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An Interview with Toshio Suzuki

June 24, 2005

Transcribed by Chris Kuan

On June 24 2005, Toshio Suzuki was interviewed via an interpreter by Philip Brophy in front of a small room of about 100 people in Sydney, Australia as part of his publicity duties for Howl's Moving Castle at the Sydney Film Festival.

Due to my lack of shorthand skills, the following is culled from my scribbled notes during the 2-hour interview and subsequent audience question-and-answer session. I have tried to smooth the writing to make it understandable, but may have lost (or worse, mangled) nuances that were already filtered through the translator...

Notes in yellow.

PB: Japanese animation is mostly known through TV and OAV series. Why did Studio Ghibli focus on making feature films?

TS: OAV and TV series do not have the time or budget to produce high-quality work. When we first made Nausicaa, we realized there was no other way to do what we wanted except make films.

PB: Was it difficult to raise the money for a feature film in Japan?

TS: The beginning is always important. Tokuma Shoten invested, but nobody was really sure of the cost. I guessed 3 times the normal.

PB: Were there troubles?

TS: Actually, it turned out much less than that.

PB: Has it changed, or do you have to go back to the start every time for money?

TS: Once Nausicaa was successful, I thought maybe I could ask for double that budget for Laputa

PB: Why does Ghibli make films with such a European look? Miyazaki seems to fuse those locations with folklore. How did this develop?

TS: There's a simple reason; at the beginning of anime in Japan, the technique was to realize things that could not be done in live-action. Therefore the settings were science fiction, or non-Japanese locations - for example, World Masterpiece Theatre. The first was TEZUKA Osamu, with Mighty Atom... [at this point, PB cross-translates for the room Astro Boy and points to his T-Shirt (^_^)] which was typical science fiction. Miyazaki and others became popular for their work on such titles as Heidi. Back then, it was difficult for the Japanese industry to have a Japanese main character and set the work within Japan.

In fact, Ghibli's first films Nausicaa and Laputa followed the sci-fi/foreign paradigm. When we proposed the double-bill of Totoro and Hotaru no Haka, *everyone* was opposed to it, because "nobody wants to see animation set in Japan". The main investor even said "why not make something like Nausicaa, with no set place?" We made a brief outline of the films; Totoro was set in Japan soon after the war; the main characters were children and a "spirit". Hotaru no Haka was totally about children. The investors were older people, and didn't want to be taken back to the poor times just after the war, or the war itself. And here we were proposing stories about "ghosts and graves"!

PB: Almost everyone I know is reduced to tears upon watching Hotaru no Haka Did it have the same effect in Japan?

TS: Yes - tears. Actually, Hotaru no Haka is based on a novel. As an 18-year-old university student, I read it and thought that one day I would like to make a movie from it.

PB: Is it true that Ghibli once performed location scouting on the Great Ocean Road [a seaside drive on the Southern coast of Australia, noted for its stark rock formations and sheer cliffs]?

TS: Unfortunately, no. This is my 2nd time in Australia. We came to Cairns - if I recall correctly, back in 1991 after making Porco Rosso, during the bubble economy. The company trip went to Cairns - it was beautiful!

PB: Many Japanese couples honeymoon in Cairns...

TS: There were about 100 people...

PB: I read that Ghibli staff travel to locations to gather material for the backgrounds - is this depth of research why Ghibli films are so evocative?

TS: I will tell you a true story... Miya-san and I used to travel at the completion of a film; for fun, not research. We went to Ireland, England, Italy, Wales... Miyazaki's memory returns when production starts; he'll say "Let's use that place..." Only then will staff go location hunting. Miyazaki's favourite place was Ireland. The Isle of Aran was poor, sparsely-inhabited, basic stonework... Miyazaki liked it. We stayed for 3 days in a bed-and-breakfast place. One evening, we walked to a bar (it took 1 hour!) and as we returned, we saw the landscape under a "white night". Miyazaki stopped and stood up; the crows took off. It was such a beautiful scene that I did something rare: I took a photo. Miyazaki did something more rare; he got angry at me. "I'm trying to remember the scene; don't disturb me!"

A year later, when we were making Majo no Takkyubin, Miyazaki showed me a drawing, saying - "do you remember this?" I was shocked to see the same scene! Miyazaki asked, "Didn't you take a photo? Can I see it? I forgot parts..." So Miyazaki does not often work from photos; he sees, and recalls. For example, he remembers the various elements of a building - the roof, the windows. Sometimes he even asks about the interior layout, so he's always looking for details. When he draws, naturally he can't remember everything, so he fills in the details from his imagination - in this way, the work becomes original. I have forgotten the question (^_^)

PB: How did Miyazaki come up with the design for Howl's castle? From which country does it come?

TS: No lies today! That drawing was originally not meant for the film. I'll tell you a secret... it was intended to fill an empty space at the Studio Ghibli Museum - totally unrelated to the film. When Miyazaki asked me "What design should I use for the castle", I said "how about *that* one?" Miyazaki was happy, as there was now no need to find a new design. The problem became: what about its legs? The original book didn't give much detail. Miyazaki said that if it moves, it need legs. Firstly he though about samurai armour of the 12th-14th centuries, or maybe European armour of that time. Eventually, they became the legs of a... chicken. The next question was: how many - 6 or 4? I suggested 4 (because it would be less work to draw). Miyazaki agreed.

