23 May 2010
So: it’s hot here and I’ve got a minor sinusy condition (for which I am hereby calling out my friends’ 2-year-old as the one who infected me). As I give myself the day to recouperate, all my windows are open, so the sounds and smells of a lazy Sunday are coming inside — cigarette smoke, teenagers showing off for one another, toddlers crying, people speaking loudly in many languages. Hence: I take to the sofa, and to children’s films. Where best to find a compelling female lead for a leisurely day than the films of Hayao Miyazaki?
But Miyazaki’s films aren’t really for children, are they? Unless, that is, you want them seriously spooked. I’m hardly the wilting type when it comes to tough themes (after all, the “Sesame Street” I watched as a child has now been deemed unsuitable for children), yet I find such films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” very dark indeed. They address such subjects as rage, corruption, helplessness, and the destruction of nature. Their female heroines might possess extraordinary gifts and personal strengths (and even dweeby science geek inclinations, as in the case of Nausicaä), but they’re not simple beings either. Chihiro, the 10-year-old heroine of “Spirited Away,” is sullen and fearful, and she whines for a good part of the film; even the powerful wolf-girl Princess Mononoke is willing to tilt the precious balance between nature and human beings — one of Miyazaki’s biggest no-nos — if it means saving her precious animal kingdom.
When we first see Mononoke, she’s trying to help her wolf-mother heal from a gunshot wound — so she appears with her mouth and hands covered with blood, a serious-looking knife in one hand. See what I mean? This is heady stuff.
Miyazaki has rightly been celebrated as a serious environmentalist, but I think his films hold environmental disaster up as only one of the scary things we’re doing to the environment. The wonderful “Nausicaä” (1984), for example, is indebted to the Reagan-era Cold War for its anxieties; the people in the Valley of the Wind find themselves at the center of a battle not just between humans and a terrifying insect world, but invading armies that feed on fear and false promises that bigger weapons might protect them. Children in 1984 probably wouldn’t have missed the message that nuclear-style genocide is right around the corner. In contrast, “Avatar” looks lite.
But for me the scariest subject treated by Miyazaki is all forms of human slavishness — the way leaders prey on human weaknesses and the predilection to become a follower. He shows many different kinds of adults reduced to slaves. Who can forget that early scene from “Spirited Away” in which Chihiro’s hungry parents, who wolf down their meals at a mysterious lunch counter, are transformed into pigs? The former brothel girls transformed into ironworkers in “Mononoke”?
One might suggest that Miyazaki is like many other creators of children’s literature — he shows children they’re right to have fears of monsters in the closet or under the bed, because the world is truly full of scary things. With that as a given, he demands that his child heroines overcome their fears gradually throughout the film; yet for me his endings always feel a bit tacked-on in comparison to his fully-realized beginnings and middles. It might have to do with his pervasive pessimism. In a rare interview in 2005, he told The Guardian that “I am very pessimistic”:
“When, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can’t help but bless them for a good future. Because I can’t tell that child, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.’ And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.”
To make sure we all get that point, his films are also ponderous; accustomed as many of us are to the super-duper all-action style of American children’s films (“Cars,” “The Incredibles,” “How to Train Your Dragon”), one of the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest back in August said about “Ponyo” something to the effect of, “I loved it — but I was totally bored.” I laughed at this, because it’s so true that his films simply refuse the gee-whiz speed of modern movies, just as they refuse to abandon the painstaking hand-drawn cells of an earlier century of animation. (Hand-drawn! with all the 3-D movies of the current day!)
So I’d recommend watching his films again — with the expectation that you’ll be brought along at Miyazaki’s own pace, and that along the way you’ll experience everything from an extreme disorientation to feelings of crazy, uncritical love. I cried with joy at the end of “Nausicaä” (but then, I’m slightly weakened with my runny nose).
“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.”
It’s an apt sentiment given his body of films. I’m looking forward to more (and if my nose keeps dripping, I might give myself permission tomorrow, too).