Posts Tagged ‘Hayao Miyazaki’
“In a good play,” Christian Friedrich Hebbel says, “everyone is in the right.” This is also often true of books, movies, and television shows. I love a good villain as much as anyone, and I’ve created a lot of them in my own novels, but when we’re presented with a work of art that creates real drama and interest without resorting to neatly drawn lines of good and evil, it’s a reminder of how artful such stories need to be. It’s easy to slide in a generic bad guy for the protagonists to react against, and much harder to tell stories that arise organically from the conflicts between fundamentally sympathetic people, but if it works, the result is often worth it. This is especially true of comedy and children’s entertainment. It’s the reason, for instance, why the best recent family movies—the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, most of Miyazaki—have only incidental villains or none at all, preferring to create conflict through the interactions between the primary characters and their adventures in the larger world. (I’m willing to give a pass to Toy Story 3, but only because Lotso is arguably the most nuanced and interesting movie villain of the decade.)
It’s also why Parks and Recreation is the best comedy on network television. Community may rise to greater heights—although I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we’ll ever see those heights again—but on a weekly basis, Parks and Rec is a marvel of magical, inventive, organized storytelling. And a big part of its appeal is that we like everyone involved. The show doesn’t mine laughs out of manufactured conflicts, but out of the fact that the characters are funny, richly developed types who can’t help colliding with their coworkers, however good their intentions may be. It’s a truism that television, which relies on our willingness to invite the same people into our homes every week, depends on creating characters we like, but few other shows have ever delivered on this promise so beautifully. Last night’s wedding episode, which made my wife tear up, is a reminder of how emotionally rewarding this kind of storytelling can be, especially when sustained for season after season. We love these characters, and it’s largely because they love one another.
And it didn’t have to be that way. The first season of Parks and Rec was notoriously rocky, with characters who were little more than stereotypes and a tone that failed to distinguish itself adequately from that of The Office. Yet the show righted itself soon thereafter, largely because of the affection I mentioned above—in particular, the affection of the writers for their own creations. Their first great realization was that Leslie Knope wasn’t a clueless bureaucrat, but a hero who loved her job, was smarter than most of the people around her, but endlessly carried away by her own enthusiasm. The second was even more crucial: Leslie’s boss Ron, despite his philosophical dislike of all forms of government, liked and respected Leslie as well. As a result, a premise that could have generated a string of tired conflicts became, instead, a show about the wary dance between two friends. (For this, we can probably thank 30 Rock, which quickly came to a similar conclusion about Liz and Jack.) The rest of the cast began to flower right away, and with the addition of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, the picture was finally complete.
It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this show’s evolution has been. In some ways, its uncertain start is what made its ultimate blossoming possible: this wasn’t a show that was perfectly conceived from the beginning, but one that gradually discovered the potential of its characters, setting, and cast, and it’s a miracle that it was allowed so much time to find its true form. Best of all, after an initial run of seasons in which our affection for the characters allowed us to enjoy episodes that were only mildly amusing, the show has become consistently hilarious. True, in the last season, the show has introduced its first real villain, in the form of Councilman Jamm, and the results haven’t always been great—his storylines are usually the weakest part of any episode. To the show’s credit, however, Jam always gets a swift comeuppance, to the point where we suspect the writers just want to get back to the real business at hand. What began as a satire of local government has evolved into a show in which, weirdly, wrongdoing is punished and idealism thrives. It’s something that no one could have expected when this series began. And I hope it has the chance to grow and surprise us for years to come.
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” John Cusack’s character notes in High Fidelity, and this sentiment goes a long way toward explaining why we find lists of all kinds so fascinating. As I’ve argued before, a list of one’s favorite books or movies is as close to an honest self-portrait as any of us will ever come, and this isn’t a recent convention: as far back as the Iliad, we encounter the ascending scale of affection, in which a hero defines himself by ranking what matters to him most. (Quick story: Back in college, soon after High Fidelity came out, I pointed out this similarity to one of my classics professors. Later that week, I went to see the movie a second time—and saw my professor sitting three rows in front of me. The following day, he entered the classroom and said: “Alec, you’re my pop culture hero.” And that was the high point of my career as a classical scholar.)
This is what makes the Sight & Sound poll so irresistible. Most of the coverage has revolved, understandably enough, around the displacement of Citizen Kane by Vertigo at the top of the list, but the real story lies further down, in the lists of individual critics, which were posted on the site this morning after a short delay. Reading a critic’s list gives us as accurate a thumbnail sketch as we can possibly have of a stranger’s personality, tastes, and idiosyncrasies: I don’t think there’s any way to learn more about a person in thirty words or less. When I look at the list of author Kim Newman, for instance, the fact that he named both A Canterbury Tale and Duck Amuck tells me more about him in five seconds than I’d probably learn from reading one of his books. The same goes with critic Mark Kermode, whose list includes Brazil, Don’t Look Now, and Mary Poppins.
