Feelin' Kinda Ghibli


Much has been made, over the years, of the artistry of the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and rightly so.  They are indeed stunningly gorgeous, and despite the tendency in our world to simplify and streamline, they have become increasingly so.  Each movie brings a new batch of details, observations of nature, that I have never seen before in an animated film.  But that's not what I want to talk about today.  Today, I'm preoccupied with the emotional content of Miyazaki & Ghibli's films.  I think this gets overshadowed a lot, because there are so many outstanding aspects of their films.  Nevertheless, I find that the emotional content -- and I'm not even talking about the obviously sad and happy moments here -- is not only richer and more refined than we're used to expecting from animated films, but stands in rare and lofty company among all of cinema.

Miyazaki is the master upon whom the studio, Ghibli, was founded, but he's not the only director among the bunch anymore, and if he's to be believed, the master himself has retired, so it's up to his heirs (literal and spiritual) to continue his work.  When I speak of Ghibli, I'm including Isao Takahata (director of Grave of Fireflies and Only Yesterday), the late Yoshifumi Kondo (director of Whisper of the Heart, originally tapped as Miyazaki's replacement until his untimely passing), Hiromasa Yoneayashi (director of The Secret World of Arrietty), Goro Miyazaki (director of From Up On Poppy Hill, also Hayao's son) and the other artisans working with Hayao Miyazaki, but for the most part, I will refer to them collectively as Studio Ghibli, which has followed his lead.

That lead has guided the creation of animated films that express feelings of more subtle delicacy than most live-action films.  This, shockingly, disappointingly, can make Ghibli's films a bit hard to digest for certain self-professed (alleged) "anime" fans, more accustomed to stories that focus on the collecting of X number of ancient/cosmic artifacts to save the world/prove themselves the Chosen One, with an emotional range spanning from "UH!" to "YAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!"  Their films deal with emotions that don't always have names.  A moment may not necessarily be simply "sad" but can be, say, a nuanced sort of melancholy tinted with the sweet satisfaction that it won't always be thus, and the comfort that it's -- at least for the moment -- not anxiety.  This is what capital-A Art is.  It doesn't simply tell you, and it goes beyond merely showing you.  It creates that feeling within you.  Miyazaki (in particular, but we can include some of his studio mates) is a better actor with a pencil than most Oscar-winning performers are with their whole voice, face and body.

I first started to catch on to this richness in Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service.  While it does indeed include a climactic action set-piece, the real conflict has nothing to do with the crashed dirigible.  The antagonist of the movie is not a person or separate entity, but self-doubt, and the greatest battle Kiki wages is against melancholy.  Not exactly what you were expecting from a story about a teenage witch who sets off on her own for a year of independent study.  American culture, especially our media culture, and extra-especially our animation, doesn't like to acknowledge feelings like melancholy and self-doubt.  The morals of our stories tend to be "Be yourself, and if that doesn't work, be even MORE yourself!"  Nevermind that we don't often take the time to find out who ourselves are, or that our corporate culture actively punishes us for straying from shared mediocrity.  Our protagonists might momentarily feel badly about themselves, but persevere through sheer American belligerence.  No one can keep us down for much longer than the muical montage it takes for us to bounce right back!  The bastards won't grind US down!  But that's not how life really works, and that's not how Miyazaki works.  It's not the girl who hurts Kiki's feelings that needs to be overcome, heck, it really isn't even about her.  It's Kiki's feelings themselves which must be overcome, and then, only by other feelings.  The little bit of spiritual advice she gets from a friend eschews the typical "Yah! Focus! Persevere!" ethos that we're used to, and instead advises her to get her mind off of it and let the change come in its own way.  It was strange and a little startling to me at first.  No movie has ever offered this kind of advice, which I now recognize as completely correct, based on my own experiences as a writer and artist, which, not-so-coincidentally, Kiki's friend is as well.

Another prime example of this emotional complexity comes from Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart.  The story is about a couple of young people who meet and who want things.  I could be more specific than that, but that's kind of what it boils down to, particularly on the emotional landscape.  It's really, very barely a "story" in the conflict/resolution model that we're used to expecting.  The main character is Shizuku, a schoolgirl.  She likes to write, but is that really what she wants to be?  Is she really that good at it?  Will she be accepted for it, even if she is?  She meets a boy who wants to be a violin maker, but he faces similar questions, and they're questions that don't necessarily have definitive answers.  Then there's the matter of their budding friendship.  If he gets accepted to an apprenticeship program, what does that mean to her?  It's a fascinatingly open-ended emotional narrative.  Joy is tempered by sadness, and melancholy is sort of an exhalation between a moment of youthful satisfaction and the next moment of trepidatious hopefulness.  There aren't always answers to the big questions, because first of all, that's why they're the BIG questions -- they require continued asking and the answers are neither definitive nor permanent.  They're life, and that's what these characters are grappling with.  A recurring theme throughout Whisper of the Heart is Shizuku's adaptation of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads," and it's an apt one.  She has translated it into Japanese, and adapted it to her context, living in suburban Tokyo.  It speaks to a yearning; both for leaving the world which she has known and outgrown, to see what the world has to offer, as well as for returning to that feeling of belonging; finding the sense of home once again, even though it can't be the same as it once was.  It's a basket of difficult-to-define feelings... just like adolescence.

