WHAT IS THE STORY?
Have you ever wondered where a Totoro came from, and what exactly it was? Or why Kiki had to leave home when she turned 12? And how come she was a witch? Or why did the Laputa family build a castle in the sky, and how? Why had they left it? Or why had Marco turned into a pig? And what was the story between him and the beautiful Gina?
Instead of learning more about that story, the story of the handsome aviator Marco turned into an ugly – but extremely witty and charming – pig, you are lead into a different story. A story of planes, and duals, of bounty hunters and pathetic pirates – which you also enjoy so greatly. But you feel tricked. This is not the story you were buying. You experience the discrepancy between what you feel to be the essential story and the accessory story you are actually told, only to discover that you love it. You love the discrepancy, and you love accessory stories. As if you were watching a play and the light engineer was mistaken on whom to draw the lights on and when. Though you are aware of something more essential then the things you are being shown going on, you have no access to it. All you get are a series of images and dialogues, but the ‘real’ story is elsewhere. You only touch its fringes, and you get just enough elements to imagine it, and dream. Isn’t that what poetry is about? Strings of words and images that suggest, or hint, and open up a whole new world for your imagination to conquer.
WHAT IS THIS PLACE?
This new world however, remains decidedly out of your reach. When you finally land on Laputa, it is a ghost city, and all the robots are dead. You learn nothing more about the Laputa dynasty. You learn nothing substantial about this place. You had thought that the whole story was about Laputa. Wasn’t it about knowing the place, understanding where Shita came from, and who she was? Well, no. It turns out the story is about getting to Laputa, about seeing it. Touching it. It is as close as you get to the imaginary world Miyazaki draws for you. You stand at the border between a somewhat rational world, with a twist of irrationality, and the Other World, a different dimension. So different that you’re not even sure where to start imagining it. This, again, is about poetry: there are no meanings, no explanations required.
WHERE AM I?
What you are actually eagerly watching, is just a bunch of lovable, though sometimes strange, characters that you follow on some extremely colorful and enjoyable adventure. There is no real ending, and no real beginning – since there is no real story being told. Kiki’s wonder is that she is a 12 year old witch who decides to take off one night and make it on her own in a different town. All this is of course perfectly normal to her father, who is particularly proud of her. Totoro’s wonder is that although he is a character in the book of a 4 year old, her father immediately and very naturally believes her when she tells him she saw him. Of course a pig can fly! Or even better: of course an aviator can be turned into a flying pig. Nobody seems to doubt it. Had they doubted it, had the father character in My neighbor Totoro not beleive his daughter, had Kiki’s father opposed her travel, then this would’ve have been a story. You would have focused on The story of making people believe that Totoro exists, that pigs can fly, that small 12 year old witches are allowed to take off in the middle of the night. But that’s not it. You already believe. Your faith is the begenning of the journey.
This is perhaps what makes the beauty of Miyazaki’s work: you’re never quite sure of where you’re standing. Everything seems almost familiar, but the rules are almost different. Not so different that you are in a completely different world. That would be science fiction. That is Nausicaa of the valley of the wind, or Future boy Conan. The new rules are plausible, they are just not likely. It is not likely that a small 12 year old witch, granted she exists, can take off in the middle of the night. It is not likely that a father believes his little girl when she tells him about Totoro, granted he exists. It is not likely that a beautiful Gina falls in love with a pig.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
However strange, or at odds with what you think the world to be, all these characters are identified and identifiable. All the actors of the unreal story which is not being told, but is unfolded on the screen, are here. Except for whoever – whatever – turned Marco into a pig, is responsible for the existence of witches and Totoros, is behind the creation of the castle in the sky… These people you cannot meet. If you did meet them, it would all collapse. The magic. The poetry. The wonder of meaningless dialogs and simply beautiful images would be brought to an end. There are some things that are best left unexplained.
This is how I was brought to wonder why Miyazaki, in his most recent works, felt the urge to explain. Spell it out.
Mononoke’s battle, however beautiful and as colorful as ever, is spelled out. Life and death are actually shown as being one and the same invisible – but here visible – force at the heart of the forest. Howl’s story and personal nightmares are hinted at to explain his doings. Ponyo’s goddess of a mother and magician of a father are introduced to explain why the love story of a fish and a little boy is impossible and out of time. Nameless characters and faceless powers are given names and faces. Their roles are identified, their shapes are defined.
Unlike Ponyo, Mononoke or Howl, Ponyo’s father and mother, the God of Mononoke’s forrest, the monsters of Howl’s nightmare are not real characters. They are superficial personifications of Miyazaki’s rationale.
They are his explanation of the story. They are the symptoms of his crossing borders.
With these pseudo-characters, we are beyond the previously set threshold, the delicate border separating worlds.
By breaking this rule, we leap into the fantasy world to which access was never granted before. No room is left for the viewer’s imagination, for poetry. A story is being told, with a beginning, an end, and a string of causally linked events that bring you from one to the other. We are done with carefully tip toeing in an unrecognized and ever surprising world. Done with poetry.
Miyazaki had vowed never to get us there, the promise land. He had managed to keep us on the way. Hanging in the sky with the sea at our feet. At some point, he did get us to touch the water, and walk on it. Chihiro’s trip was very close to reaching a destination. But it didn’t. It was perfectly in between worlds and stories. We never got anywhere, and Chihiro simply went back to where she came from.
So what happened? Did Miyazaki feel he owed his audience an explanation? Did he feel that the audience requested an explanation? I know I didn’t. And if somewhere the question ‘do you want explanations?’ was asked, I know I never got to answer. So here is my chance:
NO EXPLANATIONS. PLEASE.
From top to bottom, in chronological order: Nausicaa from the valley of the wind, 1984; Laputa a castle in the sky, 1986; My neighbor Totoro, 1988; Kiki’s delivery service, 1989; Porco Rosso, 1992; Princess Mononoke, 1997; Spirited away, 2001; Howl’s moving castle, 2004; Ponyo on the cliff by the sea, 2008