Looking at the top 250 offers even more food for thought. If I’d been surprised earlier by the absence of Powell and Pressburger from the top fifty, the explanation is readily at hand: every single one of their great movies made the long list—The Red Shoes, yes, but also A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and I Know Where I’m Going!—which suggests that without a consensus choice, all these classic films simply split the vote. (When we see the list of directors ranked by number of total votes, I expect that they’ll be in the top ten.) I was delighted to see that the second-highest Kubrick movie on the list, after 2001, is Barry Lyndon, and that Miyazaki is represented by both Totoro and Spirited Away. And the short list of movies from the past few years to make the list is a fascinating one: The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, WALL-E, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Melancholia.
As always, the list provides ample occasion for reflection, argument, and education. It tells me that the director whose work I need to seek out most urgently, along with Tarkovsky, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reminder that critical tastes can change radically over time, as we see in the critical ascent of such movies, overlooked at their first release, as Vertigo, Rio Bravo, Imitation of Life, and Singin’ in the Rain, not to mention The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It tells me that I wasn’t entirely wrong, seven years ago, about the enduring reputation of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which got votes from three critics. And it tells me that my own tastes lie more or less within the mainstream, with a few outliers: of my own recent top ten, the only two not to make the cut were L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, neither of which received a single vote—which only confirms that in some respects, I’m still ahead of the curve.
Note: Spoilers follow for Brave.
It pains me to say this, but there’s no other way: I no longer fully trust Pixar. While I’m aware that this may not be a popular opinion, Brave strikes me as their weakest movie of any kind, weaker even than Cars 2. As I said at the time, Cars 2 had big problems, but it was only a rewrite or two away from being a entertaining movie. Brave, by contrast, comes off as fundamentally misconceived, and in ways that raise troubling questions about Pixar’s vaunted storytelling skills. There’s no doubt Pixar takes its storytelling very seriously, and as we saw with the recent list of narrative tips shared by artist Emma Coats, it’s developed a formidable bag of tricks. But in the case of a movie like Brave, such tricks amount to smart tactics in the service of no strategy whatsoever. Much of Brave works fine on its own terms—it’s consistently beautiful, ambitious, and rendered with a lot of love. But the more I think about it, the more it looks like a story that could only be fixed by being thrown out and radically reconceived.
At its heart, Brave‘s story is startlingly simple: a teenage princess, Merida, annoyed by her mother, Queen Elinor, casts a spell that turns her mother into a bear. This isn’t a bad premise in itself, but as handled by Brave, it suffers from three major problems: 1. Neither Merida nor her mother are strongly developed enough as characters to make the latter’s transformation meaningful. We don’t really know Queen Elinor before she’s transformed and can no longer speak, so the long sequences with Merida and Elinor as a bear can’t build on anything that came before. 2. Elinor’s metamorphosis is supposed to bring mother and daughter closer together, but there’s nothing in the situation that reveals anything new about their relationship. It’s just a generic crisis that doesn’t cast any light on the central conflict, which is that Merida is smarting under her mother’s expectations. 3. The movie’s treatment of magic is casual at best, with Merida essentially getting her spell from a witch who dispenses plot points, and the rules are never really explained, which undermines any narrative tension, especially near the end.
It isn’t hard to think of a version of this story that would have worked better than the one we’ve been given. We could make Elinor, not Merida, the central character, which automatically makes her transformation more interesting. We could turn Elinor’s father, the king, into a bear, and have mother and daughter work together to save him. We could have Merida take a rebellious interest in magic, and be drawn to a witch—not the witch we see here, but perhaps someone more like Maleficent—as an alternative mother figure in place of the queen, with disastrous consequences. Or we could even keep the story we have and approach it with a lighter touch, as Miyazaki might have done. Totoro barely has any plot at all, yet the grace of its conception makes it seem elegant rather than half-baked. Brave‘s technical splendor actually works against it here: it’s so visually compelling that it takes us a long time to realize that we’ve been given a rather simpleminded children’s movie, and that the studio gave less effort to exploring Merida’s motivations than it did to developing her hair.
