The woman three seats down from me had a Woody The Cowboy doll whose arm she waved excitedly whenever the Disney/Pixar head honcho said anything she particularly agreed with (which happened a lot, but with a four second delay for translation). The guy next to her was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt in subtler homage to the visiting dignitary’s trademark penchant for same. And the young woman between us wore a miniskirt emblazoned with an entire “Spider-Man” comic paired with clashing cartoon Converse and pantyhose dotted with hearts and Mickey Mouses. Ok, she was a little off-brief, but at least she was exuberantly so. Welcome to the press area for the Tokyo International Film Festival talk from amiable animation genius John Lasseter, formerly of Disney, founding member of Pixar, now Chief Creative Officer of Disney/Pixar. He was in town (if you can call the vast, intricate megalopolis of Tokyo a town) wearing two hats: to deliver a talk on “Cool Japan,” and also to stump for the latest Disney animation, of which he is Executive Producer, the extremely lovable “Big Hero 6,” which opened the Festival on Thursday (here’s our review).
Lasseter’s talk, however, was anything but corporate. Admitting initially that he accepted the invitation without necessarily working out what it was he was going to say, the hour-long address was more of a fireside chat, a very anecdotal, informal speech peppered with a few relevant clips and a host of personal photographs, the snapshot mementos of a decades-long love affair with Tokyo—and with one of its most internationally famous residents.
Lasseter’s relationship with the films of Hayao Miyazaki (whose brilliant filmography we ourselves recently ranked) started a long time before he ever met the great man. Already a little disillusioned with the working culture at Disney, where he started as an animator after college, Lasseter was looking to create “animation for everybody,” not just for kids—animation that could thrill and entertain all ages, the way then-recent blockbuster “Star Wars” had. And the first example he saw of anyone really attempting that was when a visiting team from TMS Studios in Tokyo showed a few slices of what would be Miyazaki’s first feature film: “Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro.” Lasseter spoke of his awe at the first Miyakai clip he ever saw—the car chase sequence from ‘Cagliostro’—and a sense of the discovery of a kindred spirit, then shared that very clip with the audience, insisting on a round of applause when it was over gasping “That. Was. Awesome!” Indeed, he also credits that clip with winning him his wife Nancy; he showed it to her on their first date. They married in 1988 and now have five kids.
So the real revelation of the talk was the nature and depth of Lasseter’s friendship with Miyazaki. Falling hard for Tokyo the first time he came (cue candid pictures of a svelter, younger Lasseter posing by Suntory vending machines and shops that sell plastic display food) he finally met Miyazaki in 1987. On November 11th, to be exact, a date he knows because it was immortalized by the Studio Ghibli master when he signed and dated a work-in-progress poster for the film that would become “My Neighbor Totoro.” The framed print still hangs in Lasseter’s office, and with a little catch in his voice he explained that part of his attachment to it was that handwritten date: so seldom do we have a record of the exact time and place that something so meaningful begins.
There was a lot of endearing geeking out. “Just look at that!” marveled Lasseter, showing us an off-the-cuff snap he’d taken of Miyazaki (always a very handsome, dapper man) working on concept art for the great “Princess Mononoke.” Or saying, “I’m not sure I was supposed to take this one…” over a photo of a vast wall of exquisitely hand-drawn storyboard frames. The Lasseter family’s Christmas card photo one year was the whole brood perched on the enormous plush toy version of Catbus in the Ghibli museum. Over an image of his laserdisc of “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” Lasseter spoke of how a rescue sequence in “A Bug’s Life” was inspired by a scene from ‘Laputa.’ And with evident pride, he showed a picture of the replica head of the Ghibli Museum Catbus, wearing the grin that Lasseter claims accurately is Miyazaki’s own, mounted onto a display plaque like a hunting trophy, smiling down from the walls of Pixar. To this day, claimed Lasseter, “whenever we [at Pixar] get stuck, we watch some Miyazaki.”
He identified three main reasons for his love of the man’s work: his “celebration of the quiet moments,” his “ability to define character through action,” and his eye for detail, especially the minute moments that make someone “uniquely different.” Then he showed us a clip that demonstrated all three of those tenets in abundance—the sequence from ‘Totoro’ with the sisters waiting in the rain at the bus stop when Totoro sidles up to them and eventually Catbus arrives. It’s a scene we remembered, but seeing it through the prism of Lasseter’s admiration was special. Suddenly you notice the tiny things, like the way the umbrella slips when she picks her sister up on her back, or the extended quiet moments with the frog, or, as Lasseter pointed out, the detailing of the turn signals above Catbus’ head/windshield—they are mounted, glowy-eyed mice, because of course they are.
These days, Lasseter is not only involved with Miyazaki as a fan and a friend, but he also offers official and unofficial help with the U.S. market adaptation and distribution of his works. He counts the Best Animated Film Oscar for “Spirited Away” as one of his own proudest achievements, because for a long time he’d felt the translation and repackaging of Miyazaki’s work, especially in the U.S., had not been up to scratch, and “Spirited Away” was his hands-on attempt to change that.
Most convincingly, perhaps, Lasseter then drew his talk back to the topic at hand, “Cool Japan,” by locating exactly what it is that those first trips to Tokyo, his own creative approach and that of Hayao Miyazaki have in common—what he finds so “cool”. As his snapshots of geishas walking past escalators and temple gardens nestling in high rise districts prove, Tokyo is a place where the old comfortably sits alongside the new (it’s the literal truth: Tokyo is a miraculous melange of so-modern-it’s-futurist, ramshackle antique, and anciently beautiful). In the work of Miyazaki he finds the same impulse to keep one foot in tradition but to combine those classic storytelling elements in ever more creative exciting new ways. And Pixar, Lasseter paralleled, was founded on the principle of applying the newest CG technology to the process of animating classic, rigorously structured stories.
There are not many people we can imagine using this hour of soapbox time to talk primarily about the work and influence of a contemporary, but John Lasseter today proved that it is not just through the medium of toys that come to life that he has the power to bring a lump to the throat. His lovely talk, which culminated with a side-by-side picture of the yellow Fiat 500 Miyazaki’s heroine in ‘Cagliostro’ drives and the remarkably similar character of Luigi from “Cars,” built to a moving portrait of a cherished, mutually nourishing friendship between two men separated by geography, culture, language, tradition—by everything except their boundless talent for animation, and the infectious love of a great story. It’s a rare treat to be able to hear one titan of his industry talk with such humility and warm affection of another, but the sincerity was palpable when Lasseter concluded by thanking Japan, and Hayao Miyazaki “for making me who I am.”