The world is a strange place. I never needed wardrobes or nine and three-quartered platforms to see it; it only took my parents, hell-bent on becoming missionaries, to drag me kicking and screaming aboard an Asia-bound plane at the age of seven. The best adventures are rarely those we choose for ourselves: they choose us. It is the same in fantasy. For me, the strange and poignant films of Studio Ghibli have been a source of comfort and rare insight over the years, often echoing my own experience with their own deep, wordless aesthetic.
There is a specific “otherness” which many Studio Ghibli films portray well: it is the same benumbed wonder I felt when I moved to Bandung, Indonesia. I remember getting lost in the back-alleys of the city and, like Chihiro on the ghostly shore in Spirited Away (2001), I didn’t know where my parents were or where home was or who to ask for help; dusk had fallen and shaded lamps were lighting all around me and unfamiliar figures were emerging from their homes. Watching the film is very much like being thrust into a foreign context. Chihiro and the viewer can instinctively understand that everything going on around them is happening for a reason, though that reason is entirely alien and unknowable.
There is a specific “otherness” which many Studio Ghibli films portray well: it is the same benumbed wonder I felt when I moved to Bandung, Indonesia.But the world outside always seems unknowable. Perhaps that’s why The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) touched a deep nerve for me. After moving to the seaside town of Nabire in Papua I found a yellow-paged copy of The Borrowers and imagined my life as a small person. Our house was cavernous and warm in the day, so much so we’d put our cheeks to the tile floor to keep cool. At night, I would place action figures and plastic toys in the secret corners and hidden drawers of the loft my father had built for us and pretended they were alive. Like Arrietty, my brother and sister and I were hemmed in our small made-up world while outside in the heavy jungle air, the local Papuans clamored for independence. The world outside was a dark and threatening place.
Princess Mononoke (1997) lends a certain dignity to the natural world but retains its brutal edges: the wild world is filled with many-toothed things, forces of nature we cannot subdue. It was the same in the Baliem Valley in Papua, where my family moved when I was fifteen. I looked outside some nights to see the mountain burning in molten rivulets, much as in Mononoke. The mountains around us loomed tall, covered in dark green ironwood trees. Frequently, Dani hunters would come down from the shady peaks with feathered amulets and carved figures. I imagined the kodama tree spirits from the film living up in the branches and knocking their rattle heads.
There is a nonchalance to interactions with the spirit world outside of America which I didn’t understand at first. Much like the mundane chores Chihiro performed at the bathhouse in Spirited Away, ghosts are just another chore on a checklist for the Papuan natives. Although most tribes have converted to Christianity, certain customs persist. One tribe will burn every possession and building belonging to a deceased so that his spirit will not haunt the remains. Another tribe will build a chair for the deceased, then let the corpse sit in it for several days as the body decays. After a certain amount of time, each person from the village will sit on the corpse’s lap in a purging ritual. Another tribe takes the putrefied remains of the dead and wears it on their skin to ward the ghost away. There is no mystique to it; no one questions it. These are simply things one must do.
When I watched Grave of the Fireflies (1988) for the first time, I remembered the feeling of sitting on the porch, sitting and waiting for a beloved sibling to die.I was always unsettled and a little awed by the noble boars in Mononoke (and the honorable pig-pirate from Porco Rosso (1992), for that matter). We have no concept of swine as anything but docile farm animals in America. Once, two Dani men kept a hundred-pound boar in our backyard for the evening. My little sister decided to name him. The next day they set him free in a nearby field: one of the Dani men drew an oily bow and let a barbed arrow fly at a distance of sixty yards. They shot the thing several times until it collapsed with a sharp squeal. One of them held it while the other placed his broad foot on the thing’s ribcage and massaged its heart to pump dark blood from its side to ease it toward death. The practice was kind of a final act of respect before eating it.
