The emperor of Anime's last shot

Back in 1996, Hayao Miyazaki was Disney's golden boy. Yet his latest film hasn't even been released in the US. So, asks Roger Clarke, could his Marxist politics be to blame? Or was it that samurai sword?

Tuesday 18 February 2014 03:13

Mickey Mouse has caught a cartoon cold; a manga cold that comes from a suburb of Tokyo. Hayao Miyazaki's new animated film Spirited Away is currently breaking all box-office records in Japan, taking $106m in its first five weeks alone. Yet Disney's Miramax is behaving as if they barely know him, let alone that they've had a distribution and production deal with his company for years.

Spirited Away just so happens to be Miyazaki's last film before retirement, and his last chance to win an Oscar – good enough reason (you would have thought) for Miramax to run one of their legendarily OTT Oscar campaigns. But for some reason, Uncle Walt has gone off his once-loved Japanese brother. In the same way, an earlier Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke, is about to creep out in this country on DVD, after conspicuously failing to get any form of theatrical distribution in the UK. Despite, it can be revealed, constant petitions from Jonathan Ross (supposedly promising to devote half of his BBC show to it). It's all very mysterious.

Then again, looking back at Miyazaki's history in dealing with America, it's a miracle that any of his films have been seen in the West. He's rejected all the usual strategies for mining his movies financially. He doesn't approve of his films being on a video format, for example, and has resisted it for years. He has also refused to give Disney rights to cash in on his success with lucrative merchandising deals, or licence his cartoon characters for PC games. It's not just that he's a purist; or that he's a Marxist who gives much of his money to educational and environmental charities; or that he's a nationalist, who'll only fly on Japanese national airlines. It's mostly that he had some famously bad business experiences with Hollywood distributors in the 1980s; the video of Nausicaä was so mangled by a US re-edit, with a whole sub-plot being removed, that a traumatised Miyazaki "refused to consider western releases for a decade", according to Helen McCarthy, author of several books on the man.

The emperor of Anime expects and receives very little understanding from US corporate culture. In fact, he's wholly suspicious of it. This was starkly illustrated when Miramax started the dub of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki sent a sheathed samurai sword to Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax, with the blood-curdling note reading "no cuts" attached to its ice-cold steel. A yakuza hood couldn't have said it better.

His politics are little talked about, but seem to me the most fascinating thing about him. Born in the year of Pearl Harbor, to a prosperous family, his father helped design the munitions of the distinctive Zero fighter plane that was responsible for spearheading the attack. Educated at Gakushuin University, he quickly developed a taste for socialism. By 1964, a year into his first animation job at Toei Studios, he'd already been on strike once and had risen to become chief secretary of the union there. In 1995 fellow Japanese animator Mamoru Oshii half-jokingly compared Miyazaki's own Ghibli Studios to the Kremlin. "I think for them," he said in one interview, "making a movie is still a kind of extension of the Union Movement."

With all this in mind, it's still rather bizarre to discover Miyazaki, in 1984, witnessing the Miners' Strike in the Rhonda Valley first hand and using it as inspiration for his whimsical animation feature Castle in the Sky. "I really admired the way the miners union fought to the very end for their jobs and communities," Miyazaki enthused. As he wandered through the declining industrial landscape, an anonymous Japanese tourist with Harry Potter glasses and a neat goatee beard peering up at the silent pit machinery, there was one thing that especially annoyed him: a coal mine, its rich seams of coal still visible in places, turned into a theme park. Looking back on all these signs, his link-up with Disney, that capitalist running dog and great purveyor of theme parks, was always going to be fraught.

The story of the rise and fall of the short-lived romance with Disney goes something like this. After inking a deal in 1996, Disney took Princess Mononoke sight unseen and gave it to Miramax to dub. After calling Quentin Tarantino to do the English script, Weinstein was told by Tarantino to hire the horror novelist and comic writer Neil Gaiman. "What I was confronted with was a 30ft Japanese watercolour," recalls Gaiman, who was also much taken by the subject matter (in 15th-century Japan a heroic youth, infected by an evil spirit in the shape of a wild boar, seeks salvation with the mysterious god of the forest – who is in turn imperilled by greedy human interests and industrialisation on the edge of his domain). But when the Disney executives assembled for the first screening of Princess Mononoke, they were horrified by what they saw. It was just too Japanese for America – dark and morally complex. "If the Japanese don't understand something, they go back and see it again," observes Gaiman. "They don't do that in America."

Michael Johnson, head of Disney animation and an avowed Miyazaki fan, apparently reacted in shock to the movie. "They were a little surprised," the American-born head of the company that finances Miyazaki's films, Steve Alpert, says. "Like, from the parts where arms are getting cut off. They weren't thinking Miyazaki would do a film like that." Disney of course had blithely assumed they were buying one of Miyazaki's cuddly family stories where cats turn into buses and little girls travel on broomsticks. Instead they got an apocalyptic eco-fable where feisty ex-whores defend the battlements of an industrial town and demonic pigs with pus in their eyes do battle with armaments manufacturers.

To cut a long story short, Disney was right to be worried. Despite all the cash Disney spent on dubbing Princess Mononoke, reeling in Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson to lend voices, the film has netted a paltry $2m in the US, after taking a whopping $157m in Japan (a box-office record). "That's kind of embarrassing," notes Steve Alpert. "To have the most successful film in the history of Japan come to the US, and not do that well."

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Industry insiders can't predict where Disney goes from here. It turns out they profited quite nicely from video deals in Japan: Mononoke sold a healthy 4.4 million copies. But whether they'll take another risk on morally ambiguous Japanese Anime is quite another matter. Miyazaki has produced his own English-subtitled version of Spirited Away, for the benefit of Disney bosses. David Jessen, the vice-president of acquisitions at Disney's Buena Vista, says he's "likes" it. But other executives have yet to watch it through. I get the sense they're in no hurry to do so.

Despite my pet theory that Hollywood hates Miyazaki because he's a chain-smoking, card-carrying Marxist, the truth, it turns out, is rather more complicated. Disney is not the villain here – indeed, they've conspicuously tried to sell Miyazaki to disbelieving Dallas and Mr Doubtful in Denver, and are baffled by their lack of success. But their conventional US-style marketing and packaging has resoundingly missed out on the fan-base that's out there, all too obvious to a casual observer in the wealth of Miyazaki-related internet sites.

Perhaps, in another galaxy long, long ago, Princess Mononoke, free of Billy Bob's drawl and Gillian's husky tones, could have been the Crouching Tiger of animated film. There's still time for Spirited Away.

'Princess Mononoke' receives its UK premiere at the Barbican on 19 Oct. It will be released on video and DVD on 22 Oct.

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