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Sunday, June 04, 2006

World Building: Hayao Miyazaki

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/04/06 at 04:15 PM

I’m vaguely and generally interested in the ontology, if you will, of fictional worlds. Not ontology in any direct philosophical sense, where one worries about the nature of ultimate reality and the relationship between fictions and the real world. Rather, more in the sense that ontology has come to have in cognitive science and computer science: What kinds of things exist in the world, what are its laws?

Realistic fiction offers an ontology that is (supposed to be) congruent with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, mind, and society. I supposed I ought to add the caveat “as they are locally understood,” but I wish to bracket that for awhile. Yes, it’s a necessary qualification. But I’m in a down and dirty intellectual mood at the moment and so can’t yet be bothered with cultural complications.

But not all fiction is realistic. Much fiction contains beings and events that defy various laws of mundane reality. Though it is easy and convenient to think of mundane reality as a baseline condition and other realities as elaborations upon or deviations from such reality, I suspect that any dispassionate survey of fiction in all its forms will lead us to the conclusion that the realistic is but one mode among many, adopted at certain times and places under certain circumstances. Something like that.

To focus this discussion I am going to concentrate on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And, truth be told, I would be perfectly happy to confine the discussion to those films as I find them exceedingly rich. I started thinking about this problem while asking a very specific question about one of those films, Porco Rosso:  Why a pig? Early in my foray into anime I read a paragraph about this film that said that, except for the fact that the protagonist is a pig, it is more realistic than most of Miyazaki’s films. By contrast, the line on Spirited Away, which won the 2002 Academic Award for best animated film, is that it is fantasy gone riot. So there you have it, from almost realistic to fantasy squared.

Though I have considered trying to arrange Miyazaki’s films on a continuum from Porco Rosso to Spirited Away, I haven’t made any serious attempt to do so. What I have done is written a relatively brief paragraph or three about each film and provided a phrase characterizing its ontological style. The descriptions will be more meaningful if you’ve seen the films, but should be somewhat intelligible even if you haven’t. (Summaries and dialogue transcriptions are available on the web.)

Though, as indicated above, I recognize the limitations of treating mundane reality (as recognized in the 19th century European novel) as a baseline, I have, in practice, found it convenient to assume such a baseline. This runs into trouble with the first film I consider, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which is set in some exotic world. Exotic though it is, the world of that film nonetheless seems to recognize a distinction between the mundane and the extraordinary, which is associated with princess Nausicaä. As a cognitivist, one of the questions that confronts me, then, is: How is it that we recognize such a distinction when the world as a whole is strange?

None of Miyazaki’s other films seems to posit such an exotic world. All the rest seem earth-based. What is interesting is that from Nausicaä through Porco Rosso Miyazaki seems to be positing a base world of some type, but then allowing highly focused deviations from, or, if you will, extensions to that base world. But two of his most recent three films - Mononoke, and Spirited, (I do not characterize Howl’s Moving Castle as I do not have it at hand, though I saw it when it was in theatrical release) - don’t seem to be quite like that.

In Mononoke there doesn’t seem to be a focused extension. Conversely, in Spirited the “extension” swamps the film; that alters the dynamic between the baseline reality and the extension.

Ultimately I would like to arrive at some characterization of the relationship between the film’s basic ontology and its thematic concerns. This is obvious enough in Nausicaä and Mononoke, where Miyazaki’s ecological concerns are well served by worlds in which animals can marshal effective resistance against human encroachment. But this goes a bit beyond my immediate concerns.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Exotic realism with (possible) supernatural extension

While the central figures in this world are recognizably human, and much of the geography is recognizably earth-like, this world is not like that of earth as we know it now or imagine it to have been in the past. Whether or not it is earth at some future date is nowhere specified; nor do I think it matters much.

The most obvious difference between this world and ours is that insects are large, very large, from horse-size to whale size. Geologically, there are realms under the surface of the earth that seem quite unlike anything we know. Hence this world is an exotic one.

Yet, to a first approximation most of what exists and happens there seems consistent with physical and biological reality as we know it. I say “to a first approximation” because I can imagine that those very large insects are, in fact, physically impossible. But if so, I doubt that that is relevant to what Miyazaki is up to. At the same time, nothing in the movie seems to require magic nor is there much, if any, supernatural intervention. No spells are cast, potions consumed, gods appealed-to. Hence I claim this is a realistic world, albeit exotically so.

Now for the qualification “possible supernatural extension.” Princess Nausicaä has a remarkable ability to communicate with the insects, unlike anyone else in this world. While it is possible that her powers are supernatural - in the terms of this exotic world - it is not obvious to me that this is so. At the end of the film, however, Nausicaä, dies but is brought back to life be the Ohmu, large land-crawling insects that play a major role in the film.  This seems supernatural to me.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Realism with technological exaggeration and focal supernatural extension

The film is set in a world that seems to be late 19th century Europe with the addition of advanced air-travel capability in the style of Jules Verne. Such technology is available to good guys and bad guys alike. But this doesn’t seem dramatically in contravention of physical law, though it is a bit of a technological stretch.

