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Miyazaki

On January 20, 2006, I posted thoughts about Hayao Miyazaki's films that prompted some exceptionally interesting responses from Andrew Osmond and Jenny Lerew. My original posting follows in the next paragraph; to skip over it and go directly to Andrew's response, click here. And click here to go to the most recent posting on this page.]

Porco RossoAfter watching six of Hayao Miyazaki's animated features on Turner Classic Movies, all in their English-dubbed versions, I've concluded that this extravagantly praised Japanese filmmaker is above all a great effects animator. Every scene in his films that has real scope and weight is an effects scene, like the great aerial battles in Porco Rosso.

We could see from the glimpses of Miyazaki's storyboarding that preceded the features on TCM that the detailed staging and pacing of those scenes really originates with him. If some directors, like Chuck Jones, have all but animated scenes by giving their animators detailed character layouts, it appears that Miyazaki does the same for effects scenes with his storyboards (which look as if they could double as layouts, and may have, for all I know).

The downside of a preoccupation with effects is that everything in between turns into a sort of stuffing, the character animation in particular. In Miyazaki's films it suffers from Japanese animation's endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned. This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki's characters—the doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates and laborers—look and behave too much alike. I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.

Even where screen-filling effects are involved, repetition is a hazard in the Miyazaki features, as when a horde of enraged giant bugs in one film becomes a horde of enraged giant boars in another, in each case as a trope for the offended environment. Like other filmmakers with an appetite for big ideas but limited interest in character (think Stanley Kramer), Miyazaki turns the more clunky the more directly he grapples with such ideas.

After seeing eight Miyazaki features in all (Howl's Moving Castle and Kiki's Delivery Service in addition to the six I've seen on TCM), I've been reinforced in my belief that Miyazaki is the more universal the more "Japanese" he is. Princess Mononoke might qualify under that test, except for its tortured plot, and My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps the strangest of Miyazaki's films (and the one least dominated by effects animation), suffers for the opposite reason, an almost total sacrifice of action for atmosphere. Spirited Away, drenched in Japanese folklore, and with a story that is complex but always clear, seems to me far and away the best of Miyazaki's films, the one that is most likely to survive—but even it would have benefited immensely from more seriously considered character animation.

I don't think Miyazaki's reputation will owe much ultimately to John Lasseter's over-the-top praise, which preceded each feature on TCM. In too many cases, there was simply too great a gap between Lasseter's words and what followed them on the screen. On the other hand, the Miyazaki films certainly benefit from the new English dubbings. The voice acting is in many cases astonishingly good, especially in Totoro, where the work of two child actors, the Fanning sisters, is beyond praise.

From Andrew Osmond: I realize you may have said everything you want to say on Miyazaki, a figure you plainly find overrated; these are just a few thoughts I had re your interpretation.

Spirited AwayYou comment: "I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him (i.e. effects scenes)." I find this bizarre. If Miyazaki was really so bored by non-effects scenes, why on earth would he have made a film like Totoro, a pet project that he strove to get off the ground for many years? Why is one of his best-known motifs his slow, frequently silent interludes set in tranquil environments? And why did he, according to interviews, take great pride in the "climax" to Spirited Away, which in his view comes when the girl gets on the train? Hardly the most kinetic of anime set-pieces.

I appreciate you may see these quiet scenes as indifferent or worthless, at least judged as animation. However, I doubt Miyazaki shares your views about what is and what isn't "interesting" in animation, any more than John Kricfalusi. (A lot less than Kricfalusi, I suspect.) For the record, my understanding of Miyazaki's work process is he draws all the storyboards for his films, action and non-action scenes. I'm sure he has preferences when it comes to actual animation—most obviously, he loves flight—but that's different from him secretly seeing effects animation as the raison d'être for his films.

