Thursday 11 August 2022

Interview with Susan Napier

Susan Napier is the author of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, published in 2018 by Yale University Press. She is also the Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies at Tufts University, and a former Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published five books and numerous articles on anime and Japanese culture. In 2018 she was named "Woman of the Week" by The M Dash magazine. Her 2017 TED talk "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Being an Anime Expert" can be found here. 

Interviewed by Mathew Lopez

ML: In the prologue to Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, you write that the book is an examination of how and why Hayao Miyazaki came to be the preeminent director that he is today, but what inspired you to write such a book?

SN: I suppose the most obvious inspiration behind my decision to write the book was that I had begun to notice that, when I told people that I was researching Japanese animation I increasingly noticed that they would say, "I don’t know much about anime but there’s this director I really like—Miyazaki!” And they would often mention a particular favorite film - the top three would be Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Totoro, although younger people might bring up Howl’s Moving Castle.

Over the years I have observed anime become increasingly accepted in American society but with Miyazaki I was witnessing something even more exciting, a specific director whose work was being acknowledged and appreciated by mainstream Americans. I began teaching a seminar on Miyazaki at Tufts about six to seven years ago, and was excited to see how much enthusiasm there was for the work of this director. It began to seem increasingly obvious that someone should write a book about him and, given my experience in working on animation, the seminar that I was teaching, and my knowledge of Japanese culture and history, I began to think that I was a good candidate!

When I first started planning the book I was also really pleased with the positive feedback the project received. This included a fellowship to the prestigious Bellagio Foundation in Italy where I was able to “test drive” some of my ideas in front of the other fellowship recipients who were from all different backgrounds with little knowledge of animation or of Japan, and then a contract with Yale University Press, an excellent press that was moving to expand its arts and popular culture offerings. Overall, it was very clear that Miyazaki was being appreciated as a global cultural artist, not just some obscure Japanese animation director. I like to think that the book itself has helped him gain even more recognition.

ML: In Miyazakiworld you use a series of essay-like chapters to mostly focus on one Hayao Miyazaki film at a time. Why did you decide on this structure for the book?

SN: Actually, my editor at Yale, Sarah Miller, helped a lot with the structure. Although I had always wanted to discuss each of Miyazaki’s films individually as they are each so unique and fascinating, it was Sarah who came up with the idea of taking a biographical approach. Not only did this allow me to explore some really interesting aspects of Miyazaki’s life and times but, as I worked on the book with this approach, I was able to get a real feel for how his art and thoughts have evolved over the years (and also what elements have remained unchanged).

ML: How did you approach writing individual chapters knowing they needed to form a cohesive whole for the reader?

SN: From my seminar teaching experience and my own viewing, I was already very aware of each film’s particular distinctive aspects including what was appealing, interesting or sometimes problematic about them. For example, one of the most memorable aspects of Miyazaki’s work - for both me and my students - was his consistent use of strong, intelligent and independent female characters from very early on in his career. I really can’t emphasize that enough. As early as the 1980s when there were very few such female characters in the West, Miyazaki was creating fascinating females who played important or even dominant roles in his films - to name a few from the 80s, there’s Nausicaa of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Ma Dola of Castle in the Sky: Laputa, Kiki and all her female friends and helpers in Kiki’s Delivery Service - well, I could go on and on. Not only was this interesting from the point of Japanese culture and society but it made for very interesting comparisons with female characters in Western studios such as the Disney “princesses.” So this was an obvious element that could be traced throughout his work.

Another incredibly important trademark was Miyazaki’s consistent fascination with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, from as early as his 1970s television series Future Boy Conan, to his recent Ponyo and even, arguably, his most recent film The Wind Rises. I had already noticed this apocalyptic trend in many anime and manga in my previous research but now, with Miyazaki’s life to draw upon as well, I could really make connections between his life and ideas - the impact of World War II, his youthful embrace of left-wing ideology, that allowed me, again, to make a more cohesive portrait of both the man and his works.

I would also like to mention something that I call a “feel” for the material. By the time I wrote on Miyazaki I had already written four books on aspects of Japanese culture - a book on two politically engaged writers from roughly the same time period as Miyazaki’s youth; a book on fantasy in modern Japanese literature in which I first included research on anime; a book on Japanese animation in which I introduced the particular aspects of anime that made it so distinctive, and which included a chapter on Miyazaki and female characters in anime; and then a book on the Western fascination with Japan from French impressionism to anime, which included a chapter on Miyazaki fandom in the West. I had also studied, read, and taught about Japanese culture for several decades and lived in Japan for eight years, off and on from the time I was seventeen. 

