Generating Magic

As Studio Ghibli’s first fully 3DCG-animated feature film, Earwig and the Witch, lands in theaters, director Gorō Miyazaki chats with Toussaint Egan about the magic of flawed protagonists, the joys of 1970s anime and seeing Star Wars with his dad.

When I make an animation, it’s not that I don’t want adults to enjoy it, but I really want to make films for children to watch.” —⁠Gorō Miyazaki

“For Gorō, Hayao Miyazaki is not a father but rather a tall wall.” That’s long-time Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki speaking to the Los Angeles Times in a 2013 interview about Gorō Miyazaki, the eldest scion of one of Japan’s most celebrated directors. For over a decade and a half, the former landscaper-turned-director’s career in anime has been attached to expectations associated with his father Hayao Miyazaki, whose body of work spanning more than half a century is an exemplar of the medium.

Despite, as Suzuki-san put it, “the fate of one who has a legendary father”, and a less-than-enthusiastic reception to his 2006 directorial debut Tales from Earthsea, Miyazaki Junior has forged ahead with the express goal of asserting his own identity as a creator, with a body of work that is distinct and apart from that of Studio Ghibli’s most famous co-founder.

No more is this apparent than in his 2014 animated series Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, a first for both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as not only his (and the studio’s) first animated series, but the studio’s first fully CG-animated work. While the elder Miyazaki has only lately come to express interest in CG animation in the form of his 2018 short film Boro the Caterpillar, Gorō, by contrast, has wholeheartedly embraced the medium, marking a clear and distinct break between his own aesthetic sensibilities and those of his father.

“If I were to create [a] hand-drawn TV anime series now, I would only be following a path carved out by Hayao Miyazaki and others as a latecomer,” Miyazaki told Asahi Shimbun in 2015. “Well, I wouldn’t like that. Expression by computer graphics remains incomplete, so both the workers and myself believe that there still remains something that we could do.” In choosing to pursue CG animation, Gorō Miyazaki is free to be held to no precedent other than his own.

Earwig and the Witch, Miyazaki’s first feature-length film since 2013’s From Up on Poppy Hill and Studio Ghibli’s first-ever feature-length CG-animated film, is another push forward. Adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ 2011 children’s book, the film was made for Japanese television, but is being released theatrically elsewhere. The film tells the story of Earwig, a clever and precocious young orphan who, unbeknownst to her, is the daughter of a powerful witch on the run from malevolent forces. When she is adopted by the witch Bella Yaga and a mysterious shapeshifter known as the Mandrake, Earwig must use every ounce of her wits, charm and guile to assert command of her new life and learn the secret of her foster parent’s history.

Early Letterboxd reviews for Earwig and the Witch are mixed—such is the fervor for Ghibli’s hand-drawn masterpieces, comparisons will always exist, and there’s a common feeling that the film’s ending is abrupt (possibly setting things up for a sequel). Those who have enjoyed Earwig and the Witch, however, write that it is “solid, undeniably charming and lovely” and hope that “people who watch this will go in with an open mind and [refrain from] judging Earwig unfairly”.

We talked with Miyazaki over Zoom to discuss his motivations for adapting the book, the anime and films that have inspired and motivated him throughout his career, and what he would most want to be remembered for as a director.

Most of your films are adaptations of writers like Ursula Le Guin, Astrid Lindgren and now Diana Wynne Jones. What did you feel when you read the original Earwig and the Witch novel for the first time? What inspired you to turn it into a film?
Gorō Miyazaki: When I first read the book, there were two things that really stuck out as very interesting to me. The first one was the protagonist, Earwig. I love the fact that she wasn’t portrayed as your typical, good obedient girl. She’s someone who, when she knows what she wants in her life, in order to achieve those goals, she doesn’t hesitate to use people or make people do as she wants them to do. And even in scenes where something bad happens and she could cry, she doesn’t cry. She’s strong-willed and works to overcome those challenges. She acts and works to come up with ideas of how she could overcome these challenges, so those traits of that character really appealed to me.

The other thing was how Jones portrays the concept of magic in the book. Bella Yaga, the witch, while she’s making all these magical spells and potions in the workshop, there’s also a physical sort of work at play. She has to blend these elements and ingredients, the mystical and the physical, and mix them together. So to see someone create magic in that way was a very intriguing idea to me.

