The Hermit Animator Speaks: An Interview With Hayao Miyazaki

The Hermit Animator Speaks: An Interview With Hayao Miyazaki

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Finally, a Hayao Miyazaki Interview!

Hayao Miyazaki (ひどいアニメ) is the Japanese godfather of animation, creating a staggering array of critically acclaimed works over the course of 50 years, including the Oscar-winning ‘Spirited Away’. His stature as a living legend of animation through his Ghibli film studio is only rivaled by that of Walt Disney and, some would argue, Miyazaki has surpassed Disney in many ways. In 2013 Miyazaki shocked the Japanese animation industry by announcing his retirement, only the fifth time he has done so in under 2 decades. But this year brought a sigh of relief as Miyazaki came out of retirement to make one final picture. LIAI clinched the exclusive interview with the visionary Japanese master when we offered him a free lunch at his favorite establishment.

As per the arrangement, we meet in Tokyo’s Sumida district where the latest novelty restaurant ‘Kirby Cafe‘ has just opened its doors. As I approach, Miyazaki appears to recognize me immediately, as through some magic even though we’ve never met. His look from afar is that of a stern grandfather but as I get near, a smile forms on his face that betrays the kind dimples on his cheek.

“I have a reservation.” He says before I even have the chance to introduce myself. As I reach out to shake his hand, he merely shakes his head. “As an atheist, it is against my religion.”

He moves inside the restaurant, past the line of eager youngsters on their lunch break waiting at the door. I swiftly follow him, as he ignores staff attempting to seat us. We take our place in the corner of the ‘cafe’, surrounded by Kirby merchandise and novelty items. Through the speakers, I can hear a classic Kirby tune (which I miraculously recognize from glancing back at the EVO 2016 stream to see if Smash top 8 was over yet). An upbeat waitress wearing a pink shirt with Kirby’s eyes and mouth on it hands us our menus. My eyes dart through the menu looking for something edible. Miyazaki instead puts the menu on the table and orders the ‘Signature Kirby Curry‘. I eventually settle for a drink: the ‘Kirbychino’. As the waitress leaves, I waste no time and dive right in with my questions.

“In the past, you’ve been quite interview-shy, prompting journalists to dub you the ‘Hermit Animator’. Has your return to film inspired you to share more with the media?” Miyazaki lights up a cigarette as I ask him, ignoring the little plastic icon of an angry Kirby stomping on a cigar hanging from a nearby wall.

“Media thrives on misinformation. They will take my words, or they make words for me.” It seems clear he is referring to the widely shared gif image of Miyazaki speaking disparagingly of fans of Japanese animation. I decide to press him on it.

“Do you feel like words were put into your mouth when you saw this image?” Miyazaki takes a drag of his cigarette as our waitress returns to our table, alarmingly prompt, with our novelty food items.

“It is not news. It is fake news. I did not say those words.” He takes another drag. “I never had to.”

“So why do you feel comfortable talking to us? And why here?”

“I like to talk to those who’d rather listen than talk. Large publications, television, radio, they want people to hear them. Not necessarily the person they are interviewing. I like talking in a place where I’m comfortable. Here I am comfortable.”

As the waitress begins to depart our table, Miyazaki gently touches her wrist. “Could we have a child seat for this table.”

Unphased by the request, the waitress responds. “Of course.”

Miyazaki continues.

“I like to be inspired. I get inspired by Nintendo. Their designs are timeless. The characters, I find great inspiration in them.” With a smile, he looks at his Kirby curry.

“Can you give me an example of how Nintendo’s characters have influenced you? Which characters in particular?”

With his fork, Miyazaki begins re-shaping the Kirby on the plate.

“I came up with the design for the black spirit No-Face from ‘Spirited Away’ while at a different Kirby pop-up restaurant years ago. In my mind, the character was gluttonous, ghostly, insatiable. A body shape that’s moldable.”

At this point, Miyazaki took the pepper holder off the table, unscrewed the lid and dumped the innards over his transformed curry rice.

“While eating and pondering the character, I had finished the character already. In my food.”

He rotates the plate towards me. He has created a perfect representation of No-Face with his Kirby meal. The black of the pepper defining the ghostly apparition.

Miyazaki smiles. “But there are others. My Neighbor Totoro was almost an exact copy of Big The Cat.”

At this point, the waitress returns with the requested child seat. I raise an eyebrow. “Why the seat, if I may ask? Are we expecting company?”

Miyazaki’s smile fades as he looks forlornly at the seat. “I always eat with the seat. It is my reminder.” He sighs.

“My son… My son is a disappointment. He’s a landscaper, not a director. He is Otaku. ‘Tales of Earthsea’ (One of the few Ghibli films not directed by Miyazaki but by his son. -ed.) proved it. The seat is here for my future grandchild, if my son ever graces me with one. Perhaps his son will be the son I’ve always wanted.”

His eyes have glazed over. Perhaps I struck a chord too close to home for the veteran director. I choose to change the subject.

Why did Miyazaki come out of retirement (again)?

“You came out of retirement for your next project: a short film-turned-feature film called ‘Boro the Caterpillar’. What made this character worth expanding upon?” Miyazaki appears to perk up.

“My inspiration for Boro came from an emotion hidden in myself. I was visiting the countryside of Japan playing Pokemon Go on my iPhone, and I walked through many fields. I stumbled upon a discovery as clear as it was obvious: little things are a nuisance. Thus, Boro was born. But I do not consider the new feature to be an expansion of the short film. It is another chance to get it right. When it comes to little creatures that get everywhere, you’ll see a much more hateful side in my new movie.”

Our conversation is suddenly drowned out by one of the cafe’s hourly performances. Staff in costume re-enact a battle between Kirby and an evil penguin. Miyazaki turns in his seat and claps incessantly throughout the performance, an enthusiastic “Yes!” occasionally escaping his mouth. A man in trance. As the performance dies down I continue, hoping my next question won’t dampen his mood again.

“Do you have any professional regrets? Any projects you wished you had, or had not, taken up?”

“My biggest regret is also one of the reasons I came out of retirement: I had never reached the heights that I wanted. I’ve always wanted my characters to be included in Happy Meals. Children play with them, it is magical. People collect them, you know? It means you have made it in your field. That’s what I strive for in my career. Hopefully Boro the Caterpillar will make my dream come true. Let’s see.”

We decide to leave, as it appears Miyazaki merely came here to see the show. His food is left inedible on the table and the lone child seat is taken away. I pay the waitress and walk Miyazaki to the nearby subway station.

“Do we have a deal?”

Miyazaki looks serious now, no longer the kindly old man I’d witnessed throughout most of the lunch. For a moment I doubt my own ability to translate his Japanese, but quickly realize I heard him correctly. I nod without knowing what I’m agreeing to. Miyazaki smiles now.

“Good!”

As he descends into the metro, a silver-haired legend of a man, I’m no longer left wondering where the Ghibli magic comes from.