Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lessons from Hayao Miyazaki

A/N: This post is very special to me because it is what first got the attention of the woman who has since become my wife, Marissa. We might not be together if I hadn't written it and she hadn't seen it!

For my 24th birthday, I received possibly my favorite present ever: a six-DVD, sixteen-movie collection of films made by Studio Ghibli, founded in 1985 by my favorite filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki. His movies affect me like nothing else I've watched and each one is a truly wonderful treasure to be cherished. In the last week, I've already seen three of my favorites. But more than just enjoying them, I also feel like I've learned surprisingly much from these movies, not because they set out to teach anything but because they ring so full of truth, which is what makes them so beautiful in the first place.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

One of Miyazaki's oldest movies, My Neighbor Totoro is about the adventures of two young girls and their father as they move to a house in rural postwar Japan to be closer to their mother who is recovering in the hospital from an undescribed illness (an episode which is probably taken from Miyazaki's own childhood). Satsuki and her little sister Mei, excited to explore their new surroundings, soon encounter magical creatures called "totoro", benevolent forest spirits.

That this is a highly unconventional for American audiences is evident from how boring that description sounded, despite it being one of my favorite movies of all time. This movie isn't nearly as plot-focused as most, even Miyazaki's later works. There is very little conflict; the closest thing to a "villain" that exists is the mother's illness. The late Roger Ebert praised the film: would never have won its worldwide audience just because of its warm heart. It is also rich with human comedy in the way it observes the two remarkably convincing, lifelike little girls... It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.
With no overriding plot, the movies is broken down into a series of miniature adventures or explorations involving the totoro. The girls are both great and delightfully human characters (Mei reminds me of some of my Sunday school students), the totoro even more so. Whenever Big Totoro gets that manic, cheshire-cat grin on his face, you know something magical and wonderful is about to happen (whereas in an American movie, a grin like that would mean someone is about to die).
My Neighbor Totoro is amazing for its ability to create a longing in me for a time and place I've never been to. The hand-painted scenery is gorgeous and romantic (as in the artistic movement) and the music fits it and the action perfectly, just like in every Miyazaki movie I've seen. The world this movie creates is immersive, inviting, and beautiful in a way that is more than just aesthetic. It genuinely makes me wish I could live there, even though I know this wish can never be fulfilled (and there aren't any totoro anyway). It's like a dream so good that you want to weep after waking up and realizing it isn't real.

But I had already known all of that from previous viewing of this movie. What really struck me watching it a few days ago was how the all the scene-setting and world-creating work that went into this movie creates this sense of reverent wonder and delight that pervades all the pastoral and forest scenes in the movie. Some of this is probably from traditional (relatively) pantheistic Japanese religion, which believes in a multitude of spirits (such as the totoro) that dwell in nature.

A naive "Christian" way to respond to this origin for the movie's almost sacred treatment of nature would be to say, "Of course we know that there aren't a bunch of spirits dwelling in nature but the Spirit of God and His angels in heaven. This movie is an expression of an unbiblical, pantheistic worldview and we have to be on our guard and defend the truth we know against lies like this, no matter how attractive they may seem."

I am unsatisfied with this response. By reducing truth to a propositional basis (propositions concerning the number, nature, and location of spirits) and making some assumptions about the nature and working of the Holy Spirit, it somewhat arrogantly concludes that there is nothing to be learned from this film but only deception that we must watch against. But if "the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1) and God's nature has always been evident from the created world (Romans 1:20), should nature carry any less wonder for the Christian than for a practitioner of Shinto? If I'm supposed to become like a child in my faith (Matthew 18:3), then I welcome movies like My Neighbor Totoro that teach me how to see the world through starry, childlike eyes.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away is my favorite Studio Ghibli film, and quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. It's about a young girl named Chihiro who, while moving to a new home, gets sucked into a world of spirits and must find the courage to work to free herself and her parents. This movie therefore has a somewhat more conventional plotline than My Neighbor Totoro, with a somewhat conventional villain (who is nonetheless given plenty of redeeming qualities, like most of Miyazaki's villains) and much more of a sense of progression in both the plot and in Chihiro herself. Unlike Satsuki and Mei, who are delightful characters from the start, Chihiro starts off as a somewhat bratty, cowardly ten-year-old who by the end of the movie has become considerably braver and more mature as a result of her adventures.
Spirited Away has some beautiful pastoral scenes like My Neighbor Totoro, but the centerpiece of the setting is a colossal bathhouse for the spirits (each representing part of the natural world) where they come "to replenish themselves". This bathhouse is exquisitely detailed and incredibly immersive, from the main floor to the subterranean boiler room to the paneled hotel rooms to the penthouse offices. It is extremely colorful and welcoming, but strange and scary to Chihiro and full of bizarre-looking spirits.

Populating this world is a much larger cast of characters to fall in love with besides Chihiro herself: the mysterious dragon-boy Haku; Yubaba, the witch who rules the bathhouse; Lin, a tough-minded worker in the bathhouse who becomes like a big sister to Chihiro; and Kamaji, the spider-like six-armed boiler man. Miyazaki's amazing gift to almost instantly endear you to nearly every character that crosses the screen (such as a mute, faceless hopping lamppost who only gets a minute or two of screen time) is unsurpassed by any other animator I know.  I could say more about the soundtrack (one of my favorites for any movie) and how it complements everything else, but I could never do it justice.

