Thoughts on Miyazaki's Narrative Style

I think one of the things I really enjoy about Miyazaki's work is his narrative style, which reminds me greatly of serial cliffhangers. It's episodic, but not especially in the way American movies or tv shows are episodic. The stories evolve, mutate, and grow in their own directions. There's always an overall story arc, a beginning, middle, and end, but they're far less linear than what's expected in the West.

I think this is something that can cause confusion, especially with Howl's Moving Castle, which seems deliberately designed to throw off viewers who expected a Harry Potter clone. It's something that only became obvious to me the further I delved into Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's work.

His narrative structure was largely shaped by television: Lupin III, Future Boy Conan, and the landmark World Masterpiece Theatre productions of Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables. The two Panda Kopanda shorts (which, aside from Takahata's directing, is mostly his work) also fill out at around 35 minutes. It's not surprising, considering that his first directoral film was Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, that the Miyazaki style had already solidified.

Conan, especially, is a signature Miyazaki anime, as it was purely his child, as well as his directoral debut. An adventure serial straight out of old Errol Flynn pictures, with generous doses of slapstick comedy, romanticism, action, and his own obsessions about human nature, civilization vs the natural world, yadda yadda, all wrapped up in 26 episodes. Hmm. It may be the definitive Miyazaki, situated perfectly between Horus and his Nausicaa graphic novel, which to my mind remains his masterwork.

His Ghibli films become less obviously episodic as the years go by, but I think he just became more skilled at scrubbing away the stitches. The last time I watched My Neighbor Totoro was when I was making come copies for family members for Christmas (I have the Hong Kong DVD, haha), I was struck by its darker, more somber tone in the final act. The movie revolves around the older daughter's growing awareness of her mother's illness; her awareness of death. It's not something Mei, the younger sister, can yet understand, and when she suddenly disappears, Satsuki's inner fear of loss is made manifest.

This, of course, is Miyazaki's personal filmmaking at work, and perhaps on one level the movie was his attempt to come to terms with his own mother's serious illness, his own childhood. Is it any wonder that Totoro is at once so nostalgic and yet so idyllic?

I don't think this awareness could have come about if a complete script was written at the very beginning; it had to come out during the act of creation. In the hands of most filmmakers, I don't think this sort of thing could ever work, but to Miyazaki, it's perfectly natural. It's just how his creative process has always worked.

We see this process play out similarly in many of his films, and I think that's why I like it more than the standard, American-style episodic structure. It doesn't merely spin its wheels in perpetuity, playing out endless scenarios like television, but evolves, serves an overall point, and often finishes at a different place than you expected from the beginning. It's either used dramatically (Castle in the Sky, Howl's) or comedically (Porco Rosso).

I should also point out that Isao Takahata's storytelling is similar, in films like Pom Poko and The Story of Yanagawa Waterways, his brilliant 1987 documentary. But I'm afraid I'm rambled on long enough. We'll save that for next time.


Dan Hamman said...

Hey Daniel, I came back to this old post after musing on it in the back of my mind for a while, and whilst you already probably know this I thought you'd find it as significant as I did -- the episodic nature you refer to the movies having is in fact BUILT in to their production.

If you look at the storyboard books Ghibli releases (I've seen it in other anime storyboard books too), every movie is divided in to parts A, B, C, D. I found out recently that this is a production function -- rather than everything being scheduled as one movie, it's treated as 4 little productions, each with approximate running times of 20-25 minutes (similar to the running times of TV episodes Miyazaki cut his teeth directing). I am not certain of the history of the reason but it wouldn't surprise me if it's something Miyazaki and Takahata developed. It's somewhat similar to the old Disney way of having their movies divided into 'sequences', some having entirely different directors.

Like lots of things in movies and art, I think the function here has had a big effect on shaping the form of these stories. Seeing each 'part' as an 'act' is revealing; each has their own mini-resolutions and in Miyazaki's case correspond to a turning point in the story or at the least a strong character moment. Sometimes it is a moment where Miyazaki contemplates nature or the world of the story.

In some way it gives an answer for how Miyazaki is able to start his movies without a finished script or outline--by treating it one part at a time, collected episodes with an overall arc. In the same way Vince Gilligan talks about allowing Breaking Bad to evolve as the season is being written, episode by episode, Miyazaki lets each part speak to him and in the end, rather than following a predetermined blueprint, the stories are allowed to develop their own way and really stay true and honest to themselves. Miyazaki's emotional moments are earned through this dialogue he has with the stories and why he has few unearned or forced moments.

His moments of 'reflection' almost always fall at the end of these parts/acts, and usually we'll see the characters observed from a slight distance or in some way nature or the wider world is evoked. At the least, I think they have an effect on how Miyazaki paces his films even if they aren't perfect for dividing acts (for example part B of the wind rises comes when Jiro is working alone at night after Caproni has told him he's retiring, the actual end of the act comes a scene or so later when his prototype flies for the first time without a hitch and he takes a holiday.)

Anyway, I've rambled a bit but I think the conversation of his narrative style is worth continuing as it's rarely discussed beyond 'he sometimes has quiet moments'.

all the best and congrats on 10 years!

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