Hello Again/Miyazaki’s Little Heroines

So, I haven’t blogged for a long time–over a year, in fact.  I began blogging for a lovely graduate course I took on postcolonial literature and theory, and I miss sharing my thoughts with other likeminded scholars, film buffs, and feminist students.  In fact, I miss a lot of things about grad school:  the caring English faculty, my brilliant manager at the university’s Writing Center, my good friend who would listen to my ranting over Mexican food and beer every week, and I especially miss the expectation that I would think, read, write papers, then think, read, and write some more.  In my late twenties now, I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before, and I’m grateful for the incredible journey I had in earning my Master’s degree.  Anyone who knows me even a little bit is aware that I’m a loner; my most productive time is spent alone, I’m most myself when I’m alone, and I’m centered and happy when I’m alone.  Fun fact:  when I used to take my dogs to a beautiful nature trail near my apartment, I would actually turn and change our path if I saw anyone coming in our direction…not due to any woman-walking-alone-in-the-wilderness fear, but simply because I wanted to be outside and alone with my doggies, as far away as possible from anyone who wanted to stop me to ask questions, pet my companions, or remark how hot, cold or snowy it was that day or evening.  Silence is nice.  This is why I miss many of the people I met in graduate school–they knew when to be silent, and when they spoke, wonderful things came out.  I gladly welcome any of those people to break the silence I enjoy so much within my private bubble.

This blog post is a bit scattered since I’m attempting to include my thoughts on several different topics in one place after a long absence from the blogging community.

I write for Bitch Flicks, where I offer feminist film criticism, so the site works nicely as a sort of intellectual outlet I otherwise would not have.  Recently, I’ve discovered that I should really start blogging again.  I’m in a place right now where I’m awaiting news of a potentially life-altering decision.  I’m wait-listed in a women’s studies program at a school 1,000 miles from the only home I’ve ever known.  I had been checking my application status several times a day, every day, anticipating a decision of “accepted” or “denied,” but what about this bittersweet third option?  A few weeks ago, I was already making peace with my conclusion that I had been denied admission, but now I’m still trying to situate myself in this uncomfortable state of limbo.  The way I figure it is:  if I’m denied, I have more options next year.  I’m good.  There’s something very liberating about the realization that there’s nothing I can do about the outcome.  Last night, I also had the opportunity to discuss women and film on a radio program called “Femaliarity” on Mizzou’s KCOU 88.1 FM at the University of Missouri.  Kaileen, the student who contacted me and co-hosts the show, was very sweet and made the experience very enjoyable.  I was able to touch on films like Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Carrie, and Captain Phillips.  With the Academy Awards scheduled for tonight, it was a perfect opportunity to defend Wolf as a film that is not necessarily misogynistic or anti-feminist and also to gush about the bad ass performance we saw from the always lovely Sandra Bullock in Gravity and the joy of finally seeing a female-directed Carrie, along with a much needed update in the realm of gendered violence onscreen.  Kimberly Peirce includes three types of blood in her remake:  the blood of birthing (the opening scene in the film), menstrual blood (of course), and blood induced by violence; I think the point is that this blood, regardless of its origin, becomes interchangeable as the film progresses–which says some things about all of us:  who we are as spectators, how we watch film, and what we make of the female body.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist so far this year.  Not fun.  I was way overdue for a visit, and I promptly made an appointment in January when I was approved for my new dental insurance and I woke up with a throbbing toothache one morning.  Besides the understanding people who work at my dentist’s office and the sublime invention of painkillers, Miyazaki films have been getting me through the pain of a two-hour root canal, the two fillings that required six shots of novocaine, and the residual aching in my jaw.  I’ve been writing about the wonder of Hayao Miyazaki films since I was an undergrad, so my relationship with the Japanese animator’s films is intense and emotional.  I wept the first time I saw Spirited Away on Cartoon Network, not quite grasping what I was watching or how an animated film could elicit such feelings.  I think now is an appropriate time to dissect the films’ treatment of girlhood and their placement of female protagonists alongside older characters.

Spirited Away (2001) is certainly the most popular film Miyazaki has done.  Chihiro, whose name is taken by the evil Yubaba, is renamed Sen when she begins work at a bathhouse for the spirits.  Images of the majestic building, especially lit up at nighttime, make me feel so cozy, like I should go make some green tea and draw a bath for my own replenishment.  Based on the daughter of a friend, Miyazaki gives us a character who grows enormously throughout the film–she quiets her whining and owns the monumental task she’s faced with:  to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs for eating food belonging to the spirits.  The world in which Chihiro finds herself is one I fell in love with instantly.  In interviews, Miyazaki is very clear that he does not create purely evil characters, but rather unpleasant ones who have perhaps lost their way.  Sure, Yubaba is cruel and would enjoy seeing Chihiro fail, but we are also aware that she is a three-dimensional personality, complete with weaknesses and a dysfunctional relationship with her infant son, Boh (who is quite literally a big baby).  Confronted with this world of strange customs and wacky creatures–where Chihiro has no social contract–she finds the courage to take on a job in an unfamiliar setting, to speak up for herself when others attempt to knock her down, and to emerge as an accountable and sophisticated young woman who practices initiative when needed while also accepting the things she cannot change.

