Rejuvenile by Christopher Noxon  
 

06.01.06 In Further Praise of Miyazaki

imageI know he?s got an Academy Award and a big fans at Pixar, but why isn?t Hayao Miyazaki a bigger deal in the U.S.? I finally got around to seeing his latest, Howl?s Moving Castle, and was reminded anew what a godhead storyteller this guy is. Honestly: Miyazaki is up there with the greats of modern movie-making, animated and otherwise. For two-plus hours, I sat with my two oldest kids (four and six ? my littlest, at nine months, is still a few months away from having his eyelids pried open before the mighty TV), all of us transfixed at a bewildering world that nonetheless contained a tight interior logic. Anyone who has seen his celebrated 2001 feature Spirited Away knows what I?m talking about ? Miyazaki?s world is at once totally unpredictable (characters dematerialize, grow feathers, and transform into rippling blobs of energy) and confined to a set of rules that you learn as you go along. It?s the wonderland of childhood imagination writ large, in full-color, hand-drawn glory.

As impressive as Howl is, I?m still partial to more restrained earlier movies like Kiki?s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Tortoro. Both are especially great to watch with little kids because there are no real enemies ? unlike so many other kid movies, Kiki and Tortoro are entirely concerned with a kid?s quest to find their place in a world that?s hard to fathom ? a story that resonates as deeply with children as rejuvenile adults.

Some of the wonder of these movies stems from the abundance of cultural disconnects ? they?re so magical in large part because they?re so far removed from the stories we Westerners are accustomed to. I?m reminded of an exchange I had with Japanese social critic Masaki Ikeda while writing about ?kawaii,? the Japanese term for ?cute? or ?adorable? used to describe Hello Kitty and other kiddie icons enjoyed by adults. He bristled at my first questions about why so many Japanese adults are so fanatical about cartoon kitty cats or puppy dogs. I had it all wrong, he wrote. The appeal of these characters, he insisted, wasn?t about their appeal in childhood. The characters are better understood as ?yaokai,? long suppressed mystical spirits from pre-modern Japan that have found a circuitous route back to the adult imagination. It?s a farfetched but intriguing notion, and it has stayed with me and may help explain why movies like Howl are so compelling ? often, our fondness for the playful and fantastical can often lead us into surprisingly profound territory.

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