US Ponyo producer Frank Marshall today quoted that 2008 Richard Corliss review of Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea in Time Magazine. I haven't read it since it was first published, and even then, pretty much skipped over it. Today, however, I went back to Corliss' review, and once again, I find myself ensnared in this brewing debate about Miyazaki's confusing plot holes.
I'm still completely baffled by it. I tend to expect that from the movie critics, who, with a few notable exceptions, are ignorant about Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. They prefer to keep animation locked inside its kiddie box, where everything and everyone is Walt Disney. But it's 2009 now, and the name Hayao Miyazaki has been known to cinephiles for some time. Everyone has had enough time to see all of his directoral feature films, read his epic Nausicaa graphic novel, and at least made some effort to discover his work from the 1960s and 1970s.
Here's what I think this issue is ultimately about: language. America and Japan are seperated by their own written languages; in fact, East and West have evolved along very different paths, and these cultures have evolved alongside the alphabets. And there will always be a greater cultural gap between East and West than elsewhere in the world.
I think we're also seperated by another language: the language of animation. Animation, cartoons, comics - these forms speak the language of Scott McCloud's icons. These speak in symbols, metaphors, and they are alphabets in and of themselves. Indeed, one of Scott McClouds most significant points in Understanding Comics is that written language and visual art both are descended from the same common ancestor: the original iconic pictograms that were the origin of written language. Those cave paintings in the south of France, dated as old as 30,000 years, is where our language first evolved.
The bottom line is that the icons of Japan are significantly different from the icons of the West. And this has a notable effect on the movies that we make. The very language of movies will be different as often as they are alike. This means different techniques, different styles, or even different theories. It also means a different approach to narrative, and this is where I believe many on our side of the globe get tripped up.
We're making the mistake that animation is universal and speaks the same language. Animation may be universal - as its iconic nature demonstrates (any child will be transfixed by even a mediocre cartoon) - but they do not speak the same language. The Japanese have evolved their own unique style that is independent from Hollywood. And here's the kicker: it's still evolving. Horus, Prince of the Sun and Heidi, Girl of the Alps weren't the only paradigm shifts. I think we need to come to terms with this fact, and the evolving nature of Miyazaki's films.
To really understand these movies, you have to spend a considerable amount of time learning their culture, coming to grips with Japan's mythology and history. For an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who has constantly been evolving and growing throughout his career, this means that we are listening in to longer, deeper conversations, but missing much of that history. To understand a movie like Ponyo, you have to understand My Neighbor Totoro, which means you have to understand Panda Kopanda, which means you have to understand the Toei Doga period in which the young Miyazaki came of age. And this is the same for his more serious works. There's a thread that goes all the way back to Horus, Prince of the Sun, criss-crossing with Future Boy Conan and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Mononoke Hime and Howl's Moving Castle.
I hope this essay isn't rambling. I can feel it exploding out of my fingers at any given moment. This touches upon many aspects of Miyazaki's life and evolution as an artist. Answering those questions is really what this blog is all about, and, as you can see, I'm nowhere near even close to being finished.
Is this making any sense, class? Richard Corliss' Ponyo review touches upon a number of things I'd like to get to depth with, so I think we'll just consider this the first episode and leave it at that.