The Miyazaki Riffs, or "Hey, Look at That!"

Alright, kids. This is where we start rolling up our sleeves and really get to work.

For fans of Miyazaki's work, it's an altogether different experience for those of us in the West, and particularly in America, than it was in Japan. In his home country, animation fans were able to follow Miyazaki's career ever since the Toei Doga days of the '60s. Us? We didn't know any of this existed until Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. So that means we have a lot of backtracking to do.

It's always important to put a filmmaker's career in perspective, to have a sense of the greater picture, when understanding their movies individually; for Miyazaki this is especially true. His career is an ongoing conversation, a continuing orchestra or various themes and icons, and it all bleeds into one another. Mononoke, for example, stands on its own feet (as our enthusiasm for it showed), but it only truly comes alive after you've seen the 1984 Nausicaa film, the Nausicaa books, and even 1968's Horus, Prince of the Sun. Mononoke takes on an added dimension, and suddenly a lot of mysteries begin to make sense. You discover the whole unspoken narrative between these various works.

It's much like seeing The Godfather, Part II for the first time, without ever seeing the original Godfather. That's an absurd notion for anyone who lived through the '70s, but for later generations, those of us drowning in the age of corporate mass media and lousy movies, we have to wade backwards through the muck to find the buried treasure. The younger kids will, God willing, discover the original Godfather; and suddenly, everything clicks into place.

I'm often reminded of Frank Zappa's theory of conceptual continuity, or the Big Note. Zappa saw all the music he created as a part of one enormous symphony; all the music in the world is really just a part of the Big Note. Bits and segments and riffs would pop in and out of different albums, sometimes in different fashion. Some of the fun for Zappa-philes is in trying to spot the riffs that reappear everywhere: that tape loop from Lumpy Gravy that pops up in We're Only in it for the Money; the avant-garde Mr. Green Genes that's refashioned into the jazz fusion Son of Mr. Green Genes on Hot Rats. And on and on it goes. You get the idea.

Hayao Miyazaki's work is a lot like this. Americans who don't know any more than the past couple Ghibli movies watched Howl's Moving Castle and complained that the Japanese master was repeating himself. It almost makes you want to pat the little dears on their heads. Silly rabbit! Miyazaki has always been quoting himself. Filmmakers do it all the time, either as a way of honoring their influences, or as nostalgia for their own past.

American animation is drowning today in pop culture riffs, dumbed-down inbred stepchildren of The Simpsons. The audience's laziness is pandered to; everything becomes a dumbed-down game of "spot the TV or movie reference." This is the poor man's version of riffing, a pat on the back for a whole lifetime wasted in front of the idiot box. It's something that, used properly, can be extremely clever; the right creative minds can illuminate an entire movie with a two-second riff. Think of it as the difference between My Neighbor Totoro and, oh, let's say, Shrek 2. Or Robots. Or Shark Tale. Or Madagascar. Or all those hideous direct-to-DVD Disney videos. Ahem. You get the idea.

The Japanese animation filmmakers have an interesting history of quoting themselves and their history; of these Miyazaki is the king. He's the one you turn to after you've completely memorized every Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode ever made. It's his way of making you aware of the interconnected nature of Japan's anime history, from someone who was there to shape that history from the very beginning.

So, kids, there's your homework, and you've got a lot of it waiting for you. I'll help out from time to time with a screenshot here or there. Oh, and did I mention already that you should be buying the new Puss in Boots DVD. That's a gold mine right there.


J.R.D.S. said...

Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? That is what has contributed more than anything to my understanding of Miyazaki's films.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

No, I'm afraid I haven't, although I should at some point. I'm well aware that the Earthsea novels have had an influence on Miyazaki's work. He once toyed with the idea of filming an adaptation, but for various reason, it never seriously happened. It's not small irony that his eldest son, Goro, chose to adapt the third Earthsea novel as his first film, Gedo Senki/ Tales of Earthsea. The film is now finished and is set to be released in Japan next month, and I'm sure everybody will be waiting with baited breath to see how it turns out.

Jack Ruttan said...

I've gotta say that I think the dumbing down of filmmakers, and film criticism in general is due to the ascendance of the film school in the 70s (come on, Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin the top crix in the country? Not that I totally dislike either of them, but they're reviewers, not critics).

School's emphasis is more on the visual, and technical than the written. And rather than delving into something, most thinking about film seems more like the mindless quotation of references.

There just arent' that many hifaluting intellectuals looking at film in a serious any more (except for deconstructionists, who have gone up their own belly-buttons), and the written, critical portion such as what the French did in the Fifties, and which Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris took up (and that had problems, too!) in the sixties has gone by the boards.

Mind you, the internet might change that, or it might be the ascendance of "Aint it Cool" message board geeks, and people who misuse "it's."

Excuse the ranting, and hope this made some sense. Love the blog so far!

Jacob said...

I've been a fan of Miyazaki since the mid-'90s, when VHS fansubs were at the height of popularity. There was quite a volume of his work available back then, if you could find it.

I brought home Porco Rosso in '97 or '98, and suggested my Dad watch it. He fell in love with it insatntly, and still thinks it's one of the greatest animated films ever.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Well, thank you to everyone for taking the time to write. Don't ever apologize for ranting or writing long letters; that's the very reason this weblog is here. It's a rec room for all Ghibli and animation fans to come together and share their ideas.

Porco Rosso is a terrific picture. I first saw it roughly three years ago, before it was expected to arrive in the States. Usually, if I want to initiate someone into these films, someone with no prior experience, I'll throw in Porco. It's a movie that carries all of the Ghibli traits, and it happens to be funny and entertaining, much better than anything we Americans have produced.

J.R.D.S. said...

You really should read A Wizard of Earthsea (and probably The Tombs of Atuan as well, so that you can fully understand Gedo Senki). Miyazaki is obsessed with that book, in the same way that Konishi Yasuharu is obsessed with 60s, in particular the one stand-alone chapter which I think is called The Hawk's Flight. All his films contain some sort of reference to this (most obviously in The Castle of Cagliostro and all his "original" additions to Howl's Moving Castle) and sometimes it quite subtle but still significant - the setting of Porco Rosso on various islands in the Adriatic sea is so obviously taken from the core idea of Earthsea, but I didn't notice this until my second viewing because of how it was disguised with 20th century technology.

Practically all artists of any media or format will reference themselves in some sort of way (Pizzicato Five spring to mind for their constant sampling and referencing of both western 60s pop culture and their own previous works) but no artist, to my knowledge or imagining, has done this to anything near the level of complexity that CLAMP have with the huge amount of manga series they have made. They started of my making dôjinshi of Saint Seiya and Captain Tsubasa, and thier early works such as RG Veda still heavily 'sample' from the characters and costumes of these franchises, but as their back-catalogue has built up they have found themselves referencing their own work more and more, creating a gigantic web of crossovers, reflections and family connections. All of their series appear to take place in universes which run parallel to each other (eg. xxxHOLiC and Tsubasa) or in different time-frames of the same universe (eg. xxxHOLiC, Angelic Layer and Chobits). No connection can be considered too obscure to be unintentional - as Yûko (a goddess who, perhaps acting as an avatar for CLAMP themselves within their fictional multi-verse, creates and maintains the worlds in which the stories take place) says herself: "There is no such thing as coincidence. The only thing is hitsuzen.

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