The Most Challenging Work in All of Miyazaki’s Films


“Suzuki-san, have you read this book?”

Miyazaki-san entered my room, holding a book and looking excited. The title was “Mahou Tsukai Howl to Hi no Akuma” (“Howl’s Moving Castle and the Fire Demon”), a fantasy novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones.

The children’s book editor from Tokuma Shoten had been sending us new releases every month, and this book was included in the package.

“Look here. The original title is ‘Howl’s Moving Castle.’ It’s great, right? A moving castle.”

With those words from Miyazaki-san, “Howl’s Moving Castle” began. However, while he proposed the project, he didn’t have the intention to direct it himself. That’s when my friend happened to bring Mamoru Hosoda from Toei Animation to visit us.

At that time, Hosoda had worked on “Digimon Adventure: The Movie” and other notable projects, gaining recognition as a promising director. However, Toei Animation mainly produced works based on Shonen Jump manga, and he wanted to create something that deviated from that framework. When we showed him the plan for “Howl’s Moving Castle,” he said, “I definitely want to give it a try.” So we went to Studio Ghibli to discuss and develop the project further.

However, as the preparation work progressed, including the script, character design, and art direction, Hosoda began to have concerns. One was the difference in production styles between Toei Animation and Studio Ghibli. Additionally, the presence of Hayao Miyazaki-san himself became a source of pressure for him.


Miyazaki-san isn’t the type to stay silent and observe once a project is planned. He provides advice and suggestions about the story and visuals, saying things like, “It would be better to do it this way.” Moreover, his opinions change every day.

Hosoda had a great deal of respect for Hayao Miyazaki-san, to the point where he had even taken the entrance exam to become a trainee at Studio Ghibli in the past. So he listened seriously to Miyazaki-san’s words. As Hosoda proceeded with the work according to Miyazaki-san’s suggestions, he would be told something completely different the next day. This continued for weeks and months, and he became completely exhausted. I tried to offer advice and support, but eventually, he ended up sinking deep into frustration and the work reached a standstill.

Actually, at that time, we were also working on another project simultaneously. It started when we were asked to create a character based on a theme park’s request for “a cat character.” After various twists and turns, it became the film “The Cat Returns” in 2002. That project was mainly handled by young staff members. The producer was Takahashi Nozomu, who had been assisting me for a long time. We selected Morita Hiroyuki, who had participated in Studio Ghibli works as an animator since “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” as the director. However, when I talked to Takahashi, he said that project was also stuck.

So, after consulting with several people, we decided to switch producers. I would work on “The Cat Returns,” and Takahashi would take charge of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It seemed like a good match. After the switch, both projects started to run smoothly. However, “Howl’s Moving Castle” soon ran into difficulties again. Therefore, we decided to halt its production and focus on completing “The Cat Returns.”

Nevertheless, since Miyazaki-san was also involved in the planning of “The Cat Returns,” he naturally made various demands. But, the director, Morita, had a slightly peculiar personality and enjoyed it. Every day, he leaned forward and listened to Miyazaki-san’s words, continuing to ask questions. Miyazaki-san became overwhelmed by his enthusiasm and stopped coming to the set. Then, Morita would purposefully go to Miyazaki-san to hear his opinions. In the end, Miyazaki-san would run away from him.

In the history of Studio Ghibli, most young talents have tried to avoid Hayao Miyazaki-san, but Morita was one of the few who actually enjoyed challenging him. Another person who enjoyed it was the screenwriter, Niwa Keiko. When writing the script for “The Secret World of Arrietty,” she would listen to Miyazaki-san’s ever-changing stories every day and continuously revise the manuscript, saying, “It’s so interesting to understand the thought process of a genius.”

On the other hand, Masashi Ando, who served as the animation director for “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” enjoyed fighting against Miyazaki-san. He pursued the animation style he idealized in opposition to Miyazaki-san. The same could be said for the art director, Kazuo Oga.

When dealing with a unique genius like Miyazaki-san, one either enjoys accepting his ideas actively or confronts him as a craftsman. There might be no other options when dealing with someone like him.


The design of the castle, known as the “Modern Picasso.”

As the production of “The Cat Returns” progressed, it was time for Miyazaki-san to start considering his own directorial work.

One day, by chance, Miyazaki-san and I coincidentally found ourselves using the bathroom at the same time, and we happened to be peeing side by side. Miyazaki-san asked me, “Suzuki-san, what should we do next?” At times like these, it’s important to answer without hesitation.