In the end, we’re left with a deeply muddled movie whose constant harping on themes of destiny only makes its confusions all the more clear. Merida, for all her talk about fate, doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of what she wants out of life, and neither does the movie around her. (Just repeating the word “fate” over and over won’t convince us that you have anything interesting to say on the subject.) And the result is a film that seems less like an ordinary misfire than a tragic waste of resources. It’s possible that the change of directors was to blame, or the fact that, contrary to what the filmmakers have said, the studio was so intent on making a movie with a female protagonist and a fairy tale setting that it forgot to make either distinctive—or to see that Tangled had already done a better job. If I’m being hard on Pixar, it’s because it’s capable of far more, and I’m afraid it may see Brave as the best it can do. But it isn’t: it’s the work of a great studio that has lost its way. And only time will tell if Pixar can manage to change its fate.
Earlier this month, the Siskel Center in Chicago began presenting a loving retrospective of the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who, as I’ve argued before, may be our greatest living director in any medium. Of all the contemporary directors whose work I revisit on a regular basis, Miyazaki may be the one who fills me with the most awe, and he’s also the one whose mastery I find hardest to explain. His best films are totally accessible to viewers of all ages, and some, like My Neighbor Totoro, stand out for their apparent simplicity. But while the Pixar style of storytelling can be taken apart and analyzed—at their best, Pixar’s films are beautiful machines of narrative—the work of Miyazaki resists easy explanation. A set of narrative rules tweeted by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats recently made the rounds online, and they’re full of good advice: “What are the stakes?” “Give your characters opinions.” “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.” But what would the rules look like for Miyazaki?
As one possible way in, I’ll start by noting that Miyazaki’s work falls into two different categories, one of which is significantly greater than the other—although I know that a lot of fans would take issue with this. His best work, to my mind, has always been about children: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo are among the best animated movies ever made, and they’re all significantly different in tone, style, and mood. Totoro is a perfect tone poem about a child’s life in the satoyama, or Japanese countryside, with the gentle rhythms of a bedtime story; Spirited Away is a dense, superbly organized epic of fantasy seen through a child’s eyes; and Ponyo is sort of a hybrid of the two, with scenes of intense joy, humor, and lyricism paired with strange, goofy fantasy. Compared to these three, I find his work centering on older characters—such as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle—to be rather less interesting. These movies are often brilliant and visually distinctive, but Miyazaki has many rivals here, while there’s no one who matches him at capturing the inner lives of children.
Spirited Away is my favorite Miyazaki movie, but after watching Totoro again last night, I wonder if it might not be the greater accomplishment. I’ve spoken before about the American need to make movies centered on restless movement—on action that breaks out, to use David Thomson’s words. Spirited Away is almost like a Pixar film in this respect, although infinitely weirder and more graceful: it’s packed with incident, action, and spectacular images. Totoro, by contrast, takes its time. It contains only the tiniest sliver of plot or conflict. For most of the film, its magical creatures are offstage: Totoro himself appears for only a few minutes, and most of the movie is devoted to an idyllic but comparatively realistic depiction of the lives of two little girls. And yet the entire movie is riveting and magical. I can understand how Spirited Away works, but Totoro is beyond words. Ponyo lacks Totoro‘s clean lines, but it, too, is full of gorgeous moments that are impossible to explain but indisputably right.
And the childlike perspective here is crucial, because it allows the film to slow down and take in the world with the eyes of a child to whom everything is interesting. What impresses me the most about Miyazaki these days aren’t his flights of fancy but his attention to the small details of everyday life. In Totoro, he notices how an old door or window sticks slightly before you open it for the first time, or how a girl of ten sleeps more or less like an adult while a girl of four sleeps in a tangle of blankets. Ponyo, in turn, mines poetry out of making ramen or starting a generator after a storm. That kind of perspective, when channeled through years of artistic experience, is truly precious, and I watch Miyazaki’s films again and again just for the chance to relive those moments. The craft on display here isn’t the kind that can be easily taught: it requires a good eye and steady hand as well as a generous heart. It can’t be reduced to a set of rules. But if it could, it wouldn’t be magical, would it?
Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate.
Which I still believe is true. But the more I think about this statement, the more I realize that it raises as many questions as it answers. Yes, Pixar’s excellence is a corporate one—but why does it strive to be compassionate and creative, when so many other studios seem ready to settle for less? Faced with Pixar’s historic run of eleven quality blockbusters in fifteen years, it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying that Pixar’s culture is simply different from that of other studios, or that it has a special, mysterious genius for storytelling, which, again, simply avoids the question. So what is it, really, that sets Pixar apart?
It’s tempting to reduce it to a numbers game. Pixar releases, at most, one movie per year, while the other major studios release dozens. This means that Pixar can devote all of its considerable resources to a single flagship project, rather than spreading them across a larger slate of films. If every studio released only one picture a year, it’s nice to think that, instead of a hundred mostly forgettable movies, we’d get a handful of big, ambitious films like Inception, or even Avatar. Of course, we might also end up with a dozen variations on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So I suspect that there’s something else going on here that can’t be explained by the numbers alone.
