Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Ponyo (2009), and the Weirdly Relaxed Plotting of Hayao Miyazaki Features

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Although the animation medium he works in sometimes pigeonholes his accomplishments, Hayao Miyazaki is truly one of the masters of cinema, right up there with names like Bergman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Corman. And just like with a lot of the masters of cinema, I’ve only seen a small fraction of his work and I’m scrambling to catch up. Lately I’ve been making more of an effort to familiarize myself with a wider range  of Miyazaki classics outside re-watching Spirited Away & My Neighbor Totoro multiple times a year, which has lead me to a few less readily recognizable titles like Howl’s Moving Castle & Princess Mononoke over the past year. It’s been difficult for me to distinguish Miyazaki’s work form the rest of the filmmakers at Studio Ghibli in terms of style outside of his fascination with themes like immersion in the natural world & the wonder of flight. While recently watching the features Ponyo & Kiki’s Delivery Service in a single weekend, though, something struck me about the way Miyazaki’s features’ approach plot & pacing I hadn’t yet noticed. Once the director establishes the majesty of his films’ worlds & settings, he’s remarkably comfortable with bringing the story down to a full stop simply to marinate in the immense beauty he’s constructed. I had never noticed before how his films all tend to work this way in their own individual moments of lowkey self-reflection & immersion in setting before watching these two titles in rapid succession. Nor had I noticed how oddly comforting that plot structure can be.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a simple story about a young witch coming of age as she leaves home to start a new, autonomous life in a foreign city. In an early jaunt of exposition the Miyazaki trademarks of intricate, detailed animation (seen most easily in its shots of wind blowing through tall grass) & wonder with the majesty of flight (she’s a witch after all; she even made her own broom) seem to promise an epic story of witchy misadventures as Kiki tries to find her footing in an overwhelming, sometimes terrifying world. I was more or less expecting The Worst Witch restructured as a big budget adventure epic. The film does feature some dangerous run-ins that fit the mold I’m describing, like an early tussle with some vindictive crows & a climax revolving around a downed zeppelin, but for the most part action & adventure are the furthest thing from the film’s mind. Most people in Kiki’s new city are supportive of the witchy visitor, especially once she becomes familiar & finds a sense of purpose in her broomstick-driven delivery business. For the most part the film’s plot is centered on small scale concerns like “Will she make new friends?” “Will she make her deliveries on time?” and “Will she beat the rain?”  Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t a tale of a witch venturing out into the world as much as it’s about a witch finding confidence & autonomy within herself, with the film’s most major crisis being whether or not she’ll get her mojo back once her magic begins to fade. The way Miyazaki allows this inner struggle to play out & resonate is to establish a living space (an indoor-kid’s fantasy of an attic loft above a bakery with an ocean view) and allow Kiki to ruminate within it, as if she were morphing inside a cocoon. To pile any more action onto the plot would detract from the impact of Kiki’s inward journey & Miyazaki’s brilliance is in the way he’s comfortable with letting his protagonist’s downtime breathe & slowly mature.

Although its setting trades Kiki’s Delivery Service’s high in the sky adoration with flight for a polar opposite physical realm deep under water, Ponyo follows a similar trajectory in terms of plot & pacing. Miyazaki opens the movie with an immensely intricate galaxy of deep sea wonders, dazzling the audience with a majestic display teeming with underwater lifeforms. This peaceful balance is disrupted when a humanoid fish befriends a small human boy on dry land & shapeshifts to please him, playing out a strange slant on the fairy tale structure of The Little Mermaid. Ignoring the warning that “Fishes with faces who come out of the ocean cause tsunamis,” the two unlikely friends explore a life together at everyone else’s expense, causing a massive flood, as promised, that separates parents – both underwater wizards & overworked nursing home employee mothers alike – from their young children. Again, what’s interesting in the way Miyazaki constructs this fable is that he doesn’t push for big, exciting action sequences at every turn in Ponyo but instead seeks out a languid kind of majesty that’s remarkably confident & emotionally affecting in the way it allows you to sink into the places he’s created. Ponyo’s story works twofold in its development of a heartfelt, but doomed friendship and its sense of loss & confusion in the search of a misplaced loved one. What sticks with you in the film isn’t necessarily specific events or plot points, but rather visual details like a jellyfish galaxy or a candle-powered boat and, yet, an emotional story arc caries through in that setting-specific artistry

I think a large part of the brilliance of Miyazaki’s slow crawl pacing & sparse plotting is the way it allows you to sink into a space. The underwater world of Ponyo & the above-the-bakery apartment of Kiki’s Delivery Service live vividly in my imagination long after the end credits, feeling as real or as tangible as real-life spaces I’ve physically inhabited. As I look back to past films I’ve seen from the director I realize that this aspect has always been a major aspect of his appeal to me. I don’t always remember the finer points of the various adventures & mishaps in his films as much as I remember details like the gloriously crowded bedroom in Howl’s Moving Castle or the inside of the catbus in My Neighbor Totoro or the old woman’s cottage in Spirited Away. I was pondering the other day about what didn’t quite work for me in the recent French animated feature April and the Extraordinary World and I’m starting to think it had something to do with the film’s decision to crowd its runtime with an action chase plot instead of slowing down & luxuriating in the intricately detailed space it had created. The only animated film outside of Studio Ghibli I can think of that similarly pulls this trick off is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (it even features a Ponyo-like flood), which, no surprise, Miyazaki himself had apparently worked at some point during its long, troubled production. The director’s reverence for defined space over quickly plotted pace has a special touch that allows you to mentally live in his worlds that some less pointed works would allow to fly by in a blur. For some reason it took rapid succession viewings of Ponyo & Kiki’s Delivery Service for me to catch onto that aspect of his work, but looking back I realize it had been there with me all along.

-Brandon Ledet

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