Wednesday, November 17, 2010

World Building: Hayao Miyazaki

This is reprinted from The Valve, 2006. Neither Howl's Moving Castle nor Ponyo had been released at the time and I'd not yet seen The Castle of Cagliostro.
I'm vaguely and generally interested in the ontology, if you will, of fictional worlds. Not ontology in any direct philosophical sense, where one worries about the nature of ultimate reality and the relationship between fictions and the real world. Rather, more in the sense that ontology has come to have in cognitive science and computer science: What kinds of things exist in the world, what are its laws?

Realistic fiction offers an ontology that is (supposed to be) congruent with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, mind, and society. I supposed I ought to add the caveat “as they are locally understood,” but I wish to bracket that for awhile. Yes, it's a necessary qualification. But I'm in a down and dirty intellectual mood at the moment and so can't yet be bothered with cultural complications.

But not all fiction is realistic. Much fiction contains beings and events that defy various laws of mundane reality. Though it is easy and convenient to think of mundane reality as a baseline condition and other realities as elaborations upon or deviations from such reality, I suspect that any dispassionate survey of fiction in all its forms will lead us to the conclusion that the realistic is but one mode among many, adopted at certain times and places under certain circumstances. Something like that.

To focus this discussion I am going to concentrate on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And, truth be told, I would be perfectly happy to confine the discussion to those films as I find them exceedingly rich. I started thinking about this problem while asking a very specific question about one of those films, Porco Rosso: Why a pig? Early in my foray into anime I read a paragraph about this film that said that, except for the fact that the protagonist is a pig, it is more realistic than most of Miyazaki's films. By contrast, the line on Spirited Away, which won the 2002 Academic Award for best animated film, is that it is fantasy gone riot. So there you have it, from almost realistic to fantasy squared.

Though I have considered trying to arrange Miyazaki's films on a continuum from Porco Rosso to Spirited Away, I haven't made any serious attempt to do so. What I have done is written a relatively brief paragraph or three about each film and provided a phrase characterizing its ontological style. The descriptions will be more meaningful if you've seen the films, but should be somewhat intelligible even if you haven't. (Summaries and dialogue transcriptions are available on the web.)

Though, as indicated above, I recognize the limitations of treating mundane reality (as recognized in the 19th century European novel) as a baseline, I have, in practice, found it convenient to assume such a baseline. This runs into trouble with the first film I consider, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which is set in some exotic world. Exotic though it is, the world of that film nonetheless seems to recognize a distinction between the mundane and the extraordinary, which is associated with princess Nausicaä. As a cognitivist, one of the questions that confronts me, then, is: How is it that we recognize such a distinction when the world as a whole is strange?

None of Miyazaki's other films seems to posit such an exotic world. All the rest seem earth-based. What is interesting is that from Nausicaä through Porco Rosso Miyazaki seems to be positing a base world of some type, but then allowing highly focused deviations from, or, if you will, extensions to that base world. But two of his most recent three films - Mononoke, and Spirited, (I do not characterize Howl's Moving Castle as I do not have it at hand, though I saw it when it was in theatrical release) - don't seem to be quite like that.

In Mononoke there doesn't seem to be a focused extension. Conversely, in Spirited the “extension” swamps the film; that alters the dynamic between the baseline reality and the extension.

Ultimately I would like to arrive at some characterization of the relationship between the film's basic ontology and its thematic concerns. This is obvious enough in Nausicaä and Mononoke, where Miyazaki's ecological concerns are well served by worlds in which animals can marshal effective resistance against human encroachment. But this goes a bit beyond my immediate concerns.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Exotic realism with (possible) supernatural extension

While the central figures in this world are recognizably human, and much of the geography is recognizably earth-like, this world is not like that of earth as we know it now or imagine it to have been in the past. Whether or not it is earth at some future date is nowhere specified; nor do I think it matters much.

The most obvious difference between this world and ours is that insects are large, very large, from horse-size to whale size. Geologically, there are realms under the surface of the earth that seem quite unlike anything we know. Hence this world is an exotic one.

Yet, to a first approximation most of what exists and happens there seems consistent with physical and biological reality as we know it. I say “to a first approximation” because I can imagine that those very large insects are, in fact, physically impossible. But if so, I doubt that that is relevant to what Miyazaki is up to. At the same time, nothing in the movie seems to require magic nor is there much, if any, supernatural intervention. No spells are cast, potions consumed, gods appealed-to. Hence I claim this is a realistic world, albeit exotically so.

Now for the qualification “possible supernatural extension.” Princess Nausicaä has a remarkable ability to communicate with the insects, unlike anyone else in this world. While it is possible that her powers are supernatural - in the terms of this exotic world - it is not obvious to me that this is so. At the end of the film, however, Nausicaä, dies but is brought back to life be the Ohmu, large land-crawling insects that play a major role in the film. This seems supernatural to me.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Realism with technological exaggeration and focal supernatural extension

The film is set in a world that seems to be late 19th century Europe with the addition of advanced air-travel capability in the style of Jules Verne. Such technology is available to good guys and bad guys alike. But this doesn't seem dramatically in contravention of physical law, though it is a bit of a technological stretch.

