The Layered Genius of Miyazaki, Part II
Picking up where we left off…
Princess Mononoke is regarded as one of Miyazaki’s best and it the film that vaulted him to true international recognition. It broke box office records in Japan, records that would stand until they were broken by … another Miyazaki film. It won Picture of the Year in Japan, the first Anime to do so, and was his first to get a small US distribution. It was definitely the first time I heard his name.
Mononoke may be one of Miyazaki’s most complex films. It is set in feudal Japan as industry begins to push the boundaries of nature. But the conflict within has half a dozen sides — the Emperor, Eboshi, San, Moro, Okkoto, Lord Asano — who all have overlapping agendas and are separated by deep distrust. Ashitaka, wounded by an evil spirit, tries desperately to reconcile this conflict but it may not be capable of reconciliation.
Mononoke is not one of my personal favorites. It is bloody and violent, and its message is unusually strong. But it is a genius reaching the height of his powers. All of the characters are interesting and complex, with arcs and agendas of their own. The conflict is deep and powerful among them. The imagery is astonishing from the playful kodoma wood sprites to the nightmare-inducing Boar God; from the grime of Iron Town to the beautiful stillness of the Forest Spirit’s lake. And it concludes less on a triumphant not than a melancholy one as the characters realize that some conflicts can never truly be resolved.
There are two ways to watch a Miyazaki film if you do not speak Japanese: either dubbed or with subtitles. The dubs in English are a somewhat mixed bag. Disney has had a tendency to cast high-profile celebrities to do the voice. Mononoke, for example, includes the voices of Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Gillian Anderson. This can be a bit distracting at times, but it has generally worked out OK. The disadvantage of dubbing is that the translation tends to be dumbed down a bit for American audiences, and some subtleties are lost.
Miyazaki himself has said he prefers dubs because he would rather his movies be watched than read.1 I tend to agree with that. I do recommend watching with subtitles to catch a few things that you might otherwise miss. But I usually save that for a second or even third viewing. Because the first time you see one of his films, you really want to be drinking in the visuals. You could almost watch them as silent films with Hisaishi’s score and not miss much.
Spirited Away is Miyazaki’s masterpiece, the crown jewel in the oeuvre and one of my favorite movies of all time. Note, I didn’t say “favorite animated film”; I said one of my favorite films period.
A 10-year-old girl and her parents wander by accident into a world of spirits. After the parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro must work to free them and herself from the powerful witch Yubaba. But that plot is just a springboard to the canvas that Miyazaki is free to paint on. He lets his imagination run wild. We get the gruff boiler man Kamaji and are unsurprised when extra arms appear. The delightful soot sprites from Totoro make a second appearance. Giant babies, dragons, radish spirits, talking toads. Every creature is more fantastic than the next. But it all makes sense, as though we are sharing a dream.
Spirited Away is the perfect embodiment of one of the other themes that run through Miyazaki’s work: identity. No one in a Miyazaki film is exactly who they seem to be. Everyone has secrets, a past, an agenda. There are unreliable narrators and liars. Characters’ names and appearances can change. A man’s supreme confidence can be revealed as a facade, as in Howl. Or a girl’s seeming vulnerability can conceal an inner strength, as in Chihiro. There are fools and there are knaves. But all revolves around the importance of identity, of being who you are.
And this theme wends through the entirety of the film. A disgusting stink spirit turns out to be a beautiful but polluted river spirit. Yubaba doesn’t realize that her baby is a transformed version of her henchmen. Haku is revealed to be a dragon but even that conceals his true nature. Chihiro’s struggle is as much about reclaiming her name from Yubaba as anything else. The conflict, like many in Miyazaki’s films, is not resolved with a shootout but with a change in character. This as much about Chihiro growing up as it is about outwitting Yubaba.
Character matters in a Miyazaki film. Choices matter. Who you are matters. Forgetting who you are is one of the worst things that can happen. There is a Shakespearean quality to this focus on identity. And yes, again, I know I’m making a lofty comparison. And again, it is entirely deserved.