Added to that we have a special element, etherium, and a special world, Laputa - a world floating in the sky that has been all but forgotten. Etherium seems to be the enabling force behind Laputa, and it is somehow responsive to spells known only by Sheeta, the young girl who is one of the two central figures in the film (the other is Pazu, the young boy who helps her). This is the supernatural extension, but it is quite focused. This is not a world of witches and wizards, etc. 

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Realism with focal supernatural extension

Baseline is 1950s rural Japan. The extension is with the dust gremlins, the totoro, and the cat bus, which are visible only to the two young girls, Mei and Satsuki. It is not clear whether these are simply creatures of the girls’ imagination or whether they are real enough, but simply invisible to adults.

The dust gremlins are smallish balls of dust, with legs and eyes. There are hundreds of them in the house. There are three totoro, vaguely rodent like creatures that walk on their hind legs. One is about 6 inches high, another about a foot, and the third seems to be 7 or 8 feet high. Though lacking wings, the totoro nonetheless can fly - at least the large one can.  The catbus is just that, a largish cat with lamp-like eyes and well more than 8 legs and a hollowed out interior with benches for sitting. The large totoro rides on the catbus on one occasion - the girls see this. And the girls ride on the catbus at the end of the movie.

If the totoro and the catbus are completely imaginary, then the girls movements at the end of the film are difficult to account for.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Mixed-era realism with focal supernatural extension

Baseline is Europe in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Miyazaki has said it is a Europe without WWII. Most of the film take place in a small coastal city. We’ve got automobiles, telephones (old dial-tone sets), and dirigibles. Kiki, however, is a witch - and witch-hood our focal supernatural extension. She can mount a broom and fly and she has a black-cat familiar who talks to her. But there is nothing sinister about this. Such witches seem to be normal and accepted, though not particularly numerous. Kiki’s mother is a witch, and we see one other witch in the film, although only briefly and peripherally. 

Porco Rosso (1992)

Improbable realism with extensions and ambiguity

Miyazaki’s core mode in this film is realism. But some of the real things that happen in this film strike me as being implausible. For example, the aplomb the little girls exhibit when they are kidnapped by the air pirates. It’s charming, but not very realistic. So, though the basic world is a realistic one, we’re looking at “slice” that’s full of improbable events. This is quite common in movies of all sorts (e.g. chase sequences in action movies), live action as well as animated. Now we get the “with extensions” clause. That’s to accommodate Marco’s becoming a pig and the near-death experience that seemed to precipitate that. These things do not happen in a naturalistic world.

And then there is the final qualifier, ambiguity. That’s for the ending, which leaves two matters up in the air: Did Porco regain human form and did he finally get together with Gina. It seems to me that the film gives strong hints on both issues and those hints imply that he does regain human form and he does establish some deeper relationship with Gina. But we don’t actually see or hear tell of either of these things. Miyazake raises the issue and gives us something to think about and then, in effect, asks us to arrive at our own conclusion.

Princess Mononoke (1997)


The movie is set in medieval Japan at the beginning of an Iron Age. There are forest sprites and god-animals, all presented straightforwardly.  The title character is a human raised among wolves, particularly Moro, a god-wolf.  God-boars and a god-deer also play central roles in the film. While there is much conflict and battle in the plot, it is difficult to characterize because there is no clear division between good and evil. Mononoko fights on the side of the animals and the forest. Beyond her empathy with them, and her fierceness, she does not seem extraordinary.

That is to say, this world does not seem to have a baseline reality against which one or a small group of characters can emerge by virtue of having access to or participating in something beyond that baseline reality.

I note that characterizing this world by one word, “animist,” seems inadequate given the elaborate phrases I’ve coined for other films. But, let it stand,

Spirited Away (2001)

Focused dual reality

The film is set in contemporary Japan. Ten-year old Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new home, something that has Chihiro feeling rather grumpy. They get lost just before they arrive and get out of the car to inspect an abandoned historical theme park. Step-by-step they are drawn into the theme park and it comes alive as a bathhouse for spirits. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and cease to play any role in the plot beyond being in need of rescue by Chihiro. Chihiro takes a menial job in the bathhouse in hopes of somehow rescuing her parents and getting back to the real world.

Most of the film takes place in this magical bathhouse world. There are lots of strange creatures, including anthropomorphic animals and plants. We have magic and spells and transformations. One is inclined to see all this as terribly symbolic but, I for one, am not terribly motivated to decode the symbolism.

While there seems to be definite sequences of events connecting the mundane world and fantastical bathhouse world, the physical relationship between them is obscure. It seems best to think of the old theme park as a portal into this other realm. The physical relationship - both spatially and temporally - between the mundane the fantastic is not clear.

AND . . .

