|Miyazaki puffed on a cigarette.
"Some people may say this girl is a lot like
Chihiro. Maybe. But I don't fear that. I think
I'd lose a lot more by trying to avoid repeating
myself than by just repeating myself. Some people
are always trying radically new material. I know
what I want, and I'll continue with it." He
went on, "I don't have much patience for
calculating and intellectualizing anymore. It has
to do with the times. Nobody knows everything.
Nobody knows what's going to happen. So my
conclusion is, don't try to be too smart and
wise. Why does anybody feel the way they do? Why
is somebody depressed? Or angry? Even if you have
a therapist, you're never going to figure it out.
You're not going to solve it. Besides, every
trauma is an important part of you."
Miyazaki cradled the back of his head with his
hand. "I've done things in this movie I
wouldn't have done ten years ago," he said.
"It has a big climax in the middle, and it
ends with a resolution. It's old-fashioned
storytelling. Romantic." Indeed,
"Howl's Moving Castle" has the first
kiss ever in a Miyazaki film, and contains more
of an overt love story. "Howl's doesn't have
the elegiac beauty of certain sequences in
"Spirited Away," nor does it have the
emotional delicacy of "Totoro." (The
Howl character, a vain, reclusive boy wizard who
dresses in capes and epauletted jackets, reminded
me somehow of Michael Jackson.) But it does have
the director's commanding sense of magic, along
with a windy, wildflower-strewn Alpine landscape,
and an amusingly cranky fire demon named
Calcifer. And the living, breathing, clanking
castle is one of Miyazaki's most marvelous
designs: it looks like a giant teakettle
bristling with turrets and balconies, and shifts
about in its metal skin like a rhino, striding
across the countryside on, yes, chicken feet.
The afternoon was warm, and outside the window
cicadas were making a racket. Miyazaki continued
to look twinkly, but nonetheless he began airing
a briskly dire view of the world. "I'm not
jealous of young people," he said.
"They're not really free." I asked him
what he meant. "They're raised on virtual
reality. And it's not like it's any better in the
countryside. You go to the country and kids spend
more time staring at DVDs than kids do in the
city. I have a place in the mountains, and a
friend of mine runs a small junior-high school
nearby. Out of twenty-seven pupils, he told me,
nine do their schoolwork from home! They're too
afraid to leave their homes." He went on,
"The best thing would be for virtual reality
just to disappear. I realize that with our
animation we are creating virtual things, too. I
keep telling my crew, 'Don't watch animation!
You're surrounded by enough virtual things
We walked out to the rooftop garden that Goro had
designed as a place where staff could rest and
recharge. The studio's four small buildings are
lovely, and are complete with Miyazakian
refinements. In some workspaces where he thought
there wasn't enough light or hint of the outside,
he had trompe-l'oeil windows painted that depict
meadows beneath cerulean skies. The building
containing his officewhich he refers to as
"the pig's house"looks like an
elaborate Swiss châlet, with a steep narrow
stairway made of laminated blocks of golden pine,
and a flying bridge with small doorways on either
side. Once, Alpert told me, when Miyazaki looked
out and noticed a procession of preschoolers
walking by on the street, he invited them in,
"and just gave them free rein and they ran
up and down the stairs and onto the bridge,
screaming and laughing."
From the garden, we could hear taiko drums
thumping out a dance for a neighborhood festival,
and see a flamboyant sunset over the old pine
trees that remain in this neighborhood, unlike in
so many others around Tokyo. With surprising
enthusiasm, Miyazaki brought up the subject of
environmental apocalypse. "Our population
could just suddenly dip and disappear!" he
said, flourishing his cigarette in the air.
"I talked to an expert on this recently, and
I said, 'Tell me the truth.' He said with mass
consumption continuing as it is we will have less
than fifty years. Then it will all be like
Venice. I think maybe less, more like forty. I'm
hoping I'll live another thirty years. I want to
see the sea rise over Tokyo and the NTV tower
become an island. I'd like to see Manhattan
underwater. I'd like to see when the human
population plummets and there are no more
high-rises, because nobody's buying them. I'm
excited about that. Money and desireall
that is going to collapse, and wild green grasses
are going to take over."