“Miyazaki-san, since you said that ‘a moving castle is interesting, let’s do Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Miyazaki-san said, “Understood.” So, just like that, as we finished our business in the bathroom, “Howl’s Moving Castle” resumed. No one would have known that the decision was made in the toilet, and the staff was surprised (laughs).

While Miyazaki-san was known to passionately discuss ideas like “it would be better to do it this way” or “it would be better to do it that way” when others were working, once he had to take on the project himself, he put all that aside and focused on the castle’s design.

But, no matter how many Western-style castles he tried to draw, he couldn’t create something he was satisfied with. One day, he came to my room and said, “What should I do?” Miyazaki-san has a habit of doodling during meetings or discussions. Even at that time, while talking, he kept his hands moving. He started from drawing a cannon, then attached a roof, and erected a chimney… he kept adding various elements. Perhaps due to his absentmindedness, the drawing turned out remarkably well. Before he realized it, the castle was fully completed, leaving him pleasantly surprised by his own finished artwork.

“I wonder if this looks like a castle?”

To be honest, it didn’t look like a castle. But if I said that, production would come to a halt. So I said, “It looks great!” I thought it was important to keep moving forward.

“The problem is, Suzuki-san,” Miyazaki-san continued. “The legs.” And then, he began drawing another peculiar picture. One was the leg of a chicken, and the other was the leg of a foot soldier from the Sengoku period. He showed them to me and asked seriously, “Which one is better?” Honestly, it didn’t matter to me, but he was serious about it. I answered seriously, “Well, it should be the chicken, right?” It was answered earnestly. That’s how that strange castle came to be. But in terms of how buildings are usually created, it was completely opposite to Miyazaki-san’s usual approach. Normally, Miyazaki-san starts with the interior, drawing one room and then attaching another, and finally deciding on the exterior. However, this time he started with the exterior. So, when it came to considering the interior later, it was a multi-story building, and we struggled to match the floor plan and adjust the intersections.


The design of the castle became a topic of discussion when “Howl’s Moving Castle” was released in France. The reception of the film received mixed reviews, with some critics questioning the choice of setting it in Europe. It seems that what people in Europe expect from Hayao Miyazaki-san is something distinctly “Japanese.” On the other hand, those who praised the film highly admired the design of the castle. In particular, the newspaper Libération went as far as to call Miyazaki-san the “Modern Picasso.”

With the castle’s exterior determined, the work started moving forward rapidly. Since Miyazaki-san was skilled at drawing old women like Granny Sophie, the characters such as Sophie and the Witch of the Waste were quickly decided upon.

Regarding the art, the Alsace region on the border of France and Germany served as the inspiration. This was a place where Miyazaki-san, exhausted from the production of “Spirited Away,” visited for rest. Known as the setting of Alphonse Daudet’s novel “The Last Lesson,” it is a region where ownership has shifted between Germany and France with each war, resulting in a blend of both cultures. Among them, Miyazaki-san was fond of a town called Riquewihr. It was decided to use it as a setting for “Howl’s Moving Castle.” After returning to Japan, Miyazaki-san advised the art staff to go on location scouting. The staff visited the place, and its influence can be seen in the film.

In this way, the basic structure of the setting was established. The type of film and its theme, though, had not been decided yet. Miyazaki-san is someone who wants a clear key phrase to indicate what kind of film it is to the staff. After various discussions, it was decided to make a “genuine love story” this time. And during the project explanation meeting, Miyazaki-san had to explain it to the entire staff.

“I have made various films until now, but there has always been a man (boy) and a woman (girl) in them. This time, I want to place them front and center and create a genuine love story.”

It would have been great if it ended with that grand declaration. On the other hand, just as he was about to say, “A love story is…” he abruptly stopped.

“How are we going to make it, Suzuki-san?”

Everyone was stumped. So, I chimed in.

Suzuki: “Usually, there’s an encounter, right?”

Miyazaki-san: “Yes, yes, there’s an encounter.”

Suzuki: “And then it deepens, right?”

Miyazaki-san: “Yeah, it deepens.”

Suzuki: “If that is the ‘development’ in the structure of a story, then generally, the ‘twist’ is a misunderstanding or a missed connection, right?”

Miyazaki-san: “The part where Sophie becomes an old lady is the missed connection. So, everyone, please make sure to depict Granny Sophie properly this time.”

Although I said that, in reality, the film didn’t follow such a clear structure of encounter, development, twist, and resolution for a love story. Miyazaki-san’s uncertainty continued even after starting to draw the storyboard.