Obviously I’m interested in commentary specifically about Miyazaki’s work. But I’m also interested in commentary about my crude characterizations more or less in general. If someone wants to take a stab at characterizing the recent work of, say, China Miéville in similar terms, I’d find that interesting. I note also that Miyazaki’s ability to play with a variety of different kinds of worlds presupposes access to and knowledge of culturally and historically various story-telling traditions. Did e.g. Shakespeare exhibit the same or even greater ambition allowing for the more constrained nature of his access to the world? (Outrageous though the question is, yeah, I’ll let it stand. God-Shakespeare and a non-Western purveyor of cartoons together in a single comparison. What’s the world coming to?)

And so forth.

It should be obvious that I’m on a fishing expedition. Don ‘t know exactly what I’m fishing for, but hoping that there’s something interesting in these waters.


Well, I suppose the first thing to say here is that you’re gesturing towards a quasi-structuralist taxonomy or classification of Miyazaki’s work.  Aren’t you?  I’m not sure that bringing in the jargon of ‘ontology’ particularly obscures, or dignifies, the project overmuch.

For me the big question about Miyazaki, and the Ghibli studio in general (and I yield to nobody in my love for and fascination with this body of cinematic art… because it is full of such extraordinary visual beauty) is not how one categorizes it, but how one addresses this basic question: why are some Studio Ghibli films just much much better than others? The pinnacle is surely Spirited Away, a flawless masterpiece.  But although there are interesting things in all the other films, and elements that are recognisably familial and that tempt one towards categorisation, the fact remains that no other Studio Ghibli film manages to pill it all together the way Spirited Away does.

I wonder why you don’t mention Howl’s Moving Castle? The thing about that film is that, high though my hopes were when I went to see it, it did not move and thrill and startle me in the same way that Spirited Away did.  It’s full of marvel, and some wonderful imagery, but something is lacking; and, looking back on Miyazaki’s body of work it’s the same thing that’s missing in Nausicaa and Porco and Mononoke (all of which contain marvellous images and elements without quite adding up to the whole cigar), but which is somehow mysteriously present in aesthetic plentitude in Spirited Away.  What’s the mysterious ingredient x?  That’s the question.

By Adam Roberts on 06/04/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I share your disappointment with Howl’s Moving Castle, Adam. And I also share your enthusiasm for Spirited Away. But it’s not obvious to me that it is a finer film than Porco Rosso, which I’ve been “driven” to watch more often. Yes, Spirited has more visual splendor. But that’s not all there is to film.

That’s one issue, and it’s not at all obvious to me what kind of issue it is. Maybe it’s merely one of personal idiosyncrasies, mine and yours. Maybe it’s deeper than that.

As for my taxonomy, that sort of thing interests me as a matter of principle. I suppose one might try to mount an argument for the aesthetic superiority of Spirited Away on the basis of its position in the taxonomy, that that kind of thing is inherently superior to the others. But I don’t know. I think there’s something else going on.

By Bill Benzon on 06/04/06 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Though, as indicated above, I recognize the limitations of treating mundane reality (as recognized in the 19th century European novel) as a baseline, I have, in practice, found it convenient to assume such a baseline. This runs into trouble with the first film I consider, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which is set in some exotic world. Exotic though it is, the world of that film nonetheless seems to recognize a distinction between the mundane and the extraordinary, which is associated with princess Nausicaä. As a cognitivist, one of the questions that confronts me, then, is: How is it that we recognize such a distinction when the world as a whole is strange?”

I think you answered your own question: “in practice, [we find] it convenient to assume such a baseline.”

Or maybe the world isn’t strange. Especially if you don’t want or intend it to be.

Or maybe any attempt to _portray_ what is real is what is strange, since a portrait can always be understood to be unreal. (But leaving viewers always free to assume reality beneath its presumptuous however delightful impostor.)

And think of the video of Beckett’s play Quad: a few figures walking along white lines that form a box and its diagonals on total black. These people are hidden in colored hooded cloaks in one production and all white hooded cloaks in another (if I recall correctly). They walk in patterns of some sort. The play makes about zero concessions or pretensions to reality—can it be a coincidence then that I did not find it strange—for it was not trying to be the imposter that is so many other works of art that make far more gestures to reality. It was interesting, maybe even a little moving. It was funny. It was art. I suppose it was even a little strange though it scarcely seemed it. Mainly it seemed like it was just hooded cloaked figures walking around on white lines against black. I did feel that they were a little overprogrammed though. They had change-of-direction routines, coordinated, that they would go through. I wanted them to have more freedom. Not necessarily to leave the lines though. That would have been too much freedom I think. That would have been too real.

Now that I think of it, I guess the production was strange and before very long boring. There was precious little reality. But I don’t think that’s what was boring. It was that soon, there was nothing new happening. And nothing at stake. So, real or fantastic or not, it gets boring—to me.

I don’t care if art is real or fantastic, as long as it’s not boring. Quad is worth seeing, very much so, at least in brief duration.

By Tony Christini on 06/04/06 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seems to me that the bathhouse world of Spirited Away could be interpreted as being purely in Chihiro’s head, rather like Wizard of Oz (movie version)—the parents have no memory of any of the fantastic events.  In Totoro, as I recall, the father seems to acknowledge the existence of the supernatural element, although perhaps only in the way that a parent might talk about Santa Claus to a child.

