Posted tagged ‘my neighbor totoro’

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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