Other thoughts, if you have time:

1) Is Spirited Away's success really down to its "Japaneseness"? I see the Japanese cultural stuff as set-dressing; the machinery really driving the film is the blend of all Miyazaki's recurring interests in flight, ecology, strong girls, weary gods, overbuilt machinery, empowering labour, elaborate buildings, even pigs... none of which strikes me as essentially Japanese (you can find weary gods in any number of works by Neil Gaiman, who adapted Mononoke's script in America). At the same time, SA has some common ground with US animated features (a child protagonist, a fairly brisk pace, cute animals, fairy-tale echoes) making it an easier sell to the West than Miyazaki's other features. Actually, Miyazaki has adored Western children's literature since his own childhood, and was involved in TV cartoons of Heidi and Anne of Green Gables in the 1970s.

2) You write off Miyazaki as having "limited interest in character." Knowing your stance, I'm sure I can't convince you that his characters have any interest. However, you might find the quotes below interesting; some even reminded me of things you say in Hollywood Cartoons. They're from an unofficial translation of an article Miyazaki wrote on animation in 1988, the year of Totoro. The full translation is at this link.

Hayao MiyazakiTalking about rotoscoping: "If you just transplant live-action into drawings, even the acting of a great actor can change into something peculiarly slimy and indistinct. That's because acting is not just movement. It is made of the subtle changes of shadows and lights, texture which can not be expressed with cels, wetness and dryness, and a succession of signs which are faster than one twenty-fourth of second. Skillful staff members demanded the model actors to act in a more simple style that expresses itself through body silhouette. They thought that the acting style developed for theaters was better suited for cel animated movies than the style developed for movies. That is why the gestures of Disney characters look like a musical... Disney's Cinderella has proved that seeking 'more realistic' movements using rotoscope itself is a double-edged sword. The search for 'more reality' just expressed a common American girl, and it lost the symbolism of the story more than Snow White did."

Moving on to his own animation: "I myself hate this technique [rotoscoping]. If animators are enslaved by live-action films, the excitement in the animator's work would lessen by half. Though we can also say that we didn't have an acting style after which we could model. Bunraku, kabuki, nou, or kyougen are too far apart from our works, and Japanese musicals or ballet which are just borrowed [from the West] didn't interest us. We have been animating with our passion, hunches, and feeling, based on various experiences of movies, manga, and others, as much as time and money allowed us. Gestures [of the characters] tend to be constructed by symbolizing and breaking characters' feelings down to facial parts (i.e., eyes, eyebrows, mouths, and noses) and reconstructing them. But we tried to overcome the decay of symbolization by animating through 'identifying with the character' or 'becoming the character.' You shouldn't look down on the simple power [of such an approach]. It is far from style or sophistication, but if you can capture the true essence of what you should express, a picture with a true feeling has power."

From Jenny Lerew: I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about Miyazaki's films, as mine differ from yours—most drastically as regards Totoro.

I'd never heard of Miyazaki or seen anything of his until Glen Keane (then teaching the upperclassmen at CalArts—I was a first year, but he made his lectures open ones) brought a clip from Totoro to screen. It was the scene of the girls waiting for their father; it grows dark, and begins to rain. First Totoro, then the catbus shows up. He showed this, saying that it had affected him profoundly (as I recall, the film had been screened for the Disney animation dept. the week before; I don't know if Miyazaki was there also, but I doubt it). It affected all of us profoundly, too. I was blown away by it. Me—hardly a fan of the anime I'd seen up to that point. A wordless but beautifully constructed encounter, with all facets working perfectly. I'd gather that you'd disagree, from your remark that Totoro "suffers for the opposite reason, an almost total sacrifice of action for atmosphere."