By on 06/06/06 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would say that the gap (which I agree exists) between Spirited Away and other Miyazaki films is different from the one between Spirited Away and Howl’s moving castle.

I doubt that the ontology (which doesn’t really strike me as jargon, or bad jargon anyway) of the various films is something you could really describe/abstractify in any satisfyingly expository way, but if you did, I suspect that the ontology undergirding the films leading up to Howl would be elegant and coherent. The one beneath Howl, I imagine, would be made up of dead-ends and ill-fitting parts.

I would also group them this way:

Monoke, Laputa, Nausicaa

Kiki, Porco Rosso (at its surface)

Spirited Away, Totoro, Porco Rosso (in a more essential way)

By Tim Sullivan on 06/06/06 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve only seen Kiki’s Messenger Service, so I shall make observations on that.

Kiki’s is a gentle tale, a quiet tale. Kiki is young, in the middle of puberty and just starting the serious business of becoming a woman. Her world is small one. A world that accepts her and her kind, and the benefits that witches provide. Kiki is a naif.

Because the movie focuses on her and her world we see nothing of the larger world outside. We see nothing of any hatred or bigotry that might exist. We see nothing of this because Kiki has no interest in the larger world. She’s a child, she’s not able to understand what the outside world means for her.

In the events of the movie we see the last days of Kiki’s endless now. The last days of the magic children her age all know. Kiki and her friends are starting to understand certain urges and feelings. Understand them on the intellectual level, where before the understanding had been instinctual. And it’s deucedly hard to explain what you are feeling when you have only instinct to go by.

In a sense Kiki’s Messenger Service is a story of transition, of passing from the realm of child to the land of adult. A long, parlous journey the child a person once was never survives, but the adult he becomes does.

It is, above all, a fairy tale. But not the dark story told by a grandmother to keep her grandchildren from getting too close to the edge of a bridge and falling into a river. Nor the bawlderized story of happy elves and grumpy (but good hearted) dwarfs featuring romanticized, infantalized children of the sort desired by a certain brand of extreme pedophile. No, it’s a fairy tale for children Kiki’s age. Where adult understanding and discretion is begining to make itself known, but the child is still slave to his passions and impulses. Kiki is starting to understand self-restraint, but her discipline still comes from others.

All that aside, children Kiki’s age love neat stuff, and at thair age magic is still legitimate neat stuff. They can fake rationality with the best of them, but left on their own their thinking is magical, and an irrational magic at that. Kiki’s ability to fly, whether on bicycle or broom, is marvelous, and at the same time acceptable. With no need to suspend disbelief.

If nothing else, Kiki’s Messenger Service shows that Miyazaki understands children in a way few other adults could ever hope to do.

By Alan Kellogg on 06/07/06 at 04:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ooops: Kiki’s Delivery Service (For some reason I just can’t recall the first sign of ... something or other.)

Going on I’d like to introduce another factor in world creation, context.

Consider Isaac Asimov’s Trantor. The world city and capitol of the Galactic Empire in his Foundation stories. A world so urbanized the produce of 20 worlds were needed to feed her population.

So why such a huge city? Isaac was a city boy. He grew up in New York, in a Jewish neighborhood. He knew the city, he was comfortable in the city. His was an urban upbringing, an urban understanding. To him the city was where things happened, where the power was. Some say that Trantor is Rome writ large, but really Trantor is a New York City made infinite for all intents and purposes.

The Foundation stories are also stories of a diaspora, an exiling. And stories of the return. The reestablishment of the promised land. I don’t think Isaac was a Zionist, at least not on a formal basis, but like the vast majority of Jews of his generation the dream of Zion shaped everything he did. Even when he stopped being an observant Jew Zion’s hope still influenced him.

Indeed, the core optimism in the science fiction of the time may well owe more to the Jews and their belief that the future had to be better than the dark oppressive now the vast majority faced.

But the Foundation stories were stories of the end of a golden age. They were stories of struggles against the coming of elder night. Above all, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories were stories of hope reborn. Of redemption and recovery as people found the strength within themselves to go on, and not only survive but thrive.

They are, in short, very Jewish stories. Had his editor of the time, John Campbell, handed the assignment to a non-Jew they would have been very different tales.

As we can see, Isaac Asimov’s upbringing and heritage shaped profoundly what he wrote. Your assignment, should you wish to accept it, is to take a favorite author and consider the context under which he wrote. Consider the why he did the things that he did.

By Alan Kellogg on 06/07/06 at 04:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anyone else read the Nausicaa graphic novel?

By David Moles on 06/07/06 at 05:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t care if art is real or fantastic . . .

I agree, Tony, but I’m interested in how the real and the fantastic are used. Miyazaki is an interesting case because he deals with such a range of imagined worlds. All of them have come out of one mind so there is that element of continuity behind them.