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is that I know my stuff, and I was bringing all this “stuff” to bear on the Miyazaki book, but hopefully in a fairly subtle and reasonably entertaining fashion. I worked very hard to create a user-friendly style.

ML: You dart seamlessly between memoir, biography and analysis in Miyazakiworld, but did blending elements of life writing with more traditional film criticism ever present a challenge to your own voice in the book? Did you ever hear inconsistencies in your writing voice in the different elements of the text?

SN: Yeah, that was actually a bit tricky. Some of the “model” biographies that Yale suggested I read included quite a lot of author’s input from their personal life. I kind of tried that a bit but never felt really comfortable talking too much about myself. One example I remember was for the chapter on Porco Rosso - a movie about a world-weary ex-pilot who had become disillusioned by his experiences in WW1. There were obvious influences from the movie Casablanca in it, and I initially tried beginning the chapter with an anecdote about going to see Casablanca at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square with my mother and how much I had loved the movie. But, honestly, it didn’t really have a direct connection to either Miyazaki or Porco Rosso and so I eventually scrapped it.

The few other personal references I kept in were mainly about my visiting Miyazaki-related sites in Japan and how I experienced them. I also did keep one anecdote from my first year in Japan about how I lived and worked on my own in Tokyo when I was seventeen because it really did resonate with the Miyazaki’s movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, and it allowed me to bring in my Miyazaki seminar in a hopefully seamless way that might be of interest to readers and be a bit of a break from the film analysis.

ML: Writing creative nonfiction often comes with the unique challenge of trying to represent real, complex people as characters on the page, and that challenge must be all the more difficult when writing about beloved public figures like Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. How did you approach constructing the characters in Miyazakiworld, and were you ever nervous about how your depictions of them might be received?

SN: Of course I was nervous. And I remain nervous! My next book is going to be a comparison of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli with Disney/Pixar studios, so there will be LOTS of opportunities to talk about living persons and potentially offend them. Seriously, I tried to be VERY careful about commenting too much about living people. I am glad that I was able to meet Miyazaki three times over a period of almost ten years which helped form my impressions of him. I also did an enormous amount of reading of his interviews in Japanese - not only was this material not in English and so was more likely to be somewhat more spontaneous but reading the way Miyazaki spoke in often informal Japanese, sometimes with old friends, really helped give me a sense of him as a person.

I was also aware that my last Miyazaki-related visit to Japan, when I met with the director for a formal interview and met with a number of people who had worked with him, occurred only a few months after he had officially retired. This was a tense time for everyone related to Studio Ghibli so I tried to be careful in how much weight I put on certain responses and to be aware of how what I experienced as a palpable sense of melancholy on the part of the director in my last interview may well have been related to the specific time and circumstances.

As for how my depictions have been received - well, I haven’t gotten any letters of protest from Ghibli after the book was published so I guess I didn’t make any truly heinous mistakes. I was actually in Japan when the book came out in Japanese and did a couple of radio and newspaper interviews which were very well received (thank goodness!).

 ML: You mention that you were given the opportunity to interview Miyazaki yourself, ahead of writing the book, and I’ve read some of the fantastic academic essays you’ve published on his films previously, so how did the research process for writing Miyazakiworld differ from writing your more traditional film criticism?

SN: Without doubt the toughest thing was bringing in biography AND of a living subject! I was quite, quite nervous. Being able to read and speak Japanese was a godsend, though, because there is a lot of material on Ghibli and especially on Miyazaki in Japanese - similar to the many books on Disney in English for example. Although god knows it was time consuming, especially reading all those interviews in informal Japanese where you are really trying to get a “feel” for what’s happening between interviewer and interviewee. Kind of fascinating though.

All that being said, I should mention that Japanese society seems far less willing to probe into the lives of its most beloved celebrities and Miyazaki is virtually a national treasure. I will also say that Ghibli, his studio, is very protective of him, and I’ll be dealing more with this in my next book!

About the interviewer
Mathew Lopez is a current PhD Creative Writing candidate at the University of Leicester. His research focuses on anime, ADHD, and modes of memoir and criticism. His short stories and poetry have appeared in both online and print magazines, and he is currently working on his first essay collection. His favourite Hayao Miyazaki film is Porco Rosso.

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