The Land of Youth

Hayao Miyazaki has devoted his films to mapping the idylls of childhood. Now, with his masterly Princess Mononoke, Japan's Walt Disney sets out for a new wilderness.

It is said that in the days after the firebombing of Tokyo, the sky over Japan turned crimson. Hayao Miyazaki, who was then four years old, would have watched the glowing firmament from the hills of Tochigi Prefecture, where his father, an airplane-parts factory owner, had evacuated the family in 1944. It was his only memory from the last year of the war. And in the way that the small hurts of childhood often become the obsessions of a lifetime, it may help explain Miyazaki's lingering fascination with the moment of transition between adolescence and adulthood. Here was nature's retreat in the face of perverted technology. Here, also, was a child's dream world of sunsets and pirates and fantastic airplanes threatened by a grim truth. In the image of a small boy watching the sky burn, one might be tempted to look for the genesis of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, the brilliant 1997 eco-parable screening at Metropolitan State University this week as part of a ten-film retrospective organized by Asian Media Access. For all of the film's gentle beauty, there is also sadness--a remembrance of a childhood paradise lost. It is, in many ways, the culmination of a career spent chasing memories.

Tochigi Prefecture, long ago swallowed by the encroaching metropolis, is today a bedroom suburb of Tokyo. And Miyazaki, now in his late 50s, is the nation's preeminent animated filmmaker--often called "the Walt Disney of Japan." The analogy, however, is one that he disdains. Although Buena Vista, the film division of Disney's magic empire, is now distributing Miyazaki's entire oeuvre stateside, he has in the past dismissed the Disney product as "indecent" and "violent." Indeed, even by casual comparison, his films share little with America's beloved anthropomorphic vaudeville. Disney's milieu is the coming-of-age tale, in which a child takes tentative first steps into the world of doubt and fear and responsibility. There is a personified evil to overcome, and the child must learn to dissemble and conquer. Think here of The Lion King replaying Hamlet in the veldt, or Beauty and the Beast with its jigging furniture and jumbled fetishization of consumer goods. Childhood, in the world of Disney, is a sort of larval stage, where children are shorter, snider versions of their adult selves.

Raised by wolves: San answers the call of the wild in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke
Raised by wolves: San answers the call of the wild in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke

If Miyazaki's movies, in which no wrongs are righted and no villains vanquished, are decent by contrast, then it might stand to reason that they would be dull by comparison. Yet they prove quite the opposite. In the most ordinary of places--a rain-soaked garden, a deep, blue Mediterranean lagoon, or a sunlit glade--Miyazaki evokes childhood's never-never land as it truly is: wondrous, sometimes frightening, but never childish. Childhood is serious business for children; that Miyazaki treats it as such makes his films resonate for both adults and young audiences.

Miyazaki's gentlest film is also, not surprisingly, one of his most successful. In My Neighbor Totoro (screening 12:30 p.m., October 23), a genial blend of The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland, two young sisters spending a month in the country stumble upon a giant forest spirit: a puffball with round, innocent eyes and a Cheshire Cat grin. Big Totoro, as they name him, is zipped about the forest by Catbus, who as that name suggests, is half cat and half bus. Although cats hold a place of reverence in traditional Japanese folk religion, Catbus, like Totoro, is an invention of pure fancy: a genial, bright-eyed sofa cushion with the charm of a child's well-nibbled teddy bear. (Miyazaki was initially loath to merchandise his characters, but he eventually relented, and stuffed Totoros quickly became a feature in every Japanese household.) Indeed, much of the film's first half seems intended to excite a warm, fuzzy feeling in the viewer. The sisters play in lush grottoes beneath an azure sky, and luminous clouds gather at the edge of every frame. In one scene, the girls have planted seeds in the forest and are waiting in the moonlight for sprouts to appear. Totoro swoops down, and then, with a smile, takes them spinning over the treetops.

There is more to Miyazaki's story, though, than nocturnal reverie and imagined friends. The girls' mother, we learn, is in a nearby hospital and may be seriously ill. (Miyazaki's own mother spent eight years convalescing from tuberculosis during his childhood.) After a telegram arrives from the doctor, the younger girl, a precocious redhead named Mei, sets off to deliver a gift to her mother. When she becomes lost in the woods, her sister Satsuki, who is just old enough to understand the real implications of a mother's illness, must set off to find her. Satsuki, a girl on the cusp of adolescence, stands at once in two worlds; she is introduced to responsibility by a dying mother and lost sister, yet a benevolent fur ball and a bus-shaped cat (or cat-shaped bus?) can still save the day.

Although anime has in the past decade become something of a cult item on American college campuses, it has long held a place of peculiar reverence in Japan. By one 1993 estimate, ten percent of the books published in Japan were comics, and anime epics regularly best imported Hollywood films at the box office. Like so many schoolboys in postwar Japan, Miyazaki was drawn at a young age to manga (comic books)--particularly those of Osamu Tezuka, whose New Treasure Island was the sacred text for young artists of the genre. Taking up drawing seriously was for Miyazaki less a rear-guard action against adulthood than a homage to his illustrious predecessors.

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