March 2, 2010 marks the DVD release date for Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Though it made a splash at box offices overseas, it caused barely a ripple in the US, despite domestic distributor Disney’s best efforts to reach out to family audiences with the Disney marketing machine and star voice casting (the two leads were voiced by kid siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers).
That’s in keeping with Miyazaki’s track record of international box-office success and obscurity in America. His 2001 film Spirited Away, which many consider his masterpiece, was a global hit, even sinking James Cameron’s Titanic at the Japanese box office and becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history. Yet though it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — so far the only non-English language film to do so — its theatrical audience was largely confined to the art-house crowd. Miyazaki’s American proponents hoped Ponyo would be his breakout film stateside, but mainstream success in America continues to elude him. That is a shame, and our loss.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most important living filmmakers many readers haven’t heard of. He can easily be called the world’s foremost living director of animation. Even if you haven’t seen any of Miyazaki’s work, you’ve probably experienced his influence on American films. To cite a current high-profile example, James Cameron’s Avatar has elicited various comparisons to Miyazaki (among many other influences), and Cameron has acknowledged that he is a big fan of Miyazaki as well as of anime (Japanese animation) in general. Miyazaki fans in Hollywood include animation filmmakers at Disney, DreamWorks and especially Pixar. “Miyazaki is like a god to us,” Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, co-directors of Disney’s Mulan, have been quoted as acknowledging. Mark Osborn, director of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, has credited Miyazaki’s influence on him and his fellow filmmakers, according to a report at the Anime News Network website. Most of all, Miyazaki is revered at Pixar, the top dogs of American family entertainment. Pixar honcho John Lasseter and Miyazaki are friends, and Lasseter has been a major advocate for American distribution of Miyazaki’s films. “Not a day goes by that I do not utilize the tools learned from studying his films,” Lasseter has said. In a written tribute, Lasseter stated:
As an animator and a director of animated films, I have always been greatly inspired by the films of Walt Disney, Buster Keaton and the cartoons of Chuck Jones. But by far, the most inspirational films for me are the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki … At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.
The Miyazaki influence is most overt on Pixar’s latest, Up, one of the best family films of 2009. Writer–director Pete Docter’s previous project was overseeing the English adaptation of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and the experience of working closely with the Japanese master’s imaginative daring and leisurely storytelling inspired Docter to take his own next film in some unexpected directions. Like Up, Howl’s Moving Castle features an elderly protagonist, something unheard of in Hollywood animation. The hero’s house in Up, a veritable character in its own right, owes something to the moving castle in Howl’s, which also travels about under its own power and is crippled and dilapidated by the end of the story. Other motifs and images in Up are indebted to Miyazaki’s entire body of work, such as the joy of flight and the visual poetry of a large structure like a house soaring through the sky, the antagonist’s dirigible, the blending of technologies from different periods (WWII-style biplanes, a GPS, sci-fi voice synthesizers for dogs), and the whimsical character design of a large bird.
On the other hand, critics of Pixar have argued that the antagonist in Up, Charles Muntz, is unnecessarily villainous, and his comeuppance unnecessarily final — creative decisions notably contrasting with Miyazaki’s tendency to humanize and at least partially redeem seemingly villainous characters. Pixar has also been unfavorably contrasted with Miyazaki over the male-centricity of Pixar’s films to date. Every film from Pixar so far has a male protagonist, and while not every story has an antagonist, those that do have male antagonists. Additionally, many Pixar films center on relationships between males: Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Remy and Linguini. (Breaking the trend, Pixar’s coming The Bear and the Bow will be the studio’s first film with a female protagonist — and a female director.) Likewise, Avatar might invite Miyazaki comparisons with its gorgeously imagined but savage world, fantastic creatures, euphoria of flight, environmentalist-inflected reverence for nature with animist or panentheist tendencies, pacifist portrayal of unjustified military aggression, and strong female characters. Yet Cameron’s bombastic sensibilities couldn’t be more different from the warm humanism, nuanced characterizations and subtle storytelling of Miyazaki’s films.
While his influence is impressive, then, Miyazaki’s vision remains unique. The worlds he creates — the teeming post-apocalyptic jungle world of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the strange 19th-century science fiction of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the surreal spirit world of Spirited Away — are as singular as they are captivating. There is a haunting quality about Miyazaki’s works; the viewer has the sense of having visited a place with a character as distinct and vibrant as any place in the real world. Partly this is due to the artist’s painterly style and extraordinary eye for persuasive detail; partly it is the effortless authority with which he blends reality (or realities) and whimsy to create settings that seem copied directly from life, even if the particular architectural, technological and cultural milieus he draws on never coexisted in any one place and time, or in some cases never existed at all.
