Hailed by the late, great film critic Roger Ebert as perhaps the greatest animated filmmaker in film history, Japanese writer, director, producer, and animator Hayao Miyazaki has brought forth some of the most imaginative, astounding, and fantastical worlds and creatures to ever grace the screen. A pioneer and re-inventor of the art form during the course of his over forty years in animation, he announced his retirement back in 2013, but recently revealed his return for a feature film project that has been twenty years in the making, apparently to be released in 2019. It’s not surprising that his artistry was recognized with an Honorary Academy Award in 2014, only the second Japanese filmmaker to receive the recognition after the legendary Akira Kurosawa. His magic has captured the imaginations of people worldwide, children and adults alike. At a young age, an old VHS copy of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was my introduction to his wondrous mind, one that inspired many repeated viewings over the years. Still, it has taken much longer for me to dive completely into the breadth of his filmography, only discovering some of his finest works now in adulthood. Thanks to a generous loan from a friend, I was able to finally watch two of his notable early works and one that may be his most widely beloved.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
“I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Perhaps Miyazaki’s most acclaimed and highly regarded creation, lauded by many to be his masterpiece, this dive down the rabbit hole into the realm of the spirits is packed to the brim with curiosities and fascinations aplenty. Following a young girl, Chihiro, whose parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new home only to stumble upon a deceptive portal to an alternate world, it finds Miyazaki ratcheting up his universe building to maximum setting. When Chihiro’s parents are transformed and she becomes trapped, a young spirit by the name of Haku comes to her aid, helping her find a job in the bathhouse for the spirits run by a witch named Yubaba. In exchange for her service, Yubaba takes control of her name, changing it to Sen. Within the walls of the bathhouse, there is an abundance of strange creatures including greedy frog-like employees, a gigantic friendly radish spirit, tiny balls of soot akin to worker ants, a spiderly limbed man who works the boiler room, a massive stink spirit, a creature known as simply No-Face capable of consuming others and taking on their personalities, and an enormous baby, just to name a few. The longer Chihiro/Sen lingers, the more she begins to forget about who she was before.
Caught in the space between childhood and adulthood, Chihiro/Sen’s adventure through the supernatural setting is a colorful exploration of an individual’s journey towards re-discovery, personal growth, and ownership of identity. It is only through her memory of her individuality and the world she left behind that she is able to break free of Yubaba’s spell. It’s not a particularly veiled metaphor, but that doesn’t negate its effect or potency. Yubaba’s seizure of each person’s name also reflects the capitalistic nature of the bathhouse, a system less concerned with the lives of its workers and more singularly focused on owning all means of production and generating a profit. It’s far from a welcoming place as well, with a distinct air of hostility, prejudice, and corruption, and the events that take place upon the arrival of No-Face to the establishment reveals the overwhelming avarice that pervades through everyone. And, as always, Miyazaki’s favorite theme of humanity’s relationship to the environment finds a few instances to make a statement. SPIRITED AWAY may lack in some of the moral complexity and grayness of some of his other great works, but the narrative is full and rich with his creative touches and amazing creations, ultimately becoming a pinnacle in his mastery of the hand-drawn art form. While I feel it may not be his greatest, it’s certainly his most magical, a wild and stunning dream that lingers long after you wake up.
CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” – Lloyd Alexander
Opening with an immediate explosion of action, Miyazaki’s early foray into a world of steampunk airships and floating cities is definitely gripping and mysterious from the start. A band of pirates attacks a vessel transporting a young girl, Sheeta, in possession of a magic crystal necklace they’re looking to acquire, only for her to escape by falling through the clouds. The powers of the crystal soon become apparent, as it slows her deadly plummet towards the earth. Her unconscious floating body is discovered by a young boy, Pazu, in a mining village on the ground. Upon her recovery, the two soon realize their fateful meeting has intertwined their journeys to both seek out the famed floating city of Laputa, a wonder witnessed by Pazu’s late father but more personally connected to Sheeta’s own family. The band of pirates isn’t far behind, however, and the pair must make their escape, only to find themselves caught by a government agent, Muska, who was previously holding Sheeta captive. Through a catastrophic turn of events, Sheeta and Pazu break free but are separated from the crystal. It quickly becomes a race against the clock to see who can discover Laputa’s secrets first: Muska or the two children.
