At 68, Hayao Miyazaki sounds like he might be slowing down. The director of such animated classics as Princess Mononoke and the Academy Award–winning Spirited Away seems content to sit back and watch life around him go by, a pleasure he passes on to us through the colorful world bursting from every frame of his latest film, Ponyo.

The story of a 5-year-old boy’s friendship with the eponymous fish girl, set in a bustling Japanese port town, Ponyo marks a return to the innocent world of children, whom Miyazaki became legendary for illuminating in such films as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). A white-haired figure with kind eyes, a wizard’s beard and an easy, grandfatherly laugh, Miyazaki exhibits a taciturn personality, but his simple explanations of the inspiration behindPonyo’s magical ocean world reveal his deep understanding of the child’s mind.

“I like underwater life,” Miyazaki said during a rare visit to Los Angeles last month. “I don’t actually scuba-dive with a tank, but I’ve liked to swim around in shallow areas with a snorkel from childhood to see what’s under the water.”

In the only awkward moment of our interview, the otherwise affable director curtly denies any connection between Sosuke, Ponyo’s precocious human protagonist, and his own son Goro — a misconception Miyazaki attributes to his producer, Toshio Suzuki. It is not his past experiences as a parent, Miyazaki says, but rather his now-empty nest that has allowed him to so effectively re-enter the world of children.

“For me, it’s more a case of bringing my own experiences as a child into the film and also watching the small children who are currently around me,” he says. “I’ve come to the age when I can finally understand the instant-by-instant experience small children are having. When you’re being a parent yourself, you don’t pay attention to some of those things because you’re so busy being a parent. There’s so much going on.”

Miyazaki also credits the changing family dynamics at his Studio Ghibli production house with leading him back to the children’s film, following the more adult Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. “Our staff who didn’t have children for a long time finally started having children,” he says, enjoying a mischievous laugh at the expense of his younger employees. “For example, [the character of] Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father in the film, is really [animation director] Katsuya Kondo. He’s also having difficulties dealing with his daughter. He is being treated like a mule or a pony. He’s very restless, just like Fujimoto in the way he acts. That’s the kind of atmosphere that brought about Ponyo.”

One theme Miyazaki often revisits — the fragility of the environment — is especially strong in Ponyo, where the sea teems with nearly as much garbage as it does life. As with his other inspirations, the director defers, saying he merely intended to portray the sea honestly, the way a curious child might see it: “I didn’t set out trying to make an environmental-message film,” he says. “The actual sea children see is full of junk and maybe even dirtier than the sea that’s depicted in the movie. Maybe we made it a little too clean.”

Like Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo has been proclaimed Miyazaki’s last film. Despite his apparent desire to pass along the reins of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki remains a fiercely committed auteur. “I think I can only continue being a director,” he says, “but as a studio, we want to use new directors and younger directors because we’ll disappear if we keep relying on old people.”

So the aging, brilliant Miyazaki will carefully take his time before heading back to the drawing board for a new film.

“There are a couple of vague ideas I have in my mind, and one of those might take shape or not,” he says, “but I think it depends on a lot of conditions whether or not they’ll be realized as a film. I also want to draw a bit more manga, which is my hobby.”

LA Weekly