Wizard of light and shadow

At last American audiences are being spirited away by the wondrous and subtle visions of Hayao Miyazaki. He's more than an eccentric Japanese fabulist -- he's the greatest animator the movies have ever seen.

Published July 10, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Last year, when Western audiences watched Chihiro, the little girl in Hayao Miyazaki's animated film "Spirited Away," wander into a marvel-filled world she'd never known existed before, they couldn't help but identify with her. Many of them were stumbling for the first time into the domain of Miyazaki's imagination, so fully and ravishingly realized that it was impossible not to wonder: How long has this been going on?

The answer is, for decades. The 62-year-old Miyazaki's animated features routinely top the annual box office lists in Japan, and "Spirited Away" is the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time there. (Before that, it was Miyazaki's earlier film, "Princess Mononoke," something of a flop in the U.S., though beloved by critics.) This year, most of Miyazaki's earlier films are being released on DVD by Disney, letterboxed and with new top-quality dubbings. As the documentaries on the DVDs released so far reveal, American animators have known and revered Miyazaki's work for a long time. Now the rest of us have the chance to catch up with the man one of them (on the "Spirited Away" DVD) refers to as "our greatest living animator." That "living" qualifier is no doubt obligatory for anyone collecting a Disney paycheck, so take it from someone who can speak freely: He's the best, ever.

Of course, Western fans of Japanese animation ("anime," as it is called, rather than "Japanimation"), have admired and collected Miyazaki's films and "manga" (comic books) for ages, but anime's following in the U.S. still remains relatively small and cultish. Plenty of potentially interested parties have been put off by the form's persistent fascination with all the stuff that 9-year-old boys doodle in the margins of their schoolbooks: cars, planes, guns, rocket ships and (depending on how advanced the boys are) pneumatic babes. Even adult anime tends to be "dark" in the brooding, adolescent fashion of Anne Rice novels, or to revel in violence and sex -- or violent sex. There are exceptions, naturally, but they can be hard to find.

Beyond that, anime also suffers from certain limitations inherent in the form. From the birth of the movies, the human face has been one of the cinema's main attractions. A great screen actor can turn a simple close-up into something transcendent or heart-rending; we can see a half-dozen often contradictory emotions flicker there. Not all movie stars have beautiful faces, but they all have interesting ones. The same cannot be said of animated characters. Even when animation artists try to use expressive faces -- and that isn't often -- they just can't equal the eloquence of the real thing. Japanese animation, where all the "good" characters have nearly identical mugs -- heart-shaped, with tiny pointed noses and huge eyes -- can feel strangely stultifying and lifeless before you realize what's missing. One reason why Chihiro makes for such an appealing heroine is that Miyazaki deliberately chose not to make her "cute" or "pretty" in this highly conventional way.

Even classical Japanese art doesn't rely much on conveying complicated emotion through facial expressions. (Westerners often find the Japanese erotic art from that period peculiar, with its figures fully clothed, except for oversized genitals drawn in great detail, and its faces impassive -- ecstasy is indicated by curling of the toes.) But it would be a mistake to think that therefore this art portrays a limited range of feeling. Nature, environment and everyday objects are often used by Japanese artists and writers to limn sensations too delicate to describe directly. In the elaborately aestheticized courtly tradition of medieval Japan, for example, sending an estranged friend a haiku about ice melting in the mountains with the coming of spring would be a way to communicate that a chilled heart was beginning to thaw.

Even in his early films, before he co-founded Studio Ghibli, which produces all his work, Miyazaki was using setting and detail to create mood, to paint the subtler emotional tonalities that can't be gotten across via his characters' faces. After he gained more artistic freedom at Ghibli, he perfected that technique. In the sublime "My Neighbor Totoro," for example, a girl named Satsuki goes running through the farmland around her home, looking for her little sister, Mei, who has disappeared. As her search continues, the shadows on the fields and country lanes grow longer and the light turns buttery. There's a lovely shot of a sky full of purple clouds with birds wheeling in the distance, but as beautiful as these images are, they allude to Satsuki's increasing desperation as night approaches. This may sound simple, but the elementary, absolutely perfect touch is a Miyazaki trademark. Watching it with a friend, I asked, "How often do you see an animated movie with that kind of late afternoon light?"

