Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away (2001) & My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I can’t even count how many friends of mine have gone on about their love for Japanese cartoonist and director Hayao Miyazaki. I am always weary of animated films because I don’t like almost any. I especially tend to stay away form the anime genre as a whole, because of the unnecessary violence and the problematic sexism and exploitation that marks so many series and films in the genre. I grew up in Europe and most content for children is made up of Japanese cartoons, so I spent the vast majority of my childhood absorbing this type of animation and a good number of years in my adulthood unpacking how messed up so much of what I watched was. And yet people kept telling me how different Miyazaki movies were, and how amazing they found them to be. It was almost religious the type of fervor I kept witnessing, and that alone scared me off from watching the director’s movies. All too often someone tells me how great something is, and how much they think I will like it, only for me to discover that I simply for the life of me cannot fathom why anyone would think I would enjoy that particular item, be it cinematic, literary, etc. I constantly ask myself if people even understand my tastes or know me at all. But people kept encouraging me to watch the Japanese directors films. They promised that Studio Ghibli movies were different.

I wrestled with whether to write this post because it’s become clear to me that Miyazaki fans are quite vocal and a passionate bunch. While my friends were right that the director’s movies are different, and they are very artistic in nature, they were also wrong when they believed that I would enjoy them. In fact, I didn’t really like them all that much. I didn’t hate them, but I simply don’t get the acclaim or all the effusive love. I tried, I really really did, but I simply don’t get it.

When picking what to watch I relied on a couple of things: which movies my friends kept name-checking as their favorites, which ones had been nominated for Academy Awards, and which ones had the highest ratings on websites like IMDB. The first film by Miyazaki that I watched was Spirited Away. After that I also watched My Neighbor Totoro. I intended to watch more, but after realizing that I simply was not enjoying these films I stopped and decided to not continue with the experiment, thus ignoring his other works.

spirit

Spirited Away is a very pretty movie. Very pretty in fact. The images were imaginative, colorful, and quite captivating, actually. I get that the movie is meant to have a very oneiric quality and that not everything should be questioned. That said, I do require some level or a plot and the film must make some level of sense, which I felt that this one overall did not. We are supposed to believe that the young protagonist Chihiro is capable of recognizing a friend of hers who has become a dragon with absolutely no context whatsoever. Characters change demeanors so quickly that it gave me mental whiplash. Deus ex machina moments are so common that they become run of the mill. I simply could not suspend disbelief because nothing was anchoring the film, the end result being so messy. A pastiche of mysticism and mythology.

toto

My Neighbor Totoro was equally annoying, but it also committed an even bigger sin. While Spirited Away was just crazy it at least was interesting and somewhat captivating. Totoro was confusing, but it was also painfully boring. While I appreciated the way in which the director tackled the topic of a parent’s illness from a child’s perspective, the more fantastical elements were incongruous and bizarre, I simply couldn’t make sense of what their purpose was and how they contributed to the story in any meaningful way. The film left me cold, as cold as the protagonist Satsuki is after getting caught in the rain one night.

So now I can finally say that I have watched a couple of Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movies, I am no longer completely ignorant on the subject. That said I am apprehensive about admitting to having seen them because I didn’t particularly enjoy them. Each time certain people found out I had never seen any of the Japanese director’s films they were outraged by this concept. I don’t want to imagine what the reaction would be to finding out that I’m not a fan…

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