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.