San Diego Comic-Con: Meeting Miyazaki

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Yesterday afternoon I went up to a door on the second floor of the San Diego Convention Center. I twisted in the wind with a skeptical security guard for 20 minutes before a Disney publicist came to rescue me. She escorted me out to a white table on a sunny terrace outside. I zealously forbade the other journalists who were milling around to sit down at the table with me for another 30 minutes, while I wrote and rewrote lists of questions in a notebook. This is because I was waiting for the two greatest living makers of animated films, John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, to come out and sit down next to me. Which they eventually did.

Lasseter is all boyish enthusiasm, though with a steely edge that reminds you that you’re talking to the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Miyazaki, who’s in his late 60’s, is basically infinitely dignified, very upright in a white suit and dark glasses and a fuzzy white beard. These kinds of transactions are closely regulated by publicists, so I’m painfully aware that we have 30 minutes and no more.

We’re here to talk about Miyazaki’s new film, Ponyo, which is set in a tiny industrial fishing town in Japan. It’s about a little boy and a little girl-ocean-spirit, Ponyo, and how they meet, and love each other, and how her father — who’s a kind of crazed ocean-dwelling wizard — tries to keep them apart. Like all his movies, it’s gorgeously hand-drawn, and it’s cute and funny and dark and real at the same time. The water alone in this film will have people shaking their heads for years. It’s a big win.

I find it doesn’t help to get fanboyish in situations like this — it just freaks famous people out — so I keep it together, helped by Miyazaki’s translator — she’s a calming presence. I’m not going to run through the whole interview, which I have to save for the print magazine for now. But we talked about where Ponyo came from — she was a frog before she was a goldfish, and her story to some extent parallels that of the Little Mermaid, a story Miyazaki loved as a child, though he didn’t like the ending. We talked about his storyboarding technique — there doesn’t seem to be an indigenous word for this in Japanese, since I could hear him say ‘storyboard’ to his translator. He and Lasseter talked about their determination to preserve animation as an art form that can say serious things to children; they mention Nick Park, of Wallace & Gromit fame, as their colleague in this. We talked about the cartoons Miyazaki loved as a little kid.

At the very end I broke character and thanked him for everything he’s done, and how Totoro is the first movie my daughter and I really loved together. I am not a stone. We shook hands, and I left. I’ll get the full transcript out there as soon as I can.

The two other films that are the talk of the con are District 9 and Avatar. I missed’em both: I was running a panel during one, and talking to Miyazaki during the other. So it goes. io9 has good coverage of them. Last night I went to a conversation between Peter Jackson (who’s producing District 9) and James Cameron (who’s directing Avatar), in the hopes of catching some footage, but they didn’t screen anything. Both men were charming but played it safe. Lotta mutual admiration.

io9 also gave me some of the best news I’ve heard so far in San Diego: Miracleman, one of my favorite comics ever, brainchild of Alan Moore and later Neil Gaiman, which has been entangled in a series of legal disasters for 15 years, is now out of them. I never thought I’d see the day. Marvel bought the rights, under the comic’s original name, Marvelman. Well done Marvel.