The Layered Genius of Miyazaki, Part I
The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien said. I’ve spit this post into two, one on Miyazaki’s early years and the second covering his rise to international acclaim.
With about twenty minutes left in Spirited Away, my daughter said, “Wait, I’m confused. Who’s the bad guy? Yubaba? Or Zeniba?”
Such questions often arise when you take in the films of Japan’s grand master of animation. It is rare that someone in his movies is completely evil. There are often characters who act like the bad guy. Some of his creations can be terrifying and they often come in conflict with the protagonist. But they are never evil in their own eyes. Sometimes they are misguided. Sometimes they are ruthless. Sometimes they are wounded. But they have motivations and agendas of their own. They have reasons for what they’re doing. And if their needs overlap with the hero’s, they will help them. Enemies can become allies. Rivals can become compatriots. No one is one-dimensional.
Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke wants what is best for her independent town and is fiercely protective of her people (a people that consist largely of social outcasts). She does bad things but mostly because she doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions. In Howl’s Moving Castle, the Witch of the Waste is drained of her power and becomes Sophie’s compatriot (if a somewhat mischievous one). Dola the pirate tries to capture Sheeta, then later becomes a fierce ally. Curtis, fresh off a brutal fist fight with Porco, joins forces with him to lead off the Italian Air Force. This rejection of simple black-white narratives perhaps reaches its apotheosis in The Wind Rises, where the protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the A6M Zero fighter. Some condemned the lionization of man who designed a weapon of war. Miyazaki, a life-long pacifist, believed there was nothing militaristic about celebrating the beauty of flight and the work of art that was the Zero.
Indeed, sometimes there isn’t an antagonist at all. My Neighbor Totoro‘s antagonist is the mother’s illness and the disruption of a move to a new house. The mystery and intrigue revolve around discovering a magical world and the fearsome but ultimately gentle Totoro. The Wind Rises has its main enemy in the laws of physics and the struggles of engineering. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a pure coming-of-age story.
This refusal to deal in simple blacks and whites is just one of the many things that set Miyazaki’s films above the increasingly-rich tapestry of animation and elevates them to brilliance.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was Miyazaki’s second full-length feature. The setting is a thousand years after a calamity has engulfed humanity. The survivors cling to a few last refuges while a toxic jungle and massive mutant insects (Ohm) close in. There is a prophecy of a savior. But conflicts between human clans and the advancing Ohm threaten to extinguish even that faint hope.
Nausicaa may not be Miyazaki’s best but it is an outstanding film that lays the template for his four decades of film. It has the elements that will recur throughout his work: an environmentalist theme, an emphasis on flying, a female protagonist, a “villain” who is doing what she thinks is best, creatures who are fearsome but also not quite what they appear to be. This was also the first time Joe Hisaishi worked with Miyazaki and his score — blending elements from traditional Japanese to classical European to experimental — is one of the many great elements of the film.
For one not familiar with Miyazaki’s oeuvre, it is not where I would start. But for one who has watched a few of his films or at least somewhat steeped in anime lore, it is a must-see.
I would never claim to be any kind of authority on anime. My sampling of the vast oeuvre is extremely limited. My first foray into the genre, like many of my generation, was the old show Star Blazers, the Americanized version of Space Battleship Yamato. The series is still brilliant and I highly recommend it. But even as a kid, I could tell that this was something different from your typical Saturday morning cartoon. It told a long complex multi-faceted story with dynamic characters, real drama and real stakes.
I’ve still barely touched the genre, occasionally dabbling in something like Cowboy Bebop but never really immersing myself in it. But perhaps that allows me to have a different perspective, as an “outsider”. Miyazaki transcends the genre, having made the first anime film to win Japan’s Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and the only anime film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with two other nominations). He is so respected that Disney’s John Lasseter — an accomplished filmmaker himself — not only made it his mission to bring Miyazaki’s films to the US but to make sure they were dubbed well and unedited. In Roger Ebert’s article on an interview with Miyazaki, Lasseter said:
I love his films. I study his films. I watch his films when I’m looking for inspiration.
You don’t have to be an animator to draw inspiration from them. Nor do you need to be an expert on anime. All that’s required is an appreciation for great film-making.
Castle in the Sky, the first film to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, is one of his purest adventure films. It has magic crystals, giant robots, flying pirates, mysterious pasts and, of course, the eponymous floating castle. The film is so packed, that when a warrior robot awakens from a centuries-long slumber and wrecks havoc on a castle and a nearby airship, it’s just a preview for what’s to come.
But as sweeping as the narrative is, it also hits the familiar Miyazaki themes. There is an environmentalist message, a suspicion of technology, a favoring of tradition and simplicity. There is the contrast between the generosity and kindness of Sheeta against the greed and ruthlessness of Muska. And there is a new thread that starts to wend trough Miyazaki films: the dangers of tampering with powerful forces one doesn’t understand.
You don’t have to see those things if you don’t want to. You can — and my son does — enjoy it as a pure rollicking adventure as two youngsters try to unravel the mystery behind a legendary floating city, which has some kind of tie to the protagonist Sheeta. But if you’re looking for that kind of depth, it is there.
Pixar has often talked about their goal to make films that appeal to kids on one level and adults on another. Ebert drew a distinction between kids’ films — designed purely for youngsters — and family films — made for everyone. Miyazaki hits a similar sweet spot. You can enjoy his films as pure spectacle. Or crazy adventure. Or love story. Or epic. But dig just a little and you’ll find sophisticated symbolism and deep themes. And you’ll keep coming back for more.
