In Defense of Hayao Miyazaki and Anime

*Sigh*

I’m not one to discuss the long-term merits of an art-style. For one, I majored in English. My area of expertise is, therefore, essay and narrative composition, not whether or not Jackson Pollock was on acid when he made his magnum opus. Two, it’s incredibly subjective. And three, it reeks of pretense.

So when some critic I’ve never heard of pops up on my Twitter Feed discussing the objective merits of art, I most-likely wouldn’t care to respond; after all, why should I? However, because this man dragged down Hayao Miyazaki, a director I admire, for the sake of long-term art merits, I can’t really keep my mouth shut. It’s not only me, the article I linked above is more an open dialogue than a dissertation. The fact that said critic was challenged for his claims highlights him making statements that hold no objective weight. Subjective, maybe, but not objective.


For those too lazy to click on my above sigh, here’s the gist:


This guy, Michael Barrier, openly stated that Hayao Miyazaki’s films are holistically barren. In other words, they suffer from, “Japanese animation's endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned. This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki's characters—the doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates and laborers—look and behave too much alike. I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.”

Gesundheit. And yes, I made none of that up.

I know this is confusing to anyone who isn’t a walking thesaurus, but Barrier pretty much stated that Miyazaki’s characters are “shallow”, hence they never emote properly or feel distinct. It’s as if Miyazaki, he argues, doesn’t care about deep or meaningful characters, but rather focuses on the, “doesn’t this look technically impressive?” angle. Ergo, Barrier has no long-lasting connection to any of his movies. Except Spirited Away, but even then barely.

Okay then!

Firstly, can we stop trying to make everything sound needlessly complicated? I get it, Mr. Barrier, you’re a critic. But would it kill you to say, “I think Miyazaki’s films look pretty, but lack character depth”? There, a single thesis in ten words. You’re welcome.

Seriously, I hate it when people try sounding overly sophisticated. I have a strong vocabulary, but I don’t flaunt SAT words all the time. Even my writing style isn’t that descriptive. If you wanted to, you could ignore some of my words and still get the gist. But Barrier? I doubt I’d understand him even with ignoring those words.

I should delve into the argument now, huh? Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, but I disagree. I think Hayao Miyazaki’s characters are incredibly expressive, for two, specific reasons:

The first is the art-style. Before I’d even heard of Miyazaki, I knew what anime was, but my perceptions were skewed. I thought it was shallow and overly-exaggerated on principle, not thinking that maybe I was approaching it from the wrong angle. That maybe I thought what I thought because of what was being aired on TV, namely the goofy Shonen and slapstick comedies where most of the laughs are the characters making weird faces. That maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place.

But then something interesting happened: I was introduced to Spirited Away. Not directly, I was bored one day before third year had started and found it lying around, but it opened my eyes to many possibilities. The characters weren’t over-selling their emotions, they were…subdued. There was an intensely fine-tuned subtlety to how Chihiro and friends moved about and interacted, a sort of nuance I usually saw in Western animation. True, the mouths didn’t move like real mouths, more on that later, but the characters were on a level of believability that made me change how I viewed Japanimation.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of watching not only all of Miyazaki’s films, but also the entirety of Studio Ghibli, Mamoru Hosoda’s dubbed works, most of the late-Satoshi Kon’s repertoire and a few films from other directors in the industry. But, most-importantly, I learned to appreciate anime, even the silly expressions, or “Manga Iconography”, that much of its mainstream is associated with. Doesn’t mean I love those expressions, but I can appreciate them.

In Barrier’s argument, he brings up the expressionistic animation of Disney, its “elastic” fluidity, and how it’s more detailed than the wooden, weightless (he used that word too) style Miyazaki’s famous for. He uses Princess Mononoke as his base example, stating that the only character with life was The Nightwalker, i.e. that translucent blob that traverses the open forest while the Kodama sprites shake their heads like voodoo dolls. Everything else, however? Empty.

That sounds good in theory, but it holds no weight in practice because it’s untrue. To compare, when I watch a Disney movie, even a great one, I don’t feel the aspect of “weight”. Older movies were more concerned about the grander picture, while newer ones gloss over details, like Elsa’s footprints in the snow during her solo in Frozen, to save time and keep a yearly release schedule. Even Pixar films, which go beyond the call of duty, frequently avoid “does this injury look painful?” in favour of slapstick and giggles. I’m not discrediting Disney or Pixar on the whole, they make great movies, but I won’t pretend they’re not lacking in weighted physics.