What kind of stories do you typically enjoy reading? What are some of your favorite books, and what are you reading right now?
In terms of fiction and fantasy, I’m a fan of Dianne Wynne Jones’ writing. What I like about her stories is that they have a lot of quirky characters. Sometimes the protagonist will be someone who would be quite difficult to interact with in real life. The characters have flaws and dimensions. They’re not often one-dimensional, neither good or bad. Her characters have different sides to them that make them really attractive and charming. In terms of books I regularly read though, I tend to prefer reading more non-fiction books than fantasy.

How did the experience of working on Ronia, a 3DCG-animated series, prepare you for the experience working on this film? Do you feel you’ve grown as a director since your last film in 2011?
It’s hard to tell whether you’ve grown or not by yourself, but in terms of working in 3DCG with Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, I was able to see what the possibilities of working with 3DCG were in terms of being able to [make] the characters act more, perform more, and show a different range of emotions. With Earwig and the Witch, I wanted to make it a story that was less driven by the [narrative], but driven by the characters and their performances, such as Earwig’s reactions, expressions, thoughts and feelings. I would say that the experience I had with Ronja was very much a learning experience and place to experiment with different ideas. Each episode of Ronja would have a different challenge—where for one episode I would try to make it into more of a comedy, the next episode would be just the two main child characters talking with each other, and then there were episodes with elements of horror or violence featured throughout. It was a place for me to explore and experiment with what was possible through 3DCG animation.

Writer-director Gorō Miyazaki.
Writer-director Gorō Miyazaki.

What were some of your favorite animated films growing up that you return to for either inspiration and entertainment?
I try to avoid going back to reference these animations or to emulate exactly what they did, but in terms of memorable and impressive anime from when I was growing up, Hayao Miyazaki’s Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro is one that I still hold dear. I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore movie or anime fan. My generation grew up during a period when anime became huge in Japan, so Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato (1977) and Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam (1979–1981) were very popular at the time. I remember watching those and them leaving a big impression on me, as well as films like Star Wars (1977). I remember going to the theater when it first came out and that had a big impact on me.

A while back I was wondering who I went to see Star Wars with when it first came out, I couldn’t remember who I actually went with. So when I went back to my parents’ house and we were talking about this, it turns out the entire family went to go see the film. So I actually went to go see Star Wars with my father, Hayao Miyazaki! The second one, The Empire Strikes Back, my mother told us, “I don’t need to go and see this,” and so I remember going to see that one with my dad and my brother as well.

Your films often touch on the relationship between a child and their parent. How has your relationship with your son inspired your work? What films do you love watching with him?
I’ll usually go and watch whatever film he wants to see [laughs]. Most recently we went to go see the new Demon Slayer movie. I thought it was very interesting, I felt like it had a freshness about it. Even with hand-drawn animation, I could tell it was done by a younger, ambitious generation of animators trying to accomplish something new.

What have been some of your favorite 3DCG animated films in recent years that have inspired you as a creator working in the medium?
I love all of Pete Docter’s works at Pixar. I haven’t seen Soul yet, his latest film, but I loved Inside Out and I loved Monsters, Inc. when it first came out. I really enjoyed Tian Xiao Peng’s Monkey King: Hero Is Back. What I loved about their films was that, as the audience, you could feel the energy, devotion and enthusiasm of the creators wanting to create something great using CG through the art form of animation.

As a director, what kind of stories are you most interested in telling? What would you ideally want your work to be known and remembered for?
When I make an animation, it’s not that I don’t want adults to enjoy it, but I really want to make films for children to watch. Something that will inspire them in how to live their lives as they grow older and go into the world, something that might encourage them and offer hope. In terms of how I’d like to be remembered, I hope people will remember me as someone who always came up with something different than what they would’ve expected, and [from] what he did before. Not inconsistent, but someone who was always exploring new and challenging possibilities.

Earwig and the Witch’ is distributed in the US via GKIDS, and will be in limited theatrical release in the US from February 3, and on HBO Max from February 5. A digital release follows on March 23 with Blu-ray and DVD April 6.

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