2.2.09

Hayao Miyazaki

I re-watched Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke recently, and thought I should rave about them for a bit. The former is Miyazaki’s first feature (I think); made all the way back in 1984. And to an extent it shows. There are some jarring elements, particularly the cheery Power Rangers techno music that comes on during the action scenes. Also, some of the dialogue doesn’t quite fit, although that might be the english dub at fault. But this is just pedantry. For the film is otherwise an extraordinary post-apocalyptic epic, exploring MASSIVE themes -- the nature of human civilization, its relationship with nature, the glories of human ingenuity (particularly flight), and the wisdom of women. The whole thing left me breathless.

Before seeing it, I had held a deep-seated prejudice against Japanese manga/anime. I thought I wouldn’t be able to understand it, since Japan’s culture was so alien. Its references, manners and ideas were too far removed from our Americanized cultural landscape. So why bother, when I could find a deeper resonance in western films and comics? I wouldn’t describe this attitude as bigoted. I wasn’t thinking Japanese output was inferior, just harder to access. But I now see how narrow minded it is. Miyazaki’s film showed me how brilliant art transcends all cultural differences, because it taps into emotions and ideas that we all, as people, share.

One thing that will immediately impress anyone watching Miyazaki’s work is how rich the imagination behind it is. For me, he has made every other animated film dull by comparison. The extraordinary range of stuff the guy comes up with: glider jets, flying barges, alien cityscapes, giant steam engines, weird monsters. This is a guy who loves world-building, and has the vision to make his worlds both enticingly strange and yet also recognizable, and relatable. This in itself merits his films wider attention.

But it doesn’t end there. Another constant is his surprisingly sophisticated characters, nowhere more evident that in Princess Mononoke. What is amazing about the film is that there are no villains. Instead, what you get are different characters who’s beliefs and interests collide, but who always have a justification for what they are doing. The same quality is what I like so much about The West Wing, where the bad guys -- the Republicans -- are sometimes quite admirable and sympathetic (amazing, I know). This is another thing I’ve realised from watching Miyazaki’s films. Great storytelling isn’t about exploring objective good and evil, but about the grey areas, where principles are tested by events.

Princess Mononoke revisits the ground first explored in Nausicaä, although this time going to the past rather than into the future. Both films push Miyazaki’s principle concerns -- pacifism, environmentalism, feminism -- which are present in all his work, to the fore. In Mononoke, the kinks in Nausicaä are ironed out -- it has a brilliant score, a great English language dub and effective (quite arty) editing. I personally prefer Nausicaä, just because I am in love with the character, but Mononoke is the (slightly) better film. I think the two are Miyazaki’s masterpieces, because they marry the poignant human stories of his other films with truly epic (am I gonna say it? yeah...) philosophical themes. Few films have displayed such a cornucopia of brilliance.

I realize that I am hopelessly under-qualified to make the following sweeping judgement, but what the hell. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.

Panegyric over.

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