Miyazaki and America: Seperated by a Common Language

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.


Anonymous said...

While I agree with you that knowing Japanese culture and knowing the storytelling style of Miyazaki would help in understanding "Ponyo", there shouldn't have to be prerequisites to watching a simple film. The plain fact remains that there are major story/plot holes in "Ponyo". As brilliant a director and creative genius Miyazaki-san is, he can't get it right 100% of the time.

Justin said...

Hey Anonymous, would it be possible for you to share your opinion on what these major plot holes are?


Re: Richard & his "plot holes" no American studio would ever commit

ex.1 Tsunami lacks the fatal force of nature

I could pull out more examples but I like this one the best...

Was fragile little Wall-E really designed to withstand holding on to the outside of a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light with one hand?

ex.2 Koichi forgotten about

Richard must of forgotten about the scene at the 1hr mark where he see that the boat & crew are okay.
Also, he should brushed up on the personal motivation for the film.

ex.3 Sea goddess appears at 2/3 mark

She's talked about at the 1/3 mark as the only one powerful enough to restore Ponyo.


One of my favourite quotes
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Keep the series coming Daniel, I like where you're going.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Thanks to both of you. Here's the issue for me in a nutshell: I don't feel these are plot holes at all. These are not issues for me. On the issue of the tsunami, and the father who is always away, I am planning essays about them.

Gran Manmare was a fine character for me, as she is a magical character in a children's story. She seems to be created for the animation, to express a need of the artists to express themselves. Perhaps there are relevant themes there.

Sean L. said...

Every time you post something like this, it makes me so happy I found your Ghibli Blog. Really. Thank you for this.

And Daniel, I'm with you. I think I feel a ramble coming on too...

"Plot holes"... hmmm… "plot holes?" That phrase is coming to mean less and less to me, especially in the context of Miyazaki or anime cinema in general. PLOT--oh yes, American moviegoers just LOVE to talk about Plot. Plot with a capital "P." I’m getting sick of that word. We have our rules about story, and critics and ordinary moviegoers alike have had their minds conditioned by this culture since the time they were children, since the time they saw their first Disney movie. Through the movie-going experiences of our lives, we develop a psychological filter that is based on our culture’s theory of film and story. And this filter is a perfectly appropriate way to analyze or rate a movie in the context of Hollywood: if it's a Hollywood movie that aspires to Hollywood greatness, then by all means, we'll analyze and criticize it according to Hollywood standards. But… what if it’s not a “Hollywood movie?” What if it’s a movie that aspires to an entirely different standard of greatness? What if it’s a foreign movie based on foreign ideals? What if it’s a Miyazaki movie based on Miyazaki ideals? Should we still impose our set of cultural standards for judging the art of filmmaking? Do we still use the filter, the rules of the mainstream?

Um, No. First of all, who wrote these laws anyways? And what makes our theory of storytelling the objective one? Does it exist, somewhere out there, over and above the universe, like a God? How did we come to develop such an all-powerful formula for story? My point is somehow our idea of strictly-constructed plots evolved in Western culture to what it is today—largely through language as Daniel has articulated—and the art of film critiquing in Hollywood is principally a matter of putting the story through our filter to see if everything holds up: “Is the sequence of events logical? Are there any holes? Are the characters’ motives clear? Is the protagonist faced with high stakes? Does the beginning establish the dramatic action? Does the story build in the middle and then climax towards the end?” And on and on.

Sean L. said...

(Cont'd from above)
The issue is, attempting to apply this filter to Miyazaki’s recent works is way out of perspective. Moviegoers need to broaden their minds and learn to study a piece in its own context. Perspective and context—those are important words. When we impose our cultural context or our Hollywood perspective on Miyazaki, not only do we fail to understand the artists’ vision, we disrespect the artist. Movies like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo don’t follow our rules because they don’t aspire to. Why would you judge a story by rules it doesn’t even attempt to follow? How can we impose “logic” on it, when perhaps the very point of the film is to threaten our ideas about logic? Those who find Miyazaki’s freer narrative style distasteful can’t look at the film in its own context. They may be turned off by the inexplicability or the bizarreness of some happenings in his films. They may be confused or disinterested by the lack of a clear villain. This is a failure of perspective, and it’s also a failure to do your homework. There are deeper meanings to be discovered—within the art itself and in the artist’s life—if you search for them.

