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"Starting Point: 1979-1996": A Look at the Unconventional Thinking of Hayao Miyazaki

by on March 1, 2010

Starting Point: 1979-1996 collects essays, interviews, and sketchbook pages by Hayao Miyazaki, much of which is presented in English for the first time (with the excellent translation provided by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt). The topics focus on his work and his thoughts on the process and business of animation, although there are occasional digressions into the world of film in general, as well as people and places of special value or meaning to him. Even though the book weighs in at more than 400 pages, it is remarkably fast reading, and the loose connection to it all means that it also does not need to be read in-order from start to finish. One can cherry pick essays or read them out of order, and some can probably be skipped entirely. In the end, the book is a bit of a paradox: revealing the thought processes behind Miyazaki’s work only reinforces the fact that the man and the work he produces are highly unconventional and occasionally contradictory, with neither lending themselves to easy explanation or any explanation at all.

After an appropriately gushing forward by John Lasseter, the first section of the book “On Creating Animation” generally deals with the process of how Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli make animated films and TV shows. Unfortunately, I suspect that many film and animation students seeking a guide on “How Ghibli Does It” will walk away disappointed, since many of the points raised are either obvious or almost completely opaque. One principle that seems key to Miyazaki’s filmmaking process is what he calls the “scenario” for his films, but despite its clear importance (and an entire essay titled, “What the Scenario Means to Me”), one finishes this section with only the vaguest sense of why it’s important or even how to recognize one. Indeed, Miyazaki himself admits that he can’t really define what the scenario is in “What the Scenario Means to Me,” but his attempts to illuminate its creation and use don’t really seem help us in understanding what it is or why it’s different from something like a series bible or the feature film equivalent. It is doubtful that this ambiguity was introduced by the translation, but it’s at least possible that this section in particular was plagued by the kinds of idioms and terminology that don’t lend themselves to easy translation. However, if nothing else, this section reveals that the demands of the production process often forces them to start a movie before its ending is solidified, which perhaps explains why some of Studio Ghibli’s movies have strong starts but rushed, slightly haphazard endings. It also becomes quite clear early on that the curmudgeonly Miyazaki generally detests most of Japanese pop culture and anime.

The next section, “On the Periphery of the Work,” collects essays that are not about Miyazaki’s work or work process, but rather about a variety of subjects which touch only tangentially on his work. We get essays on the Fleischer Brothers and Fantastic Planet (neither of whom get the praise usually heaped on them by other sources), Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the importance of period dramas in film, and theories on the popularity of manga. Most of these essays are informative in extremely indirect ways, with most of them revealing Miyazaki’s quirky and unique thought processes. This is nowhere more evident than in “The Type of Film I’d Like to Create,” transcribed from a slightly rambling presentation Miyazaki gave to a sixth grade class in 1992 and where he deals with steps for people vs. steps for mice, or how he thinks bees can see raindrops and birds can see the wind.

“People” collects essays on individuals, and may be one of the most surprising sections of the book. These essays do contain more of his quirky sense of humor, as in “A ‘Slanderous’ Portrait” about a wild party and its aftermath, or in “Descendant of a Giant Sloth” about his friend and fellow director Isao Takahata. One finds an odd mix of love and disdain in “My Old Man’s Back” about his father, and a similar ambivalence in “I Left Raising Our Children to My Wife.” Some fans may be surprised at the incisive comments in “I Parted Ways with Osamu Tezuka When I Saw the ‘Hand of God’ in Him”, where Miyazaki explicitly details why he doesn’t like much of Tezuka’s body of work—comments even more surprising considering that they were originally printed in a special issue of Comic Box to mark Tezuka’s passing. There are also essays on Japanese novelists and non-fiction writers who clearly influenced Miyazaki, but whose work will probably be unknown to non-Japanese.

“A Story in Color” is an unmitigated delight, reprinting and translating a short manga from 1994 on the history of in-flight dining. It is followed by “My Favorite Things,” which include several pages of Miyazaki’s sketchbooks and a few short essays on topics like his car and older Japanese architecture. Some pages of the scrapbook are reprinted once in translation and once untranslated “show off Miyazaki-san’s scrapbook penmanship,” but both are equally delightful.

“Planning Notes; Directorial Memoranda” contains a variety of textual production material on several of Ghibli’s productions and some that never got past the conceptual stage. Many of the comments here will sound familiar, having been repeated in translation in many works about Miyazaki, so it is nice to see these quotes placed in their original context. “Works,” the final section of the book, is largely composed of interviews with Miyazaki about specific films or TV series. The rewards to be reaped from this last section will depend greatly on your familiarity with Miyazaki’s work, since he delves deeply into themes and driving thoughts of his work, and it will be much to your benefit to re-watch the films before diving into the essays. Unfortunately, not all of this work is available in English, mitigating the value of some of the essays in this section like the extremely hefty interview on Future Boy Conan.

A chronological biography follows, and perhaps my only complaint about the book’s presentation is that this material should have been placed up at the front to make it easier to place each essay in its proper context. Finally, a humorous but touching and penetrating afterword by Isao Takahata probably explains as much or more about Miyazaki the person as the 400 pages that preceded it. Fans may be disappointed that the endpoint of the book means we only get one directorial memo on Princess Mononoke and nothing on any of the films that followed, but this is not a criticism of this book as much as it is hoping out loud that VIZ Media translates and publishes Turning Point: 1997-2008, the follow-up volume to this one which was published in Japan two years ago.

I opened Starting Point hoping to gain insight into Hayao Miyazaki the filmmaker, with the implicit hope that this insight would grant some deeper understanding of his films. However, while the explicit hope was realized, the insight gained into the mindset of Hayao Miyazaki only made the implicit hope seem even further out of reach than before. I think it is perfectly acceptable for fans of his work to begin and end their knowledge with the films themselves, but for those seeking more, Starting Point more than lives up to its title, as long as one is prepared for an uneven and sometimes confusing journey.

Return to Hayao Miyazaki Week.

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