What struck me most this time as I watched Spirited Away is the importance of names. Yubaba secures Chihiro's servitude by stealing her name and giving her the new name, "Sen". It isn't until later when Haku helps her remember her name that Chihiro realizes how crucial remembering her name is. Later, the scene where Chihiro remember's Haku's real name is the climax of the movie. This all reinforces what I've been thinking lately about how critical your perception of yourself, or sense of identity, is to your life. Humans are peculiar in that we don't seem to have an innate, unshakeable sense of identity like animals do; we have to be told who we are, usually by something external to ourselves.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Definitely the darkest and most action-oriented of the movies I've watched so far, Princess Mononoke is an epic historical fiction story of a young prince's quest for redemption. Ashitaka is the last prince of the Emishi tribe, thought by the rest of Muromachi period Japan to have been wiped out by the emperor 500 years ago. After an encounter with a boar demon that attacks his village, his right arm is cursed by the beast's hatred. The infection will eventually spread to his entire body, drive him mad, and kill him. He is sent by the tribe's wisewoman to the west, where the iron ball lodged in the boar's body came from, "to see through eyes unclouded by hate".
The demon arm never fails.
I don't want to give away too much of the story, but Ashitaka's journey takes him to the focal point of a conflict between the spirits of an ancient forest and iron miners looking to cut down the forest for the land's resources. A simpler, more preachy movie might make this a simple environmental parable--have Ashitaka join the forest spirits and save the trees--but Miyazaki's approach is more nuanced. The morality in this movie is seriously grey-and-grey; the residents of Irontown are by-and-large good and gregarious people looking to make a living, and their leader, Lady Eboshi, though pitiless in her conquest of the defenders of the forest, has won the dedication of her people by her strong, courageous leadership and her willingness to hire prostitutes and lepers when no one else would see them as fully human. Meanwhile the forest spirits, though simply seeking to defend their home, are savage in their hatred for humans, and (in the case of the boar and ape tribes) rather stupid as well.

With the battle lines drawn, Ashitaka walks a razor's edge between the two factions in his quest for peace. Both demand to know which side he's really on, but he refuses to take a side at all. (Or he takes both) When San, the eponymous human princess of the forest raised by wolves, tries to assassinate Lady Eboshi, Ashitaka subdues them both and simply walks out of Irontown with San. When Irontown is attacked by samurai, he takes the news to the men, then continues on to save the Forest Spirit from Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka is devoted to protecting both the forest and Irontown, and on ending the cycle of hatred that threatens to consume them just as the demonic infection threatens to consume his body and mind.

I see this as a beautiful depiction of how Christians are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) in contrast to ways that we caricature it. Lady Eboshi isn't concerned with peace so much as with progress and profit; Moro, the wolf-goddess, wants the humans to leave the forest in peace and is willing to kill as many of them as necessary to achieve that peace. They might both say they want peace, but a qualified "peace-if": peace if the forest spirits are destroyed, or peace if the humans are driven out of the forest--and because these goals stapled onto peace are incompatible with each other, there can be no peace. It's a clear depiction of how conflict so often persists even in the church. Ashitaka, on the other hand, seeks reconciliation with no "right causes" or conditions placed above it. Similarly, the whole point of the reconciliation Jesus offer us is that it is unconditional, and this unconditionality goes both ways--He doesn't demand anything from us before we can accept it, and we sin if we demand anything from Him before we accept it.

Ponyo (2008)

In contrast to the other three movies which were all old favorites, I just watched Ponyo for the first time. Unlike the more mature Princess Mononoke, it's much more in the vein of My Neighbor Totoro in terms of charm and kid-friendliness. Ponyo is about a young goldfish named Brunhilde by her father, who is some kind of sea wizard (and voiced by Liam Neeson) and, after being rescued by a boy named Sosuke, dreams of becoming a human and living on land with him. It's somewhat like The Little Mermaid, only much cuter and with no singing (and Ponyo, as Sosuke names the fish, is definitely not mute). Like My Neighbor Totoro, it weaves a beautiful, immersive world, this time a fishing village on a charmingly small Japanese island.
Having only seen this movie once, last night, I haven't had as much time to process it. (But I do absolutely love it and want to see it again sometime) What made the biggest impression on me, besides how absurdly magical it is, is how this movie seems to build on what I learned from Princess Mononoke about conflict. There are only two characters in Ponyo that could be deemed antagonists, Fujimoto (the aforementioned sea wizard) and Toki, a cranky old lady at the nursing home where Sosuke's mother works. But by the end, Fujimoto is revealed to be an overprotective and somewhat xenophobic father who deeply cares about his daughter and the effect her magic is having on the world, and Toki warms up to Sosuke and discovers her courage (and gets out of her motorized wheelchair!).

This got me thinking about how much more beautiful it is to redeem your enemies than to destroy them--which is exactly the story Christians get to be a part of. Romans 5:8 says: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." So Jesus teaches us, both by word and by example, to love our enemies and pray for them, to "defeat" them with love instead of with force.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I'm also an enthusiastic Miyazaki (and Takahata) fan (catholic by the way) and I agree with all you wrote. Miyazaki is one of the few artists (Dostoevsky is other) whose subcreated world is part of my life. And Totoro + Spirited Away are my favourites. I also feel "they ring so full of truth", and Ashitaka's motto "to see through eyes unclouded by hate" has always touched me. Two recomendations: (not in DVD, I'm afraid) "Future Boy Conan" and (outside Ghibli) "Mai Mai Miracle".
    Ah, and my guitar covers :-)