John Lasseter on Animation

Andrew Osmond reports on who killed the Catbus, spousal vetting and Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 Hiro Hamada and Baymax

“I did not go hunting and kill the Catbus!” joked Pixar founder John Lasseter to a packed audience at the Tokyo International Film Festival. He was showing us a photo of what indeed looked like a massive mounted trophy of the famous Totoro character, complete with head, front paws and Cheshire Cat grin, a grin which Lasseter claimed was identical to Hayao Miyazaki’s. The ‘trophy’ was made from the fur of a past incarnation of the Catbus in the Ghibli museum (the one kids which kids climb round on all day), and was a gift from Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki. “It’s in my office at Pixar and I look at it every day,” Lasseter said.

Lasseter’s speech has already been widely reported, and frankly, the main topic wasn’t new. The friendship between Lasseter and Miyazaki is well-known to fans; the most thorough document is a two-and-a-half hour documentary (in English) called Thank You, Lasseter-san on Japanese DVD. I was hoping Lasseter would talk about anime beyond Ghibli; in the event he did, but only briefly.

“I loved cartoons as a kid,” Lasseter began. “I never stopped loving cartoons. Even when it was inappropriate to like cartoons, being a teenager – I should have been into girls, I should have been into cars – I loved cartoons. And it wasn’t until years later that I realised some of my favourite cartoons were actually created here in Japan: Astro Boy, Speed Racer and so on. They were dubbed into English and I didn’t know… I just thought they were really cool, really amazing.”

As a young Disney animator, Lasseter saw Star Wars on its first release and became determined to make animation that could work the crowd as well. “I wanted to entertain this incredible audience with animation…We felt that animation was and should be for everybody, because that’s how Walt Disney made his films, that’s how Chuck Jones made his films.’

Lasseter was disheartened to find that Hollywood executives saw cartoons as a kids-only medium, and blamed TV scheduling. “Once everything went to television, and animation was only shown on Saturday mornings and after school, kids’ hours, there was a fundamental change in who they (Hollywood) thought animation was for.”

The first time Lasseter encountered anime was when a Japanese producer, Yutaka Fujioka, came over to America in 1981, bringing artists including Hayao Miyazaki (Lasseter showed a photograph of Miyazaki meeting with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the two most famous animators in the ‘classic’ Disney studio.) Fujioka talked with Lasseter about his work and showed him a trio of clips from Castle of Cagliostro. The scene which most electrified Lasseter was the hill-bounding, cliff-climbing car chase near the start of the film.

John Lasseter

“That sequence still blows me away,” said Lasseter. “I studied it – Fujioka gave me a VHS videocassette copy of the clip. I watched it again and again and again. I had friends at the Los Angeles Film Exposition in 1982 called Fimex. Fujioka sent over a print of the film and I got it into the festival because I wanted everybody to see this. This is what – oh! – this is what we wanted to do. I watched that clip and there’s no way that it was made for kids – just for kids. It’s for kids, it’s for adults, it’s for teenagers, it’s for everybody.”

It’s interesting Lasseter liked this particular clip so much. It’s certainly great, but it’s debatable how much it’s distinctively Miyazaki, as opposed to the style and sensibility of the Lupin franchise in general. It’s quite possible that Lasseter would have gone equally crazy over Cagliostro’s predecessor, the non-Miyazaki Secret of Mamo, which has a far loonier car-chase, featuring helicopters in sewers and a giant lorry cloned from Steven Spielberg’s Duel.

It’s also notable that Lasseter responded to Cagliostro because he saw it as more adult than American cartoons. In contrast, Japanese fans of Lupin might well have mourned Cagliostro’s lack of the violent, irresponsible edge which characterised Lupin’s earlier adventures, an edge that would certainly make them ‘Not for Kids’ in America. Secret of Mamo was rated certificate ‘12’ by the BBFC in the 1990s. This was pushed up to a “15” for Manga Entertainment’s DVD of the film for “moderate sex references, sexualised nudity and violence” – all pushed further still in the recent Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Cagliostro, in contrast, was always a ‘PG’ for mild violence.

Lasseter’s love of anime seems both like and unlike other ‘early’ adopters in the 1980s. He seemed fascinated by the medium’s all-embracing populist potential, whereas other fans liked anime for excluding some groups (kids, for example, or the easily offended). Yet Lasseter’s devoted watching of the Cagliostro clip, and his evangelical zeal to get other people to watch it, should draw nods of recognition from any fan around at that time.

The Pixar/Disney head told a delightful tale of inviting a young woman to his home, where he effectively vetted her to check she was One Of Us. “I showed her my toy collection, and I am not kidding you, I took that VHS video of Castle of Cagliostro and I plugged it in to see what she would think! Luckily for me, she loved it, and I knew that she was the woman of my dreams.” The woman’s name was Nancy Tigg, now John Lasseter’s wife.

John Lasseter

Lasseter’s first trip to Japan was in 1987, during the country’s ‘Bubble’ prosperity. He visited the Yokohoma toy museum of Teruhisa Kitahara, still open today. The museum encouraged Lasseter to make his Oscar-winning CG short Tin Toy, which was the prototype of Toy Story. He also had his first proper meeting with Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli, during the production of Totoro. During the Tokyo talk, Lasseter showed a wonderful snap of that encounter, with himself every bit the grinning geek, while Miyazaki is solemn and upright.

