Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away, & Atypical Antagonists

| Friday, June 15, 2012
Today's Tune: Howl's Moving Castle Theme

Speaking of out-of-the-box antagonists... let's talk about Hayao Miyazaki! Because AWESOME.

You may or may not be familiar with Miyazaki by name, but more likely than not, if you pay attention to anime or animation in general, you've probably heard of at least one of his films. You'd recognize his style in an instant. He's the director/writer/animator behind such films as Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky... the list goes on.

Miyazaki is a very creative and progressive filmmaker. His passions are clear in his films -- anti-war, pro-environmentalism, feminism, finding one's inner strength. He has a habit of creating powerful girl and woman characters, and all of his protagonists experience wonderful character arcs. We often see characters who are immature, whiny, self-centered, or meek grow into passionate, strong, more mature individuals over the course of the film. His style often captures a sense of childlike wonder about the world, even if the underlying theme is growing up.

But let's talk about Miyazaki's antagonists, because they tie into Wednesday's post.

If you're familiar with his body of work, you'll notice there's rarely an obvious "bad guy." There are certainly characters who are kind of assholes, or monsters, or people who make bad choices. Overwhelmingly, however, Miyazaki chooses to focus on atypical antagonists, like industry at the cost of war or destruction of the environment. If a villain does exist, they are nuanced and rarely (if ever) 100% evil. More often than not, the "bad guys" are simply selfish -- a very human trait, and one any of us could fall victim to.

Spoilers ahead! Using the film Spirited Away as an example, we can parse out individual characters who could potentially serve as antagonist, but the true antagonist all along is Chihiro/Sen herself. She must overcome her own pessimism and immaturity to help the beings around her. But this internal struggle is substantiated by outside opposing forces that advance the plot and help her get to the place she needs to be.

First and most obviously, there's Yubaba, the "bad" witch who runs the bathhouse. She's mean and selfish, and she treats her servants (Sen included) poorly. Even so, Yubaba is driven by greed and control, not "evil." She's a business owner who enjoys money and luxury, and she does what she feels she must to achieve her ends. She may delight in turning people into pigs a little too much, but she's not without motivation.

Next we have Haku, whose motivations are unclear until later in the film. Is he Yubaba's henchman? Did he set Sen up? Or is there something more sinister guiding his actions? I won't spoil the big twist here, but he's a complicated individual.

Then there's No-Face, a creature who develops an unhealthy obsession around Sen and is driven mad by the luxury of the bathhouse. In the end, he's not portrayed as evil, but merely sick. Sen shows him compassion and befriends him, realizing that he's lonely.

And then there's Zeniba, another witch whose motivations are unclear at first. Does she mean to harm Sen and her friend, or was it all a big misunderstanding?

Many of these characters could be argued as potential villains, but really, they're just characters serving as an external opposing force for Sen. Their goal isn't to specifically impede her, and they often help her find her way and achieve level after level of character development. This story isn't about black and white, right and wrong, good versus evil. It's just a flat-out good story full of multi-faceted characters.

Miyazaki's approach is just one of the many ways to view a story from a different angle. Every character, "good" or "bad," should have a motivation. Most of the time, the story is bigger than one girl and the witch who steals her name. Miyazaki shows us time and time again how we can find opposition from multiple sources, and those sources don't always have to go "mwa ha ha ha!"



{ cookie } at: June 15, 2012 at 7:49 AM said...

I heart Miyazaki so much. I waffle between Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke being my favorite because they are both so awesome.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: June 15, 2012 at 8:17 AM said...

I thought I'd heard of every Miyazaki film, until I found Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the other day. Another classic.

{ Andrew Leon } at: June 15, 2012 at 9:49 AM said...

We just watched his Earthsea adaptation. I'm going to read the books, soon, so I wanted to see the movie first. Interestingly enough, he wanted that to be his first film and has been wanting to do it for 20 years. Of course, then, he let his son direct it.
It has that classic Studio Ghibli look.

{ E.Maree } at: June 15, 2012 at 2:29 PM said...

I love all of Miyazaki's work. The amount of worldbuilding he does in Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle is inspiring, especially in such little time. And don't get me started on the character and creature designs... <3

{ Rachel } at: June 15, 2012 at 5:24 PM said...

I LOVE Miayazki. But I prefer the book-Howl to movie-Howl. Even if movie-Howl *is* Christian Bale :-P Great post Steph. Good things to think about antagonists.

{ Lori M. Lee } at: June 15, 2012 at 8:29 PM said...

Miyazaki is fantastic. Loved Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.

{ Phire } at: June 18, 2012 at 2:28 PM said...

Castle in the Sky was pretty much my introduction to non-Sailor-Moon anime (NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH SAILOR MOON OKAY) as well as J-pop (because I watched it in a time when it was still hard to find the lyrics and translations to songs online and so slaved over my personal transcription of the ending theme), so it always holds a soft spot in my heart. For sheer unbridled joy, though, I always go for Kiki's Delivery Service.

{ We Heart YA } at: June 19, 2012 at 11:05 AM said...

"Miyazaki shows us time and time again how we can find opposition from multiple sources, and those sources don't always have to go "mwa ha ha ha!""

Yes! That! (That's also what we were getting at with the BSG comment on the previous post, so YAY for great minds thinking alike!)

Sailor Moon forever!

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