Thursday, October 8, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Starting Point, 1979-1996

Starting Point 1979-1996

Author: Hayao Miyazaki


Viz Media

500 pages


Published: 2009

Reviewed by Eric Evans

When I pre-ordered "Starting Point 1979-1996" I was foolish enough to think that Hayao Miyazaki, creator of such seminal anime films as "Spirited Away", "Princess Mononoke" and "My Neighbor Totoro", would take time away from his filmmaking work long enough to write a memoir. I'm both disappointed and relieved that isn't the case. Disappointed because there's no doubt Miyazaki has stories to tell, and relieved because the less time he spends writing, the more time he can spend working.

"Starting Point" is a collection of essays, notes, and interviews from various Japanese publications, translated and assembled according to loose themes such as "On Creating Animation" and "My Favorite Things". This ordering doesn't quite work, since the book jumps back and forth in its chronology trying to adhere to an artificial structure--why bother? The anecdotes are engrossing even when Miyazaki seems like he'd rather be doing anything than answering questions, which is about half the time.

Tonally the book is all over the map. Some of the interviews find Miyazaki-san testy and short, others gregarious and forthcoming. The testy ones are full of the usual platitudes: when asked what young animators can do to find success, there are lots of "do your best" and "work hard". But when Miyazaki feels like talking, he's full of beans.

On young people staking their claim: "[…] The opportunity to demonstrate what you can do only comes along once in a while, so unless you are extraordinarily lucky, you'll probably never make it."

On one of his female character's physical attributes: "Nausicaä's breasts are rather large, aren't they? […] Hee hee!"

On making an employee work 22 hours a day: "Frankly, this was in violation of the Labor Standards Law and the regulations against women working late at night. And it wasn't good for her health either. Part of me feels that no one should have to work that hard. But part of me also wants to have the energy and dedication she has for her work."

On his customers, children: "[…] I've stopped thinking that all children are cute. There are those I just don't get along with."

Readers unfamiliar with Miyazaki's films may be a bit lost since much of the book deals with their specifics. The section "Planning Notes; Directorial Memoranda" contains a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes ephemera: The original proposal for "Castle in the Sky", the project plan and character concepts used to create "My Neighbor Totoro", memos on prospective films and concepts, even a plan to acquire the film rights to Richard Corben's violent underground comic "Rowlf". For fans, it's compelling stuff. But the high points of the book come when the structure gets out of the way of the longer narratives. Anecdotes about filmmaking--long hours, off days spent drinking with friends, drunken cohorts getting sportscars hopelessly bogged down on muddy roads--reveal more about Miyazaki the man than I expected to learn. And the interviews that comprise the last third of the book are at times surprisingly contentious.

The book's strengths are also its weaknesses. So much of it is centered on the particulars of the films in question that a lack of knowledge about those films will render the book practically indecipherable. So if you're into the Ghibli movies and you're curious about the birth of Studio or the man behind the it, there's little question whether or not you should read "Starting Point". But if you're new to anime there's little here to recommend it.

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