, a Japan of farms, villagers, mountains, and nature all working together. It’s beautifully done, it’s not didactic per se, but it does give you a sense of what’s lost. Many of his films have a sense of loss. In Princess Mononoke, it’s loss at a more epic level, anticipating  the issues of industrialization that would afflict Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. when Japan started industrializing in the nineteenth century.

What else sets his works apart from that of American filmmakers?

One thing that’s really important, something that Americans like—or they find puzzling—about anime is that you don’t necessarily have obvious villains and obvious good guys.

In his works, the bad people have some good in them; the good people have some bad in them.

Yes—and then we can’t make these easy decisions about people. Especially in Princess Mononoke, he pulls out the stops. It’s not good, innocent, nobler nature. You see animals who are beast gods, who have their own passions and anger. And then you have humans, who on the one hand are taking over the environment, but to some extent are using industry to help people. So how do you put this all together?

That’s another thing I love about Miyazaki—he is so relevant to today’s moment. How do you live decently and morally in a cursed world? He really is battling with some very heavy issues that humanity is dealing with right now, all over the planet.

Japan has long been a very patriarchal culture. And yet in his films, it’s young girls who are often the strongest. Why is that?

Here’s a great example. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a story about a young woman who is competent, smart, inquisitive, has her own laboratory, and goes investigating into the toxic jungle—she’s living in the thirtieth century and trying to deal with a polluted, toxic world. She’s brave, a good flyer, a good swordswoman. And there is no hint of romance in that movie—he just wanted to create an interesting person.

When people asked him why he made her a girl, he said, “Well, why not?”—which is amazing. Again, in that period in the early 1980s, not just in Japan, but in America, did you have any strong female characters who were seen outside of their sexuality? I can’t think of anyone offhand.

But Miyazaki also said he was doing it partly—and I use a literary term—to defamiliarize, to make the familiar unfamiliar. In this case he wanted to defamiliarize the idea of the hero. Because if it had been a male hero doing all that, it would have been fine, but it’s so much more interesting this way.

The Japanese poster for “Princess Mononoke”Also what I love about Nausicaä is that she has some definite coded feminine characteristics. She’s deeply compassionate, she’s sensitive, she cares about others. It’s not that she’s a little male in female clothing; she is a complicated, interesting human being, who in a way has both coded male and female characteristics, creating a very balanced, nuanced figure.

What inspired him to take this approach?

He had a very strong-willed mother, with a strong personality, who meant a great deal to him. He was used to dealing with his mother on a fairly intellectual level. She wasn’t able to cook or clean when she was bedridden with tuberculosis while he was growing up, so he really dealt with her on a mental level, talking, discussing, arguing about politics—I’m sure that was a huge influence as well.

Miyazaki’s films have a rich visual feel—but it’s very different than that of, say, Disney. Was that intentional?

One thing is simply that Japanese animation had lower budgets when Miyazaki started out. American animation uses twenty-four frames per second, each hand-drawn, which means you have a smooth flow to the animation, while in Japan, to save money, you’d have twelve frames per second, so an animator could do twice as much work in the same amount of time. So it has a different dynamic to it.

Because of the fewer frames per second, you can’t animate faces as intricately, and figures are less realistic. But there are shortcuts around that. Miyazaki is very good with things like hair, which can become a symbol. In Spirited Away, this young girl works at a bathhouse of the gods, and when a very filthy, stinky god comes in, they animate her hair going straight out in response—it’s a great scene. That’s the kind of thing he would do—using other ways to convey complex feelings and thoughts.

If you want to achieve verisimilitude, and can’t do it only through figures, the settings become even more important, and his settings are so rich in detail and palette, in luminous beauty—his vivid immersive worlds knock your socks off. You want to be there—they are detailed down to the grass growing out of the bricks on a city square—it’s wonderful.

You write about light, happy approaches and dark, serious themes in his films—that he’s not heavy-handed with either, unlike a lot of movies. Can you give an example of how Miyazaki does that?

In Kiki’s Delivery Service, when a witch is thirteen years old, she has to go away from her family and live for a year and support herself. Kiki is a witch and can fly on a broom and talk to her black cat Jiji. So she sets up in a new city, and she starts a delivery service—that’s what she can do, fly her broom around. It’s fun and delightful.

But what is really impressive in this film is that Miyazaki really goes into her character. What is it like to be a young girl—a young person—living alone? It’s a real Bildungsroman; she is learning to grow up, she is developing alone in this strange city. She doesn’t have very much money, and part of her really would love to be able to play and frolic and have fun like the other people her age. Miyazaki really gets at her sense of yearning and loneliness, and at one point she loses her ability to fly.

He could have done a realistic movie about a young girl who’s having problems getting to know people and loses confidence. But making it into this fantastic element, not being able to ride her broomstick—you really remember it, it’s so vivid.

It sounds like it’s almost a psychological portrait, in the middle of this entertaining animated film.