"How often do you see any movie that tries to give you the feeling of that time of day?" my friend replied. "In movies, it's usually either just day or just night."

That's a precious thing, what a particular time of day feels like, and how sad to realize that most movies don't think it's important enough to capture. All Miyazaki's films feature visual spectacles -- the glowing riverboat and weird gods in "Spirited Away," the floating island kingdom in "Castle in the Air," the giant, translucent, nocturnal incarnation of the forest spirit in "Princess Mononoke" -- but he lavishes just as much attention on animating things we might see right outside our own doors. He gives these things back to us infused with a new beauty, which is really just the old beauty made visible to our formerly dulled eyes. He has a profound understanding of the romance of trains and streetcars, and the movement of flocks of birds. He loves the sky, blue or cloudy or rain-darkened, and water, still or gushing or dripping. The image of a breeze blowing silky ripples over a hillside covered with young grass might just be his chosen emblem of pure happiness.

Nature and landscape don't act as symbols for Miyazaki's characters' feelings -- that would be a too crude a correspondence. It's best to understand that a place, and some of the things in it, can be characters in their own right in his films. This jibes with Japan's ancient animist religion, which saw everything as inhabited by spirits, and also with Miyazaki's environmentalism. He is also a longtime union sympathizer and leftist, an advocate in general of the small and weak against the big and the strong. From the start, he meant "Princess Mononoke" to focus on, in the words of one Miyazaki scholar, "the common people of early industrial Japan, the traders and ironworkers and subsistence farmers," rather than the samurai and aristocrats who get most of the attention.

Because Miyazaki handles very grand matters and very humble ones with the same radiance, his films can be confusing to Western viewers accustomed to our own genres and the notion that keeping an audience amused requires a lot of frenetic activity. Though children tend to find "My Neighbor Totoro" enchanting, some American reviewers, writing when it was released in the U.S. in 1993, thought it would be too slow and boring to hold kids' interest. It's true that, like many of Miyazaki's films, "Totoro" has a distinctive pace; it's largely a summer idyll. But the trick to enjoying it is to understand that it has no lulls. Nothing in it, not a single image, is insignificant.

It's the only animated film I've ever seen that uses still shots of empty rooms, and that's because it's the only animated film that cares about such things as what the old country house the sisters have moved into really feels like. Complaining that not enough happens in Miyazaki films is like saying that there's nothing going on in a Yasujiro Ozu movie -- you either get it or you don't. Pity is the only proper response to those who fall in the latter category.

For many years, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the studio he founded with fellow animator Isao Takahata, refused to release their work in the West. An early Miyazaki film, "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds," had suffered terrible mutilation in the making of an English language version (called "Warriors of the Wind") released in 1986. The film, based on an epic manga (comic book series) that is Miyazaki's major non-animated work, was cut by nearly half an hour in a misguided effort to make it a more conventional action-adventure picture. Said Takahata (quoted in Helen McCarthy's invaluable book, "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation"): "All these movies are grounded strongly in Japanese culture and are not made with an eye to export. Censoring them is worse than betraying them." In a key aspect of its deal with Ghibli, Disney has promised that it will not cut or substantially alter the films it releases.

It's ironic, then, that a filmmaker so committed to his national audience (of "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki said "I only worried about how my film would be viewed in Japan. Frankly, I don't worry too much about how it plays elsewhere") should find his greatest success and recognition in the West with what may be his most "Japanese" feature, "Spirited Away." Filmgoers inspired by that movie to seek out more of his work may be surprised by some of the other titles. Below is a guide to what's currently available. In addition to "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation," a great source for regular updates on releases and general Miyazaki and Ghibli lore is the Web site maintained by Nausicaa.net.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979): This caper picture featuring a popular master-thief character called Lupin III, the hero of a TV series, is a pre-Ghibli production. Set in a tiny, mythical European kingdom, it's a rudimentary version of the kind of eye candy Miyazaki would later create once he'd set up his own studio and hired a full-time staff (previously, animation was badly paid piecework). The hero is one of those snake-hipped cool cats common in anime, and the story is a conventional adventure yarn, but it's entertaining enough.

