Hayao Miyazaki is, by any reasonable definition of the term, an auteur. He directs, he produces, he writes and his films not only share a certain look but a certain set of themes and visual motifs (airships, bustling port towns, young female protagonists). One of the central themes of Miyazaki’s work since the founding of Studio Ghibli has been the relationship between the technological world of humanity and the magical realm of nature and in particular the encroachment by the former upon the latter. However, while these broad themes pop up in pretty much all of Miyazaki’s films, they do not always possess the same degree of emotional spin.
Consider, for example, Princess Mononoke (1997). Arguably Miyazaki’s breakthrough film in the west, Mononoke is a staggeringly misanthropic and angry work of animation. Its plot revolves around the human inhabitants of Irontown waging a war with the beasts of a nearby magical forest in order to cut down the forest and turn it into charcoal they can use in order to smelt iron for weapons. In order to carry out this act of ecological colonisation, the villagers track down and decapitate the spirit of the forest whose body transforms into a god of death, leaking toxic black ooze onto everything it touches. The ecological sub-text here is pretty clear : Humanity is a rapacious and dangerous species who will deface the natural world in the name of vulgar commerce. An act of gross vandalism that will result only in their own inevitable extinction.
Few of Miyazaki’s later films have contained as much anger as Princess Mononoke but they have nearly all expressed a degree of cynicism and scepticism about the merits and virtues of the human world.
Spirited Away (2001) is Miyazaki’s follow-up to Mononoke and its tag-line could be ‘Fairy Strikes Back’. It features a Japanese family who are lured into the spirit world by their curiosity and greed. A little girl’s parents, greeted with mountains of free food, gorge themselves until they turn into pigs while the more curious little girl finds herself pressed into servitude in a huge inn and spa for spirits. As a servant, the little girl helps to free a river spirit from the taint of human pollution before navigating her way through a dense story of curses, sigils, repressed memories and true names. Reunited, the family leave the spirit realm without looking back… the world of spirits is not for their kind, it is in the best interest of both groups if the pair remain separate and distinct. This message also runs through Porco Rosso (1992), which is arguably Miyazaki’s most mundane film, set in an alternative post-World War I Adriatic sea filled with sky pirates and a talented pilot whose journey into the world of magic left him with the face of a pig.
Having moved from open condemnation of Humanity to a form of regretful separatism, Miyazaki’s adaptation of Dianna Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) strikes a more diplomatic tone. As with Spirited Away, the film deals with humans who are inadvertently sucked into the world of magic, but the film’s depiction of the relationship between the two worlds is far more political than a question of morality or existential purity. Indeed, Howl’s Moving Castle hinges upon a wizard who lives under different identities who finds himself forced to fight in a human war prompted by the (magical) disappearance of a prince. In his attempts to interfere with the build-up to the war, the magician winds up depleting his power. A power that is only restored – in a different form – by his falling in love with a human. The sub-text being that the worlds of the wild and the wolds of man are better off apart but, in a few cases, something can be achieved by a degree of symbiosis and mutual co-operation.
Looking back over Miyazaki’s career, it is easy to see some inner pendulum swinging back and forth as his views on humanity soften and harden. The late 90s and early 00s were born of a tangible sense of anger over humanity’s attitude to the natural world just as Miyazaki’s output in the mid-1980s was born of a decidedly Cold War-era sense of fatalism and fear. Indeed, both Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa : Castle in the Sky (1986) are set in more-or-less post-apocalyptic worlds where nature and magic have been wiped off the face of the world by man’s technological developments, leaving them to squabble and fight over the remains of what they lost in a desperate search for even more destructive weapons. As the Cold War ended and fear turned to outrage, the feelings that once inspired Nausicaa would resurface in Mononoke, but not before a rather uncharacteristic interlude…
The late 1980s saw Miyazaki directing two films that are completely at odds with both the fear of his earlier works and the anger of his later projects. Both My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) deal with the encroachment of the human world upon the magical and the natural, but both films have much more up-beat and conciliatory tones. Tones that speak not of cynicism or fear about humanity’s potential for self-destruction, but rather humanity’s capacity for warmth, acceptance and love of that which is different and magical.
My Neighbor Totoro deals with a friendship between two young girls and a huge furry spirit of nature. The girls, having moved to the country along with their father – who works long hours as an academic and endures long commutes in order to pay his wife’s hospital bills – form a bond with the spirit who helps them when fear for their mother’s health prompts a family crisis. Kiki’s Delivery Service has the same up-beat tone and liberal political message as it deals with a young witch who starts up a courier business in a vast human city (a bustling port, one of Miyazaki’s enduring visual motifs). After some initial set-backs, feelings of self-doubt and alienation, Kiki draws upon the support of the humans around her in order to save some people from disaster proving that the magical and the mundane can co-exist and grow stronger by working together (it is telling that Kiki’s rescue mission is carried out not on her mother’s old hand-made broomstick but upon a modern mass produced broom). In fact, Kiki’s Delivery Service is almost a remake of My Neighbor Totoro but with the viewpoint character situated on the magical rather than mundane side.
I mention this swinging pendulum as Miyazaki’s latest film Ponyo marks a surprising return to the up-beat optimistic multiculturalism of the late 1980s. In fact, Ponyo is easily Miyazaki’s most heart-warmingly life-enhancing since Totoro, which remains his most accomplished work to date.
