In a World of Pure Imagination

When I was hired for this job in early 2017, one of the first things I did was make a wish list of who I wanted to feature in the magazine. At the top of that list was Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animator in history and the creator of films so singular, so strange, so visually arresting, that to watch them is to be in some way imprinted by them: Years later, one remembers scenes and images from them with an uncanny clarity, the way one might recall scenes and images from one’s own life. In Miyazaki’s world, people and creatures are often transformed: wizard into bird, human into pig, river spirit into dragon. And this seems not just a narrative motif but a reflection of what the viewer herself experiences — one emerges from his films a different person. He is, simply, a sorcerer.

Yet as the T writer at large Ligaya Mishan observes in her beautiful, nimble profile of the filmmaker — the first interview he’s given to an English-language magazine in seven years — Miyazaki’s particular brand of enchantment is inseparable from the ghost stories that have informed both his life and the postwar Japan in which he was raised. “Miyazaki’s movies, with their warplanes and intrusions of Western décor and dress, keep circling back to the traumatic moment when Japan, which until the mid-19th century had kept itself closed off to the outside world, was forced to embrace the West and Western values,” Mishan writes, and if in his oeuvre are metaphors and allegories for Japan’s postwar identity, not to mention the filmmaker’s anguish at his country’s rivers and forests being gobbled up by cement, there is also, at the end of the day, pure wonder. His 1992 film “Porco Rosso,” about a pig who flies a 1920s-era fighter plane, may be a parable about war, but it’s also about a pig who flies. In other words, although many of Miyazaki’s films take place in a world not our own, they’re very much of our world, as well: a portal, but also a mirror.

Credit…Artwork by Andrew Kuo

The same could be said of Tony Kushner, another name on that early list of mine, whose sweeping, intimate, funny 1991 two-part play, “Angels in America,” remains perhaps the most resonant artistic work of that decade: a drama about the final chapters of the 20th century of the American experiment; a chronicle of the cruelest years of the North American AIDS crisis; a call for hope and dignity; a hymn to the improbable juxtapositions we encounter daily in New York; a paean to Jewish humor and gay humor, which, along with Black humor, have long defined our American voice. The Times’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott sat down with Kushner to discuss the playwright’s current projects — the return (after a Covid-19 delay) to Broadway of his 2003 musical, “Caroline, or Change,” and the remake of “West Side Story,” for which Kushner wrote the screenplay.

On the Covers

Imageboard for “My Neighbor Totoro,” 1988.Credit…Hayao Miyazaki © 1988 Studio Ghibli
Film still from “Spirited Away,” 2001, directed by Hayao Miyazaki.Credit…Hayao Miyazaki © 2001 Studio Ghibli

Kushner, Scott writes, often returns to a quote that might be attributed to the turn-of-the-20th-century American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre: “Dare to participate in the great historical mistake of your time.” It is fitting advice, not only for artists but for all of us, because it reminds us that history is longer than we often are capable of remembering, that years after that tweet, that post, that article, that book, that play, it rolls onward, flattening our triumphs, but also our mistakes, into the dust of time. “More life!” is the anguished cry of “Angels in America,” but it is all of our cries, too. Here, now, is our chance to participate; here, now, is our chance to do what we think is right. Will it be a mistake? Only time knows.

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