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.

As schoolboys are wont to do and because he could not draw the human form, he began by doodling war machines: tanks, ships, and especially airplanes--which have held an honored place in his work ever since. By his school years, Miyazaki had also become an ardent socialist. Although he eventually tempered his politics, historical materialism nevertheless underlies much of his later work, and most especially Princess Mononoke, a creation myth based upon the endless contest between industry, laborers, and the natural world. If Miyazaki refuses to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, a Weltanschauung he considers both uniquely male and uniquely Western, he does suggest that change is precipitated by discord.

As he struggled to articulate his ideological perspective, Miyazaki was also troubled by what he saw as a derivative drawing style. According to a story from his school days, the artist burned an enormous manga manuscript because he thought it bore too much resemblance to the work of Tezuka. He was, like many aspiring artists, frustrated to the point of attrition. Then, in his final year of school, he went to see Taiji Yabushita's Legend of the White Serpent, an animated feature based on a Chinese folk fable. Miyazaki fell in love--not with anime, but, as he would later admit with some embarrassment, with the film's heroine. His ardor--we must assume unrequited--would eventually manifest itself in the plucky young female heroines of his own films.

A sort of Lolita complex often casts a shadow over anime's gender dynamic, perhaps because the movies are made for and by men and occasionally exhibit a misogynist streak. Miyazaki, ever the gentle spirit, is the exception. He chooses female heroines, he says, because he likes women, and because he does not like violence or the good-versus-evil paradigm common to male characters in mainstream animated movies. And consequently, Miyazaki's girls are everything that Disney ingénues are not: industrious, intelligent, confident, and fully autonomous of Prince Charming.

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

Miyazaki's most memorable female muse is Kiki, an aspiring witch and the heroine of 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service (2:10 p.m. October 23). In the film, a reworking of a children's book by Eiko Kadono, the young Kiki is sent off to make her way in the world with a broom and a black cat (voiced in the American dub by the late Phil Hartman). In a foreword to the film, quoted in Helen McCarthy's detailed filmography Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (Stone Bridge Press), Miyazaki said he wanted to explore "the lives of so many young Japanese girls today who are loved and supported economically by their parents, but who long for the bright lights of the big city."

What is striking about Kiki's adventure, however, is the background art of Studio Ghibli, named for the filmmaker's favorite Italian airplane. (The studio also includes Isao Takahata, the director behind the heartbreaking World War II anime, Grave of the Fireflies, screening 12:30 p.m. October 24). By 1989 Miyazaki and his comrades had mostly forgone their previous work in television serials, with their constricted budgets and unreasonable deadlines, and could thus devote all their resources to a single film project. The results are sparkling blue Mediterranean seas, intricately detailed cityscapes, and pastel sunsets with colors too beautiful to name.

 

There is a Japanese phrase that translates to "Paris of memories." This imagined Europe--a world of quiet hedgerows and walled gardens unspoiled by war--is a favorite setting of Miyazaki's, and features most prominently in Porco Rosso (4:10 p.m. October 23; 2:10 p.m. October 24), a film about a World War I flying ace with the head of a pig who battles buffoonish sea pirates over the Mediterranean. According to Miyazaki, the film was made as a self-indulgent diversion from his manga opus, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Yet it is also perhaps his most adult movie, with shades of Casablanca and Hemingway in every frame. There is one exquisitely beautiful sequence in which the pig flies up above the clouds during an air battle and watches his comrades drift into the starry stratosphere, where an immense formation of battered airplanes--all the dead pilots--drift forever like a cloud of fireflies.

Miyazaki, who often caricatures himself as a hog, has explained the film's pig-headed hero as a middle-aged man who is so disillusioned with society that he can no longer identify himself as human. "I'm disgusted by the notion that man is the ultimate being, chosen by God," he explained in a 1993 interview. "But I believe that there are things in this world that are beautiful, that are important, that are worth striving for. I made the hero a pig because that was what best suited these feelings of mine." Oddly packaged heroes are, of course, an old Disney trope. But Miyazaki's crimson pig gives us a protagonist who is uncannily human and thus never completely heroic: He fights, drinks, and only acts the hero when his hoof is forced. It bears noting, also, that although he is a mere cartoon pig, his is a more developed personality than that of half of the pretty young things now gracing America's screens.

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