Of course, I should also respectfully say that for some people, it may come down to a matter of taste. You don’t have to like all of Miyazaki’s movies, or any of them. But guess what? I love all of them. I love them in their simplicity and sweetness. I love them in all their weirdness and their obscurity. I love that they don’t follow our rules and that they challenge the presumptions of American moviemaking and "logic." I love the presence of Japanese mythos and culture. I find the bizarre to be beautiful. I find dream logic to be intellectually stimulating. It gives me hope that there’s still some wonder left in this world. It’s a refreshing break from an industry that so often resorts to fulfilling the mold of conventional storytelling. And if the last decade of Hollywood movies has proven anything to us, it’s this: If you use a formula in writing and creating your movie, the result will inevitably be a formulaic movie. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

John L said...

Great posting, lots of good thoughts. I'm a longtime fan of Miyazaki, and I liked Ponyo a lot. I think some viewers found issues with plot because the first part of the movie IS very plot-oriented, and sets up expectations that are perhaps unreasonable. By contrast, a film like Totoro is much more constant in its tone and steady progression, and hangs together more solidly (in my view) even though there is even less plot than Ponyo. I agree that taste has a lot to do with it -- some people just like straightforward storylines.

I wonder if some of the subtlety in the film was literally lost in translation, and I'm eager to see the subtitled version and find out if the experience is different. So much can hang on a single word or phrase. I would like to see more discussion by those who saw both the Japanese and English versions.

James said...

I've never gathered the impression that illogicality to be a characteristically Japanese style. Scott McCloud did note that Manga usually have more panels devoted to environment than American comics. Ponyo isn't a non-narrative and it does focus on a single story.

Nor would I say Ponyo to be that Japanese. Throughout the film, there is little if any traditional Japanese culture. I've never known plot holes to be a Japanese virtue either. Ponyo's world is modern, which has its Western roots. Miyazaki has a Japanese sensibility in him but has plenty of European references as well.

I really don't feel the confusion's a language thing. A watcher needn't be fluent in Japanese or experts in Japanese culture in order to "get" these movies. True, Japan does have it's own mythology, history and culture which can seem alien to the unfamiliar. However, none of this seems to be in Ponyo. All these characters are original (though some people have compared it to The Little Mermaid). Fujimoto, Gran Manmare, Ponyo- what Japanese metaphors do they represent?

I understand all the patterns and riffs of Miyazaki and his life. What I see in Ponyo, however, is those things popping up, almost in randomly unrelated fashion. And characters who do stuff for the sake of show or hitting an emotional spot. Much of this is explained away or connected by magical fantasy means.

Like Fujimoto's turkey basting at the beginning. How is that Japanese? It's only real purpose seems to be to show pretty colors.

Some of these story points just become too unfamiliar under a magic guise. I'm much more at ease with "God Warriors" who can shoot lasers with the power of nukes to end the world than a magical well of doom that's meant to ambiguously destroy the world somehow. And when it fills up, and Ponyo touches it, she becomes a little more human for some reason while her sisters don't. huh??? But then well creates a flood that doesn't really kill off humans, they just ride in boats and enjoy it actually. The city is flooded and the moon's closer but everyone's ok. For some reason Ponyo and Sosuke passing the love test will make the moon go away and save the world... okay. This illogicality made possible through magic stretches my imagination too far from comfort.

Though I can understand that "love test" spell to turn Ponyo human, I think it's a weak climax. Is this a Japanese thing too? The whole idea sounds like a blatant story device for spurring emotions. I think love is better shown than through verbal examination- like Mei getting lost looking for her mother or San nursing Ashitaka. Even Chihiro journeying to lift Haku's curse is remarkable.

Sosuke's love affirmation may be like Whisper of the Heart's "will you marry me" ending. But I think that's a greater leap of love. At least Shizuku doesn't have to deal with becoming a human. And I don't have to comprehend how their marriage will realign the moon.

asuka said...

in re: "plot"
i found it interesting that the u.s. trailer recast the movie as more of a "quest" narrative ("now it's up to one little girl to restore the universal balance and save the world..." or something) - as if boring bloody joseph campbell were the last word in plot structure.

(though i'm not disrespecting pople who just didn't like ponyo as much as other miyazaki films. no reason why you should.)

Sean L. said...

@James: "I've never gathered the impression that illogicality to be a characteristically Japanese style...Nor would I say Ponyo to be that Japanese..."

You're right. And I don't think that's quite what we were trying to say either. At least, it's not what I was trying to say. Hmm, I guess I should just more broadly say I think one should look at a movie in its own right. That tends to bring it into perspective.

