It’s pitch season again, and I’m sweating and crying over producer notes. Here’s what I was doing 15 years and a lifetime ago:
My 9/11 happened mostly on 9/12. I was at the time a Tokyo correspondent for TIME magazine. When the planes hit, I was at a fancy restaurant in Roppongi. I was there to interview the Kano sisters, two women who had parlayed their beauty and bra sizes into a business empire. I arrived at my apartment in Minami Aoyama, flipped on NHK, and saw images that made no sense.
After a frantic night spent on the phone with my family, in particular with my sister, whose husband worked near the towers and whom she could not reach for hours, I headed off for a long-scheduled interview. It was with Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator. The interview was a big get; his press aide told me he would never have granted it but for the opening of his Ghibli Museum. I stood in the train-station pastry shop, scarfing down breakfast, shaking with fatigue and shock—and realized I’d forgotten my notes.
After a tour of the museum, Hayao Miyazaki and I sat down at an outdoor patio. And I drew a complete and total blank. I forgot everything about the dozen movies of his I’d watched and re-watched in preparation, everything I wanted to know about his method and inspiration. His press aide had already told me to keep the interview on his work and not on the huge, horrible thing that had just happened on the other side of the world. But on that day, how could anyone anywhere talk about anything else? I mumbled some questions. Miyazaki grunted some responses. Then he got up and left.
I’m pretty sure that in my almost 20 years as a journalist, that was the only time someone walked out on me during an interview. The press aide tapped his fingers nervously. The birds chirped. The sun shone. I thought about the people in those towers, the ones who jumped, and I tried not to cry. And then, Miyazaki came back. He had smoked a cigarette, someone had talked him down, and he returned to my awful interview in something like a good mood. Afterward, he even gave me a tour of Studio Ghibli itself, which his press aide giggled was like winning a lottery.
As an American living overseas on September 11, 2001, I felt utterly helpless. As a foreign correspondent in the opposite of a war zone, I felt utterly useless. While my colleagues in New York were risking life and limb to report the massacre of thousands, I was interviewing pre-Kardashians and a foul-tempered film director. I suppose you could say something like we need to read about art and pop culture even in dark times, maybe especially so. And maybe Hayao Miyazaki needed that tobacco time-out because he too was sleepless and traumatized. But I hope his press aide met Totoro in a dark alley and hasn’t giggled since.