Posts Tagged ‘My Neighbor Totoro’
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?
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.