Friday, December 3, 2010

Some Animals and Animal/Humans in Miyazaki

In private email Tim Perper suggested that it would be interesting to compare Marco/Porco, pig-man, with the animals and “hybrids” in other Miyazaki films. Interesting, yes. But also exhausting.

Still, I decided to at least map out the “space.” In this post I list each Miyazaki feature, listing them in the order in which he created them. I then make some brief remarks about animals and hybrids in those films. At the end I conclude that Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle provides the most interesting comparison with Marco/Porco and Gina/Fio in Porco Rosso. Thematically, Ponyo makes an interesting comparison with Porco Rosso, though that takes a little explaining. I do not even attempt to formulate an overall statement about Miyazaki's use of animals and animal-human hybrids. That's way beyond the scope of these informal notes.
Note: You might want to view this post as a complement to the earlier post in which I sketched out the different worlds in many of Miyazaki’s features.

* * * * *

Castle of the Cagliostro (1979): This is a naturalistic film, albeit one with a great deal of physically implausible action. There is one significant animal in the film, a dog that is the beloved pet of Princess Clarisse and that remembers Lupin. This dog is just a dog.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984): This is a strange world, filled with strange creatures. In particular it is filled with insects that are large, horse-size, to very large, whale-size. The ohmu appear to have telepathic powers and are able to communicate with Nausicaä. While these insects are strange, they are not ambiguous within their world. They are what they are.

The world also has one living Giant Warrior, which seems to be an organic creature constructed by humans as a super-weapon. Again, strange, but within its world, it is not ambiguous.

Castle in the Sky (1986): No animals play a significant role in this film. There are two very large robots which, as such, have been artificially constructed. And there is a mineral, etherium, which has some kind of bond with Sheeta, legitimate successor to the throne of Laputa. As for the few animals, I recall some birds and some ancient fish on Laputa, but that’s it.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988): This film has some very interesting creatures. There are dust gremlins, several totoro, and the cat bus. Though the adults seem to know of such creatures (Granny especially) they are visible only to the two young girls, Mei and Satsuki. They are ambiguous in that it is not clear whether these are simply creatures of the girls’ imagination or whether they are real enough, but simply invisible to adults. As far as I know all of these are creatures that Miyazaki has made up, though the cat bus owes a debt to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat.

While the movie is named after the Totoro, they are not the protagonists; Mei and Satsuki are. Within their world there is nothing particularly problematic about the Totoro.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): Kiki, the title character, is a witch. She can fly; other witches, such as her mother, apparently have other powers in addition to flight. Kiki has a cat, Gigi, who appears to be able to talk. However, midway through the film Kiki looses her witches powers and can no longer fly. Nor can she understand what Gigi is saying. When Gigi “talks” she, and we, hear only ordinary meowing.

This seems similar to the moment in Porco Rosso where the sleeping Fio awakens to see, not Porco Rosso, but Marco Pagot. And we see him too. This is a ‘deviation’ from the ‘baseline’ state of the movie, which is that everyone in the film sees him as Porco, including us. So, in Kiki, the baseline is that Kiki can understand Gigi, and so can we. When the baseline fails for Kiki, it fails for us.

Porco Rosso (1992): I’ve already said quite a bit about this film (here, here, and here). Here are the salient points. 1) Marco/Porco is the only anomalous character in the film, a man with a pig’s head. There are no pure and simple animals in the film. 2) Marco/Porco is the protagonist. 3) One woman, Gina, knew him when was young, and in full human form. A younger woman, Fio, sees him as a human, but only for a moment.

The political climate – the rise of fascism in Italy – is important. Politics is also important in Castle of the Cagliostro, Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Princess Mononoke (1997): Whereas Porco Rosso is fundamentally realistic, with deviations, this film is not. It’s in an entirely different mode. We’ve got Moro, a wolf god, Naga, a boar-god, and an ape god. All of them can talk, but none seem to have any special power. There is a god-deer, who becomes the Night Walker at night, and who is the sources of life. Though very powerful, he does not talk.

And there is San, the princess of the title. She was born a human, but was raised by and lives among wolves, in particular, with Moro and her sons. She sees it as her duty to protect the forest from encroachments by humans.

Spirited Away (2001): This film, as well, is set in a world steeped in fantasy. The world that emerges in the abandoned theme park is full of strange creatures. There are creatures working in a bathhouse for spirits and there are the spirits themselves. Many of the attendants are frogs. The boiler man is a human with a spider’s complement of limbs. Haku is a captive river spirit who works in the bathhouse and takes the form of a boy on some occasions, of a dragon on others. Yubaba, who runs the establishment, travels to and fro as a bird. She has a twin sister, Zenobia, who lives some distance away. No Face is sui generis: a mask, a mouth, a belly, limbs, and a black shroud. There are others, all in secondary or tertiary roles.

Chihiro’s parents are most important as most of these other characters secondary. They are human in the beginning and at the very end, but in between … As evening falls and the theme park begins transforming into its night-time aspect, food appears for the bathhouse patrons. The parents become distracted by and attracted to the food and start eating. Before long they’ve become pigs, not humans with a pig’s head, like Porco, but pigs: walking on all fours with a curly tail pigs. Pigs who no longer recognize Chihiro as their daughter. Pigs who don’t talk. And then, except for one brief scene (in which Chihiro visits them), they disappear from the film until the very end, when they reappear as humans, humans who don’t recall what had happened. The film is Chihiro’s story, and they don’t play an active role in that story.

