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[FILM] Where the Wild Things Are: The Miyazaki Menagerie

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  • chiayuan25
    Where the Wild Things Are: The Miyazaki Menagerie By A. O. SCOTT Published: June 12, 2005 NOWADAYS, when we think of feature-length animation, our thoughts
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 12, 2005
      Where the Wild Things Are: The Miyazaki Menagerie
      By A. O. SCOTT
      Published: June 12, 2005

      NOWADAYS, when we think of feature-length animation, our thoughts
      turn immediately to "Shrek" and Pixar (or less fondly, to "Robots"
      and "Madagascar"). The animated world, we've learned, is round -
      created in three dimensions by teams of computer wizards and
      enlivened by noisy, knowing references to American pop culture, past
      and present. It may seem somewhat paradoxical, then, that the
      world's greatest living animated-filmmaker - a designation that his
      fans at Disney and Pixar would be unlikely to challenge - is Hayao
      Miyazaki, a Japanese writer and director whose world is flat,
      handmade and often surpassingly quiet. Not that Mr. Miyazaki, 64, is
      entirely indifferent to technological advances. Starting with his
      1997 epic, "Princess Mononoke," he has used computer-generated
      imagery in his movies, though he recently instituted a rule that CGI
      should account for no more than 10 percent of the images in any of
      his pictures.

      In an interview last week, on the morning before his latest
      movie, "Howl's Moving Castle," had its New York premiere, he spoke
      about the new technology with a mixture of resignation and
      resistance. "I've told the people on my CGI staff" - at Studio
      Ghibli, the company he founded with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki
      in 1985 - "not to be accurate, not to be true. We're making a
      mystery here, so make it mysterious."

      That conscious sense of mystery is the core of Mr. Miyazaki's art.
      Spend enough time in his world - something you can do at the Museum
      of Modern Art in Manhattan, which is presenting a sumptuous
      retrospective of his and Mr. Takahata's work - and you may find your
      perception of your own world refreshed, as it might be by a
      similarly intensive immersion in the oeuvre of Ansel Adams, J. M. W.
      Turner or Monet. After a while, certain vistas - a rolling meadow
      dappled with flowers and shadowed by high cumulus clouds, a range of
      rocky foothills rising toward snow-capped peaks, the fading light at
      the edge of a forest - deserve to be called Miyazakian.

      So do certain stories, especially those involving a resourceful,
      serious girl contending with the machinations of wise old women and
      the sufferings of enigmatic young men. And so do certain themes: the
      catastrophic irrationality of war and other violence; the folly of
      disrespecting nature; the moral complications that arise from
      ordinary acts of selfishness, vanity and even kindness. As a visual
      artist, Mr. Miyazaki is both an extravagant fantasist and an
      exacting naturalist; as a storyteller, he is an inventor of fables
      that seem at once utterly new and almost unspeakably ancient. Their
      strangeness comes equally from the freshness and novelty he brings
      to the crowded marketplace of juvenile fantasy and from an
      unnerving, uncanny sense of familiarity, as if he were resurrecting
      legends buried deep in the collective unconscious.

      MR. Miyazaki's world is full of fantastical creatures - cute and
      fuzzy, icky and creepy, handsome and noble. There are lovable forest
      sprites, skittering dust balls and ravenous blobs of black viscous
      goo, as well as talking cats, pigs and frogs. "Howl's Moving
      Castle," adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, features a
      garrulous flame, voiced in the English-language version by Billy
      Crystal; "Spirited Away" (2001) had its melancholy, wordless no-face
      monster; "NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind" (1984), the director's
      first masterpiece, was nearly overrun by enormous trilobite-shaped
      insects called Om.

      Some of Mr. Miyazaki's creations seem to have precedents and
      analogues in folklore, fantasy literature and other cartoons. The
      porcine title character in the 1992 film "Porco Rosso," for example,
      is a dashing Italian pilot from the early days of aviation, and it
      is just conceivable that he might have a stuttering cousin somewhere
      on the Warner Brothers lot, looking for a pair of pants to match his
      blazer. But most members of Mr. Miyazaki's ever-expanding menagerie -
      including Totoro, the slow-moving, pot-bellied, vaguely feline
      character who has become the logo and mascot of Studio Ghibli - come
      entirely from the filmmaker's own prodigious imagination. In the
      interview, Mr. Miyazaki was asked where he thought his work fitted
      within the expanding universe of children's pop culture. "The truth
      is I have watched almost none of it," he said with a slightly weary
      smile. "The only images I watch regularly come from the weather

      The director, a compact, white-haired man whose demeanor combines
      gravity with a certain impishness, was not just being flip. It is
      hard to think of another filmmaker who is so passionately interested
      in weather. Violent storms, gentle breezes and sun-filled skies are
      vital, active elements, bearers of mood, emotion and meaning. His
      monsters and animals, who share the screen with more conventionally
      human-looking animated figures - adolescent girls with wind-tossed
      hair, short skirts and saucer eyes, mustachioed soldiers and
      wrinkled crones - are an integral part of Mr. Miyazaki's landscape,
      but the most striking feature of his films may be the landscapes

      The action in his movies - he has written and directed seven
      features since "NausicaƤ" - takes place far from the cramped cities
      of modern Japan, and also from the futuristic metropolises that
      provide the dystopian backdrop of so much anime. His characters tend
      to live in hillside villages or in tidy, old-world towns where half-
      timbered houses huddle along cobblestone streets. As much as they
      can, in gliders, on broomsticks and under their own magical powers,
      these characters take to the sky; the evocation of flying, for
      metaphorical purposes and for the sheer visual fun of it, is one of
      Mr. Miyazaki's favorite motifs. But one reason he ventures aloft may
      be to offer a better view of earth and water, which he renders with
      cinematic precision and painterly virtuosity.