At first, when I looked at the storyboard that came up, I thought to myself, “Hmm.” Miyazaki-san’s films have typically unfolded in cuts of around four to five seconds. But this time, it felt somewhat longer. So, I told the staff and had them calculate the average duration, and to my surprise, it was as long as eight seconds. It had become about twice as long as usual. As a result, the tempo in the first half was very slow. Moreover, as the story progressed, it kept getting longer and longer.

At this rate, it wouldn’t be finished in two hours. In fact, it might end up being a four-hour film. If we didn’t address it, it would become quite a problem.

“Miyazaki-san, the cuts are longer this time, aren’t they?”

“Huh? That’s not the case.”

“When we calculated it, the average came out to be around eight seconds.”

“Is that so?” He wasn’t aware of it himself, and as a desperate excuse, he said the following:

“The protagonist is an old woman, so her movements are slow!”

However, this is where Miyazaki-san’s brilliance comes in. From there on, he starts shortening the cuts. Moreover, he gradually reduced them to bring the average back to the usual four seconds. As a result, “Howl’s Moving Castle” became a remarkably unusual film in which the tempo changes between the first half and the second half.


The Birth of Unexpected Memorable Scenes

Another problem was the story development. Various stories kept popping up one after another, and even after an hour, they didn’t seem to converge but continued to arise. I became anxious, wondering how it would all be wrapped up.

So, I asked Yonaka Shinsuke, the production manager and a movie enthusiast, about it. “Have you read the storyboard?” “Yes, I have.” “What do you think will happen in this story?” “It’s an unusual story, isn’t it? Instead of having a clear beginning, middle, and end, the beginning and middle just keep going.”

When the storyboard reached around one hour and fifteen minutes, I started feeling uneasy and decided to ask Miyazaki-san.

“How do you plan to bring this story to a conclusion?”

“I’m a professional, so I’ll figure something out!”

While asserting that, his expression clearly showed that he was troubled. When it reached about one hour and thirty minutes, Miyazaki-san came running into my room and, unusually, slammed the door shut.

“Suzuki-san, the story isn’t coming together. What should we do?”

As a producer, I had to say something. And so, it suddenly occurred to me, and that became the catalyst for the second half of the story. The Witch of the Waste, Hin the Dog, and Turnip-Head the scarecrow all ended up living together in the moving castle. And Sophie, who had turned into an old lady, started taking care of the Witch of the Waste. It was then that an unexpected memorable scene was born.

The Witch of the Waste says to Sophie, who takes care of her diligently, “You’re in love. You’ve been sighing all the time… I hit the mark, didn’t I?”

“Grandma, have you ever fallen in love?”

“Well, of course I have. I’m still in love now.”

It’s a good scene, but when you think about it, it’s quite a nonsensical story, isn’t it? Making Sophie, the new lover, take care of the old wife (the Witch of the Waste). I’ve asked Miyazaki-san quietly while he was drawing, “At this stage, Howl and Sophie haven’t fallen in love yet, right?” He pretended not to hear me. I wanted to further ask, “Is this the author’s wish?” but I decided not to (laughs).

In this film, there are other memorable scenes that were unintentionally created. For example, the scene where Sophie and the Witch of the Waste climb the long staircase of the royal palace.


One scene that Miyazaki-san initially had in mind was Sophie going up the stairs but stopping halfway and reaching out her hand to the Witch of the Waste. But, a skilled animator named Otsuka Shinji took charge of that scene, and Miyazaki-san abandoned the original plan. He said, “If Otsuka-san is going to do it, we don’t need such explicit acting,” and decided to double the length of the scene and leave the detailed acting to Otsuka-san.

As a result, an impressive scene was created where the two old ladies compete while desperately climbing the stairs. Miyazaki-san was satisfied, and I was impressed. Yoro Takeshi, who had a conversation with Miyazaki-san later, said, “Just by seeing that scene, I felt like I had watched the entire film.”

Filmmaking is a mysterious thing because the scenes you intend to be memorable from the start usually don’t work out. Instead, unexpected moments become memorable scenes. Especially when talented animators draw them, that’s when it happens.

Another memorable scene is at the end of the film. Originally, the climax I had in mind was a scene like “The Temptation of St. Anthony” painted by Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch. It depicted a burning castle with strange creatures and ships flying above. This image has strongly influenced renowned Japanese manga artists such as Tezuka Osamu, Ishinomori Shotaro, and Nagai Go.

Miyazaki-san also liked this painting, and he referenced the small objects depicted in it in “Future Boy Conan.” Once, when Miyazaki-san said he wanted to see the actual painting, we went together to the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

Because that impression remained vivid, I had discussed wanting to depict a castle running and engulfed in flames in “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Miyazaki-san, however, said, “It’s impossible.” Instead, he drew a castle that had unraveled and become only legs and planks.

