Move over, Disney, here's Miyazaki Cartoons: With true-to-life characters in entertaining tales, Japanese animator's movies are doing well here and abroad.

September 30, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It may be hard to believe, but the biggest movie star in Japan is a man whose face has never appeared on the silver screen.

Hayao Miyazaki is a giant of the Japanese cinema, a figure as well-known as (and in some ways better-loved than) the likes of director Akira Kurosawa, samurai actor Toshiro Mifune and giant lizard Godzilla. A director and screenwriter of unusual talent and vision, he makes films that have a flair for combining the fantastic with the true-to-life.

Above all, there's a strong sense of humanity to his movies. Whether he's dealing with the struggles of a young princess in a post-apocalyptic future (as in "Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind"), or telling the tale of a young witch trying to make her way in the city (as in "Kiki's Delivery Service," now in video stores), Miyazaki invariably manages to make the audience sympathize and identify with the characters, to feel as if they are as flesh-and-blood as we are.

L It's quite an achievement, considering they're all cartoons.

Miyazaki is an animator. But even though his paint-and-ink productions would be films classed as anime (ah-nee-may), just like "Speed Racer" and "Sailor Moon," the depth and quality of his work rivals the best of Disney.

In Japan, in fact, Miyazaki's movies regularly outdraw Disney releases -- and most other Hollywood films, for that matter -- at the box office. His most recent offering, 1996's "Mononoke Hime" ("The Princess Mononoke" in English), is the highest-grossing Japanese film ever and second only to "Titanic" in overall receipts in Japan.

"Basically, in Japan, Miyazaki is the equivalent of Walt Disney," says Julie Davis, senior editor at the monthly anime magazine Animerica. Miyazaki's films, she says, are successful "pretty much for the same reason Disney is successful: They're very good films, they're beautifully animated, and they're really good stories. They're quality films, the sort of thing that you can sit down and watch and remember years later."

Until recently, though, few Americans had ever heard of Miyazaki, much less seen his work. Although anime fans have long prized imported, Japanese-language videos of his work, for years the only Miyazaki title available in English was the heartwarming "My Neighbor Totoro," which Fox released as a children's film.

Fortunately, that's beginning to change.

"Kiki's Delivery Service" (originally known as "Majo no Takkyubin" in Japan) was dubbed into English and recently released on video here in America. With a cast of voice actors including Kirsten Dunst, the late Phil Hartman, Janeane Garofalo and Debbie Reynolds, its presentation is much more like a feature film than a Saturday morning cartoon -- something that more than suits the cinematic sweep of its animation.

Set in an imaginary European country -- imagine a cross between southern Sweden and the Italian Adriatic coast -- sometime in the early '60s, "Kiki" is an unusual coming-of-age tale. Kiki (Dunst) is a young witch who, like her mother and grandmother before her, must at age 13 live on her own for a year, to develop and focus her magical power.

So one evening, she and her cat, Jiji (Hartman), leave their rural home and strike out for the big city -- which is unnamed, but looks like a very hilly Stockholm -- where she ends up using her broomstick to run a delivery service.

It isn't a terribly dramatic story, really. Kiki makes friends, gets into a few scrapes, and rides the same emotional roller-coaster as most 13-year olds. But because Miyazaki gives us both the bitter and the sweet, the humiliation and the heroics, "Kiki" is far more affecting than the usual pre-teen fare -- animated or otherwise.

Most of Miyazaki's films follow a similar course. Some, such as "Nausicaa" and "Mononoke Hime," are more epic; others, such as "Laputa Castle in the Sky" and "The Crimson Pig," have a stronger sense of adventure. But his films relish the ambiguities inherent in a good story. His heroes have flaws, his villains have admirable traits, and even his comic characters have their serious side.

This depth of character, says Davis, is one of the things that differentiates Miyazaki from Disney. "In terms of family films, Disney is actually very formulaic," she says. "They take children's fairy tales and re-adapt them to a certain type of formula, with a very distinct hero, a very distinct villain, that kind of thing."

Miyazaki has also adapted from other sources (Jonathan Swift, for example, was the source for "Laputa"). "But he doesn't change or adapt them in the same way. They still have that ambiguity that's in a lot of children's literature," says Davis. "I think Miyazaki's just a little more honest with the base material."

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