Japanese stuff in Japan

part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Frame from Miyazaki's Spirited Away

The anime film "Spirited Away," by Miyazaki, the biggest name in Japanese animated film making, got an Oscar in 2003. And Miyazaki has huge hits in Japan. Film after film. He's Japan's Walt Disney, plus.

And Miyazaki's films especially seem designed as a counterweight to the digital age, not a celebration of it. Here's a typical moment from a Miyazaki film. This is from "Howl's Moving Castle." It came out just a couple of years ago. The action slows down and there's this scene of breathtaking natural beauty; a lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains and meadows. And a small boy and an old woman sit down to rest.

Markle: We got all the laundry put away, Sophie.

Sophie: Oh, thank you, Markle. When you're old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery. It's so strange. I've never felt so peaceful before.

Miyazaki's movies are often set in the past. They are these respectful portrayals of people who make things by hand, like violins or old-fashioned airplanes. And by the way, unlike Pixar or Disney, Miyazaki's movies are mostly hand-painted animation - 24 frames a second. Steve Alpert works for Miyazaki's studio. He talks about the extreme attention to detail in Miyazaki's films.

"I'll give you an example," he says. "There's a scene in Princess Mononoke where San comes into this castle. And she jumps up on the roof and she crosses like this. And then Ashitaka jumps off and goes after her. And he hits the edge of the roof and snaps a tile off and it crumbles. And it's really beautiful because you see she's light, and he's powerful in a different way but heavy. And the only people that really appreciate that are animators because they know what it takes to animate a sequence and they're trained and their eyes are going, 'My god, would you believe?' They see all this stuff."

It's not just in the making of his movies, but also in their messages, that Miyazaki seems to be commenting on the times. In his films, greed, consumerism, pollution are bad, and nature is good.

So maybe that's what we've come to in the 21st century. If you love a simpler, low-tech world and want to sing the praises of that world, the way to make your point is through an electronic fantasy-an animated film like Spirited Away. Or My Neighbor Totoro - that's another big Miyazaki hit. It's about a big, magic, cat-like creature that takes these kids up into the treetops.

Here's professor Susan Napier again, back in that Tokyo coffee shop. "One of the things that Miyazaki is worried about, he says he really wants people not to buy his videos - is what he says, anyway. He says, 'No, they should go out and play, for God's sake.' But they're not going out and playing, they're sitting there watching Totoro for the 50th time, and Totoro has beautiful woodland creatures frolicking around, and it's almost more beautiful than reality."

Hayao Miyazaki may be a 60-some-year-old Japanese man, but he's a rock star to my kids. My daughter, my 10-year-old desperately wanted his autograph.

We couldn't swing an interview with him, but we did visit his world-famous studio. And I was truly surprised by what we saw. We went there, among other things, to explore this question that we started with, which was: Can a nation like Japan build an economic future on being the coolest country around?

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