My Neighbor TotoroEvery reaction to film is personal and often unique, of course, and I've come to various impasses with friends I respect: where one finds something sublime, the other sees kitsch, or worse, in the same thing. That's human. But I'm surprised to find you so (apparently) bored and unsatisfied by Totoro; to me, the atmosphere, the attention to detail of setting and mood, brilliantly supports and gets over the story, which admittedly isn't a "big" one: two sisters adapting to and solaced by nature, real and (possibly) imaginary. I see no lack of action—both physical and emotional. The film's full of scenes where the action and cutting are far from slow: running around exploring the empty, strange new house in the country; flying across the countryside with Totoro; riding the catbus; searching frantically for the possibly drowned Mei…and all these are interwoven with and spring from the story—not, to touch on your other recent discussion, "set pieces." Truly, what Totoro has that makes it work so well is what so few of any sort of American films—animated or not—often lack, to their detriment: carefully planned, wordless places to breathe and to really be visually hypnotized to believe in the story-world in the way film can do—better than any other art form.

As for the character animation—well, there's no question that it is coming from a very different esthetic from our American model. Yet the rough sketches Miyazaki does of all his characters (published in the "Art Of" books available for his films) are as well-realized and expressively gorgeous as anything any animator would have done at Disney's in the fifties; I can easily imagine [Marc] Davis and even [Milt] Kahl giving him his due as a sensitive draughtsman of people as well as things. I'd think he could master what we call "full" animation if he chose, but that's not his style. Yes, the lack of expressive distortion (or lack of a better word—and I'm sure there are better words!) in his characters' faces is obvious; but I've never not known what they are thinking. How that works, I think, is precisely by the cumulative effect of everything from his framing, to his cutting to the characters' silhouettes. All adds up—even if "we" would never do it that way, or try to.

I'd agree that there are definite "stock" figures in his oeuvre, but I don't agree that every heroine is the same. Perhaps as to that, though, there is something symbolic there for Miyazaki in these young girls particularly (I believe he's written on this subject, actually)—and certainly in Japan children and in particular young women hold a special place in anime and culture. I'm not qualified to comment too much on that. But just as a bystander, watching the films as pure entertainment, I've been totally satisfied by Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and to a somewhat lesser extent ("lesser" where his studio is concerned still indicating a high level of interest) the rest of his projects.

CatbusMB replies: I fumbled by trying to sum up my feelings about My Neighbor Totoro in a single phrase, one that invited similar reactions from Andrew and Jenny. The "atmosphere" that Miyazaki creates in Totoro is indeed wonderful, as is frequently true of his films (as I remarked in one of my first posted reviews three years ago—of Monsters, Inc., actually—"his settings seem real even when the characters don't"). The sense of Japanese rural life that permeates Totoro is, at least to this American who has never been to Japan, wholly persuasive. The scene that Jenny describes, with Totoro and the astonishing "catbus," is just as magical as she says (and is one of several scenes in the film showing how strongly Miyazaki has been influenced by Lewis Carroll, and by Tenniel's illustrations in particular). I can think of other scenes almost as wonderful, as when the tiny child Mei lands on the sleeping Totoro's chest and is totally at ease even though she is dwarfed by this huge, furry creature with an enormous mouth full of enormous teeth.

I can't think of a better way to make the film's acquaintance than through one or another of those scenes. I even like the way that Miyazaki hoards his scenes with Totoro and the other forest spirits, giving them relatively little screen time so that their impact is all the greater when they do appear. I'm reminded of Jurassic Park, which is a better film because its CGI dinosaurs aren't on the screen very much, in contrast to the orgies of CGI we've since become accustomed to.

But I also remember feeling a certain impatience with My Neighbor Totoro by the time its most arresting scenes arrived, and so some of their undeniable magic was lost on me. Not a lot; but more than I would have liked. Perhaps my impatience arose from a cultural gap, and I needed to align my sympathies more closely with those of the filmmaker. But I have to wonder if, in Totoro, Miyazaki went a bit overboard while indulging a longing for quiet scenes that he could not satisfy in the two features (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: The Castle in the Sky) he made immediately preceding Totoro.

That's not to say that those earlier features aren't just as "personal" as Totoro, in their own way. As I've said, they're terrific vehicles for the kind of effects animation that Miyazaki is a master of and clearly enjoys putting on the screen.