PB: Speaking of the Museum, not everybody might be familiar with it. I read that Miyazaki was very involved and that it took up a lot of his time.

TS: As you know, he is a creator, but he is also interested in the management of the Studio. 80 of the 180 staff are animators, and many are getting older, having been with the Studio for 2 decades. Miyazaki was worried what would happen to this aging workforce. He had an idea: a shop. Then the shop staff could also be animators - it will be a good thing! He always mixes up the original idea with something else... Anyway, we did want to have a shop, so we went location hunting. Someone proposed that it would be possible to lease part of the site of Inokashira Park [owned by the Tokyo Government]. However, it was too big for just a shop. I'm not sure what happened, but it turned into a Museum. Se we seriously thought: what is this Museum to be? We asked around the world - a museum should be quiet, with little noise, and also dark, with little direct sunlight. So we made the opposite! This is one of the first museums in Japan aimed at children.

PB: Japanese museums in general are not as formal as in the West, but the Ghibli Museum is like Miyazaki's fantasy world.

TS: You've been?!

PB: Miyazaki told me 12 years ago that he in not interested in making movies for those outside Japan.

TS: Perhaps he was misinterpreted. He is only aware of his Japanese audience, as he knows little about foreign audiences. But he does believe that what appeals to the Japanese can also appeal to foreigners.

PB: What happened to Takahata's animation school?

TS: We tried this twice, where junior staff would be attend. Takahata taught about directing, and the other was led by Miyazaki. It didn't work, because a talented genius filmmaker is not necessarily a good teacher. Actually, it was really terrible.

PB: Do Studio Ghibli work on 1 film at a time, or more?

TS: Usually just 1. When planning a film, we consider what is happening in the world, in Japan, in Tokyo, in the lives of the staff. All these considerations are connected. This is a characteristic of Ghibli movies. As most of you have not seen the film, I will give a brief overview: it is about a young lady of 18 who turns into an old lady of 90. The reason we did this was that Japan is in a long recession. So we have 2 things: older people who fear for their jobs, and younger people who cannot imagine a worthwhile future. These young ones feel and act old. This film is a message to Japan - although I don't know about the rest of the world.

PB: It's good to see a continuing focus on Japan, rather than portraying things as you think we would like to see them in the West. The cartoon market in the West is pretty much limited to children, and their parents. In Japan, it seems wider - children, families, hentai (perverts), etc. What is your view of the market in Japan?

TS: It is different in Japan, Europe, Asia and the USA, with the USA most different of all. In Europe, they imported titles such as Heidi and Marco, so they were familiar with the Japanese style of Takahata and Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli was therefore an extension of the known. Miyazaki's great reception in France has been helped by Heidi and Marco. In the USA, there was no such basis. Therefore it is difficult, and takes time, to gain recognition. Asia has also seem some Miyazaki animation before. I don't really know how he is perceived in Australia?

PB: "Eh, not bad" [this joke had to be translated for Suzuki]

PB: Studio Ghibli are seen as the benchmark for film animation - their attention to detail, etc. What is your view on the state of the industry in Japan?

TS: Honestly, I don't watch much anime. I think there are not many good ones... do I sound like a snob? Sometimes I will take a look at one or two, but they are not so good, so... it's unfortunate that by the end of January, 78 episodes of animation were shown in Japan; last year there were 192 OAV titles, of which half were really series. I think there are about 9000 animators in Japan - how did all this anime get made? The answer is that only about 10% were made wholly in Japan. This outsourcing is not necessarily a good situation. If it continues, Japan will lose animators and I worry for the future.

PB: Are there any anime schools in Japan, as opposed to the many manga schools?

TS: There were many, but becoming fewer.

PB: Why?

TS: The subject is becoming darker and darker... There are fewer youths today who want to be in the industry. There are 2 reasons - that the number of titles leads to lower budgets and lower pay; and more seriously, while they may want to *watch* anime, they don't want to *make* it.

PB: This leads to the final question: Studio Ghibli works have a great hand-drawn quality to them, and I don't mean that in some hippy way. Some people prefer computer graphics. What is your feeling on CG?

TS: Miya-san cannot use a computer. Of course he has no e-mail - not just because he doesn't have it, but because he can't! Therefore he always returns to hand-drawing. In reality, anime films cannot be made without computers. For 2 reasons: in the past, drawings were hand-painted onto cels. These cels are no longer being manufactured. Secondly, with the increase in digital paint and ink tools, the old skills are being lost. Therefore there is no choice. Actually, computers can allow challenging new modes of expression. If you only show Miyazaki the results, he might get very excited and say, "let's use more". The legs of Howl's castle were originally CG. But when I saw the rushes, I thought, let's put more hand-drawn art in. my opinion is that as most people move into CG, Studio Ghibli will become unique and therefore we want to continue. We went to the USA and met Pete Docter, the dub supervisor for Howl, who said "I want to try 2D"!

