Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism

Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism

One of our Ghibli Blog readers recently asked me if I had read this 2000 essay by Christine Hoff Kraemer, and I have to admit I hadn't. This is the first time I've discovered her essay, and it's such an excellent read that I had to share with everyone.

Christine Hoff Kraemer examines issues of feminism as addressed in Western and Eastern animation. Specifically, Miyazaki's films (Nausicaa, Mononoke) against Disney's films (Pocahontas, Mulan). Her insights are illuminating as she pits the four female lead characters against one another, judging their relative strengths and merits.

It should come as no surprise that Kraemer prefers Miyazaki, of course. Her closing paragraph:

Though Disney is still unmatched in the sophistication of its animation, the content of its films is still far from cutting-edge. Miyazaki's films are much richer in content and complex in plot – they are films for children to grow up with and grow into, much like the best of classic children's literature; Mononoke, while still a family film, was marketed for older children and young adults. Disney, on the other hand, seems to be increasingly ignoring the older contingent of its audience to produce films with overly simplistic storylines and gaping plot holes (as anyone who groaned when a group of six Huns nearly took over Mulan's China knows). Further, the portrayals of Mulan and Pocahantas bespeak a schizophrenic political agenda – the two heroines behave in extremely conservative, regressive ways at some points in the films (Pocahantas's passive role in her sexual relationship, Mulan's return to family life) and in extremely progressive ways in others (Pocahantas's powerful defense of living in harmony with nature, Mulan's successfully fulfilling the traditionally male role of a soldier). Perhaps the reality simply is that in terms of unity of message, Miyazaki's total creative control over his films produces pieces that are far more artistically and thematically coherent than Disney's films, which see the creative influences of many different minds and hands. In terms of providing strong female role models for our children, however, the choice between Disney and Miyazaki is clear: the future of feminism in animated films is undoubtedly Japanese.


Doug said...

"Though Disney is still unmatched in the sophistication of its animation ... "

I'm not sure I agree with this. It seems that their approaches to animation are so different and seem to serve different needs. I think animation serves story in Ghibli, where animation is more of the story at Disney. If that makes any sense.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

In America, the "sophistication" of animation is solely a matter of how many drawings are used. Disney movies use 24 drawings per second, therefore they are "better" than some anime movie which uses 8. It's a rather strange notion when critically examining an artform.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. Great animators can create great art, whether by following the Disney paradigm, or by following the Japanese anime paradigm. There are geniuses and hacks on both sides of the garbage patch.

But what do I know? I'd rather watch Rocky and Bullwinkle.

OldEuropean said...

Nonsense is correct, since of course not every single second of a Disney movie contains 24 individual drawings ;-). That hasn't been the case since, well, probably ever, 'cause "drawing on twos" and "drawing on threes" has been around since at least the early Disney features. It all depends on the scene.

I do think it's more aesthetically pleasing to use the full number for important action scenes and facial expressions, and I do find Japanese animation a little lacking in that regard sometimes. I don't really like the typical "Japanese" (as if there were such a generic thing) character designs anyway, as a matter of taste, but that has never stopped me from enjoying a film if the characters were interesting and the story was engaging.

Philip Daniel said...

I had an argument with an anonymous "animator" recently, who claimed that Miyazaki is a "poor craftsman" due to his "limited animation". He(?) could not comprehend why anyone would choose to animate at lower framerates and forgoe detailed lipsync. Yasuo Otsuka's frame rate modulation is an utterly foreign concept in America, it seems. Personally, I find great pleasure in the various "motion textures" present in the character animation of a film like Mononoke, due to its variation in motion timing and spacing; yet others maintain that "exaggerated realism" is the only proper route for convincing character animation.
However, Miyazaki and company are perfectly capable and willing to work in the full animation style of Disney. Look at Ponyo, for instance:
In this clip, we can see constant motion and exaggerated lipsync.
But I'm sure Ponyo will still be criticized for its "jerky" animation by cartoonbrew posters, despite the fact that it has the some of the most fluid animation I've ever seen in a non-American film.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

All of this proves that there is more than one theory of animation, just as there is more than one style of painting. In America, there has rarely been any competing theories outside of the Disney school, and the era of great innovation - the Fleischers, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones - stretch back generations.

I'm reminded of Scott McCloud's pyramid from Understanding Comics. With that one great illustration, he demonstrated the great variety and wealth of artistic expression in the comics medium. One didn't have to be limited to Bob Kane or Jack Kirby or Don Martin or Charles Shultz. And that diversity should be celebrated.

This is a crucial lesson to be learned if Americans want to understand and appreciate Japanese anime. Their animation theories are uniquely their own, and evolved in a different direction from the Americans. Yasuo Otsuka's idea of frame rate modulation in Horus is an essential breakthrough to the modern anime era. They learned the artistic and dramatic value in tempo changes and alternate keys.

To scoff at anime as being "jerky" or "primitive" is ignorance. True, less skilled artists will create jerky animation, but you will find more examples here in the US. The Japanese learned to embrace the "limited animation" style of tv, and people like Otsuka thrived in that format. The Americans have never learned how to do that, I think, because it applies to a different paradigm than the one they're accustomed to.

I don't wish to put down Disney unfairly. I happen to be a great admirer of Walt Disney and his Nine Old Men. Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo - these are pricess works of art, and I adore every one of them (I don't have patience for the racism in Dumbo, however).

In these films, you can see their animation theories of exaggerated movement, of fluid motion, of stretch and squash, put to masterful use. Seeing Stromboli prowl around his trailer in Pinocchio is an astonishing marvel to see.

