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Hayao Miyazaki Contemplates Dreams, the Environment and the Elegant Simplicity of 'Ponyo'

Sitting before a standing-room-only crowd of 6,500, most of whom had waited hours to catch a glimpse of the silver-haired animation master and greeted him with a raucous standing ovation at last month’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego, Hayao Miyazaki played the part of reclusive auteur to perfection.

He was soft spoken and unfailingly polite as longtime friend John Lasseter, the Pixar Animation chief who describes his films as “unique and inspirational,” questioned him about Ponyo, his wondrously illustrated tale of a fish who turns into a little girl after discovering love in the human world.

If his answers came off as less than revealing, nobody seemed to mind.

“My [creative] process is thinking, thinking and thinking – thinking about my stories for a long time,” he said with a wink, through a translator. “If you have a better way, please let me know.”

Miyazaki, 68, whose Spirited Away (2001) was the first Japanese anime film to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature – in his homeland, it remains the highest-grossing movie of all time – was a relative unknown on these shores until the 1997 release of Princess Mononoke.

Since then, the director, whom Time magazine has twice ranked among the world’s most influential people, has earned a growing legion of followers who have been waiting for the North American release of Ponyo (dubbed by an English-language cast featuring Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey and Liam Neeson) since it was released in Japan to rave reviews in July 2008.

Today, the proudly old-fashioned Miyazaki, recently awarded the 2009 Berkeley Japan Prize by the Center for Japanese Studies at UC, Berkeley, remains as much a champion of hand-drawn animation – an increasing rarity in an era dominated by CGI – as he is of the environment. In Princess Mononoke, a young warrior princess defends an ancient forest against the destructive hand of mankind. In Ponyo, partially inspired by the director’s recent vacation by the Seto Inland Sea in Japan, a tsunami-like storm rejuvenates prehistoric sea creatures and purges their habitat of human waste.

On how an otherwise leisurely vacation affected his approach to the story of Ponyo:
HM: "I saw how people have polluted the sea, and came back home angry. I don’t think we’re born with a natural tendency to protect the environment. I think it’s something we learn if we’re educated and brought up to have the manners to care for the world. At some stage in our lives, the greed factor became stronger, and that has led us to the horrible situation we’re in now. A change is necessary, and I believe my films convey that.”

On the aspects of Ponyo’s tale that touched him most:

HM: “A little boy and a little girl, love and responsibility, the ocean and life – these things, and that which is most elemental to them, are depicted in the most basic way in Ponyo.”

On the power of dreams, and how he uses them to beat writer’s block:

HM: “I try to fish out my own dreams by dangling a fishing line into my subconscious, but they don’t catch very well. When I get stuck on ideas, I have to dig down deep into my subconscious, past the surface of my mind that no longer seems helpful, to find some interesting way to resolve the drama in my films. But to get there, it’s very difficult for me. It’s a constant struggle.”

On his animation studio’s unwavering devotion to producing hand-drawn films:

HM: "The world might be going toward high tech, but I want Studio Ghibli to be like a wooden boat that journeys with sails. We could sink, of course. I don't know if we're very strong, and we're not confident about the future.”

On the importance of popularizing Miyazaki’s work in America:
John Lasseter: “Ever since Disney started releasing English-language versions of Miyazaki-san’s films, I have volunteered to help in any way I can. I want audiences in America to see his movies, because once you do, you’re in love.

“The first film of his that I saw was [1979’s] Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro. I was so taken by the humor and the heart, as well as the three-dimensional depth of his hand-drawn animation. More than anything else, the thing that has inspired us at Pixar is his celebration of the quieter moments in movies, which goes against Hollywood’s preference for louder, faster entertainment.”