One of the most notable things about Miyazaki films is the prevalence of female characters, including the majority of his protagonists. But what makes these characters so good is that they are not Strong Female CharactersTM; it’s that they are strong female characters. The girls and women in his stories are not just male characters with the genitals swapped out. Their dilemmas, problems and responses reflect the worlds in which they have been raised.
Nor is there a Miyazaki “type”. His characters range from the spoiled Chihiro to the intimidating Yubaba to the fierce San to the cold Suliman. And, per our friend Kristin, he does not focus entirely on women in their 20’s and 30’s. Young girls, middle-aged women, old crones — they all have a place in the story.
And this focus on female characters does not come at the expense of the male characters. They too can be strong or weak, powerful or powerless, moral or amoral. Everyone has agency, and everyone has an arc. And, as I noted in the last part, this isn’t something you have to notice. It’s not rubbed in your face. It just … is.
No two films illustrate this better than Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. The former concerns a young woman, Sophie, who is transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste, jealous of the wizard Howl’s attention to her. But Sophie doesn’t just lament her lost youth and pine to be young and beautiful again. She adapts to the role, finds a job in Howl’s service and becomes, in a way, a mother to him. She finds, as we all do when we get older, that age comes with infirmity but also freedom; declining looks but increased wisdom. And when the Witch — herself an old woman pretending to be young — is drained of her power and helpless, Sophie responds with compassion.
In a lesser film, breaking the curse and making Sophie young and beautiful again would be the entire focus of the film and her release would be the big triumphant moment. In Howl, it’s just a sideshow, something that kind of gradually happens2 with little comment. Miyazaki is far more interested in the characters, in the circumstance, in the sense of wonder. When another character has a similar curse broken, the casualness of the moment is a counterpoint to every princess movie ever made.
But as good a character as Sophie is, this doesn’t require making Howl one-dimensional. He’s not just a handsome prince (or wizard) just waiting for Sophie. Or an ignorant buffoon. He’s a powerful wizard trying to avoid participating in a bloody war between two cities (in fact, actively sabotaging both sides). There’s insecurity deep in him because of a choice he made long before the story began. He has a past, a goal and arc of his own.
Ponyo seems a sharp contrast to the other films. The animation style is softer; the themes more stark. It is more of a children’s film than one intended for adults (or, more accurately, a film about childhood). Miyazaki trades in his fixation on flying for one on swimming. The plot concerns the mermaid Brunhilde who gets the unexpected chance to become human after forming an attachment to a human boy. If that sounds like the plot of The Little Mermaid, it is. Miyazaki decided to put his own spin on the tale.3
But just like Totoro and Kiki shared theme space, Ponyo shares themes with Howl in the way it twists the Princess narrative not into something angry but into something wondrous. The Little Mermaid focused on a young beautiful mermaid princess trying to marry a handsome prince; Ponyo eschews that narrative for the story of a little girl trying to find belonging with a boy and his family. Like Howl, it refuses to focus on what Hollywood insists is the only interesting age for female characters (roughly 16 to 35). Its female character are mothers, grandmothers, children and the powerful ancient Gran Mamare.
And again, none of this comes at the expense of the male characters. Fujimoto (who is not entirely dissimilar to Howl) is a gruff strange wizard whose opposition to Ponyo is motivated both by love and a concern that her change will upset the balance of nature. He is, in fact, one of my favorite Miyazaki creations.
These two films also touch on yet another theme running through Miyazaki’s work: transformation. In a Miyazaki film, appearance is not a constant. People can change as their inner self changes. Parents’ gluttony transforms them into pigs. Mermaids change into humans and back again as they are torn between belonging on land and belonging in the sea. Porco is transformed into a pig for reasons that are never explored. Sophie’s curse is undone by developments in her character, not love’s first kiss.
This is, of course, related to Miyazaki’s fixation on identity. In his films, appearance reflects character. And just as our character and our nature can change, Miyazaki’s transformations wax and wane. Sophie is turned old by the Witch of the Waste, but sometimes looks like her young self. People who have come to love or respect Porco glimpse his human face. Ponyo alternates between her fish self, a semi-human self with chicken legs and fully human. Haku is sometimes a dragon, sometimes a boy. Baby Boh prefers being a mouse until he wants to be himself again. Howl’s appearance changes throughout the film as he matures.
