At our household, this year was the year of Hayao Miyazaki.
I was inspired by a wonderful article by Evita Duffy in The Federalist explaining how the children’s movies of Japan, specifically by Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki’s production company), were much better suited for children than the standard fare from Pixar, Disney, and (ugh) DreamWorks. Duffy relates how Miyazaki’s movies helped engage her hyperactive little brother Patrick in a calming, peaceful way: “Patrick’s favorite pastime is launching himself off furniture and wrestling with our dog. Yet, during this quiet contemplative movie moment, he sat attentively and fully engaged in the scene.
With this in mind, my family and I watched a handful Miyazaki movies this year on special occasions—most other days we’re screen-free. Sure enough, they had the same salubrious effects on our high-energy toddlers as they did on Duffy’s little brother. Our children watched a work of art play out in front of them, grateful for the experience afterwards and not at all wound up or bratty.
On our most recent movie night, we rewatched Spirited Away, perhaps Miyazaki’s best. It tells the story of a young girl Chihiro who finds herself working at a bathhouse in the spirit world in order to save her parents and return to the real world. Over the course of the movie, she must learn to be resourceful, navigate through a strange land, and learn humility.
With a lovely music score (Joe Hisaishi ranks right up there with movie composers John Williams and Ennio Morriconne) and ravishing, meticulous settings, Spirited Away is very rich and epic kind of movie. There’s a wide range of tones and each scene invites the audience to pay careful attention. Unlike most blockbusters of the past few decades, it doesn’t rely on the continuous dopamine rush of silly slapstick or elaborate action sequences. Rather, it creates magnificent world in which one can truly lose himself.
A close second in the Miyazaki cinematic pantheon is My Neighbor Totoro. Somewhat the inverse of Spirited Away, Totoro succeeds because its intimacy and realism—though, to be sure, there are fantastical elements as well. Instead of taking place in a palatial bathhouse in spirit world, it takes place in rural Japan right right after World War II. The plot centers on two young girls and their father who have just moved to an old house in the country while their mother convalesces from a long-term illness.
The fantastical elements come in the form a large furry magical creature named Totoro who shows himself to the two girls as they explore the area around their house. There’s no obvious conflict to the movie—the girls worry about their mother and explore their new surroundings—but it’s never slow. Much like in Spirited Away, the audience is caught up in the experience and the events unfold gently.
Tied for third are Ponyo and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Both films depict stories that are evenly split between fantasy and reality. Yes, Ponyo is a mermaid and Kiki is a witch, but both are making their way in world that has largely dispensed with magic. While Kiki features more character development and deeper themes, Ponyo has a better soundtrack (Joe Haihashi at his finest) and is more exciting, making them equally enjoyable.
An honorable mention goes to The Wind Rises, a Miyazaki movie geared more for adults. While a bit slow at times, this movie manages to be sweeping without any magical elements. As it charts the life of a famous Japanese airplane designer of Jiro Horikoshi during World War II, it shows how Japan transitions from a feudal rural backwater to an industrial powerhouses. Horikoshi is carried along with this “wind” of progress, embodying this cultural tension between a Zen devotion to beauty and simplicity and a Western fascination with technology and power.
Naturally, there are many more movies in the Studio Ghibli collection that deserve attention as well—particularly Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies. We definitely intend to rewatch Princess Mononoke, though I’ll have to wait until I have the stomach and a few boxes of tissues before I watch Grave of the Fireflies, one of the saddest movie ever made.
While I admit it’s hard to get as excited about watching Miyazaki’s movies as it is with Pixar or Disney, they are never disappointing. They are beautiful, and more importantly, they are pure. What they lack in gripping plot-lines and charismatic characters, they more than make up for in recreating worlds and experiences that enchant the viewer and penetrate one’s cynicism. They have the illuminating innocence of childhood without descending into childishness. And yet, they are also mature and profound without being vulgar, snarky, or dark.
As such, Miyazaki’s movies, even on repeated viewings, have a way of causing viewers to love their family more, better appreciate nature, and simplify their life. For that reason, you could say that they are among the best things to watch during Advent in order to prepare one’s heart for Christmas.
Photo Credit: Overly Animated