Thursday, December 21, 2023

M is for Miyazaki, Manga Master

The Japanese written language isn’t really built on an alphabet like ours. So when I say that names starting with the letter M seem to play a prominent role in Japanese pop culture, I’m speaking strictly from an American perspective. Still, it’s a curious fact that one of today’s most significant authors and one of the world’s top contemporary artists are both surnamed Murakami. Haruki Murakami, born in 1949, has won many literary prizes for such eerily prescient novels as 1Q84. Takashi Murakami, now enjoying a major exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, blurs art and commerce in his colorful and often outrageous paintings. There’s also at least one more celebrated Murakami, the novelist and filmmaker Ryū. No relation: there seems to be a certain shortage of family names in Japan. (Purists will notice I’m using the western custom of putting each man’s given name ahead of his surname, the reverse of the traditional Japanese name order. Because, of course, I’m a westerner.) 

 Anyway, I want to focus on yet another M name: Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant manga artist and maker of animated films, who began directing features back in 1979. So dominant an influence is he on the worldwide film industry that when L.A.’s Academy Museum opened last year, an entire floor of exhibition space was dedicated to his career. I was inspired by that beautifully mounted exhibit to watch 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which—thanks to its gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and enchanting plot—remains my favorite Miyazaki film. But the most honored of his works is doubtless Spirited Away, from 2001.

 Miyazaki’s mature works are hardly blithe comedies. Jolly Disney-style uplift is not for him. (In Spirted Away, the lead character’s parents are suddenly metamorphosed, over lunch, into pigs.) His films reflect his somewhat sardonic nature, his commitment to environmentalism, his belief in strong female characters, and his awareness that violence is always lurking. His sense of the omnipresence of war is strongly felt in his latest film, The Boy and the Heron. It is just coming into theatres now, a holiday gift for fans who were once dismayed that he’d called 2013’s The Wind Rises his final film before moving into a well-earned retirement.

 I’ve discovered that the opening scenes of The Boy and the Heron are drawn to some extent from his own life-experience.  Miyazaki was born in 1941 into an affluent family.  His father, the head of an aircraft company, manufactured parts for World War II fighter planes. When Hayao was three years old, the family evacuated from Tokyo to semi-rural Utsunomiya.  Two years later, after Utsunomiya itself was bombed by Allied forces, they moved once again. The horrific sight of a bombed-out city marks the opening of this film. Young Mahito loses his mother in a firestorm; his father (a maker of aircraft parts) remarries, and he finds himself in a mysterious country home presided over by tiny, wizened “grandmothers” and talking birds. As always in Miyazaki, life remains unstable: characters radically change their size and identity, and the boy has to sort out—with great difficulty—his allies and his foes. This degree of dark-hued whimsy can be hard on the viewer. It’s difficult, in a film over two hours long, to keep track of all the connections and transformations. Why, for instance, all those evil parakeets?

 Did I like The Boy and the Heron? I’m still not quite sure. One thing I did unequivocally love: those gorgeous painterly backdrops, which seem so much more solid and “real” than the fantastic and sometimes grotesque characters who move through them.



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