Sunday, June 19, 2005

Miyazaki's magic

I saw two more of famed Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki's films this weekend: Howl's Moving Castle (in the theater) and Spirited Away (on DVD). He has a power to create such beautiful fully realized worlds that adhere to their own strangely believable logic, and they give a lot of credit to the viewer, revealing only that which needs to be revealed to tell the story at any given point. This technique draws you in and keeps you watching despite yourself sometimes. But so far in the four films I've seen of his -- Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor, Totoro were the others -- Miyazaki does not disappoint, if you give him your patience.

It seems to be a compliment these days to say that a family film and especially animation appeals to both children's and adults' sense of humor, but I feel like so often these appeals are working on two different planes. With Miyazaki's films, it's all of one piece: They have an amazing ability to move between joy and sorrow, laughter and revulsion, reality and fantasy, within a few moments of a scene. The characters are alternately hideous and adorable. Spirits move in and out of humans' lives, and they aren't all bad or all good. The spirits especially seem to mix a lot of human traits into their make-up: laziness, vanity, caring, forgiveness, greed, altruism. One spirit, for example, begins as a benevolent helper to a lost little girl, then enters a bathhouse, gets gluttonous, devours three of the worker creatures, only to spit them up whole with the help of a little mystical ipecac, declare loneliness to be his driving motive, and end up happily befriending a thread-spinning grandmother in a thatched-roof cottage.

Something else that strikes me about Miyazaki's worlds -- besides their focus on resourceful young women -- is their interest in the everyday habits that keep us alive. He always makes sure that his characters stop to eat meals, to bathe, to clean their environments, to have a cup of tea, to lay down for sleep and wake up in the morning, to use buses or trains to get where they're going. I know people in other animated films do these things, but there seems to be such attention paid to them, for their own sake, almost, and not as merely a place to launch an argument, discussion or action sequence. In a way, it grounds his films and keeps them very real-feeling, even as the characters shift in shape, change into one another, take solemn oaths, break spells, and find their true identities. There are some echoes of this in the recent Pixar films, but something about Miyazaki's films make them feel innocent and unjaded despite their occasional moments of violence and gruesomeness. They can be funny and playful, but don't seem to me very ironic -- which in this case -- is a good attribute.

Howl, by the way, is now showing in about 200 theaters.

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