Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Rich, deep, and genuine

Last week's issue of the New Yorker had an excellent piece by Margaret Talbot titled "The Auteur of Anime," on Hayao Miyazaki, the great Japanese anime master.

It's not available online, but there is available an interview with Talbot that recaps some of the highlights of the piece.

I have an immense admiration for Miyazaki's work, especially My Neighbor Totoro (there's a reason my blogroll features a permanent link to and Spirited Away. The chief draw is what Talbot calls the "great human warmth in his films." He doesn't give many interviews, but generally chooses to let his work speak for him. And much of what attracts me to Miyazaki is the values his work encompass.

The Talbot piece makes that connection even clearer. This anecdote was rather telling:
Several people who know Miyazaki told