Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Musings on Miyazaki, Early and Late

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Musings on Miyazaki, Early and Late

Article excerpt

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 1/2 (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), Nausicaa 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 cliche (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 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 delight both 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 (fig. 1). 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) and Totoro--the one explicitly Christian, the other explicitly animist --are the only cartoons I would call beautiful in their spiritual vision.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Miyazaki has lost his way since, in my minority opinion. With their pushy messages and dense narratives, Nausicaa 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. …

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