Though his films range quite a bit in setting, tone, approach and target audience — from alternative futures or pasts to dreamlike or nightmarish departures from the world as we know it, from sweet family films to chilly, even violent mythic sagas — a number of recurring aesthetic, dramatic and moral themes run through Miyazaki’s films. Characteristic visual motifs include gorgeous pastoral imagery (lush, verdant trees and forests, sprawling meadows, massive cumulus formations drifting through spectacularly blue skies), magnificently rendered architecture of every conceivable type (ancient castles of mossy, vine-swathed stonework, quaint seaside towns, traditional Japanese structures), and detailed technology, whether period or sci-fi. Two of Miyazaki’s great loves are water and sky, and he uses them in related ways. Flight is a ubiquitous theme; he has never done a film that doesn’t involve flying of some kind, whether with gliders, magic brooms, WWI biplanes or by no visible means at all. His imagination seems to constantly leap aloft, to soar, to leave the pull of gravity behind. But water for Miyazaki is also a way of defying gravity. He has a predilection for flooding unexpected spaces with crystal-clear water, and objects floating on the surface or drifting through the depths seem suspended by magic.
If there is a dominant mood in Miyazaki’s work, it may be wonder. Most obviously in his more family-friendly films, but also in his more mature efforts, one finds a childlike spirit agape at the strangeness and magnificence of the world. He creates mythic images and tableaux of surreal, pre-rational power, but his invention seldom feels like mere conceit. A joy of discovery runs through his films, as if it could all really be. His protagonists are usually children or teens, more often than not girls. His younger-skewing stories — My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyo — are notable for idyllic depictions of home life, sympathetic treatment of the elderly, and positive parental figures — in marked contrast to the affinity in much American animation, especially the films of the post–Little Mermaid Disney renaissance, for unsympathetic parents figures. (Only the heroine of the darker, more mature Spirited Away has parents who come off badly. There is also Ponyo’s father, an ambiguous but not unsympathetic figure.)
Miyazaki seldom traffics in simple good and evil; the worlds he creates tend to be complex and ambiguous. Even ominous witch-like figures in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle seem to be not so bad once you get to know them. Yet this isn’t done with the subversiveness of, say, Wicked, in which the rehabilitation of archetypal evil (the Wicked Witch of the West) is combined with catty revisionism toward archetypal good (Glinda the Good Witch). Rather, Miyazaki tends to offer understanding and sympathy to all of his characters. A significant theme of moral formation runs through Miyazaki’s work. Respect for elders, responsibility, courtesy, generosity, maturity, courage, understanding and hard work are all common virtues exhibited by or acquired in the moral formation of Miyazaki’s young protagonists.
Though his work can be violent, Miyazaki’s pacifism and opposition to violence go more than surface deep. Conflict and violence are usually seen as misguided and destructive, and Miyazaki’s heroes are often peacemakers. Even when he introduces a warrior hero like Nausicaa’s Lord Yupa, said to be the best swordsman in the world, he’s only actually shown busting about two moves — and the first time is to put an abrupt end to a fight. Another ultimate swordsman, Goemon Ishikawa of The Castle of Cagliostro, is similarly parsimonious with his martial prowess, and first uses his sword in a lifesaving move (while grumbling about it at the same time). Only one of Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke, is really violent — and I wonder whether the director’s heart wasn’t in it. As powerful as it is in many ways, it’s a downbeat, sometimes sickening film that seems to reflect the pessimism that Miyazaki says he feels rather than the optimism with which he somehow infuses his films.
Reverence for nature and ecological consciousness are important themes. Not always, but often they are expressed in images drawn from the animist tradition of Japan’s Shinto heritage. Tree spirits, river gods and the like run through many of his films. Unlike Avatar, though, these animist elements aren’t expressed in terms of any organized cultus. His films offer no priests or priestesses, no temples or altars. Characters seldom engage in anything like religious behavior toward the spirit world. In Spirited Away, for instance, the mother notes the presence of small shrines at the roadside, but it’s simply for cultural and dramatic effect; there is no prayer or ritual seen in connection with the shrines. Even Princess Mononoke, far and away the most frankly and insistently pagan film in his oeuvre, offers little hint of any organized cultus.