Castle in the Sky (1986): Jules Verne meets "How Green Was My Valley" when an orphan boy living in a Welsh mining town retrieves a girl who comes drifting down from the sky, suspended by the power of a crystal pendant. She's fallen from a huge, zeppelin-like airship (early 20th century aviation is one of Miyazaki's passions) and is pursued by a dastardly Edwardian gentleman working for the government and a clan of pirates, led by Ma Dola, a very energetic old lady with hot pink pigtails. Everyone is looking for a legendary island that floats high in the clouds. The two young protagonists are pretty generic, but their Indiana-Jones-style exploits are a blast and the island, when they finally reach it, is gorgeous.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988): Two sisters, 10 and 5 (they seem younger), move into a house in the country with their father while their mother is in the hospital. They meet Totoro, a large forest spirit who is sort of like a rabbit, a penguin and an owl combined. The cliché is to say that Miyazaki sees through the eyes of a child, but it would be more true to say that this film is felt through the body of a child. Sometimes it's almost pre-verbal, and all of the time it's pure bliss -- my second favorite Miyazaki film after "Spirited Away." Plus, it has the Catbus, which is, well, a combination of a cat and a bus, and so good I won't even attempt to describe it here -- just see the movie. This was one of a handful of Japanese movies that made it onto master director Akira Kurosawa's list of the 100 best films of all time. Alas, Disney doesn't seem to have plans to release a new DVD of this (perhaps the scene of father and daughters bathing together is an issue), so we're stuck with the cropped Fox Video version.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989): Kiki, a witch, turns 13, and in accord with tradition, must leave home to live in another community for a year. She picks a seaside city that is the quintessence of what McCarthy calls "the Japanese dream of Europe," an odd and impossible blend of Scandinavian charm and Mediterranean picturesque. Flying (on a broomstick) is her only real magical power, so she starts a delivery service. Except for a big rescue scene at the end, this is really a story about leaving home for the first time, getting and fixing up that first shabby apartment, making new friends, feeling alternately intimidated and exhilarated and finding yourself. The pacing is leisurely, but who can't relate to Kiki's situation? She's the Mary Tyler Moore of 13-year-old witches.

Princess Mononoke (1997): In this ecological epic, a boy from a tribe of the aboriginal Japanese seeks the source of the curse that afflicted him when he killed a maddened boar god. He finds it in the conflict between a town of ironworkers and the spirits of the surrounding forest. He also falls in love with a girl who has been raised by the wolf god and considers human beings her sworn enemies. Miyazaki doesn't like simple moral dilemmas, though; he treats the conflicting desires of both sides in this Tolkienesque saga with sympathy, as does his young hero. The intricate story can be hard to follow the first time around, but visually the film is overwhelmingly strange and powerful. Some consider it Miyazaki's masterpiece, but my money is on ...

Spirited Away (2002): Chihiro, a little girl trying to rescue her parents from a spell that has turned them into pigs, gets a job at a bathhouse catering to gods and spirits, including the Yeti-like Radish Spirit, an odoriferous Stink Spirit in search of some deep cleansing, and a guy with no face but a large appetite. The witch who runs the place has three green, bouncing heads for henchmen (or henchheads, I guess), and has enslaved the lad who tries to help our heroine. The relatively simple story and deeply felt Japanese imagery give "Spirited Away" a unity that "Mononoke" just misses achieving. Little animated specks of soot with eyes, a six-armed boiler room operator, a jumping lamppost and the most beautiful train ride ever committed to celluloid are just a few of the dozens of things that make this film a source of perpetual delight.

As of this writing, there seem to be no firm plans to release decent versions of two other major Miyazaki features -- "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds" and "Porco Rosso" (a Humphrey Bogart-ish tale of romance and adventure about a world-weary flying ace living on a island in the Adriatic Sea; also, he is a pig). The Nausicaa.net Web site suggests that Disney will release all Studio Ghibli films in North America at some point, but no dates have been set. A new Miyazaki theatrical release is expected to reach U.S. theaters next summer, however -- an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones' children's fantasy novel "Howl's Moving Castle." I can hardly wait.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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