The film opens with a wall of colour and shapes. We are in the depths of the ocean and the currents are filled with fishes, jellyfish and all manner of strange and colourful creatures. They drift past the camera like balloons caught in up-draughts. As we plunge down through the depths we see where the animals are coming from. A strange man (George Tokoro) in make-up and a striped suit stands atop a finned submarine, dripping elixirs and potions into the water. As he does this, a small red fish-like person sneaks out of the boat. She is surrounded by even smaller versions of herself.
The small red person hitches a ride on a jellyfish and floats towards the surface. The world of man. There she is caught in a jam jar and is washed ashore only to be saved by a young boy named Sosuke (Hiroki Doi). Confronted with a small red fish-like person, Sosuke decides that it is a goldfish and names her Ponyo (Yuria Nara). Sosuke decides to take Ponyo to school with him but once there, Ponyo’s father, the strange make-up clad wizard Fujimoto decides to ‘rescue’ her, dragging her back to his undersea castle. Once there, Ponyo claims that she loves Sosuke and that she wants to return to the world of men in order to be with him. Tapping into her father’s stores of power (power intended to destroy humanity), she turns herself into a human girl and unleashes a vast tempest that carries her back to Sosuke, drowning the nearby coast-line in the waters and inhabitants of ancient Devonian seas.
Visually, Ponyo is a joy. Due to the fact that it was reportedly 100% hand-drawn, its animation is filled with the kinds of quirks and imperfections that have largely been expunged from the much slicker CGI and 3D dominated animation being pumped out of the American studio system. When we see Sosuke and his mother parking their car next to their house, we can see that the colours of the house are softer and almost watery compared to the harsher colours of the car. As though the house has been drawn onto the landscape in crayon. The disconnection between characters and backdrop is odd enough that you notice it but the oddness gives the backdrop a sense of hazy idealised beauty. Home is what the art is. Similarly, during the frankly staggering storm sequence, the waves have a simplicity to their animation that only adds to their magical irrealism. They morph from giant fishes and into homages paid to traditional Japanese art work. The simple stylisation of the waves clashes not only with the bold lines and ‘realism’ of the car and the land but also the earlier depictions of the sea at rest. These quirks in animation and art serve a clear thematic purpose, a form of ontological jarring. A deconstruction of what is mundane and what is magical. What is realistic and what is unreal. When Ponyo appears amid the waves accompanied by a neat little riff on Wagner’s Ride of The Valkyries, she looks more like the people on the land than the creatures of the sea. She uses magic, but she is no longer of magic. Whenever Ponyo uses magic, she regresses to a simpler more cartoonish state. The degree to which she is Other reflects the degree to which her artwork fails to escape the uncanny valley.
Once Ponyo arrives, the film inflates with all of the warmth that we have come to expect from the output of Studio Ghibli. For Ponyo, the world of humans is entirely new and its rules seem strange, but rather than feeling estranged from them, she embraces them with a real joy. For a while, we see the human world through the eyes of an outsider and Miyazaki brings home the magic that does exist in the world of men. Magic such as having parents who look after you (and who are not evil wizards), magic such as instant ramen with ham, magic such as warm fluffy towels. The magic of a mundane existence filled with love and compassion. Miyazaki handles this type of thing brilliantly. In the hands of a lesser film-maker such scenes might come across as saccharine and over-sentimental but Ponyo’s charmingly effervescent weirdness not only manages to cut through the bourgeois cosiness of Sosuke’s domestic idyll, it also manages to make the magic of home seem real and tangible and vital even to those of us who are used to it.
Ponyo’s final act reveals the comparative brittleness of its plot as well as the political softening of Miyazaki’s posture.
Drawing on the story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, Miyazaki has Ponyo’s continued existence as a human girl depend upon Sosuke’s unquestioning love. But because the pair are only five years old and because Sosuke falls in love with Ponyo when she is only a fish, this dilemma never seems all that threatening or dramatic. Indeed, Miyazaki even seems to acknowledge this by having Ponyo’s sea goddess mother turn up in order to talk to Sosuke’s mother. Clearly, Ponyo’s mother is making sure that her daughter will have a place to live if she does decide to join the world of men, suggesting that Ponyo’s world runs not on the twisted dream-logic of magic, but on much more mundane and human forces such as the love of a parent for their children. A love that evidently straddles both the world of men and the world of nature. In fact, the realisation that human meanings and emotion ultimately trump the laws of the wild are also running themes in Totoro and Kiki as both films see adversity overcome by an abandonment of the idea that the wild and the mundane cannot exist in favour of the construction of new families and friendships.
Looking back over Miyazaki’s career, it is perhaps strange that Studio Ghibli’s output should have become so intimately linked with the figure of Totoro and not the giant slavering white wolf of Princess Mononoke as, in truth, Miyazaki’s output has been much edgier and darker than his furry corporate heraldry might suggest. Is this because Miyazaki is better at warm and fuzzy than he is dark and misanthropic? Or is it merely that we tend to prefer films that convey some shred of hope for the future of humanity? Either way, Ponyo is Miyazaki at his life-affirming best. It is a treasure.