Miyazaki's artistry soars in winds of his invention

Japanese director brings rare vision, old-fashioned animation to screen


June 05, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Hayao Miyazaki's scintillating and soul-restoring cartoons are as central to Japan's popular culture as Disney classics like Pinocchio are to America's. Miyazaki calls his production company Studio Ghibli; the word ghibli comes from the Italian for a Sahara wind. As his partner Toshio Suzuki told The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot, it reflects the director's desire to "blow a sensational wind through the Japanese animation world."

But in their pursuit of character, story and aesthetic perfection, Miyazaki's films are brilliantly old-fashioned. He draws them cel by cel, resisting the onslaught of computer animation. And he keeps his work resolutely personal, even eccentric - qualities difficult to market in present-day America.

He uses handcrafted artifice to restore audiences' primal responses and their love for unspoiled earth. His signature creation isn't a lovable rodent named Mickey Mouse, but a pear-shaped woodland spirit called a Totoro. And his Tokyo-based Ghibli Museum contains attractions that are the opposite of high-tech thrill rides - such as "Where a Film Begins," a trip into an untidy, mid-20th century study, complete with models of an old airplane and a prehistoric creature, and books on natural science and aviation.

Miyazaki blends wild mixtures of farce and conflict as he fleshes out his themes of men and women (and girls and boys) crashing through conventions to discover their own essence - whatever makes them them. His heroes often revive a jaded mankind. But he rarely resorts to preachy or Manichaean melodrama. Even his far-out menaces - the gargantuan arachnids of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the towering robots of Laputa: Castle in the Sky - are never simply ominous (or lovable). Their liquid, curvy lines reflect an organic volatility.

Spirited Away, a movie comparable to The Wizard of Oz, won the 2002 Academy Award for best animated feature. His latest, Howl's Moving Castle, is an amazing tale of war, love and metamorphosis unfolding in a fantastic vision of 19th-century Europe. (It opens Friday.) This sweeping adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones' novel needs to be seen on the big screen. It overflows with offhand wisdom about manipulation and subterfuge, ageism and sexism, the tyranny of desire and the redemption of real love. It's the product of a fabulist in full bloom.

Miyazaki often fashions green and sometimes petulant protagonists - and wizened supporting characters who turn out to be more wily than they look. In Howl's Moving Castle, he rolls both types into one. He told Talbot: "Sophie, the girl, is given a spell and transformed into an old woman ... as Sophie gets older, she gets more pep. And she says what's on her mind. She is transformed from a shy, mousy little girl into a blunt, honest woman. It's not a motif you see often, and especially with an old woman taking up the whole screen, it's a big theatrical risk."

The filmmaker takes a bigger chance with his vain, slippery antihero, the wizard Howl. Talbot worriedly compares him to the King of Pop - yet, of course, that's the point. Howl's a creepy boy-man until Sophie gets him to grow up.

Miyazaki fills Howl's Moving Castle with benchmark inventions. The mobile castle boasts chicken legs, a webbed rudder, and half a dozen turrets and gun holes that give it multiple noses and eyes. But the movie overflows with insight too. At the climax, a prince discovers that his true love doesn't love him. He decides to do what he must do - stop a war - and then see what happens. "One thing you can count on is that hearts change," he says. "So as soon as this war is over, I shall return."

Miyazaki rarely gives interviews. He's a workaholic, anyway - and, as with any great artist, we can get to know him best through his art. Luckily, Miyazaki's major movies are all out on DVD, mostly from Buena Vista Home Video or its subsidiary, Miramax. (Though My Neighbor Totoro first came out from Fox, Buena Vista has promised a new edition.)

Miyazaki is right: "Hearts change."

His talent, though, remains constant.

The Cat Returns (2003) is only a Miyazaki concept, drawn from a graphic novel and developed and directed by his Studio Ghibli colleagues, but it has the peculiar satisfactions of an all-Miyazaki feature. At the center of this brisk, satirical 21st-cen- tury fantasy is a confused teenager unsure of who she is and what she wants. After she performs an act of kindness to a cat, she receives increasingly upsetting thank-yous from the whole Cat Kingdom - including an invitation to become its queen. One cat is such a dapper swashbuckler, he's like the Scarlet Pimpernel with paws. He relays the movie's message: a teenage girl must learn to trust herself. Rarely has a feminist lesson been so charmingly delivered.

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