Posted tagged ‘Anime’

The Wonderful World of Miyazaki

April 29, 2010

Kiki’s Delivery Service/ Rated G/ Running Time: 103 min

My Neighbor Totoro/ Rated G/ Running Time: 86 min

Ponyo/ Rated G/ Running Time: 101 min 

Disney dominated my childhood.  Nearly every one of my movie going experiences in the 1970’s involved a film by the studio.  While live action Disney movies, such as “The Shaggy D.A.” or “The Cat from Outer Space”, captured my six year old imagination, the big events were the animated films.

Disney created a successful formula with their animated features.  Sometimes they were based upon familiar fairy tales.  Nearly always they included an innocent hero/heroine forced to confront a frightening villain with the help of cute animal sidekicks.  All the while they sang a few catchy tunes. 

Every animation studio since has used this formula as their backbone.  It makes comfortable entertainment, but it also creates specific expectations for the audience.  If a film lacks any of these elements, the audience may tune out.  However, there are animators who have created beloved classics outside of the formula.  Perhaps the most successful is the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I chose three of Miyazaki’s films to show to my kids.  The first, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about a young witch in training who must live away from her parents for a year.  The second, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells about the interactions between two young sisters, dealing with their mother’s stay in the hospital, and a group of wood spirits.  The last is Miyazaki’s latest, “Ponyo”, a riff on “The Little Mermaid”, about a young goldfish who wants to become a girl.  Each of these movies is beautiful on its own, and taken together they show many examples of success outside of typical formulas.  

The most striking difference is the fact that there are no conventional villains in many of Miyazaki’s movies.  Most animated films boast a memorable villain who embodies our dark emotions.  The hero spends the film overcoming this characterization of greed, fear, or jealousy, often killing them.  Miyazaki films keep the struggle internal.  Kiki’s nemesis is her loneliness from living in an unfamiliar city and her need to belong.  In “My Neighbor Totoro”, the closest thing to a villain is the possibility that the mother may not leave the hospital.

Another difference is the way characters interact.  Many animated films show characters that are one note: “the mean girl”, “the shy boy”, “the wise old woman”.  Characters in these films are more nuanced.  “Kiki’s Delivery Service” shows particularly rich relationships.  Kiki’s female connections span from peer and rival to sister, mother and grandmother.  Just in real life, the characters will have moments where they are friendly or selfish, loving or jealous.  These complex relationships remind us of ourselves, grounding the stories in reality.

The films are also permeated by a love of nature.  In these worlds, the everyday scenes of nature are controlled by invisible magic lying just beneath the surface.  The Totoros are the protectors of the forest, and Ponyo’s father orchestrates the balance and beauty of the sea.  In fact, the main conflict in “Ponyo” stems from an imbalance in nature and the ensuing repercussions.

These films are joyous meditations on life.  The artwork is lush and fantastical.  Words can not do justice to the details of the cityscape in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or the sea creatures in “Ponyo”.  It is best to immerse yourself in them and let these unique images wash over you.

All of the movies played well to a new generation of kids raised on Disney and Pixar.  My four year old daughter enjoyed “Kiki’s Delivery Service” the best.  “My Neighbor Totoro” was favored by my six year old son.  Perhaps most importantly, my 36 year old wife was able to put away her Disney baggage and loved them all.

Miyazaki will open your horizons and his unique style of animation will intoxicate you.  I may have spent most of my words highlighting some differences between Miyazaki and Disney, but there are nods to the formula.  Kiki’s smart-alecky black cat is a typical animal sidekick and the plot of “Ponyo” is somewhat goal oriented, like many of the fairy tales.  The films are different, but not so much that they should be frightening.  In fact, do you know who distributes Miyazaki’s films in the U.S.?  Yes, once again, Disney has put their stamp of approval on high quality family entertainment.  They have had me since birth, and I guess I’ll always be loyal to the brand.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki Film?

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The Need for Compassion – “Grave of the Fireflies”

April 25, 2010

Grave of the Fireflies/ Not Rated/ Running Time: 89 mins

“Grave of the Fireflies” absolutely destroyed me.  Every minute of it filled me with dread and sadness.  It touches upon the dark side of life, showing cruelty, alienation, and loss.  It evokes the emotions that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid.  And it should be required viewing for every parent.

The Japanese movie follows Seita, a boy of 14 and his 4 year old sister, Setsuko, during the waning days of World War II.  It is animated, but it is not for children.  Young kids should stay away, not because the images are overtly violent or disturbing, rather the emotions are beyond their comprehension.  

“All war stories are told by survivors,” the director Samuel Fuller once told Roger Ebert.  This is a survival tale as well, but we know within the first few minutes that the children will not survive.  The reasons why the children do not survive make this film vital.  In most films where the audience knows the main character will die, it becomes increasingly suspenseful as the movie progresses.  By the end, we are primed for the moment when the gun goes off, or the accident occurs.  This film offers no easy tragic ending.  Death does not come from a wayward bomb, but from an accumulation of the little acts of selfishness that we commit in our everyday lives.

How often do we put conditions on the love we give one another?  How often do we agree to do something out of obligation and complain about it later?  Early in the film, the children lose their mother and move in with an aunt.  While she accepts them into her home, she refuses to comfort the little girl’s nightmares, belittles the boy for not doing more for the war effort, and doles out meal portions based upon her judgment of who deserves it most.  Despite this, she is no wicked step-mother.  She is trying to survive as well.  Like most of us, she may not even realize that she judges and makes her love conditional.

The children end up alone, forgotten by the world.  Adult selfishness drove them out on their own, but it is childish ego that keeps them there.  The boy refuses to forgive his aunt for her behavior even when their situation becomes so dire that her help is their only hope for survival.  The children spiral downward and all the audience can do is watch as if they are attending a terminally ill relative.  The saddest part is the knowledge that it is all preventable.  All it would take is one person to show compassion to the children or the boy to let go of his ego.

It is difficult for me to connect to a war movie.  I have never lived through a war, so my knowledge comes from the history books and the movies.  Great war movies give you a simulated experience.  But even the best examples, such as the visceral opening invasion of “Saving Private Ryan” or the brutal imagery of “Schindler’s List” will never aptly capture the reality.  The most affecting scene about World War II comes from “The Straight Story”, when two elderly men sit at a bar and tell their war stories.  Both men end the scene crying, overwhelmed by their memories.  The beauty of the scene is its encapsulation of the repercussions of war without focusing on the actions, but rather the feelings. 

The emotional impact of “Grave of the Fireflies” continues to resonate with me weeks after my first viewing.  It has become a touchstone.  It reminds me to be a little kinder, that little actions can have huge repercussions, and to hug my children as much as I can.  There are so many scenes in this film that had me close to tears.  When writing this essay, there were times when I felt a pit in my stomach, choked up from memories of the film.  This does not happen often.

“Grave of the Fireflies” may not be a pleasant emotional experience, but it is powerful and unforgettable.  As parents, we want to teach our kids to be thankful for what they have and to help those in need.  We want them to be compassionate and to remember those who are forgotten by society.    The movie reminds us of the tragic consequences that can occur if we ignore these ideals.  Show it your children as they become old enough, but before that, watch it yourself and remember what is important in life.

What movie reminds you to be a better person?

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