Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke was Ghibli’s most expensive movie, and went on to become Japan’s biggest-ever grossing picture. Following a young warrior mortally cursed by a diseased boar-demon, it takes us deep into Japan’s primeval forest, as its gods of nature resist humanity’s industrial progress. Arguably unsuitable for Ghibli’s younger audience, it features brutal combat scenes and monstrous mutations, entwining the theme of aborted innocence with its overt environmental concerns.
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “It was a huge risk, totally different from when I was making Kiki. I’d had that experience with Porco Rosso, the war happened (in the former Yugoslavia), and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?
“I think I really exhausted the animation staff with this film. I knew that was gonna happen, but felt that we had to do this. But when I finished, I didn’t understand it: ‘What did I make?!’ At first I decided, ‘This is something children shouldn’t see,’ but in the end I realised, ‘No, this is something that children must see,’ because adults, they didn’t get it — children understood it. So again children helped me out. Again I was able to make the next film!”
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Despite the pain of making his last two films, accompanied by hints that he was going to retire, Miyazaki returned to the drawing board with his second literary adaptation, this time of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Like Mononoke, it centres on a cursed protagonist, this time young wallflower Sophie, aged by a witch into an old crone. Like all Miyazaki’s films it teems with astonishing detail, but is his least focused story and features his least satisfying denouement.
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “Diana Wynne Jones... I was snared in a trap by her. Her story has great reality for the female reader, but she doesn’t care anything about how the world is set up. And all the men in her novels are like her husband: kind of sad, standing there quietly (laughs). And magic without any rules… you know, it kind of loses control. But I didn’t want to make a movie that explains the rules. That’s just like making a video-game. So I made a film that doesn’t explain the logic of the magic and everybody got lost! (Laughs)
“We don’t know why, but it had very extreme reactions: people who really loved it, and people who didn’t understand it. It was a horrible experience. I’ve been so tired out since Princess Mononoke. And to continue in this complicated direction, I thought, ‘We can’t do this anymore!’ Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl... We decided to change direction. And that’s why we did Ponyo the way we did.”
Spirited Away (2001)
Sixteen years after the foundation of Ghibli, Miyazaki finally found success in the West. Heaped with critical praise, and also an Oscar, his colourful tale of a sulky girl named Chihiro trapped in a world of spirits, demons and gods after her parents are polymorphed into pigs proved pleasantly flummoxing to its Western audience. It takes a sudden twist of direction midway through, shifting focus from Chihiro to hungry spectre No-Face, then sending the girl on a mission to absolve dragon/boy Aku rather than freeing her parents. This was less due to Miyazaki’s grand plan than the need to solve a problem he’d made for himself…
Miyazaki on Miyazaki “There were these girls I’d known since they’d been babies. They were daughters of my friend. And they grew to be ten and 12 and I said, ‘I can distance myself from them now, they’re going to blossom into women and I don’t have to play uncle anymore.’And I was wondering how they would live from now on, and I thought of Spirited Away as a gift to those girls.
But it was a hard film to make. After I started production, the key animator, the art director and the producer came out on holiday with me and we had this blackboard and tried to draft out which direction the film was going in. I explained, ‘I think we’ll be able to do this kind of story, with this kind of ending,’ and then Suzuki-san (the producer) said: ‘Ah. That will take three hours. I don’t want to make a three-hour movie!’
I said, ‘Okay. I’ll make the story shorter.’ And there was No-Face — he just happened to be a bystanding character. We decided, ‘Oh, let’s use that one,’ so that character suddenly came and we were able to make a sort of short two-hour movie (laughs). But the bath-house and the old lady that’s there, and the gods… I like that kind of world. They’re very intriguing. That other world has much depth and there’s a lot of different kinds of people inhabiting it — that’s what I like to work with. It’s not a small contained world, it’s actually a world that stretches out, a place that it’s normal that when it rains there’s a sea the next day… So that’s why Spirited Away evolved into that kind of film. And it was so much pain and care and labour I don’t know why I do these things!” (Laughs)