Spirits, gods and pastel paints: The weird world of master animator Hayao Miyazaki

The films of Studio Ghibli are often as bizarre as they are beautiful. So, on the eve of its latest release, Robert Epstein went fishing for answers from Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind it all
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Hundreds of jellyfish pulsate across the screen, glowing blue, with tinges of red. Deeper we dive, past fish of all hues and species, to an underwater bubble and a strangely dashing young man, fussing around, feeding the ocean, his flowing red locks only slightly less theatrical than his bright blue-and-white striped jacket. And what's this? A fish... with the face of a young girl. And 1,000 more, all identical, but a tenth her size. The fish-girl seems to be trying to escape; is her captor evil, or just slightly unhinged? No time to wonder: there goes fish-girl, hiding within the tentacles of an accommodating jellyfish and soaring away from the seabed bubble on her way to the surface... and the confines of a bucket owned by a young boy.

Ring any bells? It's the first chapter of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, albeit reinvented by the master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki at his Studio Ghibli. The film, Ponyo, will be released in the UK next week, though Miyazaki's take is very different to its inspiration: a charming fable still, but one that has the director's perennial themes of identity and environmentalism, bound up in a story of naturalistic fantasy.

The name of the fish-girl as well as the film, Ponyo is the 15th feature from Ghibli,' and the 10th directed by Miyazaki. You may have heard of Ghibli, maybe even seen one or two of its films, but you could be forgiven for being a little bewildered by Miyazaki's extraordinary work. If so, here are a few notes to help you get to grips with one of the geniuses of world animation.

The studio's most internationally renowned picture is 2001's Spirited Away – which became the only non-English film to win the Academy Award for best animated feature, and took more than $275m worldwide. But while Ghibli's releases invariably top the charts in Japan, the studio and Miyazaki remain relatively niche elsewhere. But why? It's not for want of critical acclaim, distribution (Ghibli has had a deal with Disney since 1997) or lack of star power – its voice-translation casts are chock-full of Hollywood talent (Ponyo alone boasts Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin and Tina Fey.)

One answer is that adults in Japan are much more attuned to animation than Westerners. This is a country where commuting businessmen are just as likely to be reading cartoons as their children. "No other country has undergone such traumatic modernisation," explained Miyazaki in a speech in 1994, "and manga [animated story-books] serves as an important form of stress release when we need to cope." Furthermore, he added, since the time of traditional kodan oral storytelling in the 17th century, "infinite deformation of time and space is something we [Japanese] like to do... and by twisting both time and space, it becomes possible to create a more fantastic, magical world."

So it is that spirits, ancient gods and magical creatures, such as Ponyo, populate Miyazaki's movies, and are treated as de facto characters. Western filmgoers might be left scratching their heads, but for Japanese audiences, no explanation is needed for the head-spinning, clicking tree spirits in Princess Mononoke or the raccoons that transform into humans in Pom Poko.

Miyazaki has said of Ponyo that, "Five-year-old children will be able to understand it, even if 50-year-olds can't," since children are more open to the fantastical. The rest of us must simply accept the presence of the supernatural in order to get to the message beneath. For, quite apart from being animations of stunning beauty, Miyazaki's films are also spilling over with ideas.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), for instance, was informed by Miyazaki's harrowing experience of meeting striking miners in Wales in 1984; 1992's Porco Rosso, a highly original tale of a porcine seaplane fighter pilot, spotlights the rise of nationalist fervour in 1930s Italy, raising questions about reactionary societies and totalitarianism; while Howl's Moving Castle (2004) is an allegory that takes to task the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq – albeit an allegory wrapped up in a tale of infinite originality and charm. ("I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful," bemoans the man-child Howl when his hair changes from blonde to black, somewhat undermining his gravitas as a powerful sorceror – and to which his apprentice responds: "I've seen him do this once before... when a girl dumped him.")

In Ponyo, the themes are less sophisticated, but more universal. As one of his more child-friendly films (the others being Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro), it is a freewheeling adventure of companionship, transformative experience and saving the world. When we first meet her, Ponyo lives with her father Fujimoto, a sorcerer charged with maintaining the balance of nature in the sea. Ponyo escapes to the arms of the young boy who is to become her love, and that delicate ecology is jeopardised.

