ARTLOOK #15 | September 2005
Photo Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) © 2004 Nibariki—GNDDDT
I am so excited this month, because my favourite director has a film coming out, Howl's Moving Castle, and it's going to be everywhere. Perhaps he will finally get his dues.
Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki has been branded as the 'Disney of the East', but the description does justice to neither party. Miyazaki's films have little in common with Disney's, beyond the fact that they're both animated and aimed at children. Indeed, the differences may help explain Miyazaki's rising fortunes whilst Disney's founder.
Miyazaki started as an animator in 1963, at the age of 22, having graduated in political science and economics: After working in television and Japanese Manga (comic books), he directed Castle of Cagliostro in 1979. Cagliostro is a picaresque romp-a James Bond meets Scarlet Pimpernel film, bursting with comedy and brio. Steven Spielberg has cited its famous car chase sequence as the best one he's ever seen. Interestingly, however, the film's breakneck pace is not really representative of Miyazaki's work.
Above all, Miyazaki is a thoughtful filmmaker. On a thematic level his films couldn't be further from Disney. The tight sub-plots and multi-layered central quests we see in Disney films are absent from Miyazaki's work. Disney, for all its vibrancy, is frequently a world of black and white, whereas Miyazaki's films confront the unknown.
Pictures like Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) give children a dynamic understanding of good and evil. The scary eyebrows and baleful stare of a character may just as soon hide a heart of gold. This makes his movies surprisingly scary. Miyazaki's child protagonists are ignorant of the world they move through, and it's frequently uncaring towards them.
Compared to the egocentrism in films such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, where protagonists have the power to change everything, Miyazaki's films resonate with the reality of childhood, rather than the fantasy.
Kiki, the little witch in Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), starts her fledgling business in a bustling town that pays little or no attention to her or her fears. In discovering her own talents, and making her own friends, the emancipation fantasy at the core of the film is a lot more accessible and real to a child.
It is also captivating to see East meet West with such harmony in Miyazaki's films. A confessed Anglophile, his fascinations crawl into the animation at surprising junctures, such as the Victorian stylings of Laputa: Island in The Sky (1986), and the cities that populate his films that are reminiscent of Dutch paintings.
For all its big-studio backing (make no mistake: every one of these films was a block buster in Japan), Miyazaki still makes risky work. His films are often longer than is deemed appropriate for children, and darker, more overtly political, or considered too baffling.
But we live in an age where the cinema has become safe for everyone. We tread the carpet aisles cushioned by genre, and shielded with convention. The world can only offer such comfort sporadically.
Far better, I think, for kids to see a complicated, whimsical, dark, open-ended, affectionate, powerful place. After all, isn't that where we live?
I remember watching Spirited Away with two five year olds last year. At the otherworldly beginning of the film, they had both retreated under the chair, hugging each other. One turned to me with wide, wonder-filled eyes. 'This is a scary movie, Patrick!' he said. 'Yes,' I replied, 'but it's not as scary as it looks.'
That, I think, is a great lesson for a film to teach, no matter what the age of its viewers.
PATRICK GARSON is a freelance writer & regularly appears on Artsound FM.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE OPENS ON 22 SEPTEMBER