At one point she says: if I can’t fly, I’m nothing. We’ve all felt like that—that something is so important to our identity—but again, by making it into a witch flying, it’s so much more fun. He really explores her depression; she goes to bed and can’t get up; she can no longer speak to Jiji the cat. It’s really a wonderful, subtle, very heartbreaking portrait of this young girl. And in this case, things do get better. She does recover her ability to fly. But again, it’s not a completely happy ending. She doesn’t go off to marry the boy she likes; she’s still doing her delivery service. 

It’s the balance between darkness and light. You walk out of that movie feeling very good—but you also know you’ve been through some tough times with her. You’ve felt them, and at some level you probably identify with her moments of depression and moments of elation.

Why is Spirited Away your favorite Miyazaki film?

Partly because it’s off-the-charts imaginative. It’s like nothing made before or since, in any medium. I remember when I first heard the premise: It’s about a girl who goes to work in a bathhouse for the gods after her parents have been turned into pigs. Wait, what?

I saw it, and I thought:  you never knew what was going to happen next. There was a lot of material that was going in all directions, and I thought some of it was genuinely transgressive. Miyazaki has scenes that are violent and shocking—a number of my students who saw it when they were children were terrified of the movie.

I think the film is like an incredible dream/nightmare that takes twists and turns, and yet you’re really in it. It’s an incredible roller coaster ride that takes you all over the place—with the joy and beauty of the unexpected, and yes, a certain kind of fear. But since it’s Miyazaki, you know ultimately it’s going to be safe.

And you’ve written how it can be viewed through so many different lenses.

It can be looked at as an indictment of consumption, of modern society. It can be about pollution and purity—it’s a bathhouse for the gods, after all. It can be a Bildungsroman story of a young girl really learning how to deal with life. And I also see it in some ways as a metaphor for anorexia and bulimia. It’s a movie that will reward going back to it again and again. It’s just such a pleasure to watch. It’s off the charts.

I have to ask: What’s better—the original Japanese versions with subtitles or the versions dubbed into English by Disney?

There are things that bother me about the Disney versions. They add things—probably because of the American inability to tolerate ambiguity. At the end of Spirited Away, they felt that it wasn’t sure enough that it was a happily-ever-after thing. In the original, Chihiro has been in this magic bathhouse, she’s had all these adventures, she rescues her parents, helps them get back to human form, and then they all leave.

Does she have any memory of what she has seen? We have a guess, because she still has this little hair tie that was made by one of the denizens from the fantasy world, and it kind of glints. That’s enough for the Japanese audience.

But Walt Disney worries about Americans. At the end of the Japanese version, she and her parents simply get into their car and drive away—they are going to move to a new town. And that’s the end. In the American film, they add a voiceover, in which Chihiro’s father says, “So, a new school, new town, wow.” And she says, “I think I can handle it.” That’s just not in the original.

We’ve had passionate discussions about this in my class. Is it right to change the original? Isn’t it about time that Americans learned to deal with ambiguity? And yet part of me says it’s OK, if this helps Americans want to see the film. I’m really torn.

But it really changes the film.

Yes, it does. The Disney version says she can handle it. The original version says no, we don’t know. It’s a big world out there. We know she has the gift given to her, and we actually have to use our intelligence to think about this—use our imagination.

You write in the book that you met Miyazaki three times. Tell me about what he was like.

The first time I met him, I was interested in Studio Ghibli—I was working on my first book on anime, in the 1990s. I got a chance to look around the studio, and we had such a great conversation. He was just so effervescent, so vital, so alive. As I mention in my book, years ago, when I was studying at a Japanese language school, I lived in his hometown, so we kind of bonded over that. I came away with the impression of a vibrant, creative person.

Then I ran into him again at a party—he was getting an award and I was getting a fellowship from the Japanese government. He told me about his latest project, and I thought: that sounds really interesting. It turned out to be Princess Mononoke. I actually went over to Japan one winter partly to see this movie when it came out, because I knew it was so important.

And you interviewed him for your Miyazakiworld book, right?

Yes, the interview came after he had announced his retirement in 2013. It was kind of a shadowy time for him. I went to his studio, and it was very quiet, very few people there. You could see he was being very contemplative, very reflective—I think really he was trying to figure out what was next in his life.

My husband is a portrait painter, and we thought to ask if he would like to have his portrait painted. I asked Miyazaki if he would want to have a keepsake with him in the portrait, one of his characters perhaps. He just sat there and then said, “No, you can just paint me walking into shadows.”

So Miyazaki can be up and down. Not quite mercurial—but I felt that this was someone who was examining himself, examining Japan, examining the role of anime, and whether in the long run had it done any good. He was in his late sixties—he was thinking about his life; that was the impression I got. He was still interested in things; he was reading The Tales of Hoffmann—he was very excited about that. Since then, he has come out of retirement and he’s working on a film again. It’s a big new project, and it won’t be finished for another three years. I believe he will create something amazing.

With someone like him, is retirement even possible?

Sure, what’s he going to do? He’s not going to kick back with the grandkids. He may enjoy them, but he likes to create. He’s a passionate artist.

Susan Napier speaks about her book Miyazakiworld at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on Wednesday, February 6 at 7 p.m.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at [email protected].