As with many Ghibli films, we are left in no doubt as to Ponyo's environmental convictions, which reflect the precepts of Japan's dominant Shinto belief system. An animistic religion, it sees gods and spirits in everything, emphasising harmony with the natural world. "I do not believe in Shinto," Miyazaki tells me, "but I do respect it, and I feel that the animism origin of Shinto is rooted deep within me."

Miyazaki's reverence for nature first emerged in 1984's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, in which a post-apocalyptic landscape comes under further threat from a toxic jungle. Similarly, in Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko, there are battles between nature (wolf- and boar-spirits, and raccoons respectively) and human developers (in the first case building a fortress of an iron foundry; in the second, housing).

In Ponyo, however, more than any of his previous movies, Miyazaki's preoccupation with the natural is extended to the visual style of the piece. Having accepted the use of CGI, to a limited extent, on the celebrated Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, the film-maker ordered that his new film must reflect the innocence of its storyline in the simplicity of its aesthetic. The result: an unthinkable 170,000 frames were hand-drawn for the production.

"Miyazaki told me that he wanted to move the animation by drawing a lot of frames. Even to move a ship, which would normally be achieved by creating one cel and sliding it, he wanted to draw it entirely by hand," explains the film's art director, Noboru Yoshida, in The Art of Ponyo. And Ponyo's hundreds of little sisters? They were each animated independently, giving every creature in the shoal an individuality, enhancing their believability.

Unusually for Miyazaki, adds Katsuya Konda, supervising animator on the film, the director coloured his original pencil sketches for this film, to give the animators a clearer vision of the look he wanted. He had started out using watercolours, but noted that colours tend to blur in that medium and so moved on to pastel crayons, culminating in a vibrant palette that nevertheless steers clear of crude, primary brights. "I wanted to express the world in a subjective way, or more like a psychological perspective, like in your dreams," explains Miyazaki. Which is how Ponyo achieves the unlikely feat of making the fantastical look natural.

Interviewed in October 1983, before Ghibli started to make its way in the world, Miyazaki was clear that this would always be his aim. "It's not good enough to just string together a bunch of clever ideas... Lies must be layered upon lies to create a thoroughly believable fake world. It's an imaginary world, but it should seem to actually exist as an alternate world... The viewers know what they are seeing is fake, that it can't be reality, but at the same time they sense deep in their hearts that there is some sort of truth in the work."

It is that truth that sets Miyazaki apart. Other animators have produced astounding work, from Disney's introduction of Mickey Mouse in 1928's Steamboat Willie through to the extraordinary Pixar and its Toy Story franchise. But Studio Ghibli's output is supreme in its ability to put across serious messages in affecting and wildly inventive ways – whether that be Totoro's catbus (yes, a cat that's a bus; its eyes, headlights), Howl's sarcastic fire spirit, or the bloody, writhing mass that is a rancorous, infected (and downright terrifying) boar-god in Princess Mononoke.

"[Cartoons] are a form of escapism, a fake world," Miyazaki has said. "Because they are fake, they disarm viewers, making them think that they're 'just cartoons'. Liberated from reality and relaxed, viewers find themselves pulled into scenes... and they may find the experience evokes secret longings in themselves. They may start feeling braver and more heroic, more generous in spirit. And then they may also find they feel a little more energised." It is a high ambition, indeed – but one that Miyazaki continues to deliver on.

'Ponyo' (U) is released on 12 February

Eastern promise: The rise of Studio Ghibli

Hayao Miyazaki began his careerin 1963, aged 22, as an “in-between animator” (working on the transitions between frames) on the action-adventure film Little Norse Prince at Toei Doga – a film, significantly, directed by Isao Takahata.

The pair moved on to A Productions, where Miyazaki was in charge of the story, screenplay and key animation of the Takahata-directed Panda, Go Panda!, a short film inspired by the panda craze that overtook Japan in the early 1970s. They then left for Zuiyo Images, which was subsequently established as a subsidiary of Nippon Animation. Here, Miyazaki worked with Takahata on various animated TV series and directed his first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).

In 1985, the duo decided to go it alone, co-founding Ghibli. The Tokyo-based studio, now employing 100 animators, was set up with the express intention of working on animation as its founders wanted – hand-drawn and without the intrusion of commercially minded studio heads. Thus it is that Ghibli has been able to take risks with its films (Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a harrowing account of the effect of war on a young boy, was certainly no sure-fire hit). And importantly, it gave Miyazaki complete, imaginative freedom over his output. RE