The son of Hayao Miyazaki talks about making something Ghibli audiences have never seen before.

By Nick Romano
January 29, 2021 at 01:23 PM EST
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With the witch Bella Yaga asleep in bed and her demonic roommate, the Mandrake, off toiling away in his secret hideout, it's safe for the young Earwig to snoop around. A putrid waft from whatever potion her cruel adoptive mother brewed earlier that day lingers in the air as the orphan girl creeps from her bedroom in search of something, anything that could help her escape. In the garage, she discovers a car. Specifically, a yellow Citroën 2CV. It's not something that can free her from the current circumstance as a witch's slavish assistant, but it's an important item for the story of the film Earwig and the Witch and its studio, Studio Ghibli.

It was just days earlier that Earwig, a defiant and headstrong girl, had been playing "ghost party" in the local graveyard with her friends at the orphanage. Then a witch and a Mandrake, disguised as prospective parents, adopted her. The 2CV offers a hint to both Bella Yaga's past and Earwig's. It's also a car director Gorō Miyazaki knows well.

"In the original story of Earwig and the Witch, it has a line where, in the garage, she finds a Citroën. It just says that," Miyazaki, 54, tells EW through a translator over Zoom. "I would automatically associate the manufacturer with that 2CV car, which actually was in the Castle of Cagliostro film. And the reason for that is it was a car that my father used to drive. I was in that car all through my childhood."

Miyazaki's father, as anyone who's been a fan of Ghibli knows, is Hayao Miyazaki, whose works have shaped the very legacy of Ghibli. That includes 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro. When Gorō Miyazaki set out to make his third movie for Ghibli, that legacy still loomed over his work. "I watched the works of Hayao Miyazaki all through my childhood, so it's naturally a part of me," he explains. "It seeps into everything that I do subconsciously."

Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Carving your own path in film hasn't been easy for the son of a legendary filmmaker. In 2006, right around the time when Japanese audiences were to experience Miyazaki's first movie Tales From Earthsea, he told The New York Times, "Sometimes I wish I hadn't entered the same profession as my father. I realized for the first time how difficult it is to be the son of Hayao Miyazaki. If I weren't involved in animated filmmaking, I would just have a simple, quiet, normal life." He almost did have that normal life. After graduating from Shinshu University's School of Agriculture with a major in Forest Science, Miyazaki went into construction consultancy, landscaping and designing urban forestry projects. It was only at the urging of Toshio Suzuki, one of Ghibli's cofounders, that he went into animation. The two had worked together on the planning for the Ghibli museum starting in 1998. "I was deceived by Mr. Suzuki, who was very clever about making me feel I could do it," Miyazaki had said at the time.

But carve a new path Miyazaki did. Tales From Earthsea was met with polarizing feedback from critics and fans of the studio. Some said it wasn't faithful enough to the source material, the fantasy novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. Others drew conclusions by comparing his work to Hayao's. It further remained elusive to U.S. audiences as the rights were tied up with Sci-Fi Channel's 2004 miniseries Legend of Earthsea. From Up on Poppy Hill was far better received, but the parallels to Hayao persisted, partly because it was done in the same hand-drawn animation style that has come to define Ghibli as a whole. Again, Miyazaki found Suzuki sending him off to try something new, a half-CG, half-hand-drawn-animated series at a production company outside of Ghibli. "Hayao Miyazaki's influence is huge at Studio Ghibli, so [Suzuki] wanted to put me in a situation where there wouldn't be any Miyazaki influence and I'd be able to really challenge things," he tells EW. The reward for that effort was the series Ronja, the Robber's Daughter, which premiered in Japan in 2014 and through Amazon in the U.S. in 2017.

Earwig and the Witch now marks Ghibli's first 3D CGI film to be produced internally, something Suzuki was more open to as a safeguard for the studio's future. Hand-drawn works, as we're seeing with Hayao's latest effort that is still at least two-and-a-half years out, take much longer to create. "[Suzuki] felt that it was important for the studio to be able to have the capacity to do CGI films along with traditional hand-drawn. I agreed with that," Miyazaki said.

The production period for Earwig and the Witch, however, ended up taking four years, "double the time" to complete compared to his previous hand-drawn work. "The process itself isn't that different compared to hand-drawn animation," Miyazaki explains. "However, at Studio Ghibli, we didn't really have the system or the structure to do 3D CG films, so the preparation and putting together the system and the team took a long time."

Credit: GKIDS Films

Suzuki and Hayao brought Earwig and the Witch, the children's book by Diana Wynne Jones, to Miyazaki. The studio had previously translated the author's 1986 fantasy novel Howl's Moving Castle as a movie in 2004, and felt this, too, was ripe for adaptation. Earwig and the Witch deals with the same kind of sorcerers and magic fans of Ghibli would recognize in Howl's Moving Castle. Viewers may recognize visual parallels between Bella Yaga's potions workshop in Earwig and Howl's disheveled home. Miyazaki further found Earwig to bear characteristics he would use to describe a classic Ghibli heroine. "She's put in a situation she didn't want, but she's not discouraged by it," Miyazaki says. "She uses her head, she acts in order to turn any negativity into positivity, and she's always self assured. With a lot of the Diana Wynne Jones novels, I loved that the protagonists, they're not perfect, good people. They have a little quirkiness to them."

Even though Earwig and the Witch was made through CG animation, Miyazaki didn't stray too far from the flourishes and nuances that Ghibli is known for. "That would disenfranchise not just the fans, but ourselves," Miyazaki remarks. In the opening sequence, Earwig's mother conjures wriggling, glowing worms to blind the pursuing car's headlights — reminiscent of the demonic energy wreathing on the boar in Princess Mononoke. Further along the story, Earwig spies a gleaming cruise ship passing by. One could draw comparisons to the boat that ferries spirits to the bathhouse in Spirited Away. And yet, Earwig and the Witch is something Ghibli's audiences have never seen from the studio.

When asked if he considers himself to be a risk taker, Miyazaki laughs. "Maybe I am," he says. "I'm not sure whether it's from my own desire to be so or whether they are forcing me to go on that path, but as a result, I may be in that position here."

Earwig and the Witch will premiere in select U.S. theaters Feb. 3 and on HBO Max Feb. 5.

Quotes from Gorō Miyazaki have been edited for length and clarity.

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