“My Neighbor Totoro”, 1988. Studio Ghibli
Blessed those who haven’t yet watched Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Until recently I was one of them. Then my son asked if we could start watching films together and so we have started to discover Miyazaki’s fantastical universes.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is about two sisters finding forest spirits when they move from the city to the rural countryside. Watching the film a couple of months ago with my son reminded me of the words of another great filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami: “The most wondrous period in the life of a human being is childhood, when encountering even the most minuscule things becomes a process of radical exploration. It’s a pity we leave those times behind so quickly.” My son was fascinated by the film, but I think I was even more enthralled with it, because I was discovering it myself for the first time and because I was watching it through his eyes, too. It was like a beautiful reminder that it isn’t that difficult to tap into that wondrous period as an adult.
The two little girls can see Totoro and adults can’t. And it made perfect sense for my son, too. He just accepted it, fascinated by the mystery, not so much wondering about the why’s but eager to meet him again and again and accompany him and the girls in their adventure. The film has stayed with both of us, and we are also reading the book at the moment. Children and adults see this film differently, naturally, but it’s equally important for both children and adults. And it’s all because of the genius of Hayao Miyazaki, who weaves the story together with such emotion and intensity. Reality and mythology seem to coexist so naturally in the Japanese culture and daily life. And there is such a ritual to the everyday life for the Japanese, and I noticed how my son loved observing those daily rituals of the girls, or the moments when nothing seems to happen but moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, and that’s something very precious. Because it gives the children watching the chance to just think at what has just happened, imagine for a bit what’s about to happen, without keeping them in constant action and distraction. And that is simply extraordinary, letting the children navigate their own feelings and emotions, while giving them joy and astonishment. It’s about telling the story in the most engaging and in the most emphatic way at the same time, and that’s a true gift for children. This is the kind of narrative freedom that you rarely find in films, but more likely in books, and which, combined with the visual power of cinema, gives birth to an emotional honesty and artistry hard to be equaled.
“Princess Mononoke”, 1997. Studio Ghibli
Princess Mononoke (1997) is about a prince, Ashitaka, inflicted with a deadly curse by a boar creature when the boy kills it to defend his village. His fate is sealed, the village elders tell him, but he decides to leave and search for the place where the boar came from and the reason for its rage and hatred against people. On his way, he meets San, who calls herself Princess Mononoke, a human raised in the forest by the wolf goddess Moro. San’s plan is to kill local industrialist Lady Eboshi, who has destroyed the animal habitat while and with the manufacturing of iron and guns. It was a gun shot that had transformed the boar, himself an animal god, into an evil creature. And the moment I realised that, the brilliance of the entire film dawned on me.
Inspired by the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which saw the introduction of firearms to feudal Japan, the film is a work of art in the way it conjures a simple natural world where animal gods and tree spirits roam the earth, until they start to be threatened by humanity’s technological progress and cruelty. But another amazing thing about the film is that humans are not explicitly categorized in bad and evil. Each character is flawed, and yet the writer-director does not pass judgment on them. Everything seems to exist at the confluence of tragic and magical, of shadow and light, of good and evil – I smiled when, after we realise what Lady Eboshi is doing in her village, making firearms in order to take over the surrounding natural world, it is revealed to us that she has liberated prostitutes from brothels to come and work for her and made a safe home for the lepers, too. I love how the film refuses to conform to a simplistic, black and white view on human nature, and how it avoids sentimentality and a romanticized ending.
The film is filled with such richness and complexity that can reach children in this seemingly simple way – it may be simple enough for them to enjoy but I think that, even with children of five, it sinks deeper than that. By the contrasting nature of each character, of nature vs civilization, children are shown, even if they don’t comprehend the dimension of it all, the strengths and weaknesses inherent in human nature and instills in them moral behaviour and they are provided with a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives. But that sense of bewilderment and surprise prevails at all times and that’s the film’s secret – when, at the end, after disaster occurs in the natural world and a single small tree spirit appears suddenly, that’s a moment of pure joy and hope. Earlier in the film, tens, and then hundreds, of small tree spirits had sprung one after another in a frame, and that was a joyous and hilarious moment – what a wonderful way Miyazaki has to speak with children at just the right moments.
“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” Miyazaki told The Guardian in 2005. “It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that, I would die happy.” He is 80 now, he is still making movies and he still draws by hand.
“Spirited Away”, 2001. Studio Ghibli
When, in Spirited Away, at its 20th anniversary this year, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new home, they stop to look around and go through a tunnel at the end of which they reach a strange world, a seemingly deserted themed park. When night falls, the park becomes a world populated by spirits and witches, dust balls and a river creature whose body has absorbed decades of pollution – again, it’s amazing on how many levels Miyazaki’s stories work. Chihiro has to work at a bath house so that she, with the help of a young boy who himself had long ago entered this world and now can not escape, can save her parents who have been transformed into pigs.
Once again, Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastic world is unlike anything done before, free from typical fairy tale characters. Miyazaki’s characters are driven by their own logic. Good characters can become evil just by a change of scenery, can take the shape of human, animal or river spirit, a child enters a strange world and anything can happen. It’s simply this free flow of events and transformations and beings that just happen, that just are. And the beauty of it all is that they take you along for the ride. And you just have to do what children do: be astonished.
Making art and creating awareness: Interview with Alex Beard
Drawing on the quiet moments of a movie:
Interview with film poster designer Michael Boland