With Ponyo for example, strict logic conventions shouldn't be imposed on the realm of make-believe. If Fujimoto's elixirs have the power to tamper with the order of nature, then that's that. It's not realism, and it's not intended to be taken literally. Same with the "tsunami"— it wasn't depicted as deadly because that would be horrifying and it would be totally off-message. Here Miyazaki is once again evoking the purifying effects of water; it is a "magical tsunami that cleanses the town and the people who live there. Miyazaki finds hope in the power of nature."

Why do people insist on taking it literally? I think Daniel has said something on that in a recent post. And I, like him, was not struck by any perceived “plot holes” when I watched Ponyo. That’s what they are, really—perceived. With a surrealist fable like Ponyo, holes are not inherent in the world of the story, but are interpreted through the viewer’s schema. For me, the narrative would have to be a hell of a lot more disconnected to complain about plot holes. But I really did not get any impression like this at all from Ponyo. It all flowed to me. It made sense. It resonated with me. Maybe I finally tapped into my inner five-year-old.

Now, If I turn on that old filter in my mind, sure--I can start nit-picking and finding all sorts of “illogical” flaws in it if I want to. But why would I? That ruins the experience and the spirit of it. To me, it seems silly to talk about how illogical Ponyo is—a movie that doesn’t aspire to real-world logic. Just like any fable, the story is about subtext not about plot. It’s not about comprehending “how their marriage will realign the moon,” it’s about understanding what that means. And children get it without thinking about it (unless they’re too skeptical for their own good).

But I should say that I do get where you’re coming from. I understand your perspective. I just disagree with it. I think it’s slightly cynical and misplaced. But if you're not willing to stretch your imagination for Ponyo, then I guess there's nothing anybody can say that would change your mind. And that's really okay. We're all entitled to our own opinions. I enjoy this kind of discussion that reveals a diversity of perpectives. I suppose we can respectfully agree to disagree, no?

James said...

I did find Ponyo as a whole movie to be understandable. And I do think it's a fine film watching experience. Admittedly, I wasn't struck by any plot holes during my viewing (though that's not to say that there may not be any). I know my nitpicks may not be important to the whole story but they sure turn me off.

I can accept magic so long as I know it's purpose or what it's supposed to do.

I need to make sense of things upon first viewing. I actually don't want to think about how it works but these unfamiliar things need to be explained.

Like I can accept the impossibility that Laputa is floating via a magic crystal because in the beginning, it's established that Sheeta's crystal floated her down. They even had a scene with that cave uncle Pomme explaining the magical properties of it. I can accept the impossibility of propeller powered islands because at least I know what a propeller does.

You remember the Totoro scene when Totoro throws out that spinning top and the girls stare at it like "what the hell is that?" The magic stuff in Miyazaki's latest works is overflowing with stuff like that. Though at least the little sprites jumped on Totoro to show the girls what they're supposed to do. And the function of that spinning top soon becomes clear.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@james: You make a really good point about establishing something within a story. The levitation crystal around Sheeta's neck, the smaller Totoros who hop on big Totoro for the ride - these help to establish the "rules" of the game.

This has really been a fantastic discussion. I'm reading a lot of different perspectives, and that's something that I believe animation - all abstract art, really - excels in. I don't believe there is any one "correct" reading of an animation. If we're able to translate these icons differently, that speaks to the depth of the image.

You bring up a lot of good points. And I think a lot of this comes down to Suspension of Disbelief, which is a very personal matter. Will you go along with this? Such a leap of faith can allow a storyteller to get away with a lot.

For me, I had a lot of problems with Pixar's UP because I wasn't as willing to take that suspension of disbelief. I was willing to go along with the house of balloons. I was less willing to believe the endless chase scenes in South America. I'm sure many can, and they enjoy the movie to the end. I couldn't, and came away frustrated.

So I can certainly relate.

@John L: I should write a post on the Japanese Ponyo soundtrack, and I'll do that after my docket is cleared through (I have a few post-its full of essay ideas). I wouldn't say the Japanese version is more nuanced. The Disney US dub is very faithful, and most of the changes are for explaining things. If you're puzzled by the Ponyo dub, just wait until you get it in subtitles.

This is a fantastic discussion, everybody. Keep it up!

James said...

I wonder if these are the sort of arguements that Miyazaki and Takahata have with each other. :)

"It's a very tangled relation. Often a subject of hatred. Paku-san (Takahata) is the one who can drive me mad the most. Far worse than my wife. I can swear at him all night. Having said that, he's the one I can trust the most."
-Hayao Miyazaki from the Making of Only Yesterday

Sean L. said...