Added to that we have a special element, etherium, and a special world, Laputa - a world floating in the sky that has been all but forgotten. Etherium seems to be the enabling force behind Laputa, and it is somehow responsive to spells known only by Sheeta, the young girl who is one of the two central figures in the film (the other is Pazu, the young boy who helps her). This is the supernatural extension, but it is quite focused. This is not a world of witches and wizards, etc.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Realism with focal supernatural extension

Baseline is 1950s rural Japan. The extension is with the dust gremlins, the totoro, and the cat bus, which are visible only to the two young girls, Mei and Satsuki. It is not clear whether these are simply creatures of the girls' imagination or whether they are real enough, but simply invisible to adults.

The dust gremlins are smallish balls of dust, with legs and eyes. There are hundreds of them in the house. There are three totoro, vaguely rodent like creatures that walk on their hind legs. One is about 6 inches high, another about a foot, and the third seems to be 7 or 8 feet high. Though lacking wings, the totoro nonetheless can fly - at least the large one can. The catbus is just that, a largish cat with lamp-like eyes and well more than 8 legs and a hollowed out interior with benches for sitting. The large totoro rides on the catbus on one occasion - the girls see this. And the girls ride on the catbus at the end of the movie.

If the totoro and the catbus are completely imaginary, then the girls movements at the end of the film are difficult to account for.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Mixed-era realism with focal supernatural extension

Baseline is Europe in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Miyazaki has said it is a Europe without WWII. Most of the film take place in a small coastal city. We've got automobiles, telephones (old dial-tone sets), and dirigibles. Kiki, however, is a witch - and witch-hood our focal supernatural extension. She can mount a broom and fly and she has a black-cat familiar who talks to her. But there is nothing sinister about this. Such witches seem to be normal and accepted, though not particularly numerous. Kiki's mother is a witch, and we see one other witch in the film, although only briefly and peripherally.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Improbable realism with extensions and ambiguity

Miyazaki's core mode in this film is realism. But some of the real things that happen in this film strike me as being implausible. For example, the aplomb the little girls exhibit when they are kidnapped by the air pirates. It's charming, but not very realistic. So, though the basic world is a realistic one, we're looking at “slice” that's full of improbable events. This is quite common in movies of all sorts (e.g. chase sequences in action movies), live action as well as animated. Now we get the “with extensions” clause. That's to accommodate Marco's becoming a pig and the near-death experience that seemed to precipitate that. These things do not happen in a naturalistic world.

And then there is the final qualifier, ambiguity. That's for the ending, which leaves two matters up in the air: Did Porco regain human form and did he finally get together with Gina. It seems to me that the film gives strong hints on both issues and those hints imply that he does regain human form and he does establish some deeper relationship with Gina. But we don't actually see or hear tell of either of these things. Miyazake raises the issue and gives us something to think about and then, in effect, asks us to arrive at our own conclusion.

Princess Mononoke (1997)


The movie is set in medieval Japan at the beginning of an Iron Age. There are forest sprites and god-animals, all presented straightforwardly. The title character is a human raised among wolves, particularly Moro, a god-wolf. God-boars and a god-deer also play central roles in the film. While there is much conflict and battle in the plot, it is difficult to characterize because there is no clear division between good and evil. Mononoko fights on the side of the animals and the forest. Beyond her empathy with them, and her fierceness, she does not seem extraordinary.

That is to say, this world does not seem to have a baseline reality against which one or a small group of characters can emerge by virtue of having access to or participating in something beyond that baseline reality.

I note that characterizing this world by one word, "animist," seems inadequate given the elaborate phrases I've coined for other films. But, let it stand.

Spirited Away (2001)

Focused dual reality

The film is set in contemporary Japan. Ten-year old Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new home, something that has Chihiro feeling rather grumpy. They get lost just before they arrive and get out of the car to inspect an abandoned historical theme park. Step-by-step they are drawn into the theme park and it comes alive as a bathhouse for spirits. Chihiro's parents are transformed into pigs and cease to play any role in the plot beyond being in need of rescue by Chihiro. Chihiro takes a menial job in the bathhouse in hopes of somehow rescuing her parents and getting back to the real world.

Most of the film takes place in this magical bathhouse world. There are lots of strange creatures, including anthropomorphic animals and plants. We have magic and spells and transformations. One is inclined to see all this as terribly symbolic but, I for one, am not terribly motivated to decode the symbolism.

While there seems to be definite sequences of events connecting the mundane world and fantastical bathhouse world, the physical relationship between them is obscure. It seems best to think of the old theme park as a portal into this other realm. The physical relationship - both spatially and temporally - between the mundane the fantastic is not clear.

AND . . .

Obviously I'm interested in commentary specifically about Miyazaki's work. But I'm also interested in commentary about my crude characterizations more or less in general. If someone wants to take a stab at characterizing the recent work of, say, China Miéville in similar terms, I'd find that interesting. I note also that Miyazaki's ability to play with a variety of different kinds of worlds presupposes access to and knowledge of culturally and historically various story-telling traditions. Did e.g. Shakespeare exhibit the same or even greater ambition allowing for the more constrained nature of his access to the world?

And so forth.

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