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by Rebecca Silverman,

Turning Point: 1997-2008

Turning Point: 1997-2008
In his second collection of interviews, notes, and essays, famed animator Hayao Miyazaki discusses his films between 1997 and 2008, the founding of the Ghibli museum, his views on education, the culture of childhood, and the works of other authors, most notably Antoine Saint-Exupery.

There is always a danger when reading about one's idols. What if the man who created the films of your childhood is not, in fact, the kind individual you had always imagined him to be? This is a definite risk in reading Hayao Miyazaki's second collection of interviews, notes, and essays, as the great animator, writer, and director comes off as very curmudgeonly and disappointed in the world at large. (The exception is when he is observing children.) American readers may be particularly disappointed, as he implies and, on two occasions towards the end of the book, he flat-out says that he believes America to be behind many of the problems with the world and that he at one point deliberately decided not to make films that would be successful there. This rancor, while sad for American fans of his work, more importantly sours the grandfatherly image he seems to have in earlier chapters and changes the tenor of the volume from purely interesting insight to something somewhat uncomfortable.

That this is a difficult book to read may by now be evident. Part of this is due to Miyazaki's increasingly grumpy tone as the 400 pages progress, but it is also due to the repetitive nature of the book itself. Rather than a complete autobiography, the tome is divided by film, and within each chapter are interviews with various journalists and personalities, film notes, poems, and sometimes sketches. The notes and poems are always different, and in the case of some of Miyazaki's larger projects, such as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka or the idea for a company preschool we can see them evolve. The interviews, however, tend towards repetition, as people ask him the same question multiple times and his answers vary very little. The first time we read about the Jomon period (roughly 14000 – 300 BCE) and how its cultural diversity inspired the film Princess Mononoke, it's fascinating and amazing, especially since it is likely some viewers simply assumed it to be set in a fantasy world. The fourth time in fifty pages? Much less interesting. This sort of repetition is rife throughout the book, with the Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away chapters being the biggest offenders on that front.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is the first one, which covers Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki's thoughts on the film absolutely enhance it, and now that I know that it is meant to be The Epic of Gilgamesh, watching it again will be a significantly different experience. (Presumably San is Enkidu and Ashitaka is Gilgamesh?) Miyazaki's explanation of the black tentacles that spring from the infected also adds to the story, and its world, and knowing some of the Japanese legends he gender-bent for the character of Ashitaka is certainly an enhancement. His views on the gods in the film and the character of Lady Eboshi give a good grounding of the film in Japanese culture and the history of the Jomon period, all of which help to heighten the experience no matter what your own cultural background.

The second chapter covers Spirited Away, and this is where Miyazaki begins to discuss his views on the current culture of childhood in Japan, and how it doesn't allow enough time for children to engage in unstructured play while forcing them to learn academics too quickly. It interestingly mirrors pre-Victorian views of the British culture of childhood – Victorians were among the first to dress children differently than adults and to allow them their own popular culture – and in general he makes a lot of very cutting but apt points. His continuing theme is that modern children are at a loss in terms of what to do with their lives, and he hopes that Spirited Away will allow them to see a child forced out of her apathy. The film, he posits, is also about the power of language, and this is perhaps the statement that gives us the most cause to revisit the movie to catch all of those language-centered moments.

Sadly the chapter on Howl's Moving Castle does not say anything at all about the film, and this is when he starts to get very harsh in his statements. There has been a vague sense of Japanese exceptionalism throughout the book, but it is in this chapter that it becomes uncomfortable to read. Granted, if we look back, this is also post-9/11, and some of the political actions of the time were, to say the least, controversial. Interestingly enough, here Miyazaki discusses the post WWII literature of a British children's author, Robert Westall, as well as the writings of Antoine Saint-Exupery around WWI. It is clear that WWII had an impact on Miyazaki – he was born in 1941 and his family was forced to evacuate during the war – and those with family who also lived through the difficulties and fears of WWII may recognize some of his feelings and statements.

Turning Point: 1997 – 2008 is both a difficult book and an interesting one. It has a lot of repetition in its content, the danger of including multiple interviews done around the same time on the same subject, and at times can be very uncomfortable. But it is also an insight into the creator of a variety of wonderful works that are appreciated even where he wishes they weren't and offers new appreciation of the stories and their details. It does risk knocking an icon down a bit in his more venomous moments, but taken in small bites, like an especially rich food, it is worth at least checking out at the library.

Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-

+ Fascinating insight, a chance to see sketches and read about how the Ghibli Museum was conceived.
Ponderous and repetitive in places, some uncomfortable moments for western readers.

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