Turning Point 1997-2008

Jonathan Clements reviews Hayao Miyazaki’s collected prose

Hayao Miyazaki - Turning Point 1997-2008

The decade from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo represented the height of Studio Ghibli’s critical acclaim and box office returns. It saw Hayao Miyazaki dragged into the public eye as a poster-boy for “anime”, despite openly despising much of what the medium produced. It saw him picking up Japan’s first and so far only Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, foreign interest in Japanese animation spiking in a massive bubble of investment, and collapsing after the Pokémon generation turned out to be largely unable to put its money where its mouth was.

Throughout, Miyazaki was making movies and giving interviews, now assembled in this second volume of his collected writings. There’s less of the criticism from his early years, since by this point he was enough of a public brand to be solicited for blurbs ahead of release, rather than a jobbing journalist making assessments afterwards. But there is plenty about the production and underlying concepts of his greatest hits, including the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. There are also some quirky scrap-book oddities, such as a discussion of the Czech war film Dark Blue World, a conversation with Aardman’s Nick Park, for whom Ghibli is the Japanese distributor, and his handwritten Oscar acceptance speech, delivered by proxy, seemingly dashed off on the back of a napkin and alluding with oriental subtlety to his disapproval of the Gulf War.

There have been complaints among some reviewers that Turning Point is too bitty and repetitive, often revisiting the same point in several interviews or conversations, particularly when it comes to the publicity tours for the films. But there is a valuable form to such initially distracting content, because someone, somewhere, will derive value out of discovering what questions Miyazaki was repeatedly asked on various junkets. It’s interesting, too, to see the way he handles the same kind of questioning from different figures, happy to engage with respected authorities on history, film or art, but barely concealing his exasperation as he fobs off trite questions from junket hacks.

If I have any complaint about Turning Point, it is the same one I had about its predecessor, Starting Point, that Viz Media has failed (or has not been permitted) to codify such wonders with an index. This is a common flaw in Japanese books, and there is no logical reason to perpetuate it in the English language, unless, one assumes, the Japanese are being difficult about it. Turning Point will primarily be used by researchers, journalists and critics, all of whom will have to plod through, page by page, in search of particular references, bon mots and waspish comments.

It’s crucial, for a long-term understanding of Miyazaki’s legacy, to know just where his priorities were, and the answer is often surprising – more space is given in his afterword to the construction of the Studio Ghibli crèche than to his movies. Nor is this an idle comment – with typical eccentric insight, Miyazaki sees the Three Bears daycare centre not only as a place for his animators to leave their kids, but as a place for Studio Ghibli’s workers to observe their audience in its natural habitat. As ever, he cares passionately about the Child. His producer Toshio Suzuki might always have his eye on the ticket buyer and the bottom line, but Miyazaki remains touchingly involved with the world of the under-tens.

Laputa Robot - Studio Ghibli Museum

This also comes across in materials on the Ghibli Museum, not a subject that troubles the average DVD-buyer in Oxford Street, but a very real part of the Ghibli empire, with 2400 visitors daily contributing £20,000 to the coffers, and that’s before they have visited the gift shop or the restaurant. Let’s put that another way – the Ghibli Museum is a Japanese animation event the size of a film festival, happening daily for six days a week, every week, all year. And it is designed as an immersive experience for the kids, with discoveries and secrets only really visible to the knee-high.

Turning Point offers invaluable peeps at Miyazaki’s mind at work, including the way he grows his imagery out of lyrical ideas. “I am experiencing old age for the first time in my life,” he comments at one point, managing to be both wise and dotty at the same time. The book includes a cycle of poems, written for the composer Joe Hisaishi, in order to give him a sense of the characters in Princess Mononoke. There’s the mission statement for the Ghibli Museum, written in what appears to be blank verse. And there are some grittily entertaining contradictions – some backpedalling about Tezuka, who he seems to have grown to like since his hatchet-job obituary in 1989, as well as some faint praise used to damn his new partners at Disney, before Pixar joined the party and gave him John Lasseter to play with. There’s a telling slip of the tongue where he alludes to Whisper of the Heart as a film that “he” made, seemingly forgetting its director was his protégé Yoshifumi Kondo. And there are fine, fine lines of nuance that only world-class translators like Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt could possibly tackle, such as the moment when Miyazaki thanks his interpreter at the Japan Foundation awards. On the surface, it’s a sweet gesture of recognition to the unsung heroes of foreign film festivals; on closer examination it’s just as likely to be his puckish chiding of the organisation that offered “simultaneous” translation as long as he provided his speech in advance.

Turning Point 1997-2008 by Hayao Miyazaki is available now from Viz Media.

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