The only foreign director to win the Academy Award for best animated feature, Hayao Miyazaki, 68, is the most admired and influential filmmaker working in animation today. His latest film, "Ponyo," opened earlier this month in America in 927 theaters -- a record for a Japanese animated feature. ("Ponyo" was the No. 1 box office hit in Japan in 2008, earning more than 14.9 billion yen -- more than $155 million -- to become the eighth-highest-grossing film in Japanese history.)
Miyazaki's work has attracted praise not only from critics, including The Times' Kenneth Turan, but from the artists leading the renaissance in animation: John Lasseter and the other Pixar directors, four-time Oscar winner Nick Park of "Wallace & Gromit" fame, and Frederic Back, the Oscar-winning creator of "The Man Who Planted Trees." Pete Docter, director of this summer's critical and box office hit "Up," told Variety: "For 'Up,' we made a conscious effort to learn from Miyazaki, especially in experiencing the landscape of the Tepui. As the fog clears revealing Paradise Falls, we took time to take in the beauty, to let the audience share Carl's feelings about finally reaching this amazing place."
Although Miyazaki is esteemed by artists within the animation industry, his work has not received the widespread public recognition it deserves in this country. That gap may be partially due to a lack of exposure: Even the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" received only a limited release, and Miyazaki is often seen as a remote figure. His knowledge of English is limited and he has frequently said he dislikes being interviewed. Like Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," Miyazaki prefers to make brilliant works of art and be left alone -- an attitude that seems odd, if not downright subversive in today's media-obsessed culture.
The essays, lectures and interviews in "Starting Point" offer readers a rare overview of Miyazaki's thoughts about his films and manga, the work of other artists and contemporary Japanese culture.
As a boy, Miyazaki loved the early manga of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of "Astro Boy." But as Miyazaki struggled to find his artistic voice, he rejected that influence: "When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka's, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch, and in the belief that I needed to study the basics first, I went back to practicing drawing and draftsmanship. Yet it still wasn't easy to rid myself of Tezuka's influence." The reinvention of his personal style culminated in the creation of "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," an ecological fantasy Miyazaki wrote and drew off and on from 1982 through 1994.
Miyazaki can be a perceptive critic, pointing out the weaknesses of the ill-fated "Mr. Bug Goes to Town" (1941) or recounting his efforts to escape the influence of "the cheap, spiritually feeble, third-rate quality of the last thirty years of postwar Japanese popular culture." In his essay on "The Man Who Planted Trees," Miyazaki praises not only the beauty and heartfelt power of the film, but the skill with which Back captures the subtle movements of the natural world:
"If we draw just the plants waving in the breeze, it looks formulaic. Plants exist in the weather and light rays that surround them -- waving in the wind, shimmering in the sunlight. I am always puzzling over how to draw such things. . . . But Back has taken this problem head on and mastered it." Miyazaki's admirers will be most interested in his comments on his own work and personal life. In an essay from 1992, he recalls that when his sons were young, "they made me want to make movies for them, to show them certain kinds of work. My children were both my motivation for work and my best audience." But he also confesses he was rarely at home and left the raising of the children to his wife.
He describes the various landscapes he combined to form the backgrounds in "My Neighbor Totoro," reprints his notes about the characters in his earlier films, and mischievously tells anecdotes about his old friend and colleague Isao Takahata, the director of "Grave of the Fireflies" and "My Neighbors the Yamadas."
These rare insights into one of the greatest talents the art of animation has produced make "Starting Point" essential reading for anyone interested in Japanese -- or Western -- animation. However, the anthology covers only to 1996, before Miyazaki made his most mature films: "Princess Mononoke" (1997), "Spirited Away" (2001) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004). Readers and viewers can only hope a second volume is already in the works.