From all appearances, Miyazaki has always been interested in making very different kinds of films. Generalizing about his films, pro or con, is treacherous for that reason. The presence of highly effective quiet scenes in Totoro and Spirited Away doesn't elevate what I've called the "stuffing" in his effects-dominated films like Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso, any more than such "stuffing" diminishes the power of those quiet scenes.

Spirited Away posterFor me, Spirited Away is the most successful of Miyazaki's films because it balances so well the competing and to some extent incompatible strains in his work—the effortlessly spectacular effects animation, the intensely persuasive atmospherics, the solemn and tranquil scenes that feel like humble pauses in the presence of supernatural mysteries. As Andrew suggests, it probably mattered less to Miyazaki that his story was intensely "Japanese" than that it was an excellent vehicle for so many of his preoccupations.

As much as I like Spirited Away, though—and as much as I will probably like Totoro and some of the other Studio Ghibli features after seeing them again—I still find Miyazaki's human characters "little more than ciphers, their appearance and their actions almost wholly dictated by formulas," to quote my 2003 review again. I simply can't reconcile what I see on the screen with Miyazaki's thoughts as quoted by Andrew.

What Jenny calls a "lack of expressive distortion" is not the problem. Miyazaki actually indulges in quite a bit of it—and God forbid he should ever become a disciple of John Kricfalusi. Jenny says of Miyazaki's characters, "I've never not known what they are thinking," but that's not the problem either. What's missing is not such clarity, but spontaneity and volatility, in physical movement and, especially, thought and emotion. Clarity, in and of itself, quickly becomes a bore if it is not coupled with some suggestion of how quickly the composition of the boiling stew behind our foreheads can change.

To see what's missing, look at something like Frank Thomas's animation of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Thomas's Hook is nothing if not mercurial, but he is, simultaneously, always the same. As I've said in discussions of cartoon acting, I dislike the film's handling of Hook, but there's nothing to complain of in Thomas's animation, or for that matter, Woolie Reitherman's (my complaint is that what should be one character is really two, but the animators weren't to blame for that).

More recent Disney characters have moved as freely as Hook and his ilk, but, of course, there has rarely been any sense that much is going on inside their heads. For that reason among others, I don't think Miyazaki should try to make his characters look and move like Disney characters; but I can't excuse the general woodenness of his character designs and his character animation as simply the byproduct of a different esthetic.

Michael Sporn recently wrote on his "Splog" about the animation in Miyazaki's films. As I did in my 2003 review (speaking of Chihiro, the heroine of Spirited Away, I singled out "fleeting moments when she slips into the paralysis of fear"), he spoke favorably of some of it:

"I find myself sucked into some of the human movement. Small moments like the girl going down all those stairs in Spirited Away make the experience exciting. The biggest problem I have with the animation is that I can't personalize it—I don't know who did what animation, and it's doubtful I could find out even in doing enormous research. These sections that I love may all be done by the same person, but I don't think I'll ever know. Hence, I have to give credit only to the director, Miyazaki and focus on the elements that are unique to his work, and there's a lot of it."

Animation in which the animator's personality is invisible is likely to be animation in which the character's personality is, if not invisible, highly generalized, and that's certainly true in Miyazaki's films. It's tempting to speculate that what's going on is, again, distinctively, self-effacingly "Japanese"—the submergence of the individual in the larger organization, and so on. But such an analysis seems reductive and even patronizing. Maybe even the "enormous research" Michael Sporn speaks of wouldn't yield answers to the riddles Miyazaki poses, but it's tempting to pursue such research, if only so far as reading the large pile of books already published by and about the man—and, of course, watching his films again.

[Posted January 26, 2006]

From Andrew Osmond: I should stress I'm not trying to "change your mind" about Miyazaki. I once did a phone-interview with Glen Keane, whom Jenny Lerew mentioned, and he enthused about Miyazaki. Then again, I also interviewed Andreas Deja about Lilo and Stitch. At the end of our talk, Deja brought up Spirited Away and, while he liked some things about it (as I recall), he couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Actually, the first person who taught me about the gulf between Miyazaki's films and classic U.S. principles was Amid Amidi, who saw Princess Mononoke and found it excruciating.