There’s actually a model for that appearance. It was a wooden ornament shaped like a rice cake that I received from someone. I had placed it in my room, and Miyazaki-san said, “Can I borrow this?” and took it with him. As a result, that scene was born.

What I found impressive was the dialogue exchanged in that scene. “I don’t know. I have nothing. I don’t possess anything,” says Sophie, embracing the Witch of the Waste, refusing to give Howl’s heart. And then, the Witch of the Waste says, “Do you want it that badly? Fine, I guess there’s no helping it. Take good care of it,” and hands over the heart.


Miyazaki-san is truly skilled at using physical contact in his films. In the beginning of the movie, there’s a scene where Howl saves Sophie from the soldiers, right? Even in that scene, Howl gently embraces Sophie’s shoulder. And when the Rubber Man appears, he entwines his arms and, whoosh, they soar into the sky. In “Future Boy Conan,” Conan runs while carrying Lana. In “Castle in the Sky,” Pazu catches Sheeta as she falls from the sky. In Miyazaki-san’s works, the encounter between men (boy) and women (girl) always begins with such physical contact.

The Perfect Casting of Chieko Baisho and Takuya Kimura

While the production was progressing, preparations for promotion were also starting. At that time, the policy I set was “non-promotional promotion.”

This was also sparked by a comment from Miyazaki-san. After “Spirited Away” became a huge hit, he heard opinions like “It became a hit because of the promotion.” For the director, it’s not something he wants hear. He wants to be told that it was a hit because the film was good. So, Miyazaki-san went around asking the staff in the studio for their opinions.

“Do you think ‘Spirited Away’ became a hit because of the promotion or because the film was good?”

If asked directly from the director, anyone would answer, “It was a hit because the film was good.” But among them, there was one person who answered “it was because of the promotion.” That person was Ishii Tomohiko, who served as my assistant producer. He had been involved in the practical aspects of promotion by my side, so he honestly gave that answer. Miyazaki-san was furious.

I think that anger remained even during the production of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” When I was considering eight different promotion plans, writing down strategies and taglines on the whiteboard, Miyazaki-san exploded.

“If we reveal so much of the content, people won’t feel like going to see the movie anymore. Let’s release it without any unnecessary promotion this time.”

After Miyazaki-san said that, the strategy I came up with was “non-promotional promotion.” The reason is that I myself had doubts about promotions that reveal the detailed plot and settings before the release. So this time, we decided to restrict information about the specific content of the film.

The first teaser only showed images of the castle with the copy “This castle moves.” But surprisingly, it sparked discussions. It was rumored that Hayao Miyazaki-san, the director of “Spirited Away,” was working on a new film. But if the content is shrouded in mystery, as a fan, you would naturally wonder, “What kind of movie is it?”

Furthermore, due to various circumstances, the original plan was to release the film in the summer of 2004, but it got delayed until November. When this was reported, the interest only grew stronger, with people wondering, “What’s going on?” That’s how every element became a tailwind for the film. When the voice cast was announced, it received tremendous attention. The Kimutaku (Howl’s voice actor) effect was indeed significant.


He has been a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki-san since long ago, and in fact, Miyazaki-san himself offered him the opportunity to participate. His children also love Studio Ghibli movies. They have watched “My Neighbor Totoro” repeatedly, to the point of replacing the worn-out discs.

Of course, I knew his name and popularity, but I hadn’t watched any of the dramas he appeared in. So, I asked my own daughter, “What kind of acting does Kimutaku do?” She explained it to me very clearly, saying, “I think he can express the carefree nature of men.” Although it may not convey the full meaning, upon hearing that, I thought, “He would be perfect for the character of Howl!”

So, I decided to propose it to Miyazaki-san.

“Miyazaki-san, do you know Kimutaku?”

“Don’t make fun of me. He’s from SMAP (pop group), right? Of course, I know him.”

At one point, Miyazaki-san used to visit the studio under Tokyo Tower, and around the same time, he had a show on TV Tokyo, so he often saw them being surrounded by their fans, mostly girls.

“How about Kimutaku for Howl?”

“Huh!? What kind of acting would he do?”

When I relayed my daughter’s words, Miyazaki-san agreed, saying, “That’s it!”

I was surprised when Kimura-san came to the voice recording session. He had all the lines memorized. No script was needed. Although we had asked various actors to do voice acting before, he was the only one who could do it without a hitch. Moreover, from the first line, Miyazaki-san was convinced and said, “This is it!” The voice recording went smoothly with hardly any adjustments.