* * * *

Seems to me that the bathhouse world of Spirited Away could be interpreted as being purely in Chihiro’s head, . . . the parents have no memory of any of the fantastic events

I’ve read, kenB, but cannot cite, that Miyazaki has said that Chihiro doesn’t remember anything. While it is possible that all that happened in her head, it’s not obviously so. The sojurn in the bathhouse is not explicitly framed as a dream. And, if you compare the ending with the beginning it’s obvious that the grass around the tunnel entrance has grown quite a bit. Not to mention that the car has accumulated so much dust that Chihiro’s father remarks about it.

My sense is that it’s not easy to rationalize the events in this film by saying it’s all in Chihiro’s head.  And I’m comfortable with that.

Yes, in Totoro the father acknowledges that what the girls have seen is real. And, at the end, we have the ear of corn inscribed to the girl’s mother. Where’d that come from, if not from Mei conveyed to the hospital on the catbus?

* * * *

Tim, you may be right about Howl’s Moving Castle.

Would you care to say a word or two about how you grouped the other films? Why the double-placement for Porco Rosso?

On Spirited Away, it deals with transformation much more than any of the earlier films. Chihiro’s parents become pigs. Chihiro becomes Sen (remember the characters floating of the page of her contract?). Haku becomes a dragon, and was a river. The three heads become the big baby, the big baby becomes a rat. Yubaba’s bird becomes I don’t know what, but it’s much small and flys. Gold becomes mud or sand. Yubaba has a twin sister Zenobia. At the end the pigs become bathhouse workers.

Identity-through-transformation seems like it’s a fundamental principle of this fantasy world.

* * * *

Alan, your remarks about context hit home in anime. Lots of characters in anime don’t look particularly Japanese. Why? It’s a question much discussed in the anime world. If we consider only Miyazake, his films are as likely set in Europe as in Japan. But then, Shakespeare set many of his plays in exotic places like Italy and Egypt.

* * * * *

David, I’ve read the first volume (of six) of the Nausicaa manga. Most of the movie’s story is in that volume. The rest, I believe, is in the second volume.

By Bill Benzon on 06/07/06 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s quite a lot of overlap of motif in Miyazaki’s movies, so my groupings might change depending on how much I thought about it. But, wimpy qualifications aside, I put Mononoke, Laputa, and Nausicaa in the same category because they involve travel, adventure, politics, and factionalism. I suspect they share these characteristics because they express something Miyazaki wants to communicate about history.

I grouped Kiki and Porco Rosso together because they take place in Europe and the significance of that seams to me to go beyond the raw fact, especially since the affection apparent in the detail with which Miyazaki depicts those crazily sprawling European cities and rolling fields reminds me so fiercely of the interest that Haruki Murakami (another Japanese artist whose work resonates both popularly and critically in the West) shows in the mediterannean (I’m thinking of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart.)

But with respect to Porco Rosso, I see the location and physical circumstances as a sort of veneer over a much more important artistic venture. That’s why I grouped it with Spirited Away, which seems to translate some of the non-verbal apprehensions I have about the world and consciousness so eloquently and forcefully that it makes me nervous. And I would say that, to some extent, that seriousness relates to the centrality of transformation that you point out. Transformation is part of the big issue in Porco Rosso as well.

I’d also like to add that, aesthetically, the last grouping strikes me as the most graceful and fluid and unhurried of the films. The others are more scruffy and rambunctious.

By Tim Sullivan on 06/08/06 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While you could say Miyazake set some of his stories in Europe, it could be as accurate to say he set them in a blend of America and Japan. Or, if you will, America as improved by Japan.

In my considered opinion the greatest change Japan ever went through was her conquest by the United States of America between 1941 and 1945 inclusive. Society from top to bottom was unalterably changed, and Japan started on the road to the nation she is today.

Not everything about Japan and the Japanese was changed of course. The Japanese are still among the most virulently racist people in the world. But at the same time she learned to respect at least one outside nation, the United States.

Consider the character of Godzilla. In Japan, Gojira. Gojira has represented America from the very beginning. In the original movie, Gojira Godzilla was the implacable, unstoppable beast, with Japan helpless before him. It is only through the efforts of two Japanese scientists and (most ironically) an atomic bomb that the monster is destroyed.

The movie echoed Japan’s ambivalent feelings towards America. Her fears and hopes. America was seen as an unstoppable monster that could destroy Japan unless the Japanese were courageous and vigilant. And learned science and technology real fast. Note that the heroes use the same weapon to destroy Gojira that America used to bring Japan to surrender.

Later Gojira would become Japan’s friend. But a destructive friend. Really more concerned with his own affairs, but still a good fellow to have around when another, more malevolent monster showed up.

Even today Japan’s relationship with the United States has a great impact on Japanese art and culture. Take a look at the Japanese women who have surgery done to remove the epicanthic fold. Or the fact magic girls in anime tend to be American in appearance and behavior. Even when a character is recognizably Japanese he’ll still have unmistakable American features.

