DM Haight

Hayao Miyazaki’s style of film making is very nearly the personification of what we may imagine a modern fairy tale to be. It has the enchanted elements, and the consistency in morality, the moral lessons that are all too familiar with our understandings of the function of fairy tales. Miyazaki creates, through his animated works, worlds that resemble ours, and yet at the same moment are very much apart from it. As we watch his films, like Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo, or Kiki’s Delivery Service, we can see the structures of our own world, the dynamics of the cultures and the people. Through the masterful depictions of the fantastical worlds Miyazaki develops, we can see the symbolism and the critiques he is making about our world. Whether it be on war, pollution, or just the idea of being a child or childish, Miyazaki presents us, just as fairy tales do, with ethical reflections and questions we all ask of ourselves and our society. Many of Miyazaki’s films send us the message that children are the key to our future, but they must first break with their childishness before they can grow. This is an element of his catalogued work that sticks out. And in fact, Miyazaki’s works are often playing with very similar structures and themes, and narrative devices that make many of his works difficult to part with, both while watching, and after. Miyazaki is one of the few Auteurs who have made their name in the genre of Animation, which happens to be a very unique happenstance, because Miyazaki took what the genre was, and used it to create some of the most memorable stories the world has ever seen on film.

The idea behind Miyazaki as an auteur is not far fetched, and likely will not receive much detraction. But the way in which Miyazaki has managed to stand out from auteurs who have moved to the Hollywood style and changed is very interesting, because many change for the worse. They can be bogged down, and they can make tweeks to their style that end up burying them in the backlots of Hollywood sets. But Miyazaki hasn’t fallen into those traps. He hasn’t stayed away from Hollywood either. It’s easy to see that many of his films have been picked up for distribution by Disney—just look at any home video box from 2008 on and anyone can see the Disney logo on top of Studio Ghibli’s logo. So it is an accomplishment that Miyazaki has only seemed to grow as an artist, and critic: “For years, the model of an author in the cinema was that of the European director, with open artistic aspirations and full control over his films. This model still lingers on; it lies behind the existential distinction between art films and popular films” (Wollen 456). The auteur has the ability to be popular while still maintaining artist integrity, telling the story from their perspective while still holding the attention and adulation of audiences. Miyazaki isn’t an American director, but his films are very popular with American audiences, and even worldwide audiences. But the way in which he conveys his view of the world through his films is that of an exceedingly accomplished auteur. Be it narratives about politics, war, pollution or growing up, Miyazaki always manages to create a wonderfully sculpted world with terrific characters, and he does it through one of the most difficult mediums to produce those kinds of effects. Anime is a genre, a film made through animation, but often done in Japan, with a distinct style. When we think of anime we tend to lean towards films like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and the seemingly hundreds of televisions shows that have been produced in the last few years with large-breasted girls and goofy main protagonists. While it’s a fun way to kill time, the general populace looks down on the style, and animation in general.

“The perception of animated characters as cut-outs, as at and two-dimensional, often plays into negative assessments of animation’s potential as a serious, mature form of expression. What kind of seriousness can be attained in a world in which characters do not seem to have weight or depth?” (Lamarre 333). With the challenges of Animation, it is hard to imagine how artists in the genre can create films with settings and characters that actually come to life before us. But when we understand that many films in Hollywood history have had animation applied, including Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, we have to look at animation in a more intellectual light. If we take away the preconceived narrative expectations, we are left with a style, “Animation thus becomes allied with aesthetic seriousness by way of art-historical traditions and commentaries” (334). When animation comes into the realm of film, the film itself becomes an aesthetic piece, a work of art unlike standard film fare. The details in the animator’s handmade work isn’t the same as the work of sculptors or painters on a set of a live-action film. The live-action film is already dealing with characters and settings that are placed in the realm of the real world, while the settings and characters of animation have to be built up, little by little, sketch by sketch, until life is breathed into them by the flicker of a film strip. Having never been alive before, they come to life for the first time on the screen. Thus, when Miyazaki creates works like Ponyo, or Howl’s Moving Castle, the audience is not simply treated to a visual spectacle, but to a film that is literally coming to life for the first time right before their eyes. So the magnificence of Howl’s castle walking across the screen at the beginning of the film, or the jellyfish surrounding the submarine in Ponyo’s opening, are works of art that have more physical power than simple paintings or drawings, because they have been given life through there perceived motions. Each individual frame creates it’s own experience, but it is through their continuity and interactivity with each other that gives them that complete effect. Miyazaki, as an artist, creates an aesthetic unlike anything other auteurs have created through their live-action films. This is not to say that Miyazaki is better, just that he accomplishes as much in a very difficult medium.

It is through this difficult process that Miyazaki works like many auteurs before him. Orson Welles was a lover Shakespeare. He directed and starred in Chimes at MidnightMacbeth, and Othello, and he reveled in the theatricality that surrounds the Shakespearian stage.  Miyazaki’s continued use of fairy tales seems to follow in the same vein as Welles’ use of Shakespeare, in that he, like Welles, seeks to bring to life certain facets of great works. The most obvious use of this is through Ponyo (2008). The film is already based off of a children’s tale, The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, thus the film is already rooting itself in the mythology of one of the most beloved tales of fantasy. But Miyazaki takes it a step further. Instead of going the Disney route, and simply telling the story of a girl who wants to live a different life than what’s expected of her, Miyazaki decides to push forth on the politics of pollution, specifically that of the ocean. Ponyo’s father, George Tokoro, with his strange contraption meant to spread water about wherever he walks, is the embodiment of the political populace disgusted by the current actions of humanity perpetrated against the natural world. George sees the way in which mankind has treated his waters, how they have polluted the sea with their trash, their throwaway nonsense. It seems to be a commentary on how people view the use of the planet: they see something to be used, and once they are done they toss it over their shoulder and forget it was ever there. Miyazaki shows us how truly idiotic that stance is. The sea works as a character all its own in the film. It thrashes about, floods the islands, and produces Ponyo, her sisters, and the magical characters which give the film the fantastical flair we all love. The theme of social ignorance plays and enormous part in Ponyo, showing us just how careless we are, and just how little control we have over the natural world. We can worship it all we want, through deities and any other cultural tradition, but Miyazaki brings to life the figurative wave of hostility we all face in the changing times, and the lack of respect we have grown accustomed to showing the world we inhabit.

         Works Cited

Lamarre, Thomas. “From animation to anime: drawing movements and moving drawings.” Japan

             Forum. 14. 2 (2002). 329-67. Print.

Wollen, Peter. “The Auteur Theory [Howard Hawks and John Ford].” Film Theory and

             Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshal Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press,

             2009. 455-70. Print.

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