It works the other way too. Howl can transform into a ferocious bird creature, but at the risk of losing his human self. Haku can change into a dragon but seems to have difficulty changing back. Just as who are informs how you present yourself to the world, how you present yourself to the world can become who you are.
And who we are can change over time or even from one moment to the next. A flash of anger, a wave of compassion, a pang of conscience. In the magical realism of Miyazaki’s films, these changes are shown in sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic changes in appearance.
The Wind Rises represents another change in tone for Miyazaki. There are no magical creatures. No transformations. No mysticism. He indulges a little bit in dream sequences, but they are still grounded in the realities of flight and engineering. The protagonist is not a child or a young woman but a real historical figure as we watch Jiro Horikoshi’s life unfold.
And yet … it’s still Miyazaki at his best. The artwork is stunningly beautiful. The characters are clear and well-developed. Miyazaki shows that he can tell a grown-up love story just as capably as he can an elaborate fantasy. The scene in which Jiro sends paper airplanes to Naoko is as delightful as anything he’s made; a cute love scene that would be just silly in a lesser movie.
Joe Hisaishi shows his brilliant flexibility again, composing a score that’s subtle, built on quiet moments and incorporates Japanese and European themes to reflect the international merging of genius. As always, his music enhances the movie during action scenes, love scenes or just Jiro contemplating a wing design.
For any other animator, The Wind Rises would be the highlight of their career. For Miyazaki … it was just another and perhaps the final star in the constellation.
There are many themes that run through Miyazaki’s work. But the final one to touch on is kindness and affection. Miyazaki does portray romantic love. But he also shows the bonds of friendship and camaraderie. The affection a parent has for a child or a teacher for a student or a mentor to an apprentice. This affection can be gentle or rough, open or concealed, simple or complicated.
It is always the characters who draw us into a story. And it is the bonds between those characters — romantic, collaborative, antagonistic or dramatic — that keep us coming back. The bonds between Miyazaki’s characters are the sinews binding his movies together, bringing all this wondrous art, imagery, and themes into one coherent whole. Chihiro and Haku. Ponyo and Sosuke. Jiro and Noako. Or even the smaller relationships like Haku and Yubaba or Jiro and Kurokawa. It’s one thing to make real characters. Making real interactions between all those characters requires an extra layer of skill.
These motifs of compassion and affection, however, are not just confined to people; they are found in everything. Miyazaki’s films are suffused with a sense of wonder and enchantment; a kind of agape for the world. From the most wildly imagined creatures to the simple act of washing dishes, nothing is unimportant and everything has a beauty of its own. To watch his films, to enter that land of enchantment and adventure, is a gift to the world.
As I was finishing the post, I stumbled across a tweet that expressed it perfectly:
I want to move through this world like a film by Miyazaki: gentle where the world is chaotic, unafraid of rest and silence, sympathetic to children and animals and forgotten people, radiating a sense of enchantment and the sheer beauty of things.
— The Library Owl 🌻🧙♀️🦉 (@SketchesbyBoze) July 10, 2020
Hayao Miyazaki has now been retiring for twenty years. Since the turn of the century, each film was supposed to be his last. But like all great artists, he can never escape the call of the canvas for long. There is always a new inspiration to reveal, a new story to tell, a new generation of fans he has not yet made. His current project is How Do You Live?. But age has apparently slowed him to a crawl and the ongoing Coronavirus crisis may slow even that. The film is apparently only 15% complete and won’t be ready for another two years or so, if then.
I fear that we may never see it. But I hope that we do. I hope for it personally because my children are now old enough to appreciate his work and to share the excitement of a new film. But I also hope for everyone. Because while the world can always use more beauty, it could really use some more right now.
- I should note that this quote appears everywhere but I can’t find an actual time he’s said it. So take it with some salt.
- And again, happens because of changes in her character rather than a magic battle.
- Ponyo also features one of my favorite soundtracks. Hisiashi not only composes a magnificent and stirring song for the ocean but plays a tremendous musical joke, doing a variation on “Ride of the Valkyries” in a major key to accompany Brunhilde’s transformation into Ponyo.