Naturally, Lasseter spent much of the talk praising Miyazaki’s animation. He showed the Totoro bus-stop sequence, singling out the characterisation of the bored, drowsy Mei, and the delicate movement of Totoro’s long claws as he bewilderedly examines the umbrella. “He doesn’t know what to do with it… He just takes it and rolls that umbrella around, I just love that.” Lasseter also cited the use of water in Ponyo, when the girl bounds on the backs of giant liquid fishes.

Miyazaki does not share Lasseter’s global populist perspective. This was pointed up amusingly in an anecdote that Lasseter told about the dubbing of Spirited Away. During the process, Lasseter asked about some of the characters in the film, whose names often reflect their jobs. (For example, ‘Yuna,’ Bath Women; ‘Kamaji,’ Boiler Old Man; and ‘Yubaba,’ Bath Crone.) “I sent a question to Miyazaki,” said Lassseter. “Should we change the characters’ names in the English version, to represent their job? Or do we keep the Japanese names and come up with a way for them to say what their job is when they’re introduced?”

Lasseter continued, “Miyazaki’s reply was: I believe that if the American audience really wants to understand my films, they should all learn Japanese. I went: Thank you! but that’s not really going to help me with this. Then Miyazaki said: I trust you, do what’s right.”

As well as Miyazaki, Lasseter also talked about his perspective on Tokyo, which he linked to his philosophy of animation. “See, I grew up in Los Angeles, where if something is thirty years old, they tear it down and build something new. There’s no such thing as holding on to your heritage; there’s a little bit going on now, but not to the level of what you find here. In Japan, you have the modern and traditional existing side by side. You have the most super-modern neighbourhoods near the most beautiful temples and traditional buildings and gardens. You have awesome vending machines and also beautiful bamboo fountains.

“I think my entire career is founded upon that which I found in Japan, and that is keeping one foot in traditional fundamentals, heritage, beautiful design… You find that in the past, but also for me in principles of animation – basic design principles, all that stuff – when (they’re) applied to new technology. It’s one of the secrets of Pixar that made us always stand out… We never forgot the traditional principles while we were working with the most cutting-edge technology.”

John Lasseter

Lasseter’s account of Tokyo is an excellent summation of why the city appeals to many foreigners. However, in this writer’s experience, some Japanese people don’t see it quite that way. Rather, they see Tokyo pretty much as Lasseter sees Los Angeles; they lament how much history has been torn down and replaced with the new. Several of my Japanese acquaintances love London, because they see far more history and heritage from past centuries there than they do in Tokyo. The dense juxtaposition of past and present in Tokyo, which Lasseter and many foreigners love, could be seen as a deep insult to the city’s past.

The case that Japan is trashing its history has been made elsewhere. For example, you could try Alex Kerr’s furious book-length polemic Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, or the first Patlabor movie, where one character says of Tokyo, “Look away for a second and everything’s changed; before you know it, the past is gone.” Or indeed, you could try Miyazaki’s own films. Princess Mononoke shows primeval Japanese forests being wiped out in the middle ages. In Spirited Away, the world of Japanese spirits is nearly sealed away from ‘modern’ materialist Japan, unlike the neigbourly relationship of humans and spirits in the nostalgic Totoro. “Children are losing their roots,” Miyazaki wrote in his Spirited Away proposal, “surrounded by high technology and cheap industrial goods.”

None of this is meant to disparage Lasseter’s comments, which are heartfelt and plainly sincere. But they do seem emphatically from an outsider’s perspective, like the one in this Tokyo scene from Pixar’s Cars 2, which Lasseter directed:

Lasseter ended his talk by bringing in Big Hero 6, the new Disney CG animated movie which had its premiere in Tokyo. The film takes the principle of juxtaposition one stage further, creating a city that’s a cross between San Francisco (where Pixar is based) and Tokyo. For example, the city’s Golden Gate Bridge has Shinto-style gates.

I saw the film and enjoyed it, though I never felt I knew San Fransokyo (sic) as much as, say, the invented city in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, which similarly borrowed bits of San Francisco. For all the neat references and jokes in Big Hero 6 – for example, one of the young heroes is suited up like a cheesy Ultraman monster – the story and characters still felt very Hollywood to me. But here’s the Japanese trailer… The Japanese title is Baymax, the name of a loveable marshmallow-like droid character which steals the picture.

PS – Amusingly, after all Lasseter’s fulsome praise of Miyazaki at the festival, the next day the ‘hard man’ star director Takeshi Kitano changed the mood. He declared he hated Miyazaki’s films, and animation in general. The second part of the comment is perhaps more surprising, given that Kitano’s stylised 2002 film Dolls had a similar sensibility to animation in places, and was scored by Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s regular composer!

The Kotaku website reports that Kitano’s main point was misrepresented. Apparently, he was saying that he may not like Miyazaki and animation, but he can still see they are hugely important in the cinema industry. “I think you should do things you like, but you also need to be open enough to recognize the things you think you don’t.” A hint that Kitano will voice a future Ghibli cartoon?

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