He said that he'd visited the office tower of
NTV, a Japanese television network, the day
before: "I climbed two hundred and six
metres up, to where the red lights are to warn
the planes. You could see the whole city. And I
thought, This place is haunted, doomed. All those
buildings. All those cubicles."
Suzuki joined us, and Takahata sat down without
greeting anyone, delicately removing an enormous
black ant from his pants leg. He said that he'd
been reading a French novel in which ants are
highly intelligent and can read. Somebody
mentioned E. O. Wilson's work on insects and
their elaborate forms of communication.
"How are your frogs, by the way?"
Suzuki asked Miyazaki, who explained that he kept
them in a pond at home.
"I'm trying to keep track of how many
tadpoles I have, but how can I? I can't write
numbers on their backs."
The three men talked for a while about frogs and
dragonflies and cicadas, and how the Japanese
grasshopper population is declining because of
overdevelopment. All of them warmed to the topic.
"There's an abandoned house near mine, and I
want to buy it and keep it wild," Miyazaki
said. "Let all the wild grasses grow over
it. It's amazing how much they growtheir
living energy. I wouldn't cut the grass at all,
but then there's always the old ladies who come
along with their hedge trimmers and scold you.
We'll have to wait for that generation to die
off. Until then, we'll never see grass like I
want to see grass."
He was not a gardener himself, he said.
"Gardening is my wife's territory. But, when
she gardens, it's like a holocaust. You see a
bug? It's evil. You have to exterminate it. Even
the weedspoor plantsshe just yanks
them out." He smiled." It's not
ecological at all. It's fascism." Japan
should start a new form of agriculture, he
proclaimed, then admitted, "I can't do it.
I'm not the farmer type, so I just
I noted that he had
donated the "Totoro" licensing rights
to a nature trust to help buy up some nearby
woodlands and preserve them from development.
"Oh, it's not much of a wood, but we try to
do something," he said. Takahata spoke up:
"If you add up all the land you've saved,
it's vast." Miyazaki shrugged.
I asked him if he'd ever want to live anywhere
elsehe seemed so bitter about Japan's
environmental depredations. "No," he
said. "Japan is finebecause they speak
Japanese. I like Ireland, though, the countryside
there. Dublin has too many yuppies, computer
types, but I like the countryside, because it's
poorer than England." He mentioned liking
Potsdam, in Germany, and the decrepit castle at
Sans Souci. "Sometimes I encounter places
that I feel as though I saw as a boy. A certain
light in an old kind of town. Like in Tarkovsky's
films, that feeling is always there. I felt that
way about a town in Estonia that I visited."
Miyazaki added that he didn't really find travel
relaxing; he found walking relaxingthat was
the way human beings were meant to relax, and he
expressed the wish that he "could walk back
and forth to work every day, except that it would
take two and a half hours each way," and
then he wouldn't have enough time to work.
This remark suddenly seemed to remind him of all
the work that he had to do. Miyazaki turned to
leave, and Suzuki and Takahata, along with other
staff members, began drifting away.
On the train ride back to downtown Tokyo, I
thought about how kind and humane Miyazaki's
films typically are, and how harsh he had often
sounded in person. I decided to admire this
dichotomy as an example of what the social critic
Antonio Gramsci called "pessimism of the
intellect, optimism of the will." An
interviewer once remarked to Miyazaki that his
movies expressed "hope and a belief in the
goodness of man." Miyazaki replied that he
was, in fact, a pessimist. He then added, "I
don't want to transfer my pessimism onto
children. I keep it at bay. I don't believe that
adults should impose their vision of the world on
children. Children are very much capable of
forming their own visions.
The superb Margaret Talbot
may be read frequently in The New Yorker, as well as The
Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Salon.
She also has been an editor at Lingua Franca and The New
See which other films,
besides Miyazaki's, are my favorites here.