BTW, from my vantage point the town Kiki lived in (Kiki’s Delivery Service) was very much Japanese, with a strong American influence.

By mythusmage on 06/08/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The others are more scruffy and rambunctious.


Mythusmage, have you seen Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, the catalogue Takashi Murakami put together for last’s years exhibition at the Japan Society in New York City? The essays have quite a bit to say about the impact of the American occupation on Japanese culture. There’s also discussion of Gojira etc. as well as images.

By Bill Benzon on 06/08/06 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No I haven’t. Since it is available on Amazon I’ll have to add it to my wishlist.

There is one element in Japanese animation you won’t find in American. I learned about it from an essay posted on a blog, which I no longer have access to. I do recall that the other pointed out that whereas we use certain scenes to establish action, the Japanese use certain scenes to establish the moment.

By mythusmage on 06/08/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . the Japanese use certain scenes to establish the moment.

Roger Ebert says something like that in his essay on “Grave of the Fireflies.”

By Bill Benzon on 06/08/06 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m glad somebody mentioned “Grave of Fireflies”, which has no fantasy elements whatsoever, and is rather a devastating example of realism. It had a huge emotional impact on me, which made me think about some comments Adorno made about film somewhere, to the effect that film is most effective as a medium of artifice. Puppets can have the same profound emotional impact, I suspect for similar reasons.

For me, it’s about the isolation of human gesture from the reality of the human body, which somehow permits a more direct identification with the action that’s occuring in front of you. Miyazake is very good at this. There’s a scene in Totoro where the little girl bounces around on Totor’s tummy: it’s really remarkable how accurately he represents the movement of a toddler. Maybe that accuracy of movement is what sucks you in to the reality of the worlds, and is where the reality of the “real” world plays most importantly in Miyazake’s movies.

By Alison Croggon on 06/10/06 at 05:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

it’s really remarkable how accurately he represents the movement of a toddler.

Yes it is. In general, I think the depiction of Mei is remarkable.

As for “Grave of Fireflies,” Roger Ebert made some perceptive comments about how the film was probably more effective in animation than it could have been as a live action film. In a live action film the special effects would have been distracting and it would have been distressing to see that physical wasting-away on a real actress (by make-up of course). Beyond that, it’s not clear to me that a child actress could have acted the role effectively. Shirley Temple cutess is not sufficient. 

I find the film overpowering.

By Bill Benzon on 06/10/06 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ebert compares it to Schindler’s List. I think it’s vastly superior. The only films I could think of with a similar emotional impact were Lukas Moodysson’s Ilya 4 Ever and Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood.

By Alison Croggon on 06/10/06 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was nosing around over at YouTube and found a Miyazaki music video that I’d heard about, but never seen. It’s called “On Your Mark.” You can find it at this URL:


By Bill Benzon on 06/11/06 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, thanks for that pointer. I hadn’t seen it either. And it reminds me of Miyazake’s obsession with flight: I can’t think of one of his movies that doesn’t have that theme in it. In part, it permits him to spend a lot of time doing gorgeous animations of the clouds and sky.

Btw, it’s not clear to me why you think Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke don’t do it for you. I’d be interested to hear more. And fwiw, in my personal hierarchy, I put Kiki’s Delivery Service right at the top level.

By Alison Croggon on 06/11/06 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like Princess Mononoko a lot, but not quite as much as Spirited Away or Porco Rosso or My Neighbor Totoro. Just why, I’m not sure. It seems to attempt more and doesn’t quite pull all the pieces together; it’s closure seems more intellectual than emotional.

As for Howl’s Moving Castle, it too seems disjointed to me, as though Miyazaki was in transition from one thing to another and hadn’t quite gotten there.

By Bill Benzon on 06/12/06 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d be curious to see a survey that lists people’s favorite Miyazaki films alongside the first one they saw.  I adored Totoro, for its subtle, gentle use of the fantastic elements, its amazingly realistic depiction of the kids (especially Mei, who was about the same age as my daughter at the time), and for the lack of the good-vs-bad dynamic all too typical of children’s movies.  Kiki was the next one I saw, and that was so different and so much less special that I was quite disappointed.  None of the others I’ve seen have come close to matching my first experience with Totoro, although I did enjoy Spirited Away on its own terms.  But I wonder if my expectations and opinions would be different if I had seen them in a different order.

By on 06/12/06 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Kiki’s Delivery Service is about the mundane. It’s about life in a small town as seen through the eyes of a young girl. In a world where some people can make use of magic. Note how even the magic is mundane. Ordinary, expected, part of everyday life. The wonder comes through Kiki’s experiences as she comes awake. As she gains a small measure of an adult’s perception of the world.

Her world is changing in a very fundamental way, and she will never be the same.

Another good example of this sort of thing is the original Star Trek episode Miri. Miri is the story of a girl child coming to awareness and the doom this awareness places upon her. Knowledge of her mortality, knowledge of her sexuality, knowledge that life means struggle and pain. The common wisdom is that when God spoke to Adam and Eve after they ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he was placing a curse upon them. Far from it. God was simply laying out the facts of life to people who could now understand what He was talking about.

