I recently saw Ponyo! It’s a cute and fantastical animated children’s film based on the story of the little mermaid.
When people think of Hayao Miyazaki they often think of the beauty and mythology of his films. If you’ve seen Spirited Away I’d be surprised if you haven’t been genuinely moved by the scene in which a train ripples softly over a one-inch deep lake.
Miyazaki’s girl characters are distinctly ordinary. Normally mousey-haired and scrawny, they’re not the disturbingly coy and leggy little girls of many animes, they don’t tilt their heads and pout, and they are extremely recognisable. Mainly because Miyazaki was inspired by girls he knows in real life. Hence San’s roguish grumpiness (Princess Mononoke) and 10-year-old Chihiro’s habit of tugging at her t-shirt (Spirited Away). Little quirks you could only get from watching the people around you.
Similarly, very young anime characters have a habit of being flawlessly and frustratingly cute, but Miyazaki knows that small kids can be a lot more than that. In Ponyo, little Sōsuke needs the world to be as gentle as he is, and such is his big heart that it at one point causes his brilliantly immature young mum to tackle him in amazed adoration, delighted that she’s created a human being she admires so much.
As for Ponyo herself, she’s not the delicate little daffodil that many animes would have her be. She’s a wild and happy handful, and in her song is described not as a beautiful princess but as “a little girl with a round tummy!”. Anyone who’s had experience with little girls knows that they’re perfectly capable of stampeding.
Miyazaki’s characters are more alive than most live-action characters. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get people to believe this. They’re bogged down with the word “cartoon”. They say, let’s watch something serious, let’s watch something real. So is Kick Ass more serious than Watership Down? Is Dumb and Dumber more real than Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis?
My point isn’t that animation is generally more real than live action (or even equally real), because I don’t believe that to be the case. My point is simply that animation doesn’t automatically denote a lack of seriousness or reality, and Miyazaki’s films are a perfect example of that. Miyazaki writes animated films because the real world doesn’t have the means to construct the walking castles and giant wolves that rule his imagination, and in my opinion the real world couldn’t do it justice even with a billion dollar budget.
Most importantly, Miyazaki’s stories and characters don’t lose out by being animated. Live action couldn’t make them more real or alive. I know that anime fans claim that anyway, but you can trust me because I’m not really a big anime fan! I mean, I did join the Anime Society briefly at university, but that’s only because they had hats and Maltesers.
So if you’ve avoided Hayao Miyazaki’s work because you don’t really like animation, then battle through the barrier! It’s important, ya know. Start with Spirited Away, then try to write a protagonist even half as real as Chihiro.