The English edition of Starting Point: 1979–1996, a collection of Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s articles and interviews, comes with a foreword by John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and director of several well-known animated films such as Toy Story and Cars. This is appropriate enough – Lasseter and Disney have been instrumental in bringing a greater appreciation of Miyazaki’s work and that of his Studio Ghibli to Western audiences. They have been responsible for distributing his films in America as well as producing high-quality English-language dubs of his films. In addition to this, Lasseter is quick to point out the influence that Miyazaki’s work has had on the animators at Pixar – in the foreword, he writes convincingly of how the emotional pathos evoked in Toy Story 2 was achieved by studying the variations in narrative pacing of Miyazaki’s films. There is a mythology being built here: one of an American studio committed to artistic credibility, and their shared affinity with an Oriental genius.
The remainder of Starting Point is a fascinating and surprising read: Miyazaki communicates ideas on art, society and politics with a polemical force miles away from the polite soundbites we are accustomed to hearing from American filmmakers. In one memorable 1994 interview, Miyazaki has no qualms eviscerating The NeverEnding Story:
A dragon appears and has a very obvious face. You can tell what it is thinking from its face. This was totally uninteresting … The more we humans anthropomorphize something and make it an easy target for empathy, the less interesting it becomes. From the beginning we seem to have a longing for a presence or a power that is far greater than ourselves and not easily understood, a presence beyond our current framework or whose origins are prehistoric … Watching The NeverEnding Story, I feel the filmmaker’s perspective is not the same as mine … Had its eyes been depicted as unfathomable holes, I would have been moved … But when I saw the face that appeared, looking like a drunken Disneyland doll, my thought was that the filmmaker’s view of nature was so stunted I couldn’t take it.
The impression the book gives doesn’t confirm the mythology of the affinity shared between Pixar and Ghibli but rather draws stark distinctions between the aesthetics of the two studios. This particularly struck me while watching the latest Pixar release, Brave. The film’s heroine accidentally places a curse on her own mother, who is magically transformed into a bear but still retains her human intelligence and personality. This introduces its own problems, but a larger problem arises when the mother starts suffering from fits in which she loses even her human personality, completing her full transformation into a bear. This transformation is evoked visually in the bear’s eyes, which transform from standard anthropomorphic cartoon eyes to impenetrable black beads. As the fully transformed mother unthinkingly attacks her own daughter, the binary becomes clear: the goodness of being human is defined in contrast to the malevolence of nature.
Why does Brave insist on the comfort of an anthropomorphised face and associate its absence with evil? In Living in the End Times, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes this very issue apropos of the Western anxiety around women who cover their face with a burqa, arguing that the face operates as a shield that obscures the alterity (or otherness) of the Neighbour. The face allows us to imagine the Neighbour as a ‘fellow-man’: she is just like us, we tell ourselves, and this is a comfort. But the covered face causes anxiety because it forces us to be confronted directly with the Neighbour in their irreducible Otherness. The sense of security we find in a face is thus the concomitant of our fear of the Other.
In opposition to the example of Brave, Miyazaki’s entire filmography can be seen in terms of the call to ‘Love thy neighbour!’. Where the philosopher Levinas argued that the encounter with the face of the Other is the beginning of ethics, here we have a cinema that evokes an ethical duty towards a thing in the absence of the Levinasian face. For example, in Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic adventure film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the heroine is committed to protecting animals from a short-sighted militarised neighbouring country, yet these ‘noble beasts’ are not the cute animals of a Disney films but rather giant, disgusting bugs with several jewel-like eyes. In the more recent Spirited Away (2001), one of the main characters is quite literally called ‘No Face’. It is in the very indifference and violence with which Miyazaki depicts nature that he shows his commitment to the principle of compassion, while Brave, despite all its images of pastoral beauty (or rather, because of them) can show for nature nothing but contempt.
I am reminded here of the words of Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté writing recently in Cinema Scope:
How should one look at animals (and find a cinematic language specific to this act)? Is it possible to shoot animals other than through the lens of entertainment or for a non-educational purpose? Neither actor nor story catalyzer, cannot an animal be contemplated and filmed simply for what it is?
This dream of Côté’s (the impetus for making his latest film, Bestiaire, which screens at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival) may not strictly be realised in Miyazaki’s films, designed as they are to be works of entertainment, but the impulse is the same: to love without demanding anything in return.