- The darkness and shadows in the latest Studio Ghibli animation are a departure for director Hayao Miyazaki and give a glimpse into the 82-year old’s personal story.
- Long time collaborators talk about working with the legendary anime creator and say that he is open to using digital technology in his animation process.
- His eye sight may be fading but rumors of this being his last work may be premature
The legend of Japanese animator and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki grows greater with each year, not least because the 82-year-old creator of 2001 Oscar winner Spirited Away is shy about giving interviews.
At the release of his most personal work to date, The Boy and the Heron, some of Miyazaki’s longest serving collaborators consider both the man and his work.
Atsushi Okui, for instance, has been the director of photography for films at Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli since 1992.
“I’ve worked on a lot of films with Miyazaki, and each time the most important job is creating something that matches what’s inside of his head,” Okui told Gemma Gracewood at Letterboxd.
“So I do what is called the ‘finishing work;’ by the time the material has come to me it already has the imagination of the artists and animators. I have to work out how to bring that all together.
“Whether we can recreate the images inside of Miyazaki’s head, or even if they’re different, as long as we can surpass his expectations then that’s okay. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Working for so long for Miyazaki does come with the advantage of beginning to guess his mind.
Okui told Eli Friedberg at The Film Stage: “Because his storyboarding is so articulate, so detailed and meticulous, that — adding to the fact that I’ve been working with him for 30 years — I find it quite easy to tell what he’s aiming at just by reading his storyboards.
“I wouldn’t say I’m always 100% correct in answering to whatever he writes, but it’s not often that he comes back to me with any feedback other than ‘Okay.’ It’s usually quite a smooth process, in that respect.”
The Boy and the Heron draws from Miyazaki’s childhood, a source of inspiration he initially resisted while creating masterful anime like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro. It follows the story of a young boy named Mahito who recently lost his mother. Along with a cunning and deceptive grey heron, he journeys to a mysterious world outside of time where the dead and the living coexist.
To emulate the tenebrous aspects of the story, Okui suggested that they should darken the colors of the animation as well.
“With Studio Ghibli pictures, all of the backgrounds are hand drawn with poster color paints, and then we turn that into data,” he explains to Ryan Fleming of Deadline. “When we turn the handwritten art into data, we have the base be the black background that was painted.
“However, we never attempted to make that any darker in digital or any darker in data except for this one. That was the first time we took upon the challenge of dropping the black even blacker, because unless we did that, we felt that we wouldn’t be able to bring forth the darkness that the main boy in the film harbors.
“So that was kind of a departure from the other films that we had done up until then.”
The muted color palette at the beginning of the movie “matches and reflects Mahito’s interior and his repressed feelings,” according to the DP, as reported by Variety’s Jazz Tangcay.
The crew balanced the darkness of change and war — always implied, never seen — with a fantastical world filled with vibrant creatures and characters. The explosion of color “was intentional,” said Okui.
Okui has also acted as Studio Ghibli’s head of digital imaging for decades. Over time, he has encouraged the renowned animation house to adopt digital animation tools for a more immersive big-screen experience, bringing the CG team fully into the room for production meetings that had been long reserved for artists.
Incorporating Modern Tech
Despite this Miyazaki has something of a reputation for being distrustful of digital animation and computer technology. Okui disputes this.
“I do think the image of Mr. Miyazaki’s [technophobia] might be a little exaggerated,” he tells Friedberg. “But his concerns do make some sense: Mr. Miyazaki is an animator, so whatever he can do manually he wants to do. Where we draw the line at Studio Ghibli is with certain things that you can’t do with hand-drawn skills.”
For camerawork capturing background scenery, for example, sometimes it’s easier to employ digital techniques, he adds. “In these parts, if it’s easier to do it digitally than hand-drawn, Mr. Miyazaki won’t have any problem conceding it — indeed, we’ve employed digital technology in The Boy and the Heron as well.”
A Very Personal Film
The new film draws both from Miyazaki’s own childhood memories of being evacuated from bombed-out cities and his tuberculosis-stricken mother often away in care, as well as from Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel, ‘How Do You Live’?
“This is a film filled with a lot of Miyazaki’s own personal ideas,” Okui told Letterboxd. “Until now it was all about capturing the liveliness and freedom that came with the characters, whereas with this film it’s more about expressing their innermost thoughts.”
Producer Toshio Suzuki is long-time colleague of Miyazaki, as well as a co-founder and the former president of Studio Ghibli. He relates to Carlos Aguilar of the New York Times that, growing up, Miyazaki had trouble communicating with people and expressed himself instead by drawing pictures.
“I noticed that with this film, where he portrayed himself as a protagonist, he included a lot of humorous moments in order to cover up that the boy, based on himself, is very sensitive and pessimistic,” Suzuki said. “That was interesting to see.”
If Miyazaki is the boy, Suzuki added, then he himself is the heron, a mischievous flying entity in the story that pushes the young hero to keep going.
In contrast, Hisaishi, the composer who first worked with Miyazaki on the 1984 feature Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, has a strictly professional relationship with him.
“We don’t see each other in private,” Hisaishi told the paper. “We don’t eat together. We don’t drink together. We only meet to discuss things for work.”
That emotional distance, he added, is what has made their partnership over 11 films so creatively fruitful.
“People think that if you really know a person’s full character then you can have a good working relationship, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true,” Hisaishi said.
“What is most important to me is to compose music. The most important thing in life to Mr. Miyazaki is to draw pictures. We are both focused on those most important things in our lives.”
Miyazaki often declares that “this is his last movie” whenever he’s made a new film, but there’s hope for fans yet.
“At first, I could sense that he wanted this to be his final project,” veteran animator Takeshi Honda, who worked as The Boy and the Heron’s animation director, tells BBC Culture. “But I could sense time and again that he’s not finished, that there are other things that he wants to do.”
Speaking through a translator, Honda cites Miyazaki’s penchant for suggesting stories to adapt. “Sometimes he would just come to me and say, ‘Listen, this novel is really interesting, you should read it!’ and I was like ‘What is this all about? What is he trying to make me do?’ Moments like that made me doubt his intention to retire.”
Studio Ghibli Vice President Junichi Nishioka is even more forthright, telling Gracewood. “He’s still coming into the office every day and thinking of ideas for his next film.”
And adding to BBC Culture, “I don’t think he’s ever going to really let go. He will have a pencil in his hand until the very day that he dies.”