In the beginning of the Miyazaki article that I pointed to before, the director talks about his intense reaction to what was the first colour Japanese cartoon feature, White Serpent (1958). I've seen a dubbed, reportedly edited US version of this (called The Panda and the White Serpent). Even to my eyes, the characters are very crudely animated—there are lots of head-tilts and simple sways, but not a smidgen of what one might call "inner life."

And yet Miyazaki says (with embarrassment) that he "fell in love" with the film's heroine. In the same way, some of his fans today seem inordinately affectionate towards Miyazaki's character Nausicaä, whose animation (even by Miyazaki standards) is rudimentary—though I find something striking about some of the drawings when she goes berserk following her father's death.

Perhaps this only shows, as Lerew says, that one person's kitsch is another person's sublime. One could also see it as a reminder of the power even "artless" moving drawings have over some people; witness the impassioned fans of Japanese anime in general, of which I confess I'm one.

Miyazaki doesn't like most anime, as he explains in his article; he also resents the way it's been made an adjunct to comics. According to one interview, he didn't like Disney's Snow White or Bambi either, and had a violent negative reaction to Sleeping Beauty. He acknowledged Pinocchio was "great," but said it didn't move him. I know this will horrify you, but he said he preferred Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels and Hoppity Goes to Town.

Castle in the SkyThe robot in his film Castle in the Sky, as you probably noticed, was an homage to the robots in the Superman cartoon, The Mechanical Monsters. I've also heard the children's cartoon in the cinema in a Porco Rosso scene was meant as a nod to Fleischer. Outside the US, Miyazaki likes The King and the Bird, a French feature by Paul Grimault—have you seen it? [MB: Yes, years ago, in an English-dubbed version.] Miyazaki's liking for oversized buildings may come from there. Miyazaki also admire Frederic Back's work. I mention all this so maybe you can better "place" him.

The other big thing is Miyazaki's strange career trajectory. He started working at Toei, the studio that made White Serpent. Through the 1960s, it produced many children's cartoons, with animation that was at least an improvement on White Serpent. One of the first, made before Miyazaki joined, was dubbed in America as Alakazam the Great. Some of these films are straightforward Disney imitations. For example, the first film Miyazaki worked on (as an inbetweener) has blatant lifts from Bambi, down to the off-screen killing of the mother and the orphan child-hero (a wolf) wandering in snowy wastes.

The Toei film Miyazaki was most involved in was dubbed as The Little Norse Prince. He didn't direct it, but he designed and animated some of it, and contributed some of the story ideas. It's occasionally shown on US TV, I think, but isn't on US DVD. (It's not worth watching in a cropped TV format, because that ruins the widescreen conpositions.) By that time, I'd say the "dramatic" animation was definitely reminscent of Fleischer, and much of it was fully animated on ones and twos. There's some "cartoony" business involving a talking bear-cub that I personally like, though I don't know what you'd think. Overall, I'd say the film is nearer US cartoon principles than any of Miyazaki's own films.

Anyway, Prince flopped, for reasons open to debate, and Miyazaki was demoted. The later Toei films I've seen don't have any of Prince's qualities. Miyazaki quit Toei at the beginning of the '70s and spent the next decade in TV animation, which of course is entirely different. Many themes and settings in his films orginate in his TV work, and I'd say his animation style does as well.

I should stress that Miyazaki's best TV animation, once he had a measure of control and resources, is light-years away from Scooby Doo or Pokemon. The movement is very detailed by TV standards, it's often funny, and it conveys a warm affection (I think) for the characters. But it's totally removed from Hollywood aesthetics and has remained so, I think, ever since.

Future Boy ConanThe most important TV title is a children's SF serial called Future Boy Conan (constructed as one epic, ten-hour adventure—there are pictures at this link). It involved one of Miyazaki's future colleagues, Yoshifumi Kondo, who would later animate on several Ghibli films and co-create a movie with Miyazaki. He died very suddenly in 1998.