Audience Q&A Time then commenced.

Q: A 2-part question: How have you inspired others such as Pixar, and how do you perceive yourselves?

TS: Other studios, such as Pixar, Disney, etc we regard as friends. Pixar is the leader in CG. Ghibli gets a lot of assistance from them. John Lasseter also assisted with the English dubs since Spirited Away, and also gave us some technical support. In return, when we visited him, we gave him the head of the Catbus from the Catbus Room at the Ghibli Museum [It would be about as large as a couple of young children!]

Q: What about Miyazaki's non-work life? How did he get to be so imaginative?

TS: I told you earlier about how he "preserves" a building; but his observation is not limited to them. he observes almost everything from the time he wakes until the time he sleeps. For instance, when going out to eat, he observes people, and might see something unusual, and will say "what's so unusual about that man... I've got it! There are 3 type of eaters; those who bring the food to the mouth, those who bring the mouth to the food, and those who meet in the middle. But this man... *he* is different" [Suzuki demonstrates an amusing contortion] This makes Miyazaki happy to see; and it might appear in a subsequent film. He can also imitate the gaits of various staff. For instance, a person with a bad back will move their legs, but not the back.

To observe and imitate is most important. He reads books, observes, etc. He often says "Don't rush for a drawing reference book - it should be inside your head". His drawings are not totally original - he uses pieces from his memory. His head is big for a Japanese person... 28 years after I first met him, I meet and talk with him almost very day; I'm getting a bit tired. One day I wondered why we are still together; it's because we don't revisit the past. This morning, at the press conference, someone mentioned Ghibli's 20th anniversary. We were not really aware of it. The topic is always *now*, or tomorrow. We discuss world events, down to anime shows. When Miyazaki sees some news that person A is in love with person B, he rushes to tell me and is disappointed if I already heard.

Q: How do you choose voice actors?

TS: Miyazaki does not watch TV or films, so he doesn't know many actors. When we have meetings with the casting director, Miyazaki's suggestions for actors are usually dead! Especially for older characters like Old-Sophie. So I usually come up with a list. We all listen to the tapes together, and Miyazaki makes the final decision. They are not always professional voice-actors.

Q: Miyazaki has said that the only wants to "entertain and delight" his audiences. But his works have become more... environmental. What does he really want to tell his audiences?

TS: In talks to younger staff, he has said that a film must do 3 things: be interesting, contain only 1 or 2 of the director's themes, and make money!

Q: What do you think of animes increasing popularity in the West?

TS: Comparing Japanese and Western films is a matter of timing and space. For instance, the hero of the baseball TV anime Kyojin no Hoshi was a pitcher. One entire half-hour episode took place within the duration of a single pitch. As he was about to pitch, his memories came flooding back... In another scene, he was having dinner in a small 4-and-a-half tatami-mat room with his father and older sister. As the father and son began to argue, the room expanded to 10 times its size... and returned to normal once the fight ended. Similar effects, such as slow-motion, are frequent in Japanese live-action movies. It is less common in the West, notably in films such as The Matrix, which also had interesting set designs that were not proportional. The camera work of drawings also differs between Japan and the West. In manga, the centre of the panel has a normal lens, while around it, the field of view becomes wide-angle.

Q: How many projects do you work on at once, and what's next?

TS: We only do 1 film at a time, which gives problems. After Howl finished, there was not much work for a year. Our new project is confirmed and will begin in the [Northern Hemisphere] summer, but I cannot tell you what it is.

Q: Why does Miyazaki have so many recurring characters (for instance the Old Lady is Ma Dola from Laputa and also Yubaba and Zeniba from Sen)?

TS: Probably because he is not so talented and inventive! When he has to work on a female character, he concentrates mostly on the hair. it is difficult to come up with so many characters... Miyazaki's face is square. When he did the design for the father in Totoro, he presented the staff with two alternatives: the one that was eventually used, and a square face. Everybody preferred the first one! He looked a little sad at that.

Q: In what way are you Yubaba?

TS: (much laughter) Miyazaki is very treacherous! He says that I am like that bath-house manager in attitude (not in appearance). He, on the other hand, is like the multi-armed Kamaji...

Q: KUROSAWA Akira used Japanese folklore and history for many of his films; would you do the same?

TS: Kurosawa's history of Japan is not as accurate as we might think. He was a very talented filmmaker, so perhaps we were deceived into thinking it was true. This is not a totally bad thing... Miyazaki made Mononoke Hime in competition to The Seven Samurai. This is a new, different perspective on a period of Japanese history. It is up to you, the audience, to judge the success.

Q: In 2004, the major anime films were [OTOMO Katsuhiro's] Steamboy, [OSHII Mamoru's] Innocence, and Howl. Why was Howl the biggest success?

TS: (after a long, deep silence) Actually, I was the producer for 2 of those 3 films, but I have not seen Steamboy. Oshii is a friend, so I accepted the producer's role for his film. Actually, I think Howl was more interesting. But I cannot comment on Steamboy.

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