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The Great Characterisation of Hayao Miyazaki by Eleanor Ball

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.

His films, both written and directed by him, are perhaps too beautiful, because it can overwhelm some sparks of genius that normally we’d be appalled to miss. Namely the strength of the protagonists.

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.

Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith’s, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

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3 thoughts on “The Great Characterisation of Hayao Miyazaki by Eleanor Ball”

  1. A nice article and it is good to see animation being discussed in terms of characterisation rather than in the usual simpler terms. I would just suggest that Spirited Away is not the ideal film to start with if you are unfamiliar with Hayao Miyazaki's work, his earlier films (particularly My Neighbour Totoro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky) are still the best introductions, and great starting point for anime in general.

    It is not just the protagonists in Miyazaki's films that are brilliantly realised but also the antagonist. He rarely goes for the easy option for his villains, normally preferring to paint them as good and honourable but with a view slightly skewed from our hero. In Princess Mononoke the woman who rules Iron Town is after protecting her own people but it comes at the price of destroying the forest. Every single one of his antagonists lives within a grey area which is refreshing to see when his films are still predominantly aimed at children.

    He normally also focusses on three generations of females in his story – Grandmother, mother and daughter – sometimes explicitly and others more abstract but always illustrating the shifting cultural attitudes of each generation. When people talk about his films they traditionally discuss the flights of imagination and bizarre worlds he creates but it is the believable characters that help draw an audience into the fantastical worlds in the first place.

    However, it is far from just Miyazaki that creates great characterisation. Nearly all the directors at Studio Ghibli care about characters above everything else. Studio co-founder, Isao Takahata may not be as prolific as Miyazaki but his characters and films are just as rich from Grave of the Fireflies (arguably one of the most affecting WWII films of all time)to Only Yesterday, these are films grounded in reality but sold on complex characters you care about.

  2. Eleanor, as a scriptwriter, were you bothered by the anachronistic language in Howl's Moving Castle, which was set in 1851 but featured 20th century style US speech? As someone who loves Miyazaki's stuff, it drove me nuts, but my 19 year old daughter was not bothered by it at all. Other gen-Yers have also given me this response. Is it a generational thing? I'm interested to hear your reaction to it.

  3. Great post!
    Now I will definitely overcome my prejudice against anime.

    It seems that those cartoons are not cartoonish.

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