Chihiro watches a train makes its way through the water as she eats.
Spirits of every size, shape, and color can be seen marching over the bridge to enter the beautiful bathhouse for an herbal soak.

What’s interesting about My Neighbor Totoro (2005) is that it follows the story of two little girls and their father in the absence of their sick mother, thus highlighting the significance of fatherhood in Japanese culture.  The girls investigate their new home while their father takes care of more adult matters, they visit their mother in the hospital, and they even bathe with their father.  What’s also worth noting about this movie is that the girls’ father is patient and supportive when they explain that they meet a mysterious creature outside; “You must have met the spirit of the forest,” he kindly tells his precocious daughters.  Their father’s confirmation that they create their own reality and embrace their childhood, abandoning logic for creativity through fun and play, signals the progressive idea that our tiny heroines carry the narrative through their willingness to believe that their mother will recover from her illness and that Totoro will guide them in planting both the literal and figurative seeds of hope, innocence, and familial happiness.  Voiced by real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, these little girls remind us to trust our instincts, to spend time in nature (because, really, it’s the same thing as spending time with ourselves), and to believe in something fiercely if we want to make it real.

A magical “cat-bus” transports the girls to the hospital to visit their mother.
The adorable Totoro and his miniature companions make an appearance at night, high in the trees outside the girls’ new home.

The film Ponyo (2008) makes me wish that I owned a million dollar home right next to the sea, so I could gaze out at lighthouses and watch beautiful storms whip saltwater at my windows.  This film is based on Disney’s The Little Mermaid and follows a curious little fish who loves ham and wants desperately to become a human to escape the clutches of her controlling father and to spend time with her human friend, Sosuke.  Ponyo’s mother makes an enchanting appearance toward the climax of the film in the form of the sea herself, so powerful that she controls the direction of the tides and pulls the moon’s orbit closer to the earth, so enormous that her presence impacts ships, and so beautiful that she captures the attention of all who encounter her.  One significant moment that caught my attention is when Sosuke tells his mother, “Ponyo came back, and she’s a little girl now!”  After Sosuke finds and bonds with Ponyo as a goldfish, the ocean claims her and carries her away from the devastated little boy.  How can Sosuke say something so illogical to his mother in such a matter-of-fact fashion?  Because he’s a child, and he knows better than to question how or why Ponyo was a fish and now she comes to him as a human girl; all he knows is that he loves her.

Ponyo’s mother looks like an aquatic goddess, with flowing hair and a crown of jewels.

Again, the animation is quite breathtaking.  After a tsunami hits the coast, the entire community is left underwater.  When the pair set out on a boat fueled by the burning of a single candle, we’re given several beautiful glimpses of the submerged community, complete with a variety of creatures that went extinct millions of years ago.  Again, this isn’t meant to be questioned by us or Miyazaki’s characters–to question any of the dreamy concepts produced by Studio Ghibli is to disrupt the effect they have on the viewer.

It’s quite surreal to see evidence of humanity beneath primordial ocean waters–a reminder that our origins are in water.
The gorgeous seaside house is surrounded by ocean and stars.

What we can take away from films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo is the fact that small children are gifted with their own unique form of wisdom–not the kind gained from years of experience, but the brand that is too often ignored or dismissed as make-believe or nonsense.  As someone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time around children, probably due to my aversion to sticky messes and loud noise, I can appreciate this idea from a safe distance.  When I used to visit my friend, her daughter would persistently tell me, “Aunt Jenny, I marry you!”  Like Ponyo, my friend’s daughter has not yet learned to be critical of her own feelings and desires, not yet burdened by the inconveniences of logic and reasoning.  Naturally, I always responded, “Yes, let’s get married!”


3 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m touched by your kindness and excited by the reemergence of your intellect in the aether of the Interwebs. Coincidentally, a project involving me, my friend, and a blog has led me to start writing on my dusty grad school blog, literally within days of your post. I wonder, does this coincidence indicate the end of some sort of decompression stage after one level of grad school? I wonder if similar experiences are out there.

    As always, I enjoyed your article. I’ve only seen Spirited Away, years ago, but I remember being similarly confused about what exactly I was watching. Naturally, I was distracted by the neat monsters and missed entirely the allegorical role played by Chihiro. Children do have wisdom too often ignored by adults, and Chihiro learns to trust this wisdom though few others will. This may be one reason why spiritual paragons such as the Buddah are often depicted in a playful aspect–they have recaptured the playful wisdom of children.

  2. lotusgurl says:

    Jordan–it’s some sort of cosmic synchrony, I’m sure!

    I believe my experience was probably similar–I too was distracted by the animation and the queer creatures that inhabit the fantastical world of Miyazaki. It’s funny, I remember almost feeling drugged by the onslaught of magical images united with adult themes. Good stuff.

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