In his eulogy, Miyazaki recalled: "I can't forget one scene which Kondo did when he was young. It's a scene in Future Boy Conan, where the hero laughs to cheer the heroine up... The expression of the boy was really cheerful, full of gentleness and consideration. It was really a great picture."

All of which is a very long way of saying the obvious: that, whatever Miyazaki found in animation—a medium he's stayed with for 40 years, only finding commercial success in the last 20, being elevated to a superstar in the last decade—it isn't the same essence you find in Captain Hook, Grumpy or Dumbo. I don't think that's a reflection on Miyazaki's "Japaneseness," though I think it reflects the accidents of what he grew up with, and when. The point of the history detour is that Miyazaki clearly brushed against some approximation of Hollywood cartoon principles in his early career; he just never registered them.

Personally, I'd defend Miyazaki because I find a charm, warmth and magic in some types of moving drawings made outside the Hollywood aesthetic, while acknowledging how different and incompatible they are. For me, getting a Miyazaki character to act like a Disney character would be like asking George Orwell to write like Vladimir Nabokov. The result might be wonderful, but I wouldn't feel it was Miyazaki; it would overwrite his voice and deep-rooted choices in his storytelling that make him who he is. (The same applies if his films were remade as live-action effects films, as you suggest.) But this is where we part company.

I've gone on far too long already, but a couple of quick last notes:

If you don't know already, Miyazaki has also drawn comics, one of which he turned into Nausicaä, though with great reluctance. Perhaps his comics might interest you more than his films; anyway, he was influenced by people like Moebius and Richard Corben, as much or more than he was by Japanese manga. In my view, his greatest overall work may well be his thousand-page comic version of Nausicaä, which he continued after the film version for the next decade, writing it in the gaps between his films. An American translation (seven books) is available from Viz communications. If you want to see examples of his comic style, see this link, which is an article about how the original serial was later revised. The panels read from right-to-left, of course; the later parts of the article have "spoilers," though I don't think they really spoil anything for non-Japanese readers.

If you're wondering who I am, I'm an undisciplined British freelance writer. I used to write for Animato!, although I was frankly terrible in those days. I do occasional reports for Animation World Network and review animation for the UK magazine Sight and Sound. (My latest review was of Chicken Little, which I'm sorry to say I enjoyed.)

[Posted January 28, 2006]

From Kevin Hogan: Miyazaki’s films, on the whole, have great strength in technical ability (especially in Special Effects), thematic clarity, and directorial vision. His films, however, lack depth in character animation (especially in human characters).

The first painter that I ever developed a strong affinity for was Van Gogh. I would get frustrated when my wife would comment that he lacked strong draftsmanship, and I tended to disregard her comments under the mindset of her “just not getting it.” I loved the expression and the simplicity. As I became more aware of other artists, however, I began to see my wife’s comments as accurate, if not a little harsh. Van Gogh’s strength is in the emotion that he is able to convey in his artwork, but his simplistic draftsmanship limits where he was able to take his paintings. His paintings, while striking in a sense, lack the visual depth of many other masters.

In a similar sense, I feel that lovers of anime (and more pointedly, lovers of Miyazaki) tend to love the expression/ the stories/ the themes of his films while choosing to ignore the fact that his characters often times lack visual complexity. The mother of the small boy in Ponyo is a great example. We find her to be a loving mother due to her close proximity to her son. We find her to be stressed and stretched due to the physical business she is doing with her hands and from the strong English vocal dub. However, her face and body language do not tell us any more about her convictions. Without her voice and the “business” of story, the audience would not be able to see with clarity how she feels about her husband being away at sea, the stress of being a working single mother, etc.

Often times classic Hollywood animation had severe deficits in story and structure. But the best Hollywood animation (Snow White’s Dwarfs, Dumbo, etc) had strong character animation to put across emotional reality within a film. Miyazaki (and anime in a stereotypical and general sense) has strong story and weak characterization. If only we could find a happy middle ground…

[Posted August 30, 2011]
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