Hayao Miyazaki might be the least successful retiree ever. The famed Japanese filmmaker, known across the world for his wonderfully touching animated films including Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, has announced and then reversed course on his retirement about four times now, each backtrack sparking waves of excitement (and not a little frustration) among his legions of fans.
So when the Toronto International Film Festival announced this past summer that it would host the international premiere of Miyazaki’s new film, the fantastical childhood adventure The Boy and the Heron, there were gentle sighs that this film might actually be the 82-year-old master’s very last production. But then Junichi Nishioka, vice-president of Miyazaki’s famed production house Studio Ghibli, attended the TIFF premiere (Miyazaki rarely leaves his home country these days), and delivered the news that his boss is once again back at work. And, in fact, busier than ever.
Ahead of The Boy and the Heron’s Canadian release this weekend, Nishioka spoke with The Globe and Mail about the past and future of Miyazaki.
So we’re learning again that The Boy and the Heron might not be Miyazaki’s last film. Can you elaborate?
He often announces his retirement after he’s finished making a film, but that’s because he’s put all his energy and effort into making something that’s just come out, so he thinks he’s exhausted and can’t do it any more. But not this time. One reason is that he was able to take a long time to make this film, and make it slowly, so he has the confidence now to go at this pace. He’s also involved in planning the exhibits for the Ghibli theme park [in Nagakute, Japan], and has some ideas for perhaps a new film.
The new film’s release strategy this past summer in Japan was unusual. There was basically no promotion. No trailers, no synopsis, not even any images from the movie aside from an impressionistic poster.
Producer Toshio Suzuki decided on this strategy because he said that when he was young and went to see films, he wouldn’t know what one or the other was about, he just kept going. So the idea that you could go see a film with a fresh perspective and no advance knowledge and no prejudice about whether you’ll like it or not was quite appealing. Another thing is that unlike other Studio Ghibli films, we had no outside investors for this, it was totally self-financed, so we didn’t have to satisfy anyone else. It was a fresh way to show a film, and it did very well in Japan.
In the press notes, it says that there are ‘certain biographical elements’ from Miyazaki’s childhood here that have never fully been looked at. What might those be?
Miyazaki was born in Tokyo, but when he was a boy his family moved about 100 kilometres away during the bombings. And his father was an officer in a company that made fighter planes for the war, so it’s that kind of history that’s brought into this film. Of course, he fictionalizes and elaborates on it – his mother didn’t die as in the movie.
While this film isn’t his necessarily his final one, there are thematic elements that feel like he’s making a final kind of artistic statement. Like a storyteller philosophizing about the fictional worlds that he will leave behind for future generations to discover.
I think in his mind, this isn’t that kind of final film. He doesn’t say goodbye in the film, no. As the Japanese title of the film, How Do You Live?, this is a film that says, “I’ve lived this way. How do you live?” That’s what he is questioning here.
On the note of that title, why the decision to change it to The Boy and the Heron for audiences outside of Japan?
It was producer Suzuki who came up with The Boy and the Heron for international purposes. The title in Japanese, it’s very difficult to communicate to a wide audience. In Japan, there’s a book of that title that has become a common phrase among people there, but it’s not known abroad. The brainstorming ended up being, well, there’s a boy and there’s a grey heron, so why not use those two characters to sell the film?
This interview, conducted with the aid of an interpreter, has been condensed and edited.
The Boy and the Heron opens in theatres Dec. 8.