this was written for a school assignment, a short essay on an individual selected from a list of renown animators, but i guess it’s as good a topic as any to introduce myself to the blogging world…my life is made up of moments i remember, some vaguely, some vividly…some experiences were hard earned, some lived vicariously through others (fictitious or otherwise) but no less poignant for that…here’re some of those moments …
“One in the Hallway” assignment – Miyazaki Hayao
by Dierdre Choa
The prophesied one, garbed in robes of blue, shall stand upon a field of gold…
As a child, I was fascinated by stories and reading was an unparalleled form of entertainment. Nothing could match the graphic but often disturbing descriptions of Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm, nor the thrilling adventures of Enid Blyton, nor the soaring prose of Rudyard Kipling. A fertile imagination, fuelled by eloquent writing, could not be replaced by any pallid visual representation of the written word.
However, watching a blue-clad Nausicaa traverse the sweeping mass of raised golden feelers, the seed planted early in the movie – of a messiah delivering the people from the ravaged wastelands – blossomed in my mind. Miyazaki’s vivid use of colours, his massive sense of scale, produced a breathtaking image that defied an elegant description. I recognised at that moment that animation was a medium of enormous potential, perhaps even rivalling my beloved novels. Up till then, I do not think that I had fully grasped the true meaning of how a picture could be worth a thousand words.
While the art and animation in “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” were reminiscent of Miyazaki’s work in Lupin III, the movie was a classic showcase for his dismay at the rapid encroachment of unchecked urbanisation on nature. His unbridled use of the wind to represent nature as a double-edged sword (one that could either aid flight or throw an aircraft off its course) would be repeated again and again in future productions. He also frequently employed spirits or mythical creatures as manifestations of the five elements of nature, each of which could nurture but also destroy. This was most notably illustrated when the stampeding giant insects in Nausicaa or the rampaging forest deities in Princess Mononoke would turn their powers to healing. The message was clear, treat nature with respect and man will be amply rewarded, abuse it and mankind will be crushed.
Even in Studio Ghibli productions that he did not direct, but was somehow involved in, Miyazaki could not resist poking a critical finger at urbanisation. A case in point was the tongue-in-cheek jibe in “Whisper of the Heart”, where the young female lead rewrote the lyrics of John Denver’s “Country Roads” to “concrete roads”. This film also hinted at the mystery and uniqueness of traditional pursuits as opposed to the cold blandness of newfangled gadgetry. The protagonist loved books and the old paper card system in the library, while her male counterpart aspired to enter the age-old profession of crafting violins by hand.
However, more intriguing than his social or political commentaries (the director made no bones about his abhorrence towards resorting to force of arms – militant types in his films were often portrayed as stooges) was Miyazaki’s knack for making the strange, sinister and ugly appear harmless or commonplace. In Porco Rosso, the protagonist was a flying ace (probably parodying the infamous Red Baron) who literally looked like a pig, sporting a big snout, beady eyes and floppy ears. The astonishing thing was that almost no one in the film commented on his appearance and he was treated as a regular pilot. In time, the viewers learnt to look beyond the beastly face and see the honourable man beneath.
Miyazaki was also fascinated by the secret world that he imagined children to access or inhabit from time to time, a world hidden from jaded adults. We caught references to this esoteric realm in searching for the floating island of Laputa in “Castle in the Sky” or in witnessing the sprites that only appeared to the Kusakabe sisters in “My Neighbour Totoro”. However, nowhere was this arcane land more fully rendered than in “Spirited Away”, when our young protagonist (Chihiro) stumbled into an enchanted world, where fantastical and frightening creatures reside.
Like in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, this was no less a rite of passage than what the apprentice witch had to undergo in order to become a full-fledged practitioner of magic. It could not have been more plain, the metaphor of stripping Chihiro of her name. She was literally stripped of her identity, her sense of self. Realising that every other creature in the bathhouse had given up their names too, only heightened the surreality and helplessness of the situation Chihiro had found herself in.
When she finally came into her own, by discovering and embracing her past, Chihiro regained her name and her rightful place in the real world. Her departure from this hidden realm – where she had found her true self, where she had learnt the value of friendship, where she had loved unconditionally – acutely underscored the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “parting is such bitter-sweet sorrow”.
This poignancy is a common thread found in many of Miyazaki’s other coming-of-age stories. Growing up is a painful process, wrought with heartache and uncertainty. We see here that the theme of dichotomy was not confined to his view of mother nature. Heroes could make mistakes or be blinded by emotions. Villains could be moved to compassion or reason. And though the contentious situations he inevitably placed his characters into tended to be resolved through reconciliation, it was never without some form of sacrifice.
Maybe because it was based on a British novel, but I had always felt that the patently happy ending of “Howl’s Moving Castle” was at odds with the rest of Miyazaki’s work. Somehow, the elusive and transitory nature of time that made each experience so precious was absent in this film.
People move on, circumstances change, people change, but the encounters that help shape someone into the person they will become should never be forgotten. Mizayaki’s stories are perfect allegories of American poet Robert Lowell’s powerful words, “Darkness honestly lived through is a place of wonder and life.”