September 20, 2005 3:00 am

Japan's visionary of innocence and apocalypse

On the last afternoon of the Venice Film Festival we in the Sala Grande lost count of the standing ovations. Was that three? Or four? We thought of making a call to the Guinness Book of Records. Had any director at any festival ever been more lauded - or more exactly lionised - at one go?

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, at a beaming 64, was collecting a Golden Lion for Career Achievement. No longer just the most popular filmmaker in Japan - where Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away became in turn the highest-grossing homemade films in history - this man has taken on semi-divine status worldwide. Spirited Away (2002) won an Oscar. Mononoke (1997) is a cult DVD. Nausicaa and the Valley of the Winds (1985) was cheered with nearly demented rapture when revived at Venice, cueing that fourth standing ovation.

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Miyazaki followers have a strange, trippy light in their eyes like bygone Beatlemanes. His animation features are not just for kids or Christmas. Their blend of storytelling richness, radical themes (anti-militarism, eco-consciousness) and near-psychedelic imagery are unique even in a world on whose other side Disney and DreamWorks fight like cartoon Titans.

Disney knows this Japanese wizard's worth: it buys up his films for the west. His newest opens in the UK this week. The "Miyazakiness" of Howl's Moving Castle is recognisable from the first appearance of the title pile, a gothic-rococo folly with belching chimneys, bristling cannons and chicken-leg support limbs. (Take Terry Gilliam and add Hieronymus Bosch.) The movie begins as a fairy tale about a girl changed into a witch and the handsome castle-owner who may become her saviour - though with typical comic iconoclasm Miyazaki's hero is hopelessly vain, especially about good and bad hair days. It climaxes in an Armageddon war (heir to similar scenes in Nausicaa and Mononoke) involving bombs, blitzkriegs and aerial fighting-machines. By then it is a long way from the original children's novel by Diana Wynne Jones.

Are these scenes, as some have hazarded, a working-out of Miyazaki's feelings about his father, who ran an aircraft parts factory in the second world war? "It has nothing to do with that," the director says, as if he has parried the question before. "I put the fighter aircraft there as a symbol of destructiveness, of modernism."

Miyazaki gives interviews about as often as Michelangelo painted Cubist pictures. But I have somehow been accorded an audience at Venice's Hotel Des Bains. (Did someone tell him I gave Spirited Away six stars out of five?) Amid the Death in Venice surroundings I ask the avuncular white-haired artist, who resembles a celestial owl beaming affably from a branch, about life in animation. One thing that poured life into Howl's Moving Castle - or anger - was apparently the Iraq war.

"When we began work on the film the war had just begun. So it had a big influence on us." That explains the sometimes startling mood-changes from children's fantasy to savage satire, though Miyazaki, broadening the topic to eco-destructiveness, insists that such extremes are linked.

"It is the fate of modernism that we repeatedly lose touch with nature, the environment, the planet. But we try to regain it again and again. It's like a circle. In children's hearts and souls when they're born into the world, nature already exists deep inside them. So what I want to do in my work is tap into their souls."

Ask him about his influences and you get another clue to the blend of innocence and apocalypse in his work. Those influences include Soviet animation, a little-seen French feature with an elite reputation (Paul Grimault's The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep) and, revealingly, Animal Farm. Like George Orwell, Miyazaki is a reformed Marxist. He looked at the future one day - or recent history's uglier experiments towards it - and saw it didn't work. So he started inventing his own futures and pasts.

The disillusionment with doctrinaire politics is, I suspect, crucial. A hatred of the didactic and prescriptive may be why he rejects allegorical literalism in responses to his work: for instance the oft-mooted notion that Spirited Away, with its abandoned theme park, is about Japan's industrial decay. "I did not intend to depict Japan, though I am concerned about the decay and pollution of the Earth. But those are already a reality for children who live in the modern age. They don't need it pointed out. What I want to do is help to show children how we should live in this reality." (In passing, I cannot resist pressing one literalist interpretation regarding Spirited Away. The formidable Yubaba, the sternly coiffed woman who runs the bath-house frequented by gods, is surely inspired by her real-life spitting image Margaret Thatcher? Miyazaki bursts into laughter. "Occasionally we have strong, steely-haired women in Japan too!" No denial then.)

When an artist's magic circles the globe he cannot be surprised if each country brings its own obsessions, petitioning for a share in the parenthood. For instance, the tenaciously enquiring little girl who is heroine of so many Miyazaki films seems a none-too-distant cousin of Alice in Wonderland. "I love Lewis Carroll's work, so I'm sure that seeps into my films. I've been affected by many artists and all these influences come out in my work. But yes, Carroll I love."

I dwell on Carroll because I know of no other fantasy author or artist before Miyazaki so gifted at taking the ordinary - a rabbit hole, a tea party, a toadstool - and making it extraordinary, dreamlike. In the opening scene of Spirited Away a family driving in search of its new home pulls up in front of a big blank wall, sinisterly plain and obstructive, with nothing but a narrow mouldy tunnel as the way through. The scene is utterly hypnotic. But Miyazaki claims it was an accident.

"I had what I first thought was a better idea, much more elaborate. But it was too long and too expensive. So I threw all the storyboards into the garbage bin. We went with something simpler, but it worked."

Does he use his own dreams as source material? "I don't rely on them. But when I'm driven into a corner or I'm at the end of my inspiration, my brain does seem to bring out something dreamlike. But it is dangerous. Once you open that little box under your brain, you can't easily close it!"

The brain has - so to speak - a mind of its own. A decade ago it compelled Miyazaki to make Princess Mononoke, his first masterpiece. "I didn't want to make it, but it was as if I had to. My mind told me, if I don't grapple with that, the children who are my audience will never trust me again. There was a lot of suffering" - Miyazaki is said to have worked every day for over two years - "but it seemed that the suffering was the key to giving the work value. I chucked out all conventional ideas of entertainment. I was sure nobody would come to see the film, that it would end Studio Ghibli [his animation company]! And lots of adults didn't seem to understand what it was about, whereas children said immediately 'Oh it's so easy.'"

But children, not least in his own country, are raised on the shorthand of graphic fiction. The manga (comic strip) is a core pop-culture form in Japan. Miyazaki himself has practised it, though today he is ambivalent about its effect. "I think it's an excellent medium for expressing deep desires and complex feelings, for going to the bottom of people's souls. It's good at conveying an emotional aura. But it's also very distant from portraying reality, from representing time and space, because it distorts them. Those who see the world through manga are not looking at it properly or accurately. It goes with a feeling that, not just in Japan but round the world, many youngpeople today live light and shallow-rooted lives."

You do not have to delve too deep into Miyazaki's own root system to discover a passionate traditionalist. Even a Luddite. While avoiding comment on any of the western animated features like Shrek on which I ask his opinion - "I don't watch animated films, so I don't know what the state of world animation is" - he vigorously rallies to the side of his beloved 2D animation.

"It has not ended. It will continue. My staff is growing old with me - we are ageing quite a lot (chuckle) - but I have no despair."

As for computers: "By using them I now have more work and find they require even more time and money. And there are a lot of communication problems between artists who use pen and paintbrush and those who sit in front of monitors. At Ghibli we try to restrain ourselves and keep the peace, even though it can be an unstable situation! But it's very important for me to retain the right ratio between working by hand and computer. I have learnt that balance now, how to use both and still be able to call my films 2D."

We in the outside world call them something more flattering. Works from a prodigal, prodigious imagination. Unsurpassed blends of the childlike and grownup. And proof that no form, however traditional, is out of date so long as it has a practitioner in touch with people's deepest joys, fears, dreams and passions.

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