That said, this animation paradigm grew out of the silent film era, and its trappings, such as exaggerated movements, were common practice in all silent movies. But when sound arrived, and filmmakers mastered its use (thank you, Orson Welles), actors' performances became more natural, more nuanced, and less overtly theatrical. They no longer needed to play to the rafters.

I think American animation, for the most part, is still playing to the rafters. And while that paradigm has many followers and fans, it's not the only one in existence. There are others. And if we were to be completely honest with ourselves, we'd admit that the American and Japanese paradigms have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Then, of course, there's CGI, which has its own way of doing things by virtue of the computer medium. But that's another issue altogether.

It's too bad if your "animator" friend doesn't like Miyazaki. Send him over here and I'll convert him easy. Heh heh.

Oh, and one very short note about lip-sync. In America, it's very important. In Japan's, it not. It's just another cultural difference that one must make their peace with.

In the end, animation deals in illusions. Its secret lies in the art of closure, and as Scott McCloud demonstrates, there are many ways of achieving that goal. A skilled animator should be able to depict action and movement with a single drawing. This is Miyazaki's genius as a craftsman, and it should be carefully studied by all his students around the world.

Adrienne said...

Haha. It's funny that Christine Hoff should mention "Mulan", one of the most frustrating films I've ever seen--not because it was awful, but because one sees in that film glimpses of the better film it could have been, but refused to be.

It's also interesting she should mention the "schizophrenia" of most Disney films. She's right. You can hear the political gears turning behind the scenes of many of these movies. It's a miracle to see anything natural. Everything is so over calculated--in an artform that's already hypercalculated by design. The illusion of spontinety in animation is a miracle.

I think Disney is in an extremely difficult position. I sympathise. Interestingly, their position is to a great degree the fault of Walt Disney the man, and his company today as a whole for continuing on with the bad practices of its past, while diminishing or eliminating the good ones. And their imitators are even worse.

It shows in the films. Underneath all of it one senses fear. For in order to portray a character with demension, you would need to expose a character as having bad qualities and flaws. I don't mean the kind of calculated "flaws" that executives try to insert into a character to make them what their idea of is "edgy" (man, I dispise that word). But defects of judgement, character and behavior that the real-life audience has. Everybody has friends, and every one of our friends has serious flaws, but we still like them. I think American animated filmmakers are boxed in--and there's too much preconcieved notion when approaching animated material as to what "appeal" is.

Is "appeal" in a protagonist limited to complete innocence? It seems like the filmmakers are shoehorned into having to tell "Snow White" over and over again. But maybe the fault is in their own minds as well. How long can one blame "the system?"

But real people (not archtypes or stereotypes) have very ugly qualities, and we can't have our 3-year-olds exposed to that, when we're spending 180 million. Despite the fact Little Johnny, even at 3, has ugly qualities. Still we as parents want him to overcome them.

But then again, why are we spending 180 million when we're telling the same sorts of stories over and over? It's usually all a big $180M pat on the back where protagonists with no real dimension to begin with, confront similarly flat antognists, and defeat them with minimal time or effort-- and the film's ending mirrors the beginning.

For films that are supposed to be so posative and "life-affirming", the worldview many of these films present seem awfully cynical, or at least lazy.

But then, it's "appealing" to be generic like that. There's nothing even close to controversial about it. There's nothing about it to disagree with. And hence, it seems the 180 million dollar efforts to concoct the perfect babysitter.

Heck! I think I'll try my hand at it!!

Over the years, such an approach has to take its toll on anyone who would like to consider themselves an "artist." For the whole ball of wax is antithetical to the nature of "art". You look at a lot of these old Disney animators and there's something...wrong with them. I can't put my finger on it. They seem rumpled and diminished by more than just age. They seem to have surrendered at least a big chunk of ambitions/hopes they may have once had, and have contented themselves to concentrating on other minutae. Anybody with a unique style and strong personality they were unwilling to bury left (or was fired) years ago. There was no place in the company for them. This has been true throughout Disney's history, perhaps beginning with Bill Tytla. Brad Bird and Tim Burton are other examples.

The troubling crux is, if you want to work in 2-D,character-style feature animation in the U.S., with the money, talent time AND ADVERSTISING MUSCLE lavished on them it requires, there's nowhere else *to* go. Those people unwilling to yield to the mediocrity usually ended up working in other mediums (TV, live-action, etc.) Or maybe starting their own studios, where your main concern is just staying afloat, it seems.

The tradition of this system is in American animation's very DNA, and it will take a lot of time and effort (as does, alas, every worthwhile accomplishment) to turn around. That's why I have nothing bad to say about PIXAR. (I may be thinkin' it, but not saying!), because I appreciate what they're trying to do behind the scenes--in that they're trying to turn Disney animation into a director-driven entity. That, combined with some interesting things that are going on with independent animation, might turn the ship around, assuming we as a planet have time for all that foolishness. I'm expecting Armedgeddon about any day now.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Ah, that was fantastic! If you're writing like this, then you really need to get your blog going again. I don't really have anything more to add to what you've written, except, "more!"

I can't wait to see you tear apart that 11-part chapter by Minako Saitou.

Megan said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that most of the comments on this blog are focused on debating the issues of what "great" animation is technically, when the focus of the article is feminism.

What I want to know is this: how does Disney figure into the making of Ponyo? Ponyo is nothing like Miyazaki's other films. It is boring, heteronormative, and definitely far from being feminist. It is a typical Disney "Classic" story, which happens to be animated by a Japanese studio. I want to know what kind of deal was struck with the mouse for this (completely trite) storyline to have come about.

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