JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Hayao Miyazaki is that rare filmmaker who can appeal to all ages. Miyazaki's main characters are usually children, but his films are known for complex narratives about human nature, the environment and war. His latest animated film is called "Howl's Moving Castle." It opened this weekend in Los Angeles and New York. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY reporting:
What Hayao Miyazaki does is anime and yet it's not. Americans know the Japanese style of animation mostly through big-eyed cartoons such as "Pokemon." Miyazaki is credited with taking anime to more sophisticated levels with such movies as "Princess Mononoke" or "Spirited Away," which won an Academy Award in 2003. It's set in an otherworldly bathhouse.
(Soundbite of "Spirited Away")
Unidentified Woman: This is certainly no place for humans. It's a bathhouse for the spirits. It's where they come to replenish themselves. And you humans always make a mess of things.
ULABY: Anime clubs have sprung up at virtually every university in this country and at a lot of high schools. At the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, club members each spontaneously chose a word to describe Miyazaki's films.
Unidentified Girl #1: Awesome.
Unidentified Girl #2: Sparkly-slash-shiny.
Unidentified Girl #3: Thoughtful.
Unidentified Girl #4: Inspirational.
Unidentified Girl #5: Fluid.
Unidentified Girl #6: Imaginative.
ULABY: Another common word is `magical.' Pete Docter directed the Pixar film "Monsters, Inc." He helped bring "Howl's Moving Castle" to the US.
Mr. PETE DOCTER (Director): And `magical' is one of those words that you go, `Oh, brother,' and you roll your eyes. `Magical'--it's overused. But there is something like this film akin to having a particularly vivid dream.
ULABY: A dream that unfolds against lavish landscapes with fields of glowing flowers and supersaturated skies, all of it completely hand-drawn. Miyazaki used to do much of that work himself, but now he's plagued with failing eyesight and, he says, a tired arm. Still, he can't help but draw.
Mr. HAYAO MIYAZAKI (Filmmaker): (Through Translator) My hand moves when I think of things. Without pencil, without paper, my hand just moves, so that's the way my brain seems to operate now.
ULABY: Miyazaki usually writes his own stories, too, but he based "Howl's Moving Castle" on a young adult novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones. It tells the story of a girl transformed into a 90-year-old by an antagonistic witch.
(Soundbite of "Howl's Moving Castle")
Ms. LAUREN BACALL: (As Witch of the Waste) What a tacky shop. I've never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you're by far the tackiest thing here.
Ms. EMILY MORTIMER: (As Sofi) The door's over here, ma'am.
Ms. BACALL: (As Witch of the Waste) Standing up to the Witch of the Waste--that's plucky.
ULABY: A girl who suddenly ages into an old woman triggered Miyazaki's imagination. It set him thinking about his own childhood at the end of World War II.
Mr. MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) The movie really is a meditation on what if I had been bolder in 1944. If you opposed the war you would instantly be killed. But on the other hand, would I have joined the military and gone to kill for my country? No, so the question was: What is the alternative? And therefore, you have Howl running, running, running. It's a movie about running away from the reality of participating in a war.
ULABY: Howl is the wizard who helps the film's young heroine. Miyazaki's family too was forced to flee. Linda Hoaglund has translated all of the director's films to English. She says during the war, he was more privileged than most.
Ms. LINDA HOAGLUND (Translator): His uncle had a truck and so the family was loaded onto the back of the truck, and as they made their way out of the city, they had to push aside screaming mothers and children who also wanted a ride on that truck.
ULABY: That experience contributed to a deeply felt pacifism which led to Miyazaki changing the novel in a significant way.
Ms. HOAGLUND: One issue that he has completely added that is totally original is that there's a war going on and people are being firebombed. There are refugees, there are kings in power who would use their magicians to destroy civilian populations.
ULABY: The filmmaker says he couldn't help being affected by what's going on today.
Mr. MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) As I started making this film, the bombing of Iraq began. I had wanted to complete this film before the war began. This film is profoundly influenced by real events.
ULABY: Miyazaki believes children can handle subjects like war and that as an artist, he has a responsibility to tell them serious stories. This was a founding philosophy of his Studio Ghibli. Toshio Suzuki co-founded the studio with Miyazaki 30 years ago.
Mr. TOSHIO SUZUKI (Co-founder, Studio Ghibli): (Through Translator) So in any era or generation, I think it is the children who are so then victimized or who suffer from a situation in society, so we really wanted to make films which encourage children.
ULABY: And that approach to filmmaking inspired Pixar's Pete Docter and a wave of American animators. When Docter developed "Monsters, Inc.," his team repeatedly watched a Miyazaki film called "My Neighbor Totoro."
Mr. DOCTER: We were looking at the little kids in that film and how true to life they seem, the way they react to things. You know, they see this huge beast and instead of screaming and running away the way adults would, they laugh hysterically and hug them.
(Soundbite of "Monsters, Inc.")
ULABY: The beast in "My Neighbor Totoro" is actually a giant forest spirit with a toothy grin who teaches kids to honor nature. Attention to such values has made Miyazaki a hero in Japan, says Linda Hoaglund.
Ms. HOAGLUND: The release of a new Miyazaki film is a national event. People are fanatically devoted to not only the Miyazaki films but to the characters and, yes, there are little Totoro bears and, yes, there is now a Studio Ghibli Miyazaki theme park.
ULABY: Miyazaki is a hero, too, to the National Cathedral schoolgirls. At an advance screening of "Howl's Moving Castle," they were not disappointed.
Unidentified Girl #7: Actually, my favorite part was the care he took with it. I mean, even when--I hope this doesn't ruining anything, but even when she was old she still had this young quality in the way she moved and the way she talked, and it was fantastic the way it carried over. I'm so in love with this film. (Laughs)
ULABY: Miyazaki fans often focus on his characters, partly because they're never simply good or evil. But the director directs viewers to the bigger picture, too.
Mr. MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) I'm not so interested in the drama that unfolds between humans. Ultimately I'm very concerned and interested in the drama that unfolds between humans and nature.
ULABY: Hayao Miyazaki says he thinks this may have something to do with being Japanese, but it seems to be gaining him admirers in the US and around the world. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
LUDDEN: You can see a video of Miyazaki's earlier work and hear more from animator Pete Docter at our Web site, npr.org.