“Most of our world is rubbish. It’s difficult.” Sitting at a table, listlessly smoking a cigarette, the beloved master artist, animator, and director Hayao Miyazaki contemplates what he finds to be the utter hopelessness and crudeness of life. Despite making some of the most charming, comforting, and not to mention visually stunning animated films of all time, Miyazaki conveys this sentiment quite often. One can find his many rather cynical musings captured in director Mami Sunada’s documentary film THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS AND MADNESS (2013), which delves into Miyazaki’s life as well as the world of production within Studio Ghibili, his animation film studio.
However, this is not what is translated to his canvas, to his animation, and to his body of work as a whole. Miyazaki is known for his whimsical, delicate watercolor backgrounds and endearing protagonists, not to mention the entrancing, fantastical, sometimes quasi-supernatural worlds they inhabit. While some of his films do often point out the destructive nature of mankind (take San, the jaded girl raised by wolves, in PRINCESS MONOKOKE ), they are often optimistic, and ever affirming of the persistent beauty of life, if perhaps didactic in delivery.
Two of Miyazaki’s best-loved films certainly exemplify this optimism that audiences young and old have cherished now for decades: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989) and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988). Yet, in small, poignant, and deeply nuanced ways, these child-centric films nonetheless uncover some of Miyazaki’s darker tonalities, offering more complicated and ultimately honest portrayals of childhood, innocence, and identity.
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE begins at an idyllic high point, with a young girl Kiki lying serenely on a downy hill by the water. It is soon revealed that Kiki, like all other young witches, must leave her home for the first time on her flying broomstick in search of a new city to begin her training. With her constant feline companion Jiji, Kiki does find a home away from home with a kind and gentle baker woman, Osono, who offers Kiki a place to stay in exchange for her help making deliveries. With Osono’s help, Kiki opens her own witch delivery service, though the world of independence and responsibility is not always easily maneuvered despite Kiki’s best intentions and effort.
However, the central development of the film traces Kiki’s descent into an ambivalent, hazy depression. In one scene, we find Kiki sick and sleeping all day amidst her gray-scale furnishings in her attic apartment. The stillness of her surroundings paired with Miyazaki’s drawling pacing forces the film to a narrative plateau, which in turn highlights Kiki’s own ever-growing apathy. Miyazaki’s affectionate attention to small details helps bottle the tension of Kiki’s reluctance to continue striking out in a world that seemingly wants to wear her down. The single wilting flower by Kiki’s bedside, the quiet defeat of her closed window, and the coldness of her iron bedframe bring a voice to Kiki’s mental space, as her own once-confident voice withers away. She eventually loses her ability to speak with Jiji, and soon can no longer fly, forcing her to suspend her delivery service. Ursula, a woman who lives in the woods amidst flocks of crows, observes that Kiki might be suffering from a sort of artist’s block, and perhaps has been worn down by the mundane reality of labor, social isolation, and the nagging uncertainty of one’s own potential.
What Miyazaki accomplishes through this relatively simple premise is actually a more complicated version of coming-of-age than is usually seen in films that are geared equally towards young children as adults. Kiki faces no tangible external obstacles, and perhaps more importantly there is no crystalized morality or traditionally didactic experience that Kiki must come to align herself with. Rather, she is dogged by her own insecurities, and her own first touches with the ambivalence of the world around her. While Miyazaki’s rendering of the world through his detailed backgrounds, twinkling seascapes, and enchanting city streets remain beautiful and aesthetically pleasing throughout the entirety of the film, the onus of responsibility is on Kiki to maintain her own curiosity, motivation, and ultimately desire to live happily and productively. While Miyazaki himself is ever-aware of the perils and depressive nature of the world around him, he nonetheless puts forward a vision of life that offers the option to still revel in the beauty, and to find meaning even in small moments of pleasure.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO likewise mixes the cruelties of the adult world with the enchantment of childhood. Young sisters Satsuki and Mei, travelling with their father Tatsuo, arrive at their new home in the countryside in order to be closer to their mother who suffers from some sort of long-term illness, causing her to stay at a hospital away from her family. The girls immediately take to their new home, and are quite curious about its rather mysterious presences, such as tiny dust-like spirits who drift through rays of light within the house. Throughout the film, the girls are given a window into a fantasy world reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland, populated by charming fuzzy beasts, entrancing gardens, and immense, secret-keeping trees.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is deeply innocent in its treatment of the young girls, and is concerned with naturalism in the sense that Mei and Satsuki express themselves with the language of small children. At the same time, their world is burdened by one of the most complex issues a child can face—the sickness of their parent. Though death is never explicitly mentioned in the film, and the girls are not even necessarily given a language with which to examine their feelings or understanding of mortality, their anxiety underscores many scenes in the film, as Miyazaki astutely understands that childhood emotions that seem simple and well-defined can actually be tangled up in more nuanced metaphysical affects. For instance, when their mother is not able to visit due to complications with her treatment, Mei unleashes a strident, wobbling wail so powerful and prolonged that one immediately senses it is not simply a reaction to not getting her way, but to the overwhelming fear of not having control over the fate of her family. The child, completely at a loss and without the emotional and communicative tools to work through her fears, is overcome with emotion, releasing its pent-up force like a geyser.
Miyazaki is particularly praised for his treatment of female protagonists, who are allowed to simply be young children, in all of its messiness and unbridled delight, in a world that often forces girls to mature faster than their male counterparts. Miyazaki is well aware of the insensitive, dismissive, and sometimes even predatory manner in which the world treats its young girls. A character like Kiki or Mei becoming more self aware in a callous world perhaps holds weightier truths and consequences than if they were written as young boys. Like the Western world, gender roles in Japan are also determined by a palpably patriarchal society. For the innocence and wonder of childhood to be interrupted for girls by the impeding realization of this inequality in a way that young boys aren’t compulsively concerned with, means that Kiki’s depression or Mei’s desperation are informed by a world that is not merely objectively cruel, but is actively cruel to their characters specifically. Miyazaki’s characters must grapple with pressures to be versions of young women that society deems acceptable, perhaps falling into internalized patterns of submission and passivity, or otherwise fighting criticisms of being too emotional, too needy, or too outspoken. While Miyazaki implies the condition of this world, he nonetheless distinctly champions girlhood for all that it is—beautiful, confusing, painful, and transcendent. The girls of both films are quiet heroes, deciding to revel in the wonder and adventure of life even when such a journey does not always seem to be reserved for them.
Both films are prepossessing in their beautiful, if subtly dark, portrayals of childhood, and especially girlhood. Miyazaki, who grew up amidst the destruction and global terror of World War II, does not deny the harshness which his young protagonists might encounter, but consistently provides them with reminders of all that is still good in the world, and allows them to cherish these moments and rewards them for doing so, making them more perceptive and even enlightened young adults.