What we do occasionally see are gestures of respect or veneration, ritual acts and such. For example, Ponyo depicts sailors at sea responding to the passing of an enormous marine goddess under their ship with what look like ritual gestures to ward off ill luck. Similarly, My Neighbor Totoro depicts a father and his daughters standing before an immense tree offering a prayer to the “king of the forest” spirit inhabiting the tree — a spirit identified with the title character, an enigmatic and powerful but benevolent giant. In another scene, the father and his daughters laugh uproariously in order to scare off “soot sprite” spirits, a distinctly sub-Christian sort of sympathetic magic. We also see the older daughter, taking shelter in a rainstorm in a roadside shrine, briefly thanking the deity of the shrine for the refuge from the storm.
To what extent is this sort of thing an issue for Christians, particularly with respect to the more kid-friendly films? On the one hand, generations of Christian children have grown up reading classical mythology, and tree-spirits and river gods inhabit in the Narnian fantasies of Christian author C.S. Lewis. Mythological spirits and deities as such are not necessarily problematic for Christian audiences where they pose no threat to the audience’s own faith. On the other hand, the brief, recognizably cultic actions in two of Miyazaki’s gentlest family films may be occasions of confusion for young viewers. While My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo have much to commend them for family viewing, Christian parents may want to discuss these scenes with their children to avoid any confusion. Obviously there must be no ambiguity that Christians do not pray to trees, or tree spirits. On the other hand, Catholic parents may point out that we do express gratitude and address requests for help to our guardian angels, powerful spirits created by God. If God had created tree spirits, perhaps we could address them in similar ways.
Christianity is seldom invoked in Miyazaki films, though it does crop up in a couple of his European-set films — and when it does, it is Catholic Christianity. In Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, a Catholic archbishop briefly appears on his way from Vatican City to preside at a royal wedding — before being intercepted and replaced by the disguised hero in order to rescue the princess, who, apparently unbeknownst to the bishop, is being forced to marry the count against her will.
A bit more interesting are a couple of religious moments in Porco Rosso, a 1930s period piece in which the protagonist Porco, a former WWI ace, returns to his native Italy to commission a new plane from his long-time mechanic. Due to a Depression-related shortage of men, the mechanic hires a crew of female relatives to build the plane. At one point the whole crew sits down to eat, and the mechanic says grace: “Heavenly Father, we give You thanks for putting bread on our table and for giving us work when we were on the brink of bankruptcy…” Then he adds, in a quick, low mumble, “And please forgive us for building a fighter plane with the hands of women.” It’s a frank — and humorous — commentary on traditional views of male and female roles as well as traditional European religiosity.
Later in the same film is a scene that provides perhaps the only hint of an afterlife in any of Miyazaki’s films. In a flashback to the hero’s WWI days, Porco loses control of his plane during an attack, and his plane flies into a cloud of intense brightness, causing him to wonder if he is in Heaven. Emerging above the cloud, he witnesses other planes from the battle climbing high into the stratosphere and joining an endless procession of planes shot down during the war. One of the pilots rising to join the procession is his newly married best friend, and Porco tries to offer to go in his friend’s stead, but to no avail. Then Porco sinks beneath the cloud and returns to the world of the living. It’s an evocative and potent image — one that, given the Catholic milieu established by the Italian mechanic’s prayer, may reasonably be interpreted as a poetic expression of Christian belief (particularly given the absence of afterlife references in Miyazaki’s more Shinto-inflected films).
In thirty years of work, Miyazaki has directed a total of ten feature films. His first was The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a 007-esque action–thriller in an anime series about a dashing thief. Though based on characters and premises established by other writers, Miyazaki put his own stamp on the material. (Cagliostro is the only Miyazaki with a DVD distributor other than Disney, and unfortunately the English dub makes the language crasser than the original dialogue. Still, it’s hugely entertaining, funny and one of the best action movies ever made, animated or otherwise.) After Cagliostro, Miyazaki produced a pair of exciting sci-fi action-adventure films. The post-apocalyptic thriller Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is the filmmaker’s most ambitious work of pure world-building, an epic that feels like a fragment of a much larger history — because it is; the story is based on Miyazaki’s own epic manga (Japanese comic book) series. The politics are impenetrable, and the ecological theme is a little heavy-handed, but the visions of wonder are well worth it.
More accessible than Nausicaa, Laputa: Castle in the Sky imagines an alternate 19th century blending lighter-than-air ships with dragonfly-like skimmers, blaster guns and ancient super-technology. The story of rival military and outlaw groups racing to find a legendary lost city in the clouds powerfully displays the epic scale of Miyazaki’s imagination; it’s also very funny. For his next two films, Miyazaki adopted a gentler tone and produced two of the sweetest, most idyllic family films ever made. My Neighbor Totoro is largely plotless tale about a warm, loving father with two young daughters moving to a country house while their mother is hospitalized for an unspecified ailment. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), another lightly plotted tale, is a coming-of-age tale about a 13-year-old witch who, following custom, must spend a year away from home. Kiki flies on a broom and has a talking black cat, but there’s no spell-casting or other magic; instead, she starts up a delivery service by broomstick.