@Daniel: A fantastic discussion, indeed.:) I like how you described Suspension of Disbelief as a "very personal matter." Hmm, I never really thought about it that way, but of course that's true.

@James: I really need to see Totoro so I know what you’re talking about in reference to it :/. It's the only Miyazaki directoral feature that I haven't yet seen and I'm so anxious to see it! Everyone seems to adore it. I need to find a video rental place with a good anime selection.

Anyways, back on the discussion... All this talk of "explaining things" is reminding me of something. I took a screenwriting class last semester, and one of my teacher's favorite mottos for writing a screenplay was this: "Explaining is evil!" Initially I didn't know exactly what he meant by that, but I'm getting a clearer idea of it. The point is: Don't take up screen-time/dialogue explaining to your audience what has happened or how things happened. Now, at the same time, the script has to establish the world of the story, so it's a delicate balance. But the best way to keep an intelligent audience engaged and is through subtext not through lengthy descriptions.

Honestly, I think that if Miyazaki had actually written Ponyo with further explanations about the magic, it would come across as condescending and pointless. Any tension in the story would be lost. The meaning would be overwhelmed by explanations. Not to mention, the movie itself would be much longer and its momentum would thin out. I think it’s admirable and refreshing that Miyazaki does not feel the need to spoon-feed the story to his audience. We get spoon-fed enough by Hollywood.

I can see how Miyazaki’s older films like Castle in the Sky are less obscure or abstract. His recent films are more layered and complicated, exemplified in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. They demand multiple viewings so you can experience and understand new things each time you watch. They’re not so straightforward, and they are often bizarre. I personally love this about Miyazaki. It’s fascinating to me how his style has evolved over time to become more strange and enigmatic. His body of work wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if its style were static. As the artist’s mind changes over time, so does the art. This is true of anybody.

MoroSan said...

Daniel sez: "Gran Manmare (sic) was a fine character for me, as she is a magical character in a children's story. She seems to be created for the animation, to express a need of the artists to express themselves. Perhaps there are relevant themes there."

Critics have mentioned, as has Miyazaki himself, that the spiritual undertones connected to his films' evironmentalism go hand in hand. Don't forget that short but oh-so-important scene in Ponyo of the sailors praying to The Goddess of Mercy. Animism abounds in the Shinto religion, and Miyazaki takes it seriously. He likes to remind his Japanese audience of its spiritual roots that respects and reveres nature, as he did with Totoro, Pom Poko, Mononoke, & Sprited Away.

Ponyo is a continuation of this reverence toward Nature, in this case focusing on the ocean world that birthed us.

Gran Mamere isn't just "a goddess" (with a small "g"). She's the freakin' Mother of the Ocean, and therefore by rights Mother of us all. Gran "MaMare" is close to the French "Ma Mere" (My Mother) and also a play on the French "Mer" for Ocean. (Apologies to those who already know this).

So yeah Dave, I think one of the _main_ relevant themes here is Motherhood, with Sosuke's Mom and Ponyo's Mamere featuring prominently in the film. Also that scene of Ponyo with the grumpy baby's mother.

Gran Mamere even gets her own song in the soundtrack, so yeah, she's pretty darn important.

Morosan said...

Sorry Daniel, for calling you "Dave" above. The "feminazi" fever came over me but now I've taken my qualudes and I'm feelin' just fine!

Speaking of language, I've noticed that there is a _lot_ of nonverbal communication going on in Ponyo. You pointed out the scene where Fujimoto signals the squid. My fave bit is when Fujimoto captures Toki & Sosuke with Ponyo. Suddenly his other daughters surround him and then he nods and makes a reluctant motion which allows Ponyo's sisters to take over from his "wave servants."

Fujimoto is left looking sadly on while his daughters take them to Gran Mamere. He's apparently pater-non-grata. Poor bastard. He seems to get no respect at all.

Anonymous said...

Great anaylisis!

I agree that this film has an emotional aspect rather then an spelled out story in diologue that is refreshing and also artiscly parallels the child like wonder of the film. IMO I think the english dub actually did well with it, although I think most American audiences will not be able to see past the lack of diologue/explainations as apart of the nature of the work...which is something more common in eastern thought in general...the 'flow' of it verses the overly structual. IMO this is why I think Tales of the Earthsea was also so harshly judged, because it too was lyrical and emotional and not direct in it's mythology, but maybe this works better for mythology centered around two very young beings rather than older children of Earth Sea...but really both are beautiful because sometimes not everything important needs to be spoken, but felt to be understood.

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