In contrast, I get that weight with anime. Particularly, I get that realistically-proportioned weight in Miyazaki’s films. Because when Ashitaka is sliced by San’s blade in Princess Mononoke, you see the gash wound on his cheek. When one of the women in Iron Town accidentally shoots him in the chest, you see the blood trickle and Ashitaka limp. These are little details you wouldn’t find in most Western animation, even the good stuff, and yet it’s everywhere in anime.

Does that mean Barrier’s claim about stiffness is irrelevant? No. Anime is a pretty cheap industry, with time crunches and low budgets. Even the highest-end show is nowhere near the budget of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, and that doesn’t even cover the discrepancies between anime films and Western animated films! Essentially, anime is an industry driven by passion. The content is often still high-end, but when you’re paid dirt-cheap and have deadlines to constantly meet, well…you have to cut back somewhere. That’s why so many shows lack movement, why frame-rates are reduced and why characters’ mouths rarely move in other directions than up and down.

Still, that shouldn’t matter if the key element of animation is intact, which leads to the second defence of Hayao Miyazaki: quality writing.

See, animation is a medium of storytelling. It doesn’t matter how detailed your animation is, how pretty your character models are, or if your world is incredibly detailed, if your story’s lacking…you’re in trouble. I’ve seen plenty of animated anythings that were well-animated and had bad writing, as well as plenty of badly-animated anythings that had fantastic writing. Story is the heart and soul of the medium. Visual depth merely compliments that.

I bring this up because it’s integral to understanding why I so strongly feel that Barrier has missed the mark. Like Jenny Lerew stated, Miyazaki’s films are characterized by their human depth, not their animation complexity. The characters in his worlds are written so you can see them with a single image and immediately understand what they’re thinking or feeling. When Princess Nausicaä, for example, sees her father’s dead body surrounded by Tolmekkian soldiers, her reaction is non-verbal. And yet, within those few, brief seconds, we witness a range of emotions: shock, horror, anger and, finally, vengefulness. None of this is ever stated, but it doesn’t have to be.

Contrast that with Disney movies, in which the range is perhaps more obvious, due to a bigger budget, but the response isn’t as strong. Pinocchio witnessing Lampwick turn into a donkey is terrifying, no doubt, but after a few watches it loses its effect because Lampwick isn’t so engaging. You feel bad for him, but since we know relatively little about him and, sequently, haven’t had enough time to learn, he becomes another casualty in the story of a character who, by the way, barely even has a character arc.

I get it: Pinocchio, like many Disney films, is rooted in emotion. Anything that doesn’t fit you simply accept as “Disney logic”. I can tolerate that. But it doesn’t mean the thematic depth isn’t either shallow, as with early Disney films, or present, yet not abundant. In contrast, thanks to the subtleties of facial movement, the writing and, surprisingly, the slow, atmospheric moments, I learn more about Satsuki Kusakabe from how she interacts with Totoro in the rain, or San from how she sucks blood from Morro’s wound, in those single, respective scenes than I ever did from the time with Lampwick.

This is a problem that Miyazaki himself shares with me. As I stated in “The Anime Greats”:
“…[Miyazaki] admired [Disney] while still believing his company had barely scratched the surface of animation.”
That’s a polite way of saying, “Miyazaki thought Disney movies were shallow.” And guess who agrees? Andrew Osmond, the third person in Barrier’s conversation:
“…According to one interview, [Miyazaki] didn't like Disney's Snow White or Bambi either, and had a violent negative reaction to Sleeping Beauty. He acknowledged Pinocchio was ‘great,’ but said it didn't move him. I know this will horrify you, but he said he preferred Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels and Hoppity Goes to Town.”
Interesting, no?

So yeah, that’s all I can say on this matter. Does this mean Barrier is wrong about not being sold on Hayao Miyazaki? No, as neither is one of our Infinite Rainy Day staff. And while I love Miyazaki, he’s not perfect, as evidenced by his hit-or-miss dialogue that comes from not scripting his films. I also appreciate that, unlike someone else, Barrier has actually given Miyazaki’s work a proper chance before outright dismissing it.

That doesn’t, however, mean that I don’t think he’s being unfair, or perhaps even stuck-up. Remember my Jackson Pollock remark? That was in-reference to a man discussing objective standards, or lack thereof, in modern art. Like how his equation of Pollock’s work to his art apron bothered me because it came off as snobbish and condescending, so too does Barrier’s critique of Miyazaki’s “lack of standards” bother me because it comes off as snobbish and condescending. And while I’m sure Barrier’s been chewed out by his colleagues by now, the post is almost 10 years old, I still feel it’s relevant.

So there you have it: my thoughts on nothing…again.

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