Finally, I note that during the interval where Chihiro’s parents have become pigs – the entire active part of the film – Chihiro has lost her name. In the bathhouse world she is Sen.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004): This too is a world filled with fantasy. There are wizards and witches, and they have real and considerable powers. There is a dog who enters the film as a the pet of a powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, in the employ of a king. He switches loyalty in mid-film and falls in with Howl and Sophie. There are indications that he’s no ordinary dog, but nothing more than indications.

The most important characters are Howl, a wizard, and Sophie, a hat-maker. When Howl goes into battle, he transforms himself into a very large bird. We’re given to believe that, if he isn’t careful, he’ll become trapped in his bird-form and never be able to act as a human. It is up to Sophie to keep him in the world of humans.

Sophie enters the film as a young woman. A witch curses her and she becomes an old woman. It is in that form that she enters Howl’s castle as a house cleaner. In the course of the film her appearance changes. The changes seem to be a function of local circumstance – what’s just happened, and who’s looking at her (other than us, the audience). She ends the film as young woman living with Howl, that dog, and the now-weakened witch who cursed her. The way Sophie’s appearance changes seems a bit like the scene in Porco Rosso where Fio briefly sees him in human form.

I’m tempted to assert this equivalence: As Gina (and Fio) are to Porco/Marco, so Sophie is to Howl. Howl is dissolving toward a bird; Marco is a semi-pig. The women pull them toward the human. Exploring that equivalence is beyond the scope of these notes. I note only that as Sophie appears variously young, middle-aged, and old, so Porco/Marco plays against a young woman (Fio) and a middle-aged one (Gina).

Ponyo on a Cliff (2008): She was born a fish and her Wizard father named her Brunhilde. Sosuke, the boy who found her drifting ashore, named her Ponyo. It’s as Ponyo that she desires to become a human. There are times in the film where she is neither fish nor fully-human. In this state she has arms and legs, but they don’t have human form. The magical forces involved in the transformation cause cataclysmic changes on the earth, even affecting the relationship between the earth and the moon.

* * * * *

Of these films, Howl’s Moving Castle makes the most interesting comparison to Porco Rosso; I’ve already indicated the structure of that comparison. I note, additionally, that while Porco Rosso ends ambiguously – does Porco regain his human form? does he get together with Gina? – Howl’s Moving Castle is not ambiguous. Howl is restored to the world, Sophie is young again, and they are a couple.

I suspect that a comparison with Ponyo would also be fruitful, but I don’t know quite how to set it up, it’s so very different from Porco Rosso. It would help to state my current view of Porco Rosso, which goes like this:

Marco/Porco is only a man. No more, no less. By giving him the head of a pig, Miyazaki invites us to attended to his nature – man or pig? – whenever he's on screen, and to attend to the natures of others. That's what this is about, what it means to be human.

It's not about being kind to a bunch of little girls you've rescued from some pirates. Nor is about surviving having your plane shot-up by an American flyboy. Nor about allowing a talented girl to re-design your plane. Nor about outrunning the secret police and the Italian air force. Nor is it even about pounding the stuffing out of that same flyboy in hand-to-hand combat after fighting an air duel to a draw. And it's certainly NOT about finally responding to this woman who's loved you all your adult lives. Except possibly for that last, all those things happen in the film, and a few other things as well. But the film is not about any of them. It's simply about being human.

And that's why the final coda doesn't resolve the relationship between Marco and Gina. Yes, Miyazaki places material in that coda that you can use to justify such a conclusion. If that's what you want to believe, you can believe it, but you have to take responsibility for that belief. Miyazaki doesn't give you that conclusion; you have to take it. And you have to think about it.

If THAT’s what Porco Rosso is about, well then, perhaps Ponyo is about the same thing, what it is to be human. But Ponyo tells the story about five year old children while Porco tells it about middle aged adults.


  1. A useful summary. I'd add only Calcifer, from Howl, who is a spirit associated with fire. I'm not sure he is unusual in his world; he's certainly unique.

  2. Yes, Calcifer, especially given his connection with Howl.

    I should also have mentioned the dog & the crows in Kiki. The dog, after all, establishes a relationship with Gigi -- as does the neighbor cat -- and the crows play an important role in getting Kiki hooked up with that young artist, whose name I forget. And there are all the aquatic creatures in Ponyo, especially the ones from the Devonian. They don't play a role in the plot, but they're very important in establishing the ambiance of the world.

  3. Nor are these animal-people characters a late interest of Miyazaki's. In Miyazaki's delightful 1972-3 Panda Kopanda (English title "Panda! Go, Panda!"), Papa Panda finally ends up working in Tokyo, traveling to Tokyo via train wearing a hat and carrying a briefcase. Mimiko, the little girl heroine, is an orphan, and has adopted Papa Panda and Baby Panda as her family. They all live in a house in a bamboo grove.

    Myazaki directed six episodes of Sherlock Hound (1984-5), a Holmes pastiche where everyone, including Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Moriarty, are all played by talking dogs. It's high-order crackpot comedy, but even so Miyazaki's portrayal of a young and very pretty Mrs. Hudson is quite memorable. She is a crack shot with a revolver, drives like an ambulance driver under attack by enemy fighter planes, and brings down Moriarty's pteryldactyloid flying machine with a single shot. Holmes -- contrary to the usual canonical visions of the Great Detective -- is rapidly falling in love with her, and she with him. But we never find out what happens to the romance, because Miyazaki brought his involvement with the project to an end at about that point.

    I haven't seen Karigurashi no Arrietty, premiered late in 2010, and based of Mary Norton's novel "The Borrowers," but I'll be interested to see what he makes of these (and other) themes.