In the garden of his Venice hotel, Hayao Miyazaki proves quite the celebrity. He signs autographs with a flourish, poses gamely before a barrage of photographers and excuses himself only briefly for a call of nature. "You have been called the god of anime," an Italian journalist shouts at his retreating form. "How does it feel to be a god?" He visibly flinches on his way to the toilet.
In the opinion of Pixar's John Lasseter, Miyazaki is "the world's greatest living animator." According to the numbers, he is Japan's most successful film-maker, with his 2001 fable Spirited Away breaking the domestic box-office record set by Titanic. But away from the limelight this white-haired little professor leads a monastic existence (all work, no play, TV or internet). His publicist tells me that this is the first interview he has agreed to in 10 years.
Miyazaki's latest film, Howl's Moving Castle, plays out in a valley kingdom inhabited by wizards, fire demons and undulating shadow monsters in natty straw boaters. It's based on a children's book by Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones; Miyazaki has visited Wales several times and has a deep affection for the place. He was first there in 1984, witnessed the miners' strike at first hand and farmed the whole harrowing experience into his 1986 animation Laputa: Castle in the Sky. "I admired those men," he says, sitting in the sun as the photographers melt away. "I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men." He shrugs. "Now they are gone."
For all his fame and acclaim, Miyazaki could soon be following them. It is his fate to find himself hailed as the greatest practitioner of hand-drawn cell animation at a time when the art form appears to be headed the way of the dodo. He seems curiously Zen about this. "If it is a dying craft we can't do anything about it.
Civilization moves on. Where are all the fresco painters now? Where are the landscape artists? What are they doing now? The world is changing."
This shifting world is something Miyazaki has long been fascinated by. His films feature cute creatures fighting tooth and nail to preserve their communities, and bucolic landscapes under threat of destruction. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, his 1984 film, depicts a post-apocalyptic enclave menaced by toxic spores and giant insects. Princess Mononoke (1997) concerns the battle between the animals of the forest and the human developers.
All drama depends on this kind of conflict. And yet Miyazaki's stance can be bizarrely even-handed. Invariably his hero or heroine is cast in the role of piggy in the middle, while his supporting players are an unruly bunch. No-Face, the timid, helpful spirit in Spirited Away, blooms into an all-consuming carnivore. The wicked witch in Howl's Moving Castle winds up as a cherished family member, slumbering in her armchair like some dotty old aunt.
In 1997 the director signed a distribution deal with Disney. It was to prove a springboard to global renown. Even so, the nature of Miyazaki's films has been altered in transit. In Japan his films are blockbusters. In Britain and the U.S. he remains a predominantly an art-house phenomenon.
Miyazaki taps a cigarette from a silver case. The Disney deal suits him, he explains, because he has stuck to his guns. His refusal to grant merchandising rights means that there is no chance of any Nausicaa happy meals or Spirited Away video games. Furthermore, Disney wields no creative control. There is a rumor that when Harvey Weinstein was charged with handling the US release of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki sent him a samurai sword in the post. Attached to the blade was a stark message: "No cuts."