GEEK VS. GEEK: MIYAZAKI IS AWESOME!
I must admit that I am a little confused by the very existence of this Geek VS. Geek. We’re arguing about Hayao Miyazaki? This to me is like taking sides on whether or not people should spend their free time punching puppies. Aren’t we all on the same side on this? So I guess there are two categories of people in the world: either you are a fan of Miyazaki… or you’re Rachel.
But since she is the one who controls the button that opens up the large vat of irate alligators above which we the staff sit, I should thus attempt to argue my side anyway (even though we all know the truth here: Miyazaki is awesome!).
Though… even as I make a parenthetical aside such as that, I feel that I need to make a confession. While it is true that I am quite the Miyazaki fan, I haven’t seen the last few movies of his, such as the recent Secret World of Arrietty or the previous Ponyo. Circumstances fell as such that I just haven’t (okay, I admit it…I haven’t watched them because I was too busy waiting in line for The Avengers. Yes, even back in 2008…I’ve been waiting that long. And yes, it was totally worth it). So I suppose that it is possible that Miyazaki tripped up a bit and had some movies not up to his usual standard (though, to be fair…Miyazaki wasn’t the director of Arrietty, either).
So what is it about his movies that make them so effective? There are quite a few reasons, but probably the first is the sense of wonder that his movies evoke. If you think about the imagination, the wonder, and the whimsy that the Harry Potter series is credited with – Miyazaki’s movies are like that. (Only, you know, better… but then my issues with HP are well-documented.) From the grand – such as the Toxic Jungle from one of his first movies, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or the first time we see the titular castle from Castle in the Sky – to the whimsical and cute, with the little bobble-head forest spirits in Princess Mononoke or the coal puff-balls in Spirited Away – Miyazaki takes full advantage of the blank slate that animation allows for to highlight his imagination.
And the universe(s) he creates are quite fantastical, and yet they just fit. Having a man turned into a pig during an alternate-1920′s post World War I world (in 1992′s Porco Rosso) might seem like a strange, and possibly off-putting setting, but it works. Same as the Steampunk world from Castle in the Sky, considered an early example of the genre in movies. All of the strange creatures found in the monster-filled bathhouse in Spirited Away all feel like they belong; the setting just feels natural to the viewer. (Of course there should be giant walking heads! Why wouldn’t there be?!) The fact that viewers are drawn into his world(s) to that extent is a testament to Miyazaki’s skill.
And it is his skill that we are talking about. Another thing I quite appreciate about his movies is the direct role that he takes. Most of his movies are ones that he both wrote and directed, thus giving him near full control over making sure his vision made it to the screen. And it isn’t just writing and directing – he is known for reviewing and (sometimes even) re-drawing every single animation cel used. He is quite hands-on. (And it doesn’t hurt that his movies predominately still use hand-drawn cels with only some CGI used in certain instances). As a comparison: in general, which episodes of Buffy were the best? The ones written and directed by Joss Whedon, of course! Same effect with Miyazaki – the movies are better, tighter, and just more fun because of his direct and complete involvement.
The characters Miyazaki creates are all quite relatable in a variety of ways, which make his movies that much more effective. I mean, who hasn’t been a young witch trying to make her way in the world just like Kiki? Or been exiled from their village and sent on a quest (but having demon-enhanced vorpal arrows!) like Prince Ashitaka? Or a mercenary fighter pilot who was turned into a pig? Er… um… okay, bad examples. Don’t look at the specifics, but delve a tad deeper. The young witch Kiki is a teenager just reaching that point in life where she is trying to find herself – where do her talents really lie, and how can she fit into the world? Ashitaka (from Princess Mononoke) finds himself trying to explain an outside view to people dead set in their ways. Chihiro, the protagonist in Spirited Away, starts out as rather an annoying child, but starts to learn what it means to grow up. Written down like this, the characters sound like they could be rather cliche and/or yet more examples of coming-of-age stories, but they are (almost) all handled in a way that fit quite well in their respective worlds and still draw the viewer in.
All of the above is just fine and dandy, all good reasons to enjoy Miyazaki’s movies, but none of those are the biggest reason I am a fan. That reason is the ambiguity inherent in his movies. Things are not always black and white. In fact, in many instances, there aren’t even obvious antagonists, no one like a Snidely Whiplash or a Dirk Dastardly to sit there and say “Curses! Foiled Again!”. The characters that fill the antagonist role in his movies usually have good qualities as well.
This is best seen in Princess Mononoke (my personal favorite of his movies), where Ashitaga finds himself trying to stop the war between the Forest Gods and Lady Eboshi, the leader of an iron works. The seemingly obvious “bad guy” is Lady Eboshi – particularly when one thinks about the environmentalism themes that run strongly through Miyazaki’s movies. Eboshi leads teams to clear away the forest to allow for more iron mining, thus upsetting the forest gods and, well, anyone who likes trees. But the reasons that Eboshi does this is to make a living for the people under her protection: former prostitutes, lepers, and other assorted people otherwise ostracized from society. Eboshi has good intentions in what she does – if she doesn’t help them fend for themselves in whatever way they can, then what hope is there for these outcasts? At the same time, the forest gods (in particular the wolf goddess Moro) have decided that all humans are evil and deserve to be killed. There is good and bad in almost every character. It adds a level of complexity that many other animated movies geared toward kids lack.
What that leads to is that adults can enjoy his movies just as much as kids do. Most Disney-esque animated features can be enjoyed by adults, certainly, and will throw in a lot of humor to aid in that effect, but Miyazaki movies have that extra layer of meaning. His movies aren’t just for entertainment, though they certainly are entertaining. And for that reason, I am a fan. As should you be. (And c’mon: demon-enhanced vorpal arrows! How can you not?!)
– K. Burtt
READ THE OPPOSING ARGUMENT
MIYAZAKI: WHENCE ALL THE LOVE?
by Rachel Hyland