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‘Gedo’ starts with a father-son clash

Times Staff Writer

Through the fantasies of animation, director Hayao Miyazaki has spoken to children and adults around the world, his language of color and movement creating some of the best-loved movies of our times. Yet plunked into the real-world intimacy of home and family, Miyazaki the father never had much to say to his eldest son.

“To be honest, we’re not that close; we don’t know how to communicate,” Goro Miyazaki says when asked whether his father had spoken to him about the commercial success of “Gedo Senki” (Tales From Earthsea), the son’s debut as a director.

Released in Japan on July 29, “Earthsea” has been the country’s top-drawing film for four of the last five weeks; the film screened at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday but cannot have a release in the U.S. until an American TV series’ copyright expires in 2009.

“I heard from other people that he thought it was an honest film, but frankly I think it was wise he never said anything to me directly,” the younger Miyazaki says. “We would probably have ended up shouting and fighting. It would have been a messy situation.”

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It is that cold relationship between father and son -- the father an icon of the Japanese animation industry, the son trying to step out of that shadow, making his first feature film at the late age of 39 -- that makes it hard to call it coincidence when “Earthsea” opens with a son’s murder of his father.

It is a foul murder: the prince named Arren sneaking up on the king and plunging a sword through his chest. The father dies bewildered as to the motive, and Arren flees into rootless exile. Only later does he confess to a companion that his father was “a great man” and that he has no inkling of what led him to kill.

He is merely filled with an inner rage he can’t explain.

“No, I never felt I wanted to kill my father -- because we didn’t have that much of a relationship to begin with,” says the younger Miyazaki during an interview in the Tokyo offices of Studio Ghibli, the animation house Hayao Miyazaki built with the success of such films as “My Neighbor Totoro” and, more recently, “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” “I never thought that scene was about me when I was making the film.

“It’s not an experience of my own, but the experience of the young people I have met,” he continues. “Arren represents the young generation in Japan. They are under mental stress. They have a rage inside them. And it is some of these kids who might feel like killing their parents.”

But before the youngsters watching “Earthsea” get any murderous ideas, they’re going to have to get their heads around a universe drawn with an almost old-fashioned look. This is not “Cars” with dragons or “Over the Hedge” in a bigger landscape. “Earthsea’s” backgrounds look like they’ve been drawn by English landscape artists, the skies could be canvases of a Dutch Old Master. You can see the brush strokes on screen.

Something is amiss in this world as the movie opens. The livestock have become listless. There is a drought in the provinces. Magic chants are forgotten. More ominously, the dragons that long ago opted out of man’s world have returned and begun to fight each other.

“The setting is Europe, but the characters are a portrait of the young generation of Japanese,” Miyazaki explains. He describes Japan as a society in which children are pampered and showered with material plenty, yet lead lives devoid of purpose: no injustices to rail against, as Miyazaki said he did when he was young, no older generation’s values to overthrow.

“In the past, parents did not dote so much on their children,” he says. “They were busy at work, didn’t have so much money. The children had to grow up on their own, but they were stronger mentally because of it.”

Miyazaki says his father was, like so many fathers of the generation that grew up in postwar Japan, singularly focused on his work. “It was really just me and my mother when I was growing up; any advice I needed I got from her,” he says. “Until I left home to go to university, my father was too busy and didn’t have the opportunity to even chat with me.”

Animation was not something he discussed much in the Miyazaki home, nor a field to which the young Goro aspired. He studied forestry at Shinshu University and started a career in landscape design, planning parks and gardens and working on urban tree-planting projects.

But in 1998 he took on responsibility for the design of the Ghibli Museum, a theme park the studio was building in a rare splash of green space in a Tokyo suburb. The museum showcases animated characters from the studio’s catalog of films and has a hands-on exhibit of an animation studio. Miyazaki became the museum’s managing director in 2001, a job he gave up last year when he started messing around in the real studio with the “Earthsea” project.

Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to make a film version of the “Earthsea” book series more than 20 years ago but had been rebuffed by Ursula K. Le Guin, the author. By the time she relented, the older Miyazaki had announced his retirement from making films (a vow he has since retracted).

Instead, Ghibli’s powerful producer Toshio Suzuki handed the project to Goro, who had started to hang around animation study groups and present ideas of his own.

There was great resistance to his arrival. First, other young animators at the studio ironically saw it as a case of paternalism. And Le Guin has complained that she was assured Hayao Miyazaki would supervise the project and has sniped at Goro’s finished version, saying that it is too violent and lacks subtlety in its portrayal of evil.

There was criticism too from Hayao Miyazaki, who made it clear -- publicly -- that he didn’t like Goro invading his turf.

“It was because I was completely inexperienced,” Goro says, who consistently refers to his father in formal terms as “Miyazaki Hayao.” “Not only had I never directed a film, I had never been in the animation industry. Suddenly I was about to make a feature film, and he was appalled.”

Miyazaki says he wanted to make a human drama, different from his father’s films, which he says he finds “too simple.” (Hayao Miyazaki, who rarely speaks to the press, declined to be interviewed for this story.) He was on his way to making a movie without dragons or magic when Suzuki intervened and told him to “bring the dragons in.”

“It’s a Studio Ghibli movie,” Miyazaki says with a shrug. “It’s a commercial film and it has to be entertaining.”

Critics here have debated just how entertaining “Earthsea” is. Some reviewers have called it “immature,” and many have complained about what the Japanese see as excessive dialogue for an animated movie.

But the movie has pulled in Hayao Miyazaki-like numbers at the box office. It has buried this summer’s animated rivals like “Cars” and the Japanese horror flick “Brave Story.”

The reason may lie with the power of the Miyazaki brand in Japan. Sure, the elder Miyazaki’s worlds are ravaged by the folly of adults and the pestilence of war, and environmental degradation threatens his beloved bucolic landscapes. But he always saw hope in the innocent wisdom of children.

And, Goro Miyazaki is asked, does “Earthsea” not send a similar message? Is it not a movie where parents abuse and abandon their children, but the children rise to make the right moral choices in the end? Where the happiest scenes are on the farm, an idyll where the work is honest and the people are free?

Does “Earthsea” not share a vision, then, with the films of Hayao Miyazaki?

“Yes,” the son says quietly. “Yes, it does.”

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com


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