I’ve sometimes said that the secret to writing science fiction or fantasy is to think big and write small. By that, I mean you should let your imagination run riot when it comes to setting and circumstance and background. You can create as many crazy creatures and as magnificent planetscapes as you want. But ultimately, you have write about the characters and their lives and the way they are responding to epic events. Ultimately, we have to care about what’s happening amidst all the chaos and excitement. We need to be able to share their wonder, their fear, their joy, their despair. We need to be along for the ride, not watching it from a distance.
Miyazaki does not hesitate to portray big events in big ways: the Great Kanto earthquake in The Wind Rises or the post-apocalyptic struggle to survive in Nausicaa. His works are filled with astonishingly imaginative creatures — the numerous spirits in Spirited Away or the Deer God is Princess Mononoke. But we never lose site of the day-to-day: Sophie cleaning up the filthy common room in Howl’s moving castle, a frog creature taking a cigarette break in Spirited Away or Dola listening in on a conversation between Patzu and Sheeta. We never lose the idea that these are real people (or creatures) responding to real, if sometimes fantastic, events. And we never forget that, even in a post-apocalyptic world, food needs to cooked, rooms need to be cleaned, beds need to made, socks need to be darned. In fact, cleaning up messes — in both the ecological and domestic sense — is another running theme.
I tend to think of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service as a pair. The films are shadowy reflections of each other. In Totoro, two girls from the mundane everyday life venture into the magical world while in Kiki, a genuine witch tries to find her way in the mundane world. Both lack a traditional antagonist, being more coming-of-age stories. And both again hit upon the familiar themes of the value of traditional beliefs and the importance of nature.
Totoro was not an instant success but is now hailed, rightfully so, as a classic with the title creature having become synonymous with Studio Ghibli.1 My kids have Totoro plush toys and get excited when he appears in the background of Pixar films. The movie weaves an impressive spell, drawing the viewer into its world so thoroughly that when a bus shows up that’s actually a giant cat the characters can climb into and ride, your reaction is, “OK, that makes sense.”
Kiki, while having more initial commercial success, has a lesser status now, but is still a wonderful and quite funny film. Like Totoro, it also weaves a spell for the viewer, because of course if a witch wants to find her way in the big city, using her broom for a delivery service would definitely be the way to go. I’m surprised the Potter series never went with this.
I’ve gotten a long way into this thing without mentioning the pure art of Miyazaki films. What amazes me is not just the beauty of his images, but the variety. His animation style varies from energetic and dynamic action scenes to quiet moments that are like a still life. He incorporates styles from traditional anime to Disney-esque cute and somehow makes it work. Big eyes, dynamic mouths, exaggerated facial expressions and flowing hair make his characters distinctive. Depth and detail make his backgrounds engrossing. He varies the color palette depending on the setting and situation. Blood-soaked action scenes in all their gory grandeur can be side-by-side with scenes of grotesque detail can be side-by-side with scenes of unbearable cuteness. We can drift from early-Disney softness to violent action to elegant visual and it all feels right; its all in the right place. It is as though Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt were under the same roof. And, yeah, I know what I’m saying. The art is on that level.
Consider (and I’ll keep referring to this scene), the beauty of the train from Spirited Away that looks like a still life:
Or the stark underground chambers of Nausicaa:
And contrast that against the terrifying boar God in Mononoke.
Going to Ebert’s review of Spirited Away:
Animation is a painstaking process, and there is a tendency to simplify its visual elements. Miyazaki, in contrast, offers complexity. His backgrounds are rich in detail, his canvas embraces space liberally, and it is all drawn with meticulous attention. We may not pay much conscious attention to the corners of the frame, but we know they are there, and they reinforce the remarkable precision of his fantasy worlds
Hit the pause button at any moment in a Miyazaki film and notice the detail in, say, a character’s eyebrows or the wood panelling of a room. And this isn’t just a matter of details, it’s that those details matter. They add to the characters or the background or the setting, drawing you into the reality on a subconscious level. You don’t notice, for example, the little fat rolls on baby Boh’s arms. But they make him real in a subtle and critical way.
And that beautiful artwork contributes to one of the other aspects of Miyazaki films, which is the willingness to contemplate stillness. He does not hesitate to give us moments to think and absorb. A shot of water washing up on a shore or shadows moving across a building or a woman standing in a field. His movies do move at a frenetic pace when they want to. But they don’t have to. He has little use for constant hectic motion or song-and-dance numbers. Ebert again:
I told Miyazaki I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”
Is that like the “pillow words” that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?
“I don’t think it’s like the pillow word.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”
Consider this in-depth analysis of the train scene
It’s hard to imagine an American studio allowing something like this. A three-minute sequence with no dialogue, no explosions, no action. Everything implied rather than explained; hinted at rather than revealed. Three minutes of pure Miyazaki images accompanied by Hisaishi subtle piano music. Pure bliss for those of us who love these films.
Porco Rosso is a bit an of oddball in the Miyazaki collection. The main character — Porco (Marco) — is a crack World War I pilot who has been mysteriously transformed into a pig. Despite his transformation, the glamorous Gina, beset with suitors, continues to pine for him. After being apparently shot down by rival, he teams up with the young and brilliant (and smitten) Fio to have a rematch and regain his pride.
Porco doesn’t have the emphasis on traditionalism and nature that Miyazaki’s other films do. But it finds a different focus in the beauty of flight, the importance of courage and how inner beauty can shine through. It makes subtle and not-so-subtle points about the rise of fascism (“I’d rather be a pig than fascist” says Porco at one point). While perhaps not as memorable as Miyazaki’s masterpieces, it still a visual delight.
Had Miyazaki stopped here, his career would still have been remembered as being among the greats with several memorable films and one classic. But the best was yet to come.