Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Powerful stories, scenes, and dialogue from film are more than entertainment pieces. They become signposts and memory markers as we associate a film’s impact to whatever is happening in our own lives.
In particular, the wonder and genius of the animated films from Studio Ghibli have become signposts for many writers at Christ and Pop Culture. Here they share their appreciation for Studio Ghibli films.
We think we know what’s going to happen in My Neighbor Totoro from the moment its basic premise becomes clear. Two young girls move out of the city with their parents in the hope that their seriously ill mother will have a better chance of recovery in a countryside hospital. Anyone who’s familiar with the tropes of the endangered-parent fairy tale knows that Mom’s chances of survival aren’t good. The conventional three-act screenplay practically writes itself.
But Studio Ghibli made its name on gently subverting expectations of what an animated film can be, thanks in great part to Hayao Miyazaki’s sure hand in crafting films like My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki does not focus on marching a plot forward or achieving dramatic payoffs. His movie is childlike in the best possible sense of the word—it luxuriates in the present. The girls explore and quarrel, giggle and worry; the endearingly strange forest spirit Totoro pops up here and there like a feral Aslan. As we grow up, we learn to treat our experiences as stones with which we construct narratives for our lives, but My Neighbor Totoro reminds us that we didn’t always think of life that way. When we are children, each successive moment forms not a plot but a trail of breadcrumbs. Watching Miyazaki’s films reminds us what it is like to follow those breadcrumbs, not knowing or particularly caring where the trail ends up. We simply follow the crumbs as they appear before us, with each moment an entire reality unto itself.
I love watching movies in the theater—my first childhood memory is seeing the Rankin and Bass rendition of The Last Unicorn. However, I tend to be very reticent in taking my own children to see movies (yes, I am totally that overprotective parent at times) because once they experience something (good or ill), it can’t be undone. So choosing my children’s first big-screen movie experience is a big deal for me. My daughter was 4 years old when The Secret World of Arrietty was released in the States, and we had been reading Mary Norton’s Borrowers books as a family, so at last, I held my breath and took her.
She can be sensitive, so we had to stand outside the theater during the trailers for fast-paced CGI previews. After that, there was real magic sitting with her, watching a film that is in many ways about a father-daughter relationship. I suppose I understand the complaint of some that Arrietty is slow-moving, but it was a perfect pace for her, and her eyes were wide at times when director Yonebayashi and his animators emphasized the immense differences of scale between Arrietty’s world and the realm of the human “beans.” I’m grateful, because Studio Ghibli gave my daughter—and me—exactly the first-movie experience I had been praying for.
Ponyo is a beautiful film, even by Studio Ghibli standards. The premise certainly occupies that special space of Ghibli magical realism: a magical goldfish transforms into a human and then the world is flooded as result of her seeming hubris. As a loose interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, it manages to craft its own loving version while incorporating Ghibli’s longstanding thematic focus of restoring the balance between humanity and nature.
But calling it just a fairy tale would be an injustice; at its heart, the film is about a relationship between a young boy and young girl, and how bringing together worlds long-divided can bring us closer to a childlike sense of wonder. When the world floods, there’s no sense of divine retribution. Instead, we’re treated to a nautical narrative filled with creatures and a sense of innocence that may be unmatched in the studio’s catalogue. As a result, the film’s detractors claim it is Studio Ghibli’s simplest creation. Yet when the film ends and the balance between the worlds is restored, we see a community accept the wonder of children and learn it’s often the youngest among us who see goodness and love in all creatures (even in the smallest of goldfish).
Only Yesterday‘s Japanese title is Omohide Poro Poro, which translates literally as “memories come tumbling down,” and it’s among my favourite of Studio Ghibli’s works. As Ghibli has become almost synonymous with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, it can be easy to forget the studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata (notable for directing one of the most harrowing war movies ever crafted, Grave of the Fireflies). With Only Yesterday, Takahata continued Ghibli’s trend of overturning animated convention and crafted a quietly dramatic film about coming to a crossroads in one’s life.
Taeko is a 27-year-old woman who works for a company in Tokyo, but needs a break. She travels to spend time working the safflower harvest on her sister’s in-laws’ farm. During her time away, Taeko brings to mind another crossroads she navigated years earlier: the onset of puberty. As she recalls the joys, frustrations, experiences, and hopes of that time of life, she seeks to apply their lessons to her current state of unease.
Takahata crafted a thoroughly romantic, thoroughly grounded film that is a delight; and is unfortunately completely unmarketable to an American audience that requires talking snowmen and anthemic songs in their animated fare.
Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso is filled with magical instants that make it so much more special than the film’s boilerplate synopsis: “A pig-bounty hunter flies his seaplane around the late-1920s Mediterranean, hunting for air pirates.” Beyond using a lovely palette and flawless set design, Porco Rosso essays these human moments that unveil the beauty of the race, prompting a kind of joyous awe in viewers:
When bitter rivals and enemies cease their fighting and arguing to listen to Gina sing. When Fio glimpses Marco’s humanity unconsciously return by firelight. When Marco tells of his vision of the fallen dead pilots joining the grand heavenly stream. When we first encounter Marco in his island hideout and its striking, paradisaical lushness.
Counterpoint to these scattered lovely encounters is the film’s anti-war underpinning. Ghibli has throughout its existence has steadfastly remained in opposition to war and those who conduct it, and the disdain comes out in their films. From Nausica’s calamity of greed and violence to Grave of the Fireflies’ exploration of the human cost of Allied war efforts to the outright description of soldiers and generals as murderers in Howl’s Moving Castle to even the recent biopic The Wind Rises. In Porco Rosso, we find Marco who, in great disgust after serving as an ace in WWI, has renounced his humanity to live as a pig. Yet we still find nuance as is typical in Ghibli’s complicated heroes and villains. While laying an indictment on the whole violent human enterprise, Marco continues to make his living from guns; even if he deploys them without lethality.
It was in the late Autumn of 1999. I had not yet seen a Miyazaki film nor heard of the director. Standing with a friend before the theater marquee trying to decide on the evening’s entertainment, we chose Princess Mononoke because she had heard its English translation was scripted by Neil Gaiman (who at that point was really only famous for his comics series, Sandman). I was reluctant, having been poisoned by too many years of American animation aimed wholly at audiences built of children.
Princess Mononoke was my paradigm shift. The immediate vibrancy of the natural palette and the careful, hand-drawn animation was breathtaking. A wind blew across a field. Rain sprinkled on a rock and turned to downpour. I had never seen anything like it.
And the characters! Protagonists and antagonists both were a mix of human inclinations and emotions and motives and goals. San, the titular princess, is fierce and righteous and savage and unforgiving. Lady Eboshi, the ostensible villain, clearcuts forests and tries to kill the spirits and saves women from lives of prostitution and cares for lepers. These aren’t the flimsy cardstock characters I grew up with in Disney films. These were thoughtful, complicated, human people whose decisions were built on their contexts and beliefs and interactions rather than simply a need to fill a role in a careless plot.
Princess Mononoke was eye-opening. Princess Mononoke was my gateway into the world of Ghibli. I’m so grateful to Neil Gaiman for taking that job.
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