The Layered Genius of Miyazaki, Part I

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    Hey, great piece!

    I have been thinking about Miyazaki a lot lately. I’ve noticed a strong, bizarre trend in Western kids’ programming to preserve the good guy/bad guy narrative at all costs, even when it makes absolutely no sense. An example I’d give is in the movie Oddball where the good guys are environmentalists and then the bad guy is…also an environmentalist??? who for reasons never explained didn’t want to have to do slightly more work and so then proceeded to do a ton of extra work to destroy a project and ends up trying to stomp on a baby penguin egg for literally no reason at all – it doesn’t benefit her in any way? The character as designed would never have done that, and it was all done to manufacture drama.

    Or the bad guys are so ridiculous and extreme that again, they’re completely acting out of character, like in Toy Story 3 when Lotso sends the toys to their death, or in ways no human being would ever actually behave, like the family in Coco. Why? Just to be the baddest bad guy that you could hate passionately rather than putting any nuance into it.

    I chose a long time ago to focus on Miyazaki, anime, and MLP more than Disney. My kids get their fair share of Disney, but I hope they pick up a bit of the complexity of the real world from the Miyazaki films.

    I to this day have not brought myself to watch Grave of the Fireflies.Report

    • Avatar Michael Siegel
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      Wait until you read Part II, Kristin. I have a whole thing about how Miyazaki writes female characters!Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon
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      I can’t bring myself to watch Grave of the Fireflies either. Miyazaki is just too good at evoking emotions in me with his films, and given what I’ve heard about Grave, I’m not comfortable with what that might evoke.Report

      • Avatar North
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        Your instincts are guiding you well. Grave of the Fireflies is utterly devastating. My husband, who enjoys Miyazaki films, watched it not knowing what it was; wating fruitlessly for the spiralling and mounting tragedy to end and the fantasy elements to begin. He was crushed by the ending. I respected its beauty and artistry but it was so utterly bleak that I could never even bring myself to like it.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    This is excellent, I love Miyazaki.Report

  3. fillyjonk fillyjonk
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    One of the things I really love about Miyazaki’s films is something you touched on – the little quiet moments, often domestic moments. Food preparation, for example – I recently rewatched “Ponyo” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” and both of them have cooking (and eating) scenes that maybe don’t move the story “forward” in the way a more time-pressed movie would want to do so, but they’re wonderful scenes in their own right, visually rich and fun to watch. (I also love the shots of Howl’s cluttered bedroom; I admit I share a somewhat similar decorating aesthetic….)

    Another thing that strikes me about them is often older female characters are portrayed very sympathetically and matter-of-factly in a way that Western movies don’t often do – Granny, for example in “My Neighbor Totoro.” They may not be conventionally beautiful – they are wrinkled or have warts or a squint, but the goodness in their character shines through, and many of them are tough and capable in a way that you don’t always see in movies. (Perhaps I notice that now because I am beginning to approach “Granny” age)

    Many of the films also have some kind of a redemption arc in them, where a character changes his or her ways – or a misunderstood character becomes understood and finds love – not necessarily romantic love, but companionship-love. And I have always been a huge sucker for redemption stories.

    I’ve seen most of the movies. I’ve never seen Grave of the Fireflies, I am not sure I could handle it based on the descriptions I’ve seen online. And I’ve not seen Nausicaa. I’ve seen Princess Mononoke once or twice. Most of the other well-known ones I have on dvd and have watched multiple times. (I never have seen Porco Rosso but I have a copy of it on dvd and need to watch it some time; I might try to locate a copy of “The Cat Returns” at some point)

    I count “My Neighbor Totoro” among my top five favorite movies. Not top 5 animated movies or “family” movies, but top 5 movies. One thing I love about it is that you can identify what genus of plants (And I suppose, if you were a botanist familiar with Japanese plants, the specific species) in his countryside scenes. There’s so much attention to detail; you get the sense the studio really wanted to get everything correct in the movie, everything accurate. I also find the more-episodic nature of it restful – it’s not go, go, go like some cartoons are.

    I enjoyed this piece and I eagerly await part 2.Report

  4. Avatar Anne
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    Thank you for this great article. I had to skip some parts but look forward to revisiting it and the upcoming part 2. We got for Christmas a set of Miyasaki movies (24 of them!) dubbed in English since my husband has a hard time following subtitles and watching the movie at the same time. I’ve seen Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo (which I need to rewatch did not connect to it on first viewing) before. Unfortunately we have not had a chance to sit down and work our way through the box set but I am very eager to do so. This has heightened the anticipation to see so many of these for the first time.Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk
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      says:

      I did not care that much for Ponyo the first time I saw it but on rewatching I saw new things in it. There are more links to the (Hans Christian Anderson version of) The Little Mermaid than I realized at first. I am more fond of it upon rewatching, though it’ll never displace either Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service in my heart.Report

      • Avatar Anne
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        @fillyjonk I will keep that in mind as I rewatch it alone. No way I will be able to get the boy and my husband to sit through it again lol. They adore the rest of Miyazaki that they have seen and the boy has seen more than meReport

  5. Avatar North
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    I adore Miyasaki though I sometimes feel like his later films got too… I don’t know… sweet? Ponyo, for instance, felt utterly sacharine but perhaps I missed the point.
    While Howls Moving Castle was a perfectly fine Miyasaki film in of itself, I had the fortune/misfortune to have read Diana Wynne Jones’ original novel well prior to the movie coming out and I simply could not forgive the film for not being the book.
    Princess Mononoke was a singular formative film for me and I cannot shake the sense of primal awe the film still invokes in me from merely thinking about it.

    I am very much looking forward to part II.Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk
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      says:

      A blogger I read recently made the comment that “the book is like Sophie’s remembering what happened; the movie is like how Howl would tell his friends about it” and having both recently read the book and re-watched the movie, i think about that a lot.

      I admit I like the sweetness. The world these days is too bitter for me by half and it is nice to just have nice movies to watch some times.Report

      • Avatar North
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        says:

        Hah! I like that saying, especially as it implies that the book version is more “real”.

        I read Howl’s Moving Castle when I was a teenager and was utterly transported. As such I have a fans’ intolerance for Miyasakis’ reinterpretation. The film was fine but I would have preferred Miyasaki used a different title. That said, just like the more modern Miyasaki films, there’s no bad person in this story. The author herself clearly embraced the different version and Miyasaki made a beautiful film off of it (that was just too different for my tastes); both artists involved are geniuses and made the world more beauiful through their works so bless them both.Report

  6. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    Ponyo is best understood as a film intended for a younger audience than most of the other Miyazaki movies. I think that’s where the disconnect comes in for a lot of people. But my kids loved it and even though I know it’s not got the scope of some of the others, I do too. My daughter’s nickname in my womb was Ponyo and we still joke that’s why she loves ham. 🙂Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    “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.”

    This is also what makes baseball great.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq
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    My theory is that besides sheer quality, many Studio Ghibli movies became a big thing outside Japan because they represent a lot of what non-Japanese parents believe animation should be for children. The more family oriented ones like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Ponyo are very non-violent, don’t have any fan service, are filled with nice decent people, and teach important life lessons. Other anime aimed at children like Naruto or One Piece can have a lot more violence and sex in the form of fan service than Western parents are comfortable with.Report

  1. July 1, 2020

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  2. July 13, 2020

    […] Picking up where we left off… […]Report

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