An early effort by Miyazaki, and the first film released by Studio Ghibli, it’s relatively straightforward when compared to his more complicated and nuanced later works, though nonetheless dazzling. It includes some of his trademark flourishes, including antagonistic characters who become increasingly multi-dimensional and relatable, though that becomes somewhat undermined by the villainous madness of Muska who so clearly has evil intentions that a whole helping of subtlety gets tossed out the window. It also seems at war with itself concerning Sheeta, who we eventually learn is a princess, as if wanting to portray her as a strong and independent character though she is rescued at every turn by the actions of Pazu. And while the leader of the pirates, Captain Dola, is herself a powerful and complex female, her delegation that Sheeta should cook and clean for the crew finds Sheeta bordering on the “motherly” territory of Wendy in Disney’s problematic animated classic PETER PAN. Still there’s remarkable visuals and a well-formed world that may not be as exuberant as some of Miyazaki’s other universes, but it has a certain grandeur and breath-taking quality at its finest moments, which are aplenty. With a wonderful score and beautiful animation, CASTLE IN THE SKY is as light and buoyant as its title, making it enjoyable and digestible, but never quite challenging, memorable but not thought provoking. If anything, it’s an enchanting escape, and sometimes that’s just what we need.
NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)
“There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Amidst the swirling, blowing dusts, a lone mounted figure is revealed against the horizon, an homage to the likes of Kurosawa and Leone that kicks off Miyazaki’s weird and wondrous sophomore feature and first sole screenplay credit. Adapted from his manga of the same name, this post-apocalyptic mixture of high fantasy and science fiction is the director at his most sweepingly cinematic. The single traveler is Lord Yupa, a swordsman of the Valley of the Wind searching for remaining villages and signs of life in the ravaged wasteland. It isn’t long before he is chased by an Ohm, a gigantic mutant insect that can destroy everything in its path. Suddenly he is rescued by Nausicaa, the princess of the Valley, who manages to encourage the creature to return to the Toxic Forest it calls home. They both return to the Valley, one of the last remaining civilizations untouched by the poisons of the ever advancing woods. It isn’t long, however, before their peaceful kingdom is tossed into turmoil as a large aircraft from another nation crashes in their Valley, exploding in a ginormous fireball. They soon become invaded by their militant neighbors, seeking to reclaim the precious and destructive cargo that they hope will stave off the insects once and for all. Nausicaa becomes determined to find an answer to prevent further conflict, fearing any more violence will only bring pain, suffering, and the end of humanity.
Like a mashup of LORD OF THE RINGS, MAD MAX, and the films of Akira Kurosawa, it has style and aesthetic in spades. Featuring some of the most vast and picturesque vistas of his work, it’s visually stunning in both the beauty of nature and its cataclysmic devastation. It makes full use of its frame, complimenting the immensity of the world with a wideness of scope. With flawed and multifaceted characters, its clearly the precursor to Miyazaki’s more mature, dense, and complex PRINCESS MONONOKE: equally splendorous but with a less refined touch. It’s undoubtedly a passionate plea for non-violence, but with as much subtlety as a sledgehammer. We understand early on where the narrative is going, but it’s still compelling and gorgeous enough to keep us watching through to the end. And somehow Nausicaa’s cries for pacifism and understanding are still powerful because the way in which they’re shown is magnificent even if the words themselves are too simple and blunt. It also stumbles with characters that get lost amongst the shuffle, as well as Nausicaa’s undeniable “Mary Sue”-like perfection, but that never hampers the enjoyment of its captivating qualities. A grandiose fable ripe with flaws, NAUSICAA finds hope and light in the midst of the chaotic and the bleak, an incredible adventure that also signaled to the world here was an artist to be given our full attention.
(Watchlist is a series of posts dedicated to the ever growing list of films that I’ve been meaning to see but have yet to watch for the first time)