“I do believe in the power of story,” Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki once said, “I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”
The first time I encountered the work of Hayao Miyazaki was when my older son was a little boy and we checked out a DVD from our local library called My Neighbor Totoro and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The story of childhood innocence of two girls dealing with the possible loss of their mother moved me to tears. It was a beautiful, magical story that captured the wonder of being a child in such an honest and imaginative way. And who else could ever have imagined something as wondrous as cat bus? One of the things I loved most was that the magical creatures were not viewed as scary by the girls, Satsuki and Mei, but as marvelous companions to befriend. After my son and I watched this film, both of us were hooked and began to watch all of the Miyazaki films we could get our hands on.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, The Cat’s Return, Porco Rosso, Naussicaa of the Valley of the Winds and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Each one was so unique and yet so familiar like a favorite fairy tale that enchanted us because we found something new and surprising each time that we watched his movies. I was delighted and drawn in by Miyazaki’s storytelling and his inventiveness. Yet at the heart of each film was a sense of humanity, the importance of love, family, nature and pacifism. His movies were also inhabited by brave, self-sufficient girls as their protagonists. This is especially true of the character from my favorite Miyazaki film: Chihiro from Spirited Away. As Hayao Miyazaki has said, “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
Like Alice in Wonderland, one of my most cherished and returned to books from childhood, Spirited Away transported me to a magical land that did not always make sense (as the world so often doesn’t to children). Chihiro is very much a regular kid (in attitude, posture and responses to her parents) at the beginning of this amazing tale that draws you in and does not let you go for the entire length of the film. Populated with a cast of characters which are both strange and beguiling, the viewer watches as Chihiro deals with loss (of her parents) and even her name (something that stems straight out of fairy tales where names hold magical powers). In fact, in this new land, she is renamed “Sen,” which literally means “nothing” or “zero.” As the story unfolds, it amazed me at what a beautiful, magical and melancholy meditation this was on a child growing up. Once again, I found myself deeply moved by the way in which Miyazaki wove a tale of a girl’s maturing emotionally, spiritually and physically in such a manner into a fairy tale. (Something I would also see in another of my favorite films, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth).
All of our family became engrossed and enchanted by each successive Miyazaki movie (Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, The Secret World of Arrietty and The Wind Rises).
Hayao Miyazaki sees the beauty in all things. “You must see with eyes unclouded by hate,” he has said, “See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.”
The visuals from his films are masterpieces of art, still hand-drawn and painted (something unheard of in this age of computer animation). Yet the simplicity reveals the magnificence of the images. They remind me of gorgeous illustrations from beloved children’s books that I grew up with and, would later find out, that Miyazaki did, too. Classics like The Borrowers (which he turned into The Secret World of Arriety), The Little Prince, Treasure Island and A Wizard of Earthsea to name a few.
Growing up a sickly child, Miyazaki found refuge in books. Both allowed him a lot of time to imagine. Books and his imagination were his escape from the grimmer realities of post-World War II Japan. Is it any wonder then that his goal became to make films that told children “it’s good to be alive”? Unlike so many other storytellers, he does not focus on hate and despair, but on hope and joy.
“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” Miyazaki has said, “It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.” His movies do just that, they dig deep into the well of his subconscious to where memory and childhood dwell. His ideas and visions are rooted in the books he loved to read and liberated him from what he described as his “physically weak body.”
When I watch Miyazaki’s films, I, too, am transported to my own childhood and a life that was filled with books, imaginings and the nature I surrounded myself with. His movies remind me of the sheer delight that comes from the wonder of a master storyteller. You enter his worlds and do not want to leave, but to linger there and to become friends with the characters that inhabit those stories. Like my favorite books from boyhood, his films make me dream of the lands and worlds that are both fantastic and recognizable for they are the land we all once lived in.