I see it’s the 80th birthday of the noted animator Hayao Miyazaki.
I once read his book of essays Starting Point: 1979–1996 and was seized by a desire to do something well, with vigour and clarity, instead of tiredly poking around. At the time this made me a little miserable, and I wondered why.
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The book contains essays, interviews, and documents from Miyazaki during a period in his 30s and 40s in which he directed six highly-regarded anime feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. This is an excellent run, and history tells us that the two films he made immediately afterwards would be even more celebrated.
The book contains planning documents, interviews, and some essays written between films. The planning documents describe a film before it has been made, and the interviews talk about it afterwards, when in every case it had been a success.
This structure, no doubt accidentally, gives a sense of a narrative like this: Miyazaki thinks of an idea and writes it up with in clear and forceful terms; he starts drawing without a script or storyboard and develops the plot as he goes; he works solidly for three years; the film is finished; it’s a wonderful piece of work that is just as he had envisioned; the process repeats.
Reinforcing this impression is some of the content of the interviews. For example, when talking about My Neighbour Totoro — a glorious film whose origin seems to speak of as pure a work of art as ever appeared in a cinema — Miyazaki remarks that he felt “tremendous happiness” while working on the film, that he knew throughout how it was going to work, that he could avoid any directorial tricks and keep the plot as simple as possible, that he could almost have made the entire film be just about the excitement and fear of a typhoon passing near a house at night; and that if he were to make the film again, given the same technical constraints, the only thing he would change would be to allow more time with the main characters, two small children, while they live their lives, ignoring the plot.
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This is very lovely to read, but also a little daunting. There is something there, real or imagined, that I found I longed for in my work.
What is that longing? It isn’t about talent. I’m delighted by the talent of Miyazaki, but I don’t yearn for it, probably because I can’t imagine having it. It also isn’t about whether my work is worthwhile — I have doubts, but those are long-standing, unchanging doubts. I think it is about focus and application.
I believe that we all have the ability to create work that satisfies our own critical judgement as a coherent artistic effort, but that we don’t do it, because we can’t find the clarity of mind and the conviction to complete an idea with the quality that we first imagine for it.
As a mere programmer, I’m aware that much of the software I write will never be used, or not in the way I imagined it. I believe this is the unspoken experience of all programmers. Software that is made with care but not used is obviously unsatisfying. But the other side of it is software that is not made well enough to merit users at all. If it hasn’t been made well enough, then the more popular it is, the more people might be damaged by mistakes in it, and so the worse it is. Experience seems to consist partly in learning to suppress the fear of this, and to find sufficient trade-offs to ensure that anything useful ever gets published.
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The perceived narrative I referred to above is not the whole story. There is plenty in the book about team work, and it hints at the vast amount of manual labour going on, with stories about overworked colour artists, slipping schedules, and the continually unmet expectation that everything will be easier next time. And at the end of the book is a retrospective timeline, from which we can see that the narrative doesn’t flow linearly either — the team must often have been working on more than one Miyazaki-directed film at once, and some films were based on ideas that had been sketched decades before.
Focusing on team effort does change the picture. You need a lot of people to make a film, and I suppose before you animate the film, you need to animate the people. If the impulse is enough to carry everyone along, then a team can maintain a direction even if their director isn’t certain where they will end up. Perhaps the sense of purpose that seems so desirable is something that one person can’t readily sustain on their own.
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My reverence for the film artifact might not be shared by its makers either. Throughout this book, as well as in more recent interviews I’ve seen, Miyazaki is actively grumpy about the value of anime: there’s too much animation being made already, this is all a waste of time, we contribute nothing to the world, I only want the industry to continue because I know too many people who are animators and I don’t want them to lose their jobs. It’s only when he is sunk deep into a project that he appears to be happy about it.