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The Wonders of Hayao Miyazaki

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If Hollywood has James Cameron and Pixar Pictures at the frontier of digital film and animation, then Asian cinema has Hayao Miyazaki.

I do seem to like drawing comparisons a lot. But this feature is not meant to go “What’s Hot, and What’s Not”. Instead, it just really pleases me to say that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the big guns in the world of digital film and animation today, and he doesn’t rely on big thrills or shoot-em-ups to garner fans of his works from all over the world.

Hayao Miyazaki is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio that has produced close to 20 animated feature films to date, many of which have attained major box-office success in Japan and enjoyed international acclaim.

Spirited Away (2001) is widely considered as his most successful film, for it received an Academy Award for being the Best Animated Feature and even overtook Titanic at the Japanese box-office to become the highest grossing film in the history of Japanese cinema.


Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

Miyazaki has said that his animated films are made primarily for children, and yet there are millions of adults who enjoy these films. As a self-proclaimed pessimist, he says that he keeps his pessimism at bay because he does not believe that adults should impose their vision of the world onto children.

His films do not have a drop of pessimism in them, I can assure you, but on my own viewing of three of Miyazaki’s classics My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), each one of these films have quite honestly wrung me dry of my tears.

It’s a strange feeling. It’s like how a fan of James Cameron’s Avatar might feel. You enter the world of Avatar, and you feel just how different the virtual world can be from the world of reality.

But I think CGI-ed films and animated films are quite different altogether. While digitally-enhanced blockbusters like the recent Inception are out to mess with our heads with the visual/sensory effects and contemporary plot ideas, Miyazaki’s animated films mostly give viewers a sense of nostalgia and I have to say that they are quite heart-wrenching.

Yet, my experience with his films is very much positive because his narrative characters grow on me, and it feels like I grow into another person in the midst of watching the films. It feels like new insights of myself come into being as I step into the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s characters and share it with them on the course of their journey.

Yes yes yes, I’m speaking from the perspective of a female viewer who admits to having cried like a baby while watching parts of My Neighbour Totoro.

Ah, let’s not turn this into a gender-biased thing now! It doesn’t have to be an activity exclusive to little girls and boys, you know. The… crying like a baby thing.

Why else would adult viewers enjoy the films as much as children do?

I believe Miyazaki’s films can ignite the imagination for both children and adults with their fantastical worlds and, more importantly, at the heart of each film journey lies an infinite spark of love and hope.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are suitable for anyone regardless of age and gender, and their influence in the world of animation have spread so far that animators at Pixar Pictures declare that Toy Story owes a debt of gratitude to his films as a source of inspiration.

nullTotoro cameo in Toy Story 3

I believe anyone can enjoy Miyazaki’s films because while their increasingly bizarre and sensational sights unravel before our eyes, it feels like something basic holds each film together and make them much more than a visual feast. The elaborate images projected on-screen tell a story that tugs at the inner heartstrings.

Clearly, I am now a fully converted fan of Mr. Miyazaki but, I almost feel like there can be no biasness in sharing the immense value of his amazing works which in great likelihood will leave a profound impact upon a viewer for a lasting period of time.

Oops, lost a bit of control there.

I cannot deny that I greatly admire the characters Hayao Miyazaki portrays in his films. It is very difficult to reduce my fan rave to a couple more paragraphs from here, and how could I even begin to study his wide array of narrative characters when I should be more than halfway through my article by now?

I shall try with a pure goodness of intention, and hope not to fail at shedding a bit of light on the narrative strength of Miyazaki’s films.

The one thing that strikes me most in his films is the absolute never-say-die attitude and courage that his characters show, especially when going up against obstacles to their love.

Even in the most absurd or disheartening situations, Miyazaki’s characters put up a brave front and assure themselves that everything is fine.

In My Neighbour Totoro, Satsuki acts as the big sister to her little sister Mei, and even when she is upset that their mother’s come down with a cold and has had to extend her stay at the hospital, Satsuki tries to reassure Mei that they only have to wait a little while longer for their mother to get better.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, when the young and mild-mannered female protagonist Sophie gets turned into an old lady, she calms herself down and even manages to say to herself in the mirror the next day, “You’ll be fine, old lady. You’re still healthy, and these clothes finally suit you.”

Most of the time, these characters do not know exactly what kind of situation they are dealing with and yet they carry on bravely. At certain points, they may get unsure of themselves and the circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ calamity, but none of the characters ever give up on finding a way to help their loved ones pull through.

In fact, for these characters, love comes precisely at a time when they witness their love interests in a most confused and vulnerable state.

In the films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, the male protagonists can evolve from their human form to become animal spirits, and their female love interests do not shun them but are instead full of protective instinct when they see their loved ones suffer injuries in their animal form.

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Couples from Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away

Sophie finds Howl in his mutated form in the darkness of a tunnel and loves him for it. She even declares her love right then, for the very first time within the film, “It’s okay if you’re a monster!”

Imagine saying that to someone in real life – “It’s okay if you’re ugly, dear!” – It would never come off in real life as well as it does in an animated film.

However, love for the characters can come in the quietest of moments too, and not necessarily always on the brink of disaster.

Howl lifts a curtain when he returns to his castle in the night to see that Sophie is sleeping soundly behind it. He should expect to find Sophie as an old lady as when he first met her, but he finds her transformed back into the young woman that she is in her sleep and this is unknown even to Sophie.

Being a magician himself, I suppose seeing a transformation spell is not a first for him, but shall I say there is something expressive about the way he looks upon Sophie for a few seconds longer and closes the curtain noiselessly, rather than waking her from her sleep to ascertain her identity?

The characters in Miyazaki’s films accept their loved ones for who they are, and if I have to name one thing I’ve gathered from my experience of watching his films, I’d say that I appreciate how Miyazaki’s characters provide lessons in showing the courage to be themselves, and showing that courage for the sake of love.

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