Hayao Miyazaki understands children and adolescents. He knows how to speak to them. He knows their fears and aspiration, and how to bring them to life in his films. That is his genius.

By mythusmage on 06/15/06 at 01:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not a lot I can say at the moment, but a few comments:

I don’t know about calling (SPOILERS) Nasicaa’s resurrection “supernatural"--the Ohmu had demonstrated healing abilities beforehand, and this would have been only an extension of those abilities. Or I suppose we can apply Clarke’s adage that any sufficiently advanced science looks like magic.

Also wonder about Laputa--a spell over a robot? I always thought those ‘spells’ were voice-activating code words.

I don’t know about Miyazaki being influenced by America. He’s a great fan of European animation and art (one of his major influences is Paul Grimault), and the Nausicaa.net website explicitly states that he drew his images of Kiki’s city from Mediterranean countries, the mining community in Laputa from Welsh miners.  I agree that America has an enormous influence on Japan, but I think Miyazaki’s the least American-influenced filmmaker I can think of. He’s on record as not thinking much of Disney, for one.

And what I remember about the Foundation stories was that Campbell helped developed an idea Asimov brought to him; I don’t think he assigned stories to different writers.

By Noel Vera on 06/15/06 at 05:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment


According to Asimov’s autobiography Campbell handed out ideas left and right to writers he thought could best flesh them out. As an example take Asimov’s Nightfall. Isaac explained the birth of the story as him going to see John Campbell one day, and being asked a few questions about a certain poem. Something about how, if night fell only once every 1,000 years how Man would worship and adore. Campbell’s reaction to that was pretty much that Man would be scared out of his wits every time night fell and civilization would collapse.

And so Isaac Asimov had his assignment.

Check out Isaac Asimov’s In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, his two volume autobiography. Also see if you can find The John W. Campbell Letterl Volume 1. A compilation of hundreds of letters written by Campbell to a variety of people. Gives you a whole new insight into things like the original Dune novels, Dianetics, and the original Foundation series.

By mythusmage on 06/15/06 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gotcha. I’ll take your word for it--just reading Asimov’s fiction is enough for me. Tho, personally speaking, I’d be horrified if I had to write science-fiction ‘assigned’ to me.

By Noel Vera on 06/16/06 at 05:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alison Croggon had asked me about my resevations concerning Howl’s Moving Castle, to which I replied that it seemed disjointed. Since I only saw it once, maybe twice, when it was in theatrical release, I decided to rent it from Netflix and watch it again, twice in fact. I still find it disjointed, though marvelous in many ways. The whole business about the war is obscure; that it seems to have been started when a prince was turned into a turnip-headed scarecrow, well . . . It seems like an arbitrary plot device to create an elaborate setting in which to stage a love story; but it never seems to be more than that, just a setting.

I’ve scounted out some reviews that I found helpful in thinking about this. Here’s David Edelstein from Slate:

... it’s a difficult work—a tough sell, commercially—beginning like a fairy tale and evolving into a bleak anti-war movie, with demons both internal and external. It’s as if Miyazaki has wedded his enchanting Spirited Away to his ferocious allegory of the end of nature, Princess Mononoke, and come up with something more discomfiting than either.

I think that’s a clever observation, that Miyazaki is attempting to blend two modes of story-telling. Artists do that kind of thing; sometimes it works, sometimes not. I believe critics have considered Shakespeare’s problem comedies and late romances in this way.

Tasha Robinson at the A. V. Club:

The plot sprawls in many directions ... as Sophie attempts to recover her youth and help her new friends: Miyazaki simplifies Jones’ original story, but for every subplot he removes, he adds another, and the result is almost more story than a two-hour movie can support.

Finally, Roger Ebert also found it rather sprawling and called it “a spectacle without meaning.” That seems a too harsh a judgment. And i note that Ebert makes one remark in the review that suggests he wasn’t paying attention. He glosses Madame Suliman as “a grotesque sorceress voiced by Blythe Danner, who reminds us of Yubaba, the sorceress who ran the floating bathhouse in Spirited Away.” Madame Suliman doesn’t look at all like Yubaba, nor would I say she’s grotesque, unless Ebert meant that as a judgment about her character rather than her appearance. So I think that Ebert was confused—though it’s not unusual for even very capable reviewers (which I think Ebert is) to misremember a film.  I fear that this film, though, is particularly susceptible to being misremembered.

And there’s something else, the look of the film. Yes, it’s marvelous in all sorts of ways. The castle is a wonderful invention, the mountains and fields are lovely, and so forth. But visually there’s something missing. Too much texture, not enough scope; the color range isn’t quite adequate.

