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John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios, paid an emotional tribute to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki at a special keynote appearance Friday night at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Appearing to tear up several times during his one-hour talk, Lasseter said: “Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again.”
Lasseter was invited by the festival to discuss the concept of “Cool Japan,” the Japanese government’s slogan for promoting the nation’s culture industries. The two-time Oscar winner said he was initially unsure what to talk about, but soon realized it would be a particularly personal presentation, because of the “huge influence the country and people of Japan have had on my life and career.”
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Lasseter, who began his career in the early 1980s as an animator with The Walt Disney Company, recounted how he was initially dismayed by the work the company was doing at the time, because he believed animation was a genre that should tell stories that appeal to people of all ages, not just children. While working at Disney in 1981, Lasseter’s team was visited by a group of Japanese animators from a Tokyo-based studio called TMS – and among the aspiring talents in the visiting delegation was a young Hayao Miyazaki. During the meeting, Miyazaki’s boss showed Lasseter and his colleagues a short clip from Miyazaki’s first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro.
“I was absolutely blown away,” Lasseter said. “It had a very strong effect on me because I felt that this was the first animated feature film I had seen that had a vision to entertain for all ages. It made me feel that I was not alone in the world.” He added: “It filled my soul with a drive that said ‘this is what I want to create.”
Lasseter was given a copy of The Castle clip and watched it repeatedly, he said. In 1985, when he first met his future wife, then Nancy Tigg, at Disney, he invited her to his apartment after a dinner with a group of mutual friends and insisted on playing her the cassette of Miyazaki clips.
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“Luckily for me, she loved it,” the executive said, drawing big laughs from the Tokyo crowd of several hundred. ” She’s the love of my life. And I’m not kidding you, I wooed her with Hayao Miyazaki’s first film. When I say Japanese animation has had a profound effect on my life, well, there’s proof positive.”
Lasseter made his first trip to Japan in 1987, shortly after Pixar was founded in 1986, he recalled. He said he had become preoccupied with the idea of making a movie about a toy that was alive. While in Tokyo, he visited the tin toy museum of Japanese collector Kitahara Teruhisa.
“I spent a tremendous amount of time in there,” Lasseter recalled. “The details were so fantastic. They had this retro vintage nature that felt very fresh. I knew that this would look amazing in computer animation.”
His visit directly fueled his ideas for the short film he directed for Pixar, Tin Toy, which won the Academy Award for best animated short in 1988. The film was later developed and expanded into Lasseter’s first feature, Toy Story.
During the same visit to Japan, Lasseter met a former employee of Miyazaki’s now legendary animation house Studio Ghibli and was able to arrange a visit. He spent several hours with Miyazaki and saw some of his early drawings for what would become the breakthrough feature, My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Lasseter said he was struck by the warmth and personal expression that shone through Miyazaki’s intricate hand-drawn approach to animated storytelling, and his subtle pacing and style of characterization.
“Years later, I always said at Pixar that you are what you direct,” he said. “Your heart and soul goes into everything you make — I learned that from Miyazaki.”
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As their friendship grew over the years — and Lasseter acquired a towering reputation in the film business himself due to Pixar’s string of early hits – he decided to try to help Miyazaki reach a broader international audience.
“I wasn’t happy with how the earlier films were brought over into English,” he said. “I wanted to protect his vision, so that English audiences would understand his films at the same level that Japanese audiences do.”
Beginning with Spirited Away (2001), which won Miyazaki the best animated feature Oscar, Lasseter has assisted with the translation of the English versions. He recounted one instance where he was struggling with how best to convey a sequence while staying true to Miyazaki’s intent.
“I asked him which option he thought was best, and he said: ‘John, I believe that if the American audience really wants to understand my films, they should all learn Japanese,” Lasseter recalled.
Throughout his keynote, Lasseter showed clips from Miyazaki films and broke them down from an animator’s perspective, detailing the various effects that still awe him.
“I think my entire career is founded upon an idea I discovered in Japan: keeping one foot in tradition, heritage, and the fundamentals of classic design and then applying that to cutting-edge technology,” he concluded. “That’s one of the secrets of Pixar.”
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