[6 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He is often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, and with good reason. Over the course of nearly four decades in animation, writer/director/auteur Hayao Miyazaki has carved out a niche in foreign cartooning that few in his artform can claim. Indeed, name another international animator whose work is as widely known and warmly received as Miyazaki and you’ll quickly understand the comparison. Such a challenge ultimately requires you to look back toward the warm Uncle Walt and his House of Mouse as a possible frame of reference. Working outside the hometown industry standard of anime, this master of color and shape celebrates the best of both tradition and technology. His movies typically employ limited or no CG, while his stories often center on folklore, fantasy, and the fire burning inside the young at heart.
In fact, it’s safe to say that Miyazaki is the modern day equivalent of those old fairy tale founders from the past. His movies are as magical and timeless as those beloved tales involving Snow White, the Three Bears, and little wooden puppets who long to be boys. One need look no further than Disney’s recent two-disc rerelease of three of Miyzaki’s most important, foundational films (Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service) to see why. The Mansion that Mickey Built has been championing the filmmaker ever since Pixar guide John Lasseter first fell in love with his work. While these discs also offer the unnecessarily “Americanized” version of the titles, including A through D list stunt voice casting work, the original Japanese has been preserved - and in their true form, Miyazaki’s mastery shines through it all.
Dealing with all three films individually, we can see where this filmmaker’s foundations lie, as well as where his muse mandates he go next, beginning with one of his most underrated:
Sheeta is a young orphan who posses a magical gem that allows her to levitate. She meets up with engineering apprentice Pazu and together they battle against sky pirates and the army to find Laputa, the legendary floating castle in the sky.
As the film which truly catapulted Miyazaki to the forefront of world animation, Castle in the Sky remains a flawless primer of his standard creative conceits. Elements that he used in his previous masterpiece Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind are expanded on and forwarded - the coming of age of a young girl, the fascination with flight, the battle between old world and new world ways, and most importantly, the belief in a destiny beyond the everyday and mundane. Miyazaki’s classicism derives directly from the Hans Christian Anderson/Brothers Grimm school of subconscious wish fulfillment. His characters are constantly battling against a belief that they are meant for more and yet often find themselves stuck in situations in which their gifts/greatness is marginalized or even rejected. It’s what gives his films such undeniable universal appeal.
As with Nausicaä, our heroine must fight to prove her mantle, and it is in the adventure material that Miyazaki and this movie truly shine. The anime-like aspects are obvious, but it’s the more complicated shots and compositions that will astound. It has to be said that there are times when it appears the director has found an actual pen and ink dimension and set his camera up to capture it. Form and shape swirl and bend, flawless line drawings diving around the screen in sequences so spectacular it’s hard to remember they were created by people with little more than a pencil, some paper, and a clear artistic vision. While the emotional level in his stories would develop more with the next two films in this collection, Castle in the Sky is an equally uplifting experience. It’s the perfect place to view where Miyazaki has been and where he intends to go.
Mei and Satsuki move with their father to the country, refurbishing an aging house near a foreboding forest. As they wait for the return of their hospitalized mother, they come face to face with Totoro, a wise and welcoming woodland troll.
Few family films have dealt with the issue of death and faith more brilliantly than My Neighbor Tortoro. Sure, Miyazaki is working through a great deal of rural Eastern philosophy, what with all the “forest spirits” and “soot sprites” mentioned in the narrative, and one can’t escape the fact that some of the storyline centers on elements that are both fantastic and highly fictional. Still, with a main narrative thread dealing almost exclusively with a pair of young girls and their reaction to their mother’s continuing illness, the arrival of a large furry troll and his delightful little minions plays effortlessly into anyone’s idea of a defense mechanism. The entire storyline, as a matter of fact, centers of growing up too fast, being displaced from one’s natural environment (in this case, the family moving from Tokyo to the country), the possibility of ultimate loss, family, and the complementary adventure of discovering the highs - and lows - that life has to offer.
Miyazaki’s approach is almost flawless. We get an opening sequence showing how scary moving away can be, plus the fun and fear of one’s natural curiosity and desire to explore. When Totoro arrives, it’s not in some big scary set-up, but in a quite moment of accidental exploration. Mei and Satsuki’s connection as sisters is also established early and often Miyazaki making it very clear that he sees something inherently unique about the relationship between female siblings. His almost exclusive focus on girls as protagonists is one of the themes that make his movies so unique. By the time the smiling (if slightly sinister) cat bus shows up to save the day, we’ve been taken away on a trip into the imagination that few - if any - could top. Visually arresting and consistently compelling, this movie is magical. But it’s the heart in My Neighbor Totoro that stays with you long after the optical wonder has dissipated. It’s a powerful, powerful feeling.
Per tradition, 13 year old witch-in-training Kiki must leave home and find a place to complete her apprenticeship. When a pregnant baker and her husband from a far off town take her in, she starts a flying broom based delivery service.
It may seem odd to say this - especially since the story centers on a teenage witch going out into the world to make her own way - but Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of Miyazaki’s least fantastical films. Of sure, it has talking cats, landscaping sweeping broom rides, magic potions, and a last act dirigible disaster that tops almost anything the director has done since. But at the core of this fascinating film is the notion of growing up, of finding one’s way in life, and learning what it takes to be an adult. Our heroine is mandated by witch law to spend a year away from home, learning her trade. But as we quickly see, Kiki is not really out to master the white/black arts. Instead, she frets about money and a place to stay. Her concerns are less about spells and more about making friends and being responsible. None of the adventures in this vignette-oriented tale truly deal with the supernatural. Substitute witch-in-training for any other coming-of-age tale and you’d have the same storyline.
That’s one of the reasons Kiki is so special. Miyazaki has found here the perfect balance between allegory and the actual. Our heroine wins us over because of her desire to learn and be accountable. She’s frightened by this newfound level of duty and is driven beyond the capacities of most adolescents. Her friendship with black cat Jiji also illustrates one of the torments of aging. As the animal discovers its own way, it no longer functions as our heroine’s constant companion, sounding board, and conscious. Instead, Kiki must look beyond her insularity, into a society filled with bosses and customers, peers and personal role models. The finale, which finds her using the special gifts that she has to save the day, secures our faith in her ability to move forward in life. Maturing is a scary, unsure process, and no film - live action or animated - does a better job of understanding and slyly symbolizing the situation better than Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Working in wonder and his own special brand of moviemaking delight, Miyazaki manages to be both earnest and ethereal. He can take the most outlandish idea and bring it down to Earth with sensitivity and sensibleness. There is no denying his gift, few filmmakers even capable of coming close to his visual panache and flair. But there is more here than just outlandish ideas and bigger than life recreation of same. Miyazaki is making the same celebrated cautionary tales that helped generations of children understand the multifaceted world they were born into, brightly flavored tints and coolly clever shapes offering explanation and examination of what the future holds. From the quest in Castle to the formative exploits of Kiki and her cat, Miyazaki manages to both teach and tantalize. In a genre that really strives for anything other than easy entertainment, that’s saying a lot. Of course, with Hayao Miyazaki, mere words are never enough…and we animation fans can be thankful for that.