I remember a hot afternoon in Bandung when my baby sister Sarah had such a heavy fever she began to seize up in a wordless crawl. My father held her, half-crying, half-praying, as we rubbed ice on her reddened belly; holding her tightly, dad led us out into the black evening, asking in broken Indonesian where he could find a doctor. We scurried through back alleys and side streets like mice in a labyrinth, stopping only to check her heartbeat. We passed vendors frying fish and bugs in pans, selling twice-glazed sweets on strings. My brother Daniel and I followed our dad blindly until we found the doctor’s house, lit by a dim porch light, with a mosquito coil next to the door releasing a sweet acrid smoke. Daniel and I sat on the step and I cried with worry as our father went inside, cradling our sick baby sister in his arms.
When I watched Grave of the Fireflies (1988) for the first time, I remembered the feeling of sitting on the porch, sitting and waiting for a beloved sibling to die. My sister recovered, but after watching Grave I was inconsolable for days. Seeing Sarah’s close brush with death, I often woke from nightmares in which I held her overhead in a wide black pool, trying to keep her from drowning. I still have this dream sometimes.
I recently watched a pirated copy of The Wind Rises (2013) in the original Japanese. The home-made subtitles read as though cobbled together from consensus by a second year English student, yet the film still gripped me. Miyazaki’s swan song is enamored of light and wind and the elements; each moment lands with the frail grace you see in last performances, as though he is worried we might forget him. The Japanese Zero aircraft in the film reminded me of a battered fuselage my dad and the other MAF pilots found buried in the sand out off the coast of Papua. After finding the propeller on a beach trip, they sailed back the next morning, spent a day digging in the sand and returned with photos of the rusted hulk. My father’s arms were tomato red and peeling, but his face was flush with excitement.
I have a jagged piece of hull in a basement somewhere. The reefs around Nabire were littered with crashed Japanese Zeroes from the war, all of them overgrown with brightly-colored coral, as though nature were flaunting her ability to grow as gaudily as possible. When I watched Ponyo (2008) for the first time, with all its underwater phantasmagoria, I was brought back to long afternoons snorkeling the reefs. The richness of life was overwhelming, with schools of neon fish flitting in and out of coral canyons. Out in the deeper parts, sections of the underwater reef lay dead and grey from dynamite fishing. The water in these places was always cold and uninviting. A long rhomboid tidal plane stretched from one wing of the island to a bare dark rock on which a single gnarled tree had taken root. My mother and I walked its length once, gathering shells and discarded husks of tentacled sea-animals; we marveled at the alien shapes and coloring until the sky grew dark and a storm rolled in.
I don’t watch Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films to escape reality; like all good fantasy, I delve into these other-worlds to return, invigorated, to this one. Even in the more grounded Ghibli films, there is a palpable awareness of something beyond this plane: the brief, soothing fantasia of Whisper of the Heart (1995) or the almost self-conscious serendipity of From Up on Poppy Hill (2011). When I sit down to watch Castle in the Sky (1986) I look at distant mountains and feel the explorer’s pulse, the desire to search out unfound things for the pure joy of it. At its core, most every Ghibli film describes some pure, wordless drive in the human experience and makes it move in brilliant color and music onscreen.
The human experience often seems incidental, unscripted. I believe that there is purpose and point to our actions, but rarely is it immediately apparent. Many Studio Ghibli films do not play out as if written by a storyteller: events transpire with an almost improvisational air, as in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The film is not about conflict, but the coming-of-age of a character. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) paints a portrait of family life through small vignettes. So it is in real life: the unsegmented, abrupt dramas of each day add up, little by little, to newfound maturity. Life is rarely earth-shattering.
Ghibli films contain a peculiar brand of warmth and respect, a distinctly Japanese reverence for all life: Sophie’s kindness in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) in a world entranced by technology, the inscrutable playfulness of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and the mournful weft of environmentalism in Nasicaä (1984), Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. These films are both a product of the fast-evolving Japanese consciousness as well as a balm for a world seized up with growing pains. For me personally, the vitality of Studio Ghibli’s films were both an anchor to help me make sense of my strange experiences as well as a sail to drive my imagination further. I can only hope Studio Ghibli stays in the business of putting such exquisite dreams to canvas.
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