Widely considered one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts, Porco Rosso (1992) is nevertheless a fascinating example of Miyazaki’s restless curiosity and imagination. An homage of sorts to 1930s Hollywood, the film’s hero is a former WWI ace, a sort of Errol Flynn/Bogart type, except that he has been mysteriously transformed into an anthropomorphic pig. It’s typical of Miyazaki’s indifference to plot that he shows little interest in why Porco became a pig, and is oblique about what happens in the end. Miyazaki next turned out two very different works of mature mythopoeia. The earlier effort, Princess Mononoke (1997), is an impressive and widely respected endeavor, but the violent, chilly tale about animal gods and demons, warriors and epic battles leaves me cold. On the other hand, I concur with those who regard Spirited Away (2001) as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. A dark but dazzling tale about a young heroine who turns a wrong corner and winds up in a bewildering spirit world, it’s a nightmare though shot through with rays of light that slowly grow until the darkness dissipates.
Miyazaki’s next film was a misfire, a loose adaptation of Diana Wynn Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Despite helping to inspire Up, Howl’s is perhaps Miyazaki’s only effort that doesn’t gel as a film, though it remains as visually fascinating as any Miyazaki film. Finally, Ponyo represents a return to the childlike simplicity of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In some ways it’s even simpler, as Miyazaki cuts down on his usual painterly attention to detail and offers a sketchier, more minimalist take on a charming fish-out-of-water tale about a magical sea-girl and a young boy.
For young children especially, Ponyo, along with Totoro and Kiki, offers a valuable and enriching experience of cultural differences, both in the world depicted on the screen and in the imaginative sensibilities informing it. In many ways this experience of otherness is a charming and edifying one; on occasion it is also an opportunity for education about religious differences and aspects of other cultures that are contrary to Christian faith — though even there connections can be made, as noted above. In many respects, Miyazaki’s young-skewing films offer a welcome alternative and corrective to the frenetic hipness of too much American family entertainment.
For all viewers, Miyazaki’s whole body of work (less one or two sub-par exceptions) offers unduplicated vistas of imaginative wonder and beauty, images of startling power, admirable and likable heroines and heroes, humanely conceived supporting characters, elusively engaging storytelling, wholesome moral themes, and unexpected sly humor. He is the sort of artist whose work doesn’t just entertain audiences, but wins enthusiasts. For those who haven’t yet discovered him, Miyazaki is a taste well worth acquiring.
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I have a request. Give Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke another try! They’re much better movies than you give them credit for. I think you just have to let them grow on you. They may not as good as some of Miyazaki’s other movies (Spirited Away, Totoro), but still, the animation is exceptional and the stories and romances are very original. All three of these qualities are very rare these days. Furthermore, besides violence, language, and pagan references (mostly on the part of Mononoke), the material isn’t objectionable. I would think you would find them highly recommendable.
You said this about Howl’s:And Howl’s Moving Castle is the only Miyazaki I’ve ever seen that (after a typically brilliant opening) outright disappointed me. His plots are often dreamlike and confusing, but here he seems lost and listless.
Could you explain exactly what you mean by that? What feels lost and listless about it? And even if you felt that way, is such a vague objection really reason enough to make you dislike such an imaginative film?
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I definitely applaud the declaration of a Miyazaki week at Decent Films, and the Catholic World Report appreciation is long overdue (as are the remaining Miyazaki reviews, which I can’t wait to read!) but what about the other Studio Ghibli directors? I guess Takahata is represented with your Grave of the Fireflies review but what about his sublimely ridiculous (though not universally accessible) My Neighbors the Yamadas? And, while maybe not on a par with the best Miyazaki has to offer, we really enjoyed the concrete/fantasy aspects of the two “cat” films (Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns). And all three movies have Disney dubs rivaling any of the performances in the Miyazaki dubs. How about showing those films some love?
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I just don’t get Ponyo or any of Miyazaki’s stuff, and I’m as big a traditional animation (and family film) fan as I know. I’m sure that there’s a cultural divide (or a near impassable gulf) between the western version of fantasy or fairy tale and the eastern vision, but the flighty, almost haphazard nature of these stories leads my children to wander out of the room whenever we play his films for family movie night.
Forgive my apparent ignorance, but I wonder whether the famous director is given a pass based on reputation alone, because I feel confident that a film like Ponyo, if released by an American director, would be absolutely panned as pointless, plotless, and completely slapdash. What am I missing?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.