I was so impressed that on another occasion, when Yamada Yoji (famous film director) asked me, “I’m currently making a period drama based on Shuhei Fujisawa’s work. Do you know any good actors?” I immediately mentioned Kimura Takuya’s name. I don’t know if that was the reason, but later, Yamada-san directed a film called “The Hidden Blade” in 2006, with Kimura-san in the lead role.

The selection for the other main role, the voice of Sophie, was more challenging. Miyazaki-san set the condition of wanting “one actress to portray Sophie from age 18 to 90.”

At first, Miyazaki-san surprisingly said, “This time, I have a candidate in mind.” When I wondered who it might be, he said, “It’s Chieko Higashiyama.” I had to tell him, “Miyazaki-san, unfortunately, she passed away more than twenty years ago.” He genuinely exclaimed, “Is that so!?” In his mind, time seems to have stopped in the Showa era…(1926-1989)


From there, we tested various people, but we couldn’t find a suitable one. After much deliberation and discussion, either Miyazaki-san or I mentioned the name of Chieko Baisho, and it was like, “There’s no other choice!”

Baisho-san’s performance was truly wonderful, though, at first, she had trouble pronouncing “Howl.” The intonation would shift to the end, making it sound like “Ha-uru.” When Miyazaki-san and I said, “It’s Howl,” she would respond with, “Ha-uru?” We would say, “No, no, it’s Howl.” And she would insist, “That’s what I said, Ha-uru, right?” We repeated that exchange many times (laughs).

When you think of Baisho-san, you might imagine her as Sakura, the reliable younger sister who supports her good-for-nothing brother in “Otoko wa Tsurai yo.” But when I actually met her, she had a mischievous and somewhat natural demeanor, and I became an even bigger fan.

Miyazaki-san Hayao’s Persistence as an “Illustrator” Battling with the Staff

During the final stages of production, Miyazaki-san used the extra time resulting from the postponement of the release date to improve the quality of the animation. Particularly for 18-year-old Sophie and the fire demon Calcifer, he personally redrew almost all of their cuts.

Miyazaki-san was 63 years old at the time. Nevertheless, he continued to compete with young staff members. The three people who served as animation directors at that time were Akihiko Yamashita, Takeshi Inamura, and Kousaka Kitaro. Miyazaki-san had worked with Inamura-kun and Kousaka-kun before and knew their skills, but it was the first time he teamed up with Yamashita-kun. So, he challenged him as an imaginary rival.

The character Calcifer sometimes changed shape, causing difficulties for various animators when drawing the keyframes. Yamashita-kun would fix them, but even then, it didn’t quite work. Miyazaki-san saw that and happily exclaimed, “Alright, it’s my turn!”

Even when he made “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” later, he personally drew the scenes with the waves. By confirming his skills as an illustrator, he also gained confidence as a director. That was Miyazaki-san’s style. As he got older, however, it became increasingly challenging for him to personally fix every drawing. Ultimately, that became one of the reasons for his retirement.

I think the film “Howl’s Moving Castle” was the most challenging work for Miyazaki-san among all his works, starting from the design of the castle and dealing with story issues.

On the other hand, I myself experimented with a unique approach called “unadvertised advertising.” Further, November is a period when usually fewer people go to the theaters. Many people involved were worried about the number of audience admissions.

Although, despite that, the box office numbers immediately after the release surpassed the momentum of “Spirited Away.” Eventually, it achieved a box office revenue of 19.6 billion yen, surpassing “Princess Mononoke.” It showed how high the expectations were for Hayao Miyazaki in society. After the success of “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki-san had become, in a sense, a “national author.” And this outcome made us realize the truth of that, once again.

Toshio Suzuki – Born in 1948 in Nagoya, Japan. He is the President and CEO of Studio Ghibli. After graduating from Keio University, he joined Tokuma Shoten. After working at the editorial department of “Monthly Animage,” he entered the world of film production with “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” in 1984. Since 1989, he has been exclusively with Studio Ghibli. He has written books such as “Shigoto Doroaku: Shinban Sutajio Jiburi no Genba” (Work Enthusiasm: The New Edition of Studio Ghibli’s Production Site), “Jiburi no Tetsugaku” (The Philosophy of Ghibli), “Suzuki Toshio no Jiburi Asamamire” (Suzuki Toshio’s Ghibli Sweating), “Kaze ni Fukarete” (Blown by the Wind), and “Jiburi no Nakama-tachi” (Comrades of Ghibli), among others.

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