And as much as I hate to say it, Pixar’s special quality does, in fact, seem to boil down to a question of culture. So where does culture come from? Two places. The first, more accidental source is history: studios, like artists, tend to be subconsciously defined by their first successful works. In Pixar’s case, it was Toy Story; for DreamWorks, it was Shrek. And the contrast between these two films goes a long way toward accounting for the differences between their respective studios. Because its first movie was a classic, Pixar was encouraged to aim high, especially once they saw how audiences responded. If the first Pixar movie had been, say, Cars, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.
The second factor is even more important. For reasons of luck, timing, and corporate politics, the creative side of Pixar is essentially run by John Lasseter, a director of genius. And his genius is less important than the fact that he’s a director at all. Most studios are run by men and women who have never directed a movie or written a screenplay, and as talented as some of these executives may be, there’s a world of difference between receiving notes from a Wharton MBA and from the man who directed Toy Story. The result, at best, is a climate where criticism is seen as a chance to make a movie better, rather than as inference from overhead. As a recent Wired article on Pixar pointed out:
The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” [Italics mine.]
In other words, it isn’t true that Pixar has never made a bad movie: it makes bad movies—or parts of movies—all the time. The difference is that the bad movies are reworked until they get better, which isn’t the case at most other studios. (And at Pixar, if they still aren’t any good, they get canceled.) And because the cultural factors that made this climate possible are as much the result of timing and luck as intentional planning, the situation is more fragile than it seems. A real Pixar flop, with its ensuing loss of confidence, could change things overnight. Which is why, in the end, what I said of Miyazaki is also true of Pixar: if it goes away, we may never see anything like it again.
Yesterday was the seventieth birthday of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away, which makes this as appropriate a time as any to ask whether Miyazaki might be, in fact, the greatest living director in any medium. He certainly presents a strong case. My own short list, based solely on ongoing quality of output rather than the strength of past successes, includes Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, and Errol Morris, but after some disappointing recent work by these last three, Miyazaki remains the only one who no longer seems capable of delivering anything less than a masterpiece. And he’s also going to be the hardest to replace.
Why is that? Trying to pin down what makes Miyazaki so special is hard for the same reason that it’s challenging to analyze any great work of children’s fiction: it takes the fun out of it. I’m superstitiously opposed to trying to figure out how the Alice books work, for example, in a way that I’m not for Joyce or Nabokov. Similarly, the prospect of taking apart a Miyazaki movie makes me worry that I’ll come off as a spoilsport—or, worse, that the magic will somehow disappear. That’s one reason why I ration out my viewings of Ponyo, one of the most magical movies ever made, so carefully. And it’s why I’m going to tread cautiously here. But it’s still possible to hint at some of the qualities that set Miyazaki apart from even the greatest animators.
The difference, and I apologize in advance for my evasiveness, comes down to a quality of spirit. Miyazaki is as technically skilled as any animator in history, of course, but his craft would mean little without his compassion, and what I might also call his eccentricity. Miyazaki has a highly personal attachment to the Japanese countryside—its depiction of the satoyama is much of what makes My Neighbor Totoro so charming—as well as the inner lives of small children, especially girls. He knows how children think, look, and behave, which shapes both his characters and their surrounding movies. His films can seem as capricious and odd as the stories that very young children tell to themselves, so that Spirited Away feels both beguilingly strange and like a story that you’ve always known and only recently rediscovered.
Which is why Miyazaki is greater than Pixar. Don’t get me wrong: Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate. Even the interest in children, which is very real, seems like it has been deliberately cultivated. Pixar, I suspect, is run by men who love animation for its own sake, and who care about children only incidentally, which was also true of Walt Disney himself. (If they could make animated movies solely for adults, I think they would, as the career trajectory of Brad Bird seems to indicate. If nothing else, it would make it easier for them to win an Oscar for Best Picture.)
By contrast, the best Miyazaki movies, like the Alice books, are made for children without a hint of condescension, or any sense that children are anything but the best audience in the world. And as traditional animation is replaced by monsters of CGI that can cost $200 million or more, I’m afraid that this quality will grow increasingly rare. We’ve already seen a loss of personality that can’t be recovered: it’s impossible to be entirely original, not to mention eccentric, with so much money on the line. The result, at best, is a technically marvelous movie that seems to have been crafted by committee, even if it’s a committee of geniuses. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece, and not good enough.
Miyazaki is seventy now, and judging from Ponyo, he’s still at the top of his game. I hope he keeps making movies for a long time to come. Because it’s unclear if the world of animation, as it currently exists, will ever produce anyone quite like him again.