I hope I'm not giving the impression that Ghibli's films are all mopey intellectual ponderings.  Far from it.  They're filled with wonder and imagination.  The characters are beautifully realized and they learn and grow.  Even the more traditional "villains" are more complex than simple hand-wringing caricatures of "evil."  They're simply people who want other things, and have other expectations about how they might achieve them.  I think Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki's most successful film in the States.  It's certainly the one that gets the most appreciation from people who are otherwise skeptical about his films (again, these self-professed anime fans, often teen, and the young adult males who are under the impression that the film industry exists solely to enhance their power fantasies and male identity).  Even Mononoke is filled with emotional complexity and ambiguous achievements.  The "good guys" aren't blameless when it comes to mindless destruction and the "bad guys" often have valid points, and valid reasons for their anger.  Winning isn't necessarily the same thing as victory, and things are lost that make the whole world a little poorer.  In that way, Mononoke actually captures the essence of the end of Lord of the Rings better than the Peter Jackson movies did.  Today's triumph is tempered with the knowledge that it can only last for so long, and the more complex our world becomes (out of necessity) the less we will be able to take comfort in easy answers.  With so much emotional vagary in Ghibli's films, it's particularly ironic that they're distributed (poorly) by Disney, possibly the biggest advocates of broadly, narrowly and overbearingly expressed emotions in the world.

All of this brings me to Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises, in which this tender and mature consideration of human emotions reaches its fully-embraced pinnacle.  It's Miyazaki's most adult film, by a fair measure, which probably accounts for Disney's unenthusiastic promotion and distribution, despite an Oscar nomination (which fell, egregiously, to Disney's own deeply flawed Frozen in the end).  It's the fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, a boy fascinated with flight, who grew into an aeronautical engineer during the run-up to WWII.  This, briefly, led to some low-level "controversy" among low-level thinkers who clearly hadn't seen the movie, or who were simply congenitally incapable of getting the point.  You see, among other airplanes designed by Hoshikoshi, the most notorious was the Zero; one of the fighters used in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and often employed in kamikaze attacks.  Naturally, the usual suspects got all bent out of shape (are they really "out of shape" when they're always IN that shape?) about a film that "glorified" (it didn't) the creator of a plane that was "responsible" (guns don't kill people, but planes do?) for taking so many American lives.  You know, because we're the only nation allowed to engage in nationalism.  So, never mind that that wasn't what the movie was about, and in fact, if you actually SEE the movie and UNDERSTAND it (I know that's a lot to ask of some people), you might find that it includes all kinds of complex emotional content about the tragedy of something that is born out of the spirit of wonder and beauty being used as a tool of war.

From the very beginning, Wind is filled with complicated emotions.  Young Jiro is filled with awe about flight, studying all he can and dreaming about its possibilities at night.  At the same time, he's afraid that his eyesight will preclude him from having anything to do with airplanes, and facing the cultural and economic state of Japan, which is a poor environment for doing cutting-edge engineering.  As Jiro grows, so to does the scale of his life's conflicts.  Flight, his passion, remains a source of hope, but one fraught with the obstacles of reality.  Nothing is ever just one thing, just one shallow interpretation of human emotion.  Characters are often calm in tumultuous situations, and we are filled with the sense of what we would be feeling in those situations, and understand that they must too, but they are prisoner to the need to go on, to keep moving forward within the lives that they must live.  In the good times, there is fear, and in the bad times, there is hope.  While taking a train home from school, there's a devastating earthquake (which is handled like no earthquake I've ever seen before on film, but is immediately recognizable as more realistic in terms of tone), but it's also the event which causes him to meet his future wife.  It's like this throughout the film.  By the final quarter of the film, I felt myself on the verge of tears almost all the time; not because it was sad but because I was feeling so much, and those feelings were frequently conflicting, that I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of it all. 

They don't hold your hand.  They don't tell you what you should feel.  They don't manipulate the audience with cheap and transparent ploys.  They create places with potency, and allow you to extrapolate the appropriate feeling for yourself.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they should still be niche works of art.  Forget about animated films.  There are very few people making ANY kind of films with this emotional richness today.  Fewer still among Americans, and almost none at all with significant budgets behind them.  For all that Miyazaki and his collaborators at Studio Ghibli have accomplished visually over the years, their greatest works of art may be the rich and varied emotional hues with which they have brought their worlds to life.

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