Saturday, December 11

Pulling Rabbits: On Hayao Mayazaki

We all owe a lot to Walt Disney. He and his team have given us movies that are imaginative and colorful and have become dear childhood memories for generations on end. A side effect to all this, however, is that animated movies are now almost automatically labeled as “kiddie movies”. This is a shame. Animation is as good a way to tell a story as live-action, and in many cases it allows for things that are simply impossible in “real” movies. Point in case: the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki is the head of Studio Ghibli, and that name alone is enough to have many a filmnerd squeal with glee. Under his supervision this animation studio (which is one of the last one left which still works with hand-drawn animation) has created movies which should (and are beginng to be) recognized as the modern classics they are: Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, among others.

What a sweet old man.

The choice to keep working with the time-consuming method of hand-drawn animation isn’t simple stubbornness, though. One of the adavntages of drawn animation is that everything in the frame is put there by the same means. In effect, this means that the characters all look like they perfectly blend in with the world, even if they’re non-human. In live-action with CGI you can clearly tell which characters are real and which aren’t (see Avatar), but in an animation film humans can interact with demons, animals and forest spirits without them looking out of place. And that is exactly what Miyazakis characters do. Even though a normal world is sometimes hinted at (see the beginning of Spirited Away), all his movies plunge into a mystical world of shapeshifters, enormous insects and witches.

Which is not to say his movies don’t mean bussiness. Far from it. In Princess Mononoke a giant demon-monster, who seems to be build entirely out of crawling worms, attacks a village and kills everything around him until he is stopped. This happens in the first ten minutes of the movie. At the climax, a god is shot in the goddamn face. And for those of you who have seen Spirited Away: remember No Faces angry rampage through the bathhouse, eating everything that crosses his path? Not the kind of stuff you’d call family friendly. 

Oh yes, that's EXACTLY what you think it is

A lot of labels have been put on the work of Miyazaki: humanist, feminist, environmentalist. But I think those are hollow statements. Miyazaki isn’t a political activist. He doesn’t try to make any sort of point. He’s just trying to tell a story. And if that means having strong female characters: so be it. Which, truth be told, makes it a lot more enjoyable to watch. No-one likes getting a point rubbed into their face, after all. Even if he has any cause, he treats in the best way possible: not by telling everyone how right he is, but just telling a story while assuming it.

What sets Miyazaki apart from so many other modern filmmakers is that he isn’t cynical. He looks at the world with a child-like wonder, and tells about it with the wisdom of an old man. He is one in a long line of bards, the type of persons who tell the stories of their ancestors in their own special way. And like the other bards, Miyazaki is too much intertwined with his craft to ever give it up: even though he announced his retirement in 1997, he came back four years later to make Spirited Away, which promptly won him an Oscar.


And once again an Icelandic song for Miyazaki. What is it that makes their styles line up so well? Maybe it's the whole "island" thing, or all the fish... Well anyway, here is Sigur Rós

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