      Even though his frames evoke the careful brushwork and delicate
      emotions of Japanese landscape painting, Mr. Miyazaki is very much a
      product of postwar Japan, and he sits at the artistic and commercial
      pinnacle of his country's churning, eclectic visual culture. Though
      he has, in the past 20 years, concentrated almost entirely on film,
      his earlier career includes television cartoons and manga (comic
      books). Animation, which arrived in Japan with the American
      occupying force, has since the war become at once the embodiment of
      the country's antic modernity and also, in the hands of artists like
      Mr. Miyazaki and Mr. Takahata, a vehicle for reimagining and
      preserving its history.

      Mr. Takahata, whose clean-lined realism complements Mr. Miyazaki's
      flights of color and invention, does this explicitly in films
      like "Only Yesterday," in which a Tokyo office worker looks back on
      her childhood, and "Grave of the Fireflies," an almost unbearable
      chronicle of wartime hardship. Mr. Miyazaki's approach to the past
      is more mystical and elegiac. "When I talk about traditions, I'm not
      talking about temples, which we got from China anyway," he
      said. "There is an indigenous Japan," he added, "and elements of
      that are what I'm trying to capture in my work." The clearest
      expression of this impulse may be in those carefully drawn
      landscapes, many of which are overseen by local spirits and all of
      which vibrate with the feeling that nature is an active presence
      rather than a backdrop. It makes sense that the world's greatest
      animator is, at heart, something of an animist.

      At the same time, though, Mr. Miyazaki's movies, whose settings
      variously evoke medieval Japan, 19th-century Europe and the antique
      futures of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, cast a sorrowful, sometimes
      scolding eye toward the present. The antiwar implications of "Howl's
      Moving Castle," which opened on Friday, are as unmistakable as the
      ecological warnings in "NausicaƤ" and "Princess Mononoke," and in
      nearly every film, technological hubris, political ambition and
      greed are the true roots of evil. His criticism of the modern world,
      though, seems less topical than philosophical; his movies do not
      represent a point of view, but rather present a way of seeing that
      is radically at odds with what usually meets the eye. It can hardly
      be denied that they are marvels of escapist entertainment, but this
      is in no small part because they offer escape from the noise and
      aggression that dominate so much other modern entertainment. (Not
      that Mr. Miyazaki is exactly an outsider to the global entertainment
      industry. "Howl's Moving Castle," which Disney is distributing here
      in both a subtitled and celebrity-voice dubbed version, has earned
      more than $210 million in other countries and is the third-highest-
      grossing film in Japanese box office history. Ahead of it
      are "Titanic" and "Spirited Away," which won the 2002 Oscar for best
      animated feature). His power to enchant can seem unlimited - the
      wizards, witches and sorcerers who bedevil, beguile and befriend his
      heroes are less his alter egos than his kinfolk - but it arises from
      and communicates an equally powerful sense of disenchantment.

      It is not that Mr. Miyazaki's films are pessimistic, exactly; being
      fairy tales, they do arrive at happy endings. ("I'm not going to
      make movies that tell children, 'You should despair and run away,' "
      he said.) But the route he chooses toward happiness can be
      troubling, perhaps especially to an American audience that expects
      sentimental affirmations based on clear demarcations between good
      and evil. The division of the world into heroes and villains is a
      habit Mr. Miyazaki regards with suspicion. "The concept of
      portraying evil and then destroying it - I know this is considered
      mainstream, but I think it's rotten," he said. "This idea that
      whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and
      punished for it, in life and in politics, it's hopeless." Like the
      natural world, which follows its own laws and rhythms - "it does
      what the hell it pleases," in Mr. Miyazaki's words - human nature is
      not something that can easily be explained or judged. "One thing you
      can be sure of," says a character at the end of the film - a fellow
      who has spent most of the movie as a mute scarecrow with a head
      carved from a giant turnip - "hearts change." In the Miyazakian
      cosmos, so do minds, bodies, rivers, forests, nations and everything
      else. Wizards turn into birds of prey; young girls are transformed
      overnight into 90-year-old women; greedy parents are changed into
      pigs; shooting stars mutate into fire demons. You can call this
      magic - a word reviewers of Mr. Miyazaki's films seem helpless to
      avoid - or you can call it art. But it may just be that he reveals,
      in his quiet, moving, haunted pictures, the hidden senses of the
      word "animation," which after all means not only to set things in
      motion, but also, more profoundly, to bring them to life.

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