Musings on Miyazaki, Early and Late

David A. Ross

Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941) is to world animation what Bergman and Fellini were to film proper: a Mosaic figure leading his medium out of the desert of popular culture and into the promised land of incontestable art. The Internet Movie Database’s user rankings – which are the closest thing we have to a court of world opinion – place six Miyazaki films among the top twenty animated films of all time and place Spirited Away fifty-seventh among the greatest films of all time, well ahead of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (155th) and Fellini’s 8 ½ (179th). Among Asian films, only Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai ranks higher (15th). “Genius” is a promiscuous term these days (v. Christopher Nolan, Spike Jonze, etc.), but nobody particularly laughs when it is affixed to Miyazaki, whose Shinto-inspired environmental message speaks to the Al Gore within each of us.

There’s no denying that Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Porco Rosso (1992) are splendid inventions. Dodging nearly all visual cliché (except the saucer eyes of their waif-heroines), these films introduce the rudiments of Miyazaki’s art: numinous animism, Baroque architectural whimsy, and quasi-Victorian mechanical excrescence, with a particular penchant for flying machines of all shapes, sizes, and motive principles. Lupin (James Bond meets The Prisoner of Zenda), Kiki (the coming-of-age tale of a witch), and Porco Rosso (the adventures of a WWI flying ace turned pig) will equally delight children and adults, but Totoro, Miyazaki’s simplest and most perfect creation, is something else entirely: a film worth letting sink into a child’s mind or even more deeply into the unconscious dark where our sense of the world coalesces. The story concerns a little girl who moves to the countryside and befriends the spirit of the forest, an inscrutable ten-foot feline (now the mascot of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli). In his 1986 “project plan,” Miyazaki envisioned the film as an attempt to discover “what we have forgotten, what we don’t notice, what we are convinced we have lost” (Miyazaki 2009, 255). To a remarkable extent, the film realizes this unusual aspiration: it sees the world through the awakened eyes of childhood as if with a sixth-sense for the numinousness of reality. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), The Secret of Kells (2009), and Totoro — Christian, Christian-Druidic, and animist, respectively — are the only cartoons I would call beautiful in their spiritual vision.

Miyazaki has lost his way since, in my minority opinion. With their pushy messages and dense narratives, Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky contain the germ of what went wrong. Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) are fully problematic: overwrought, sprawling, sermonizing, and woolly (even Miyazaki’s most ardent supporters must acknowledge the latter’s drift into incoherence), with little interest in the kind of sturdy simplicities that make for enduring fairy tales. Miyazaki’s cosmology has become as baroque as his architecture, and his worlds seem increasingly estranged from our world, stretching the necessary tethers of metaphor and memory to the breaking point. In this sense, Miyazaki has not understood what Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) understands so thoroughly: our farthest journeys of imagination must be journeys into the core of our own world, into the essence of our own minds. Furthermore, it is unclear whether these films remain children’s films. My five-year-old-daughter sat through three hours of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and five hours of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995), but Howl’s Moving Castle mystified her and Spirited Away terrified her. When I asked which part she found particularly scary, she shot back, “Every part!” There is no obligation to cater to the youngest tastes, of course, but Miyazaki speaks the language of childhood so eloquently and fluently that to speak otherwise is to waste his peculiar gift.




Miyazaki’s latest, Ponyo (2008), begins in a spirit of Totoro-esque simplicity, and it has much to recommend it initially. Ponyo is the pollywoggish daughter of a human sea-wizard whose disgust with the polluting ways of men has made him stern and misanthropic. Ponyo flees her father’s underwater castle. She winds up stuck in a bottle and bobs to the shore of a Japanese port town, where gentle-hearted Sosuke lives with his mother. Sosuke smashes the bottle, and Ponyo licks a droplet of blood from his finger, initiating her gradual transformation into a girl. The waters become surging fish-shaped waves and bear Ponyo back to her father’s castle, but she soon escapes again, determined to return to her adored Sosuke.

