The Magic of Make Believe

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Hayao Miyazaki is frowning. The director's latest animated feature film Spirited Away is hurtling past Titanic to become Japan's top-grossing movie release ever. The magical fable has cemented his status as a cultural icon in Japan. And his pet project—a whimsically playful children's museum on the outskirts of Tokyo celebrating his work—is finally a reality. But it's Sept. 12, the day after terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington took the lives of thousands, and the 60-year-old director is angry. His mouth is set in a straight line behind a bristly white beard and he grinds out a cigarette butt and raises his voice: "How can you ask me meaningless questions about my work when we are standing at the edge of a precipice?"

It's startling to confront this fierce, crotchety man when you're expecting the human version of Totoro, the fat furry sprite from one of Miyazaki's best-loved movies. Miyazaki is known for his oeuvre of wildly popular, feature-length animation films that showcase a childlike vision and an imagination from which spring fantastic kingdoms, strange creatures, flying contraptions and plucky-kid heroes. But he also possesses an intellectual intensity that drives his projects and a disdain of publicity that makes him about as easy to interview as J.D. Salinger. Yes, he's weaving stories for children. But he commands us all to use fantasy as a lens through which to examine our world and ourselves.

As the cicadas screech in the pine tree towering over the museum's outdoor cafE, Miyazaki stalks off to find more cigarettes and for a while it's not clear he'll return. He does, though, intent on discussing why he makes films, not how. "In dreams you search for a better self," he says, lighting up again. "Don Quixote says much the same thing. We must do all we can to seek truth. This is the responsibility of the filmmaker, not to make a mountain of money."

Despite his protestations Miyazaki is as much Spielberg—audience-pleasing and moneymaking—as he is Kurosawa, with whom he is often compared. His current hit, Spirited Away, is a case in point. Set in modern-day Japan, the film begins with a family's wrong turn during a move to a mountainside town. Passing through a tunnel, they arrive in a strange land where a spell turns the parents into pigs. That leaves their 10-year-old daughter, Chihiro, to save them. Nothing is as it seems here—a boy turns into a flying dragon, a paper bird into a witch, a sludge-covered bathhouse customer into a river god. But Chihiro learns the value of courage and determination and is transformed from a petulant coward into a triumphant heroine.

The magic of a Miyazaki film lies not just in storytelling complex enough to ensnare adults. Every frame in Spirited Away is packed with visual detail, from the design on a painted vase to a splatter of bird droppings on a boulder. Unlike Walt Disney, Miyazaki is an animator who actually animates. A perfectionist heavily involved throughout the process, he sketches storyboards and checks every key frame. Such intricate scenes demand a staggering number of cels: 100,000 for Spirited Away in an era when studios like Disney rely on computer graphics. With each film he creates a complete and entirely fresh world. "What's thrilling for me is to break down my own style, to destroy expectations of what a movie or what animation should be," he says, his eyes intense behind thick, black-rimmed glasses.

The quirky, colorful world of Spirited Away is indeed a break from the dark, dangerous universe of his last film, Princess Mononoke. Though dazzling, the adult-targeted Mononoke was perhaps an unfortunate choice for his first U.S.-wide release. American critics gushed over the story of giant wolves and boars and a girl raised among them who battle humans threatening the wilderness. But it alarmed and baffled parents who with their tots make up most of the U.S. animation audience. Despite voice-overs by the likes of Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Billy Crudup and the marketing might of Miramax, a unit of Disney, it earned $3.5 million in the U.S., compared with the record-smashing $150 million it made in Japan. "Disney didn't take into account that Miyazaki didn't become a giant in Japan overnight," says Helen McCarthy, author of a book on the master animator. "The Japanese audience has grown with him over the years, taken risks with him on themes and styles, all the way from the beginning."

The beginning was 1979, when Miyazaki graduated from Tokyo's Elite Gakushuin University. A scion of the family that founded Miyazaki Airplane, which manufactured parts for the Zero fighter, he studied economics and political science but preferred reading Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer. After graduation he tossed convention aside by joining an animation production company, where he met his lifelong colleague and sometime creative collaborator, Isao Takahata. They struck out on their own in 1985 with Studio Ghibli—named by Miyazaki, an aircraft buff, after a vintage Italian plane.

Immediately, Miyazaki, who is married and has two sons, began to turn out hits. They ranged from a grown-up caper about a mischievous thief (Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro) to a sweet, children's story about an entrepreneurial young witch (Kiki's Delivery Service). "I don't think about messages or themes when I'm making my movies," he claims. "My goal is only to entertain." His genius is to cloak potent themes in stories that enchant. It's hard not to read an antiwar message in Porco Rosso, about a fighter pilot transformed into a pig, or an ecological warning in NausicaA of the Valley of the Winds, which depicts a future world rendered nearly unlivable by pollution.

During production months Miyazaki occupies a corner desk at Studio Ghibli, a vine-covered cluster of buildings he designed in a Tokyo suburb for himself and a full-time staff of 150. The light-filled floors buzz quietly with jeans-clad artists in their 20s, hunched over tilted wooden desks. They far outnumber the computer-graphics specialists on a lower floor, employed only to speed up the production process.

A desire to share the magic of this creativity—especially with his littlest fans—led to Miyazaki's latest production: the Studio Ghibli Museum. Here the other side of Miyazaki is on full display: the childlike enthusiast, bursting with inventiveness. The multicolored building pokes out like the stub of a rainbow from a wooded corner of a vast Tokyo park. A towering metal sculpture of a robot character from his film Castle in the Sky stands sentry. Inside, a handcrafted fan whirs like an airplane propeller from the glass ceiling of a four-story atrium. Elf-size doors lead to secret passageways, and tiny benches line the theater showing new Miyazaki film shorts.

The director's prickliness disappears as he darts gleefully from room to room, interrupting workers to show off a spinning zoetrope, a vintage movie projector, a handcrafted model airplane. Stepping around a staffer who is painting a trompe l'oeil on a wall, he shows off his proudest creation—his fantasy studio. Tomes on anatomy and history crowd the shelves, a pterodactyl hovers overhead, desks spill over with tubes of paint, old postcards, a jar of pencil stubs. Copies of his sketches are tacked, unframed, all over the walls. Nothing is roped off. "I wanted to show the roots of inspiration, that feeling of something bursting in your chest," he says. Standing in this room and looking around, Miyazaki grows quiet: "I almost hate to put it in words for fear of it dissipating. But this is how it begins. These things represent what's inside me. So perhaps this room will give a child a glimpse into my heart." Just as his films give the rest of us a glimpse into our own.