I’d have to work more than a bit to explain what I mean, but . . . there’s a scene where Sophie enters Howl’s bedroom for the second time. She finds, not his bed, furnishings, and lots of stuff, which she found the first time, but tunnels with walls lined toys and jewels and stuff and, at the end of one of those tunnels, Howl-as-bird curled up and hiding away. Maybe that world should have been more like the underground world of Nausicaa, still with Howl huddled up somewhere. Now, as I write that, it doesn’t sound convincing, but something like that somewhere in the film would have opened it up. And there’s the reds that showed up here and there in the bathhouse of Spirited Away, some of that too. Spirited Away had a visual magnificence that would have been welcome here.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think your comments are very perceptive and interesting here, Bill.  You’re right about the choppiness of the plot; it’s when the scarecrow is turned back into the prince at the end and gives a little speech about his backstory .. it’s just bewildering, it hasn’t been prepared-for.

I think you’re right, too, about the colour range of the films.  Apart from the opening, and the train ride, Spirited Away is mostly indoors, mostly at night: the lighting is artificial and the decor sumptuous, and that creates a certain visual palate.  One of the things missing in Howl’s is this mastery of interiors.  The exterior scenes are gorgeous, but the interiors not so much.

I wonder if there’s also something to do with registers of weirdness in Studio Ghibli films; something that’s not a million miles away from your initial attempts at classification in this post.  What I mean is: in a film like Nausicaa, humans encounter some very odd things: not just odd looking, but on an inhuman scale, or located in a thoroughly unfamiliar environment.  I’d say it’s often overpoweringly weird, counter-effective.  In Howl’s the weirdness is really very restrained; everything is a version of familiar beings or technology, it’s underpowering.  In Spirited Away there are some weird creatures in the bath-house, but none of them are that weird ... they’re all based on familiar things, none of them are distorted too far, they’re almost all human sized, and they are all located (of course) in a human environment.  I’d say this gets the balance just right.

By Adam Roberts on 06/16/06 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The thing is, Adam, about the fourth time through the film I did catch a bit of prepartion for the concluding turnip-head revelation. Very early in the film, when Sophie and Howl are first walking through the city, there are two men in the background talking about something, but not very loudly. Well, I finally heard what they were saying: the Prince is missing and there’s going to be war. That’s preparation, but not enough, even if it had been done so you couldn’t miss it the first time around.

I like “underpowering” as a word for the weirdness in Howl’s. That captures a sense of misproportion or mismatch.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops! I misremembered the location of that early mention of the missing Prince and the impending war. It takes place the morning after Sophie has become transformed; it happens as she’s leaving the house, about 14 minutes into the film.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 05:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know about Ebert--he rarely does research, devotes most of his review on a plot summary, and has the taste of a middle-of-the-road bore.

I don’t know if you’ve read my article on the film, Bill--not sure I posted it at People’s forum. Anyway, here it is, with a few comparisons to the novel, and links to other Miyazaki films.

I kind of agree--it’s flawed, but there are things in it that can’t be dismissed out of hand. A great failed experiment, or a flawed success.

By Noel Vera on 06/17/06 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the ending of Howl’s Moving Castle, from this article by Joe Strike:

Cindy [Hewitt, one of the translators for the English dub] described “one change we made was about a prince who comes out of nowhere, really, and says ‘I’ll end this war.’ An abrupt ending is very common in Japan, but a deus ex machina ending is so not-an-American thing to do.” Their preferred to solution, according to Don, was “to add some dialog early on to let people know the war was because the prince had been kidnapped. “We tried to plant that at the beginning, middle and at the end. Ghibli left in the one in the beginning.”

By Bill Benzon on 06/19/06 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually as I noted in my Howl article, the book had a similarly (if different in details) abrupt ending.

By Noel Vera on 06/19/06 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s some interesting back-and-forth about Miyazaki. It’s posted by animation historican Michael Barrier, though includes remarks by two others as well, Andrew Osmond and Jenny Lerew. The remarks are not about the particular issue that motivated this discussion, but they are worth pondering. Barrier is quite critical of the way Miyazaki designs and animates his characters. He finds the characters too much alike and the animation lacking in expressiveness, that is personality (note that the notion of “personality animation” is a term of art).

I can see what he means on both counts. But I’m not sure I agree with the criticism, though I’m a bit more sympathatic to his remarks now than I was when I first read them a couple of months ago.

BTW I happened to catch Disney’s Lady and the Tramp on TV this weekend, the first time I’ve seen it since it first came out (when I was a child). I don’t know what Barrier thinks of this film, but as a film, it’s not nearly so compelling as Miyazaki’s work. I wan’t paying much attention to animation technique.

By Bill Benzon on 06/21/06 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m familiar with Barrier’s comments. He pretty much puts a premium on animation technique, and I can go with that--even later Disney doesn’t pass muster--but I stop short of tossing out any semblance of narrative sophistication or understated ‘acting’ (animated characterization, if you like). Barrier throws up his hands at Pom Poko, for example, calling it absurd, but doesn’t even consider the possibility that the film is doing more than trying to entertain us--is trying to be some kind of recorded history of the passing of an indigenous people.

By Noel Vera on 06/22/06 at 02:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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