The ensuing twenty-minute sequence is a masterpiece of invention, observation, rhythm, and energy, as remarkable in its way as the seven dwarves discovering Snow White or the birds and mice assembling Cinderella’s ball gown. As Sosuke and his mother drive home at the end of the day, an uncanny storm brews and breaks to the strains of a pseudo Wagnerian score (fig. 2). Riding the crest of a tsunami, amid towering walls of Hokusai-inspired waves, Ponyo chases Sosuke and his mother as they race for the safety of their cliff-top house (“very scary” according to my daughter, whose cinematic opinions tend to be binary: scary/not scary). Ponyo emerges from the waves in human form and charges into Sosuke’s arms. Miyazaki then performs a pirouette: the storm diminishes and Ponyo, adorable in her addled excitement, learns the pleasures of a human home as Sosuke’s mother dries her and serves her honey tea and a steaming bowl of instant noodles (“It takes three minutes,” crows Sosuke). These scenes celebrate the domestic miracles of light, water, warmth, food, and love, and represent Miyazaki at his most delightful and humane.

Needless to say, there are metaphysical complications. During her second escape from her father’s castle, Ponyo accidentally releases a magic elixir, inducing an apocalypse of rising waters and evolutionary regression (the ocean suddenly swims with creatures of the Devonian age). As her father tells her mother — no less a personage than the goddess of the oceans — “She’s become so powerful that she’s opened up a hole in the fabric of reality. . . . She’s now a little girl, and she loves a little boy, and the whole world is out of balance. Please remove the human in her or the planet is doomed. Already the earth is pulling satellites from the sky and the moon pulls the sea closer!” (My credo is: beware of films involving holes in the fabric of anything — the real hole is usually in the plot). Sosuke’s love for Ponyo restores the balance of nature, and the film’s eco-Götterdämmerung predictably ends in annunciations and ascensions worthy of Tiepolo.

Ponyo, like so many Miyazaki films, is a shimmering fairytale turned to stone by the Medusa of its social message. In Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky, the offending message is at least coherent; in Ponyo, it seems utterly inchoate. What is Ponyo’s father doing at the bottom of the sea? For that matter, how does he couple with a fifty-foot sea goddess? How did Ponyo become so powerful? Why does Ponyo’s love for Sosuke throw the world out of balance? Is the problem her transformation into a girl or her release of the elixirs? Why and how does Sosuke’s love for Ponyo restore this balance? None of these questions have ready answers. Man and nature (or is it land and ocean?) are inferably the elements in need of balance, though it is hard to conceive why these two hemispheres of reality should be in thrall to little Ponyo. There is the usual suggestion that humans are lousing up the environment and that the animist spirit is struggling to preserve it, but Miyazaki is unwilling to entrust his story to traditional forms. Like William Blake, though on a much lesser scale, he insists on chicken-wiring his own mythic superstructures. The logic of this tendency is not clear, though it is possible that Miyazaki associates this kind of cosmic myth-making with the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, which he admires enormously (Nausicaä’s Homeric name is telling).

Given these perplexities – the stalemate between canonizers and devil’s advocates – Starting Point, a collection of Miyazaki’s writings first published in 1997 but appearing in English for the first time, could not be timelier (a second volume, Turning Point: 1997–2008, was published in 2008, but has not yet been translated). A hefty five hundred pages, Starting Point includes essays, speeches, interviews, and miscellaneous memoranda, all of which chip away at the mystery of Miyazaki himself, a man so soft-spoken and seemingly unassuming and yet so prepared to turn his cartoons into lecterns and to philosophize the problems of the world.

The most striking thing about the volume is its miscellaneousness. Miyazaki makes no effort to cobble his fragments into unity and cohesive philosophy. The book includes addresses to elementary school classes, proposals to acquire film rights to comic books, and everything in between, as if Miyazaki dumped the contents of his desk drawer into a cardboard box and shipped the jumble to his publisher. As a writer, Miyazaki similarly lacks the sculptural instinct — to say the least. His primary tropes are wandering anecdote and baffling non sequitur. A passage like this one gives the sense of Miyazaki’s strange arcs:

The problems in Yugoslavia are a manifestation of the competing layers of history of different ethnic groups, but the underlying cause is the barrenness of the soil. During the Roman Empire, civilization caused the extermination of a great amount of vegetation. The mountains were stripped bare, not only in Italy, but also in southern France and across Spain. The areas where civilization had been most advanced — where so many people lived comfortably — were turned into barren mountains and hills. All the trees were cut down.

When thinking about such problems, it’s probably inevitable that we be most concerned about our fellow men. It feels good. It’s frankly like the J-League soccer matches. If all we have in Japan is the J-League the only thing left for us will be to become completely Latin in our orientation. From the perspective of spectators, soccer is the epitome of living for the moment.

Of course, Japan also has professional baseball teams. Unlike professional baseball in the United States, though, our baseball style is a bit piddling, sort of like having coach Nomura in command. But this is more likely to result in a restoration of the ecosystem. No proof of this, of course.

Earth’s population could reach ten billion in the future, but of course with humans we also have to consider the possibility that it could decrease to 200 million. (170–1)

One might infer something important about Miyazaki. His is neither an orderly nor an ordering mind. Might his films, which strive to make overarching statements and systematize alternate universes, labor against the natural grain of his personality? Could his truer temperamental impulse be piecemeal, impressionistic, whimsical, childlike — closer to the spirit of his masterpiece Totoro? This may be, in which case Miyazaki joins any number of artists who have misunderstood, mistrusted, or fled their own temperaments.

Read cover to cover, Starting Point is tedious and finally numbing; much better to dip into its hodgepodge and hope for the best (the lack of index is catastrophic). As a rule, Miyazaki’s interviews are more focused and articulate than his essays and speeches (truly he is not a writer), while his production notes merit attention from anyone with a scholarly interest in the films. The most valuable piece in the volume is the extensive 1988 interview titled “Totoro Was Not Made as a Nostalgia Piece,” in which Miyazaki speaks movingly and probingly about his best film. Discussing the film’s understated environmental message, Miyazaki achieves an uncharacteristic eloquence: “I am concerned, because for me the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness deep in my heart. I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness deep inside my heart would also disappear, and my existence would grow shallow” (360). He is eloquent, too, about his own intentions:

I do want to state clearly that I didn’t make this film out of personal nostalgia [for the pre-modern world]. I made it hoping that children would see it and then go out to run around the fields or pick up acorns. Or, though we only have a few such spaces left, that they would play in the thickets behind shrines, or become excited while peeking in the crawl spaces under their houses. That’s why I made this film. (355–6)

Academic readers in search of juicy ambiguities will find plenty to exploit, like Miyazaki’s definition of the totoro as “goblins of the transitional phase when Japan hasn’t become entirely modernized” (355). The article – let’s call it “Goblins of Globalization: Marx, Miyazaki, and Modernity” — practically writes itself.

Amid nearly five hundred pages of Miyazakian miscellany, readers are sure to happen on little nodes of private illumination. In the end, these justify a book otherwise so shaggy and unwieldy. This comment, for example, stopped me short:

To confess, I can praise Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to the heavens, but I haven’t actually seen the whole film. I probably only saw the last third, and then just happened to see it on television. But that was enough for me. I was overwhelmed and had no desire to see more. This sometimes happens out of laziness. I know that if I were to watch films all the way through, their emotional impact would be greater. . . . But with Stalker, I was thrilled to the bottom of my heart. To watch any more would have been too much. (159–60)

Stalker (1979) surely sets the precedent for the ruined gardens of Laputa in Castle in the Sky and more generally for Miyazaki’s veneration of the inscrutable imminences of nature. That Miyazaki did not bother to watch the whole film is so like him: so concerned with immediacy of feeling, so indifferent to the kind of rigor that undermines immediacy of feeling but generates intellect. “We murder to dissect,” opines Wordsworth — not so Miyazaki. Those with a psychological bent will seize on Miyazaki’s reminiscences of his father and his account of his family life (“You want me to talk about my family? That’s a problem for me. I’m hardly ever home”); those with a political bent will find much to mine in Miyazaki’s countless pronouncements on the environmental crisis and his occasional comments redolent of what I would call a lightweight leftism; those with an obsessive fanboy interest in the history of anime will revel in Miyazaki’s recollections of the 60s and 70s, when young artists slept on couches, lived on ramen noodles, and dreamed of redrawing the world, frame by frame.

What manner of artist, in the end, is Miyazaki? He is an image-maker who does not trust his own images to speak for themselves, a meditative man who makes increasingly noisy, argumentative movies. A Miyazaki film should sink into silence and stillness, become a limpid pool in which a totoro might see its own reflection. Riotously mechanical submarines and antediluvian creatures may ply the depths, but they must not disturb the surface.

Miyazaki, Hayao. 2009. Starting point: 1979–1996. Trans. Beth Cary and Frederick L. Schodt. San Francisco: Viz Media.

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David A. Ross

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