The Complete Miyazaki, Part 2

By James Schellenberg

In the first part of this series, I looked at the early films of Japanese writer, animator, and director Hayao Miyazaki. His first three films—The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Castle in the Sky—are somewhat uneven in quality and not as well known as his later films.

In the three movies that I will be looking at this time around, Miyazaki has gotten much more sure of his audience and each film is far more coherent, albeit quite different from the others.

I'll finish up this series in a later column about Miyazaki's most recent three movies. As I've been writing this, I've seen some of the first ads for the North American release of Miyazaki's newest movie, Howl's Moving Castle. Looks good!


My Neighbor Totoro, 1988

My Neighbor Totoro is the purest expression of Miyazaki-ness. It's overtly a kid's movie—and quite popular for that audience, I might add—and yet it has all of the qualities that draw me to Miyazaki flicks, distilled into 85 minutes. The kid-friendly nature of My Neighbor Totoro makes it quite different than his more grown-up films, although, as far as I can tell, this is more of a North American distinction than a Japanese.

Two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, move to a new house. Mei is five and Satsuki is a few years older (her age is not mentioned specifically but she seems about 9 or 10). As the movie opens, they are riding in a moving truck with their dad. The girls are understandably thrilled about a new place, but how exciting is this for us? We see them clean the house, we see Satsuki's first day at a new school, we see them plant some seeds in the garden, and so on.

These mundane things are shown so vividly, and with such a mix of realism and whimsy, that we can't help but watch. In the whimsy department, there's the neighbor of the title, and I'll discuss the fantastical nature of the totoro in a moment. For me, the accomplishment or lesson of this movie is: no matter the simplicity of the material—in this case, two girls who move to a new house—you can create something touching and enduring if you have the talent and you take some care in the way you tell the story.

If you look at My Neighbor Totoro from the standpoint of plot, you'll be disappointed. Speaking reductively, the story is basically an hour of setup and only 20 minutes of plot development. The last segment of the movie has considerably more urgency, each character has to contribute their own special skills, and there's a neat wrap-up. That's all true, but I've always preferred the first hour of the film! I suspect that's because it is such an atypical way of telling a story. I hasten to add that the last 20 minutes do indeed fit the film; thankfully, there's no random villain tacked on or other such inanity.

A few minutes in, we find out that Mei and Satsuki's mother is in the hospital, with a (relatively) mild ailment. For anyone who hasn't seen Totoro, this might be setting off alarm bells for the absent-mother cliché. When I'm vaguely remembering the plot, I can get a bit nervous about this too, but when I'm watching the movie the mother's absence feels totally different than the way it's used in Disney films in particular. In fact, Totoro is a bit of an absent-father story too! But in a way that makes the story more interesting, not less. Their dad is a professor, and he gets very wrapped up in his work if he's at home, or else he's working long hours at the lab. But he's totally enthusiastic about his kids, and he's one of the more sympathetic characters.

The story has strong fantastical elements, even if they are slightly cheesy. The totoro of the title is a bear-sized forest creature, at one point referred to as the king of the forest although his royal duties seem to involve sleeping, napping, yawning, and playing the gourd. The totoro is not part of traditional Japanese folklore, although Miyazaki certainly makes it seem that way; the movie does have its share of authentic cultural details. My Neighbor Totoro is a real treat for genre fans, in that it's enjoyable on its own and it's also a wonderful way to get kids interested in the fantastical and another culture.

This is a good place to mention composer Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki's longtime collaborator. Hisaishi's music accompanies every one of Miyazaki's movies, with the exception of Cagliostro (the first movie in Miyazaki's career and one that was more of a contract job). Totoro is the only Hisaishi soundtrack that I own, and it's the easiest cure for feeling glum that I know of. If I put it on, the charm and appeal of the movie floods in and brightens my day. Sure, there are some cheesy J-pop tendencies in the music, but that comes with the territory.

On the whole, the recent Disney releases of Miyazaki's movies have done a bang-up job, but the matter of music has been iffier. Some of the Disney DVDs have changed Hisaishi's music, and Kiki's Delivery Service (the movie after Totoro) was done without Hisaishi's involvement, which is annoying to anyone who cares about this kind of stuff. In the case of Castle in the Sky (the movie before Totoro), Hisaishi was enlisted to remix the soundtrack. Essentially, his job was to add music to every scene. His comments on the task can be found online; basically he thinks North Americans are a bit cuckoo for not being able to go without music in a movie for longer than a 3-minute stretch (the number from the guidelines that Disney gave him).

Unfortunately, My Neighbor Totoro is the one movie that hasn't been released on a proper DVD yet, and the previously released dubbed version from Fox is no longer available because the rights have gone to Disney. I have to admit, however, that I get the song for the closing credits stuck in my head: it's a hilarious recap of the events of the story and I find the English words way too easy to sing along to.

Oh, and for those keeping track of Miyazaki's obsession with flight: the totoro can fly. With one flick, his magic top is spinning and he jumps on board, and everyone else jumps on his furry stomach. While My Neighbor Totoro doesn't have as much flying as the next movie, I couldn't be more envious of the totoro mode of air transportation.


Kiki's Delivery Service, 1989

When I first saw this movie, I actually preferred it to My Neighbor Totoro. But while Kiki's has solid storytelling, Totoro is a sui generis item that stays in the mind and grows more impressive in retrospect. That is not to say anything against Kiki's; this more typical offering from Miyazaki is still well crafted.

Kiki has turned thirteen and since she is a witch, she has to take a year away from her family to train in another city. Her mother is also a witch, so she understands what Kiki has to do. All the same, Kiki's mother and father are sad to see her go and a little surprised at how fast Kiki has grown up.

(As a side note, "witch" is an English word that, traditionally speaking, has darker connotations than the closest equivalent in Japanese.)

So, in the first five minutes, we have a young protagonist who is away from her parents! This sets the stage for a standard coming-of-age story. Kiki has to find her own sense of self, figure out what her powers as witch might be, and generally learn how to be an adult.

In a sense, the story of Kiki's Delivery Service is the process of Kiki finding a replacement family. That's not it exactly: perhaps not so much a family as the group of peers who will be her grown-up acquaintances. At many points in the movie, Kiki expresses her sense of being an outsider, of not fitting in, of having too many personal responsibilities for her to fit in with the other kids. It's a lot to balance, and her struggles are portrayed realistically.

The target audience age for Kiki's is older than for Totoro, and that's partly due to the slightly older protagonist and her friends. Kiki is thirteen and her friend in the city, Tombo, is the same age or a year older. Their friendship is more sweet than romantic, but it is definitely leading in that direction. Kiki spends all of her time with characters older than herself, with only the briefest of exceptions, and that also affects the tone of the movie. In Totoro, the two younger kids spent most of their time together or playing with whimsical forest creatures. Kiki moves in an adult world.

I'm not sure what to say about the flying in this movie . . . except that Miyazaki sure likes flying scenes! The sequences in the air are exciting and well animated. My particular favorite takes place later in the movie when Kiki, in desperate straits, has to borrow a broom from a bystander. She's not sure if the broom will work . . . her hair starts to float upwards . . . air gusts away from the broom, blasting dust in all directions . . . and with a jolt, Kiki launches straight up. But she can hardly go in a straight line with this unreliable broom, and the city is crowded with obstacles. Great stuff.

Kiki's Delivery Service takes place in one of those weirdly Europeanized settings that I keep talking about in reference to Miyazaki's movies. Kiki's adopted city is vaguely Mediterranean and vaguely modern. In fact, it's a fascinating contrast (or not so much of a contrast) with the next movie, Porco Rosso, which is overtly pre-WWII Italy.

I haven't said much about the visual style in Miyazaki's movies. The characters in his movies have few of the trademarks of stereotypical anime; some of the people have big eyes and that's about it. When I watch Kiki's and the others, I'm always struck by how the animation is fluid and precisely real; Miyazaki and his team of animators always get the little details of movement and weight just right. Kiki's Delivery Service was made in the old-school animation style where (somewhat more) cartoony characters move and talk against a more detailed background. This sense goes away in Miyazaki's subsequent movies as computer tools become more common and Studio Ghibli—Miyazaki's animation studio—got bigger budgets to work with. Spirited Away in particular has carefully integrated foreground and background visuals.

Kiki's Delivery Service is the one movie whose subtitled version I would forcefully recommend watching. The English dub is horrendous, mainly due to the voice work of Phil Hartman as Jiji, the talking cat. The back cover blurb calls Jiji Kiki's "chatty black cat," but he's nothing but laconic in the original Japanese, never mind that he's also voiced by a girl. The Japanese soundtrack has far more patches of silence, which is noticeable because the subtitles follow the dialogue from the dubbed version. Very distracting!


Porco Rosso, 1992

Porco Rosso is a strange but interesting flick, far more obscure than Miyazaki's other movies, and not widely available in North America until the release of the Disney DVD this year. I had always heard that Porco Rosso was the weak link in Miyazaki's career, the one movie that had ambitions but didn't live up to them. I had a chance to see Porco Rosso at a Miyazaki retrospective last fall at the Ottawa Animation Festival, and the film blew me away. It's an odd one all right, but it's certainly worth watching.

Porco Rosso is a WWI flying ace who lives among the islands in the Adriatic near Italy. It's the 1930s, so Porco's best flying days are in the past, not to mention that he's turned into a pig. He's a bounty hunter, although a vastly unmotivated one. The Adriatic is filled with air pirates and he makes his money by hunting down the pirates after they have committed a crime and then bringing them to justice. But the pirates have hired an American air ace named Curtis to go after Porco and the first encounter between the two leaves Porco with a crashed plane.

Porco is in love with a woman named Gina, and Gina is in love with him, or are they really? Curtis has instantly fallen in love with Gina as well, and it looks like a love triangle in the works. However, this part of the story doesn't play out as expected. Curtis is more of the comic relief than a serious villain and Gina laughs at him as much as we do. Another romantic subplot that veers in a different direction involves Porco's young mechanic, Fio; she proves her worth and becomes friends with Gina.

Porco Rosso was far more humorous than I was expecting. The movie opens with Porco on his way to fight some air pirates, the Mamma Aiutos. In addition to money, the pirates have taken hostages, a group of a dozen or so young schoolgirls, in the mistaken belief that these kids will be ideal kidnappees. Just imagine all the mischief that Mei gets into in My Neighbor Totoro, times twelve. Porco Rosso is not much of a match for them either!

One line that made me laugh is worth mentioning, mostly for its incongruity. Porco Rosso has gone to Milan to get his plane fixed, and he's telling the mechanic, Fio's grandfather, that he doesn't want the engine tuned for a race but rather for a dogfight. The mechanic, in a notable huff, wants to convey that he already knows this and says, "You're explaining Buddhism to Buddha!" That's one self-important mechanic, and well versed in Eastern philosophy besides.

The central conceit of the movie is one that's easy to forget as you're watching. Porco Rosso is literally the crimson pig: he's a man who has turned into a (mostly manlike) pig and he flies a crimson-colored airplane. I don't know enough about Japanese culture to point out any antecedents, but in terms of the movie's European references, Kafka's famous story "The Metamorphosis" springs to mind. Kafka never gave an explanation why his character turned into a bug, which provides much of the unease of the story. In the case of Porco Rosso, Gina refers to Porco's appearance as a curse but it is not otherwise explained. I get the feeling that it's more of a self-imposed thing, a weird literalization of Porco's feeling of being an outsider.

In that sense, Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso might not be all that different. Kiki has several breath-takingly intense moments of feeling like the outsider, and Miyazaki doesn't spare us the emotional details. Porco is the opposite but mirror case of Kiki; he had a group of friends, young pilots in WWI and after, and every single one of his friends is now dead. At one point, Porco tells Fio about the death of his best friend (who had just married Gina) on the second-last day of the war, and the flashback has an incredible sense of melancholy. Kiki is fighting to gain a circle of friends, but Porco finds out that even if you've had that once, it won't last.

I like this aspect of Porco Rosso. If you watch some of Miyazaki's other standard coming-of-age stories too many times or all in a row, it can be a bit much, as if the only dilemma in the world is growing up. Porco Rosso's content is certainly suitable for kids—it is rated G—but it feels like much more of a grown-up movie and I'm not sure how interested kids might be in it. Sure, there is some slapstick and some goofy-looking characters, but the movie has a more mature side to it that is refreshing.

For those keeping track: the flying scenes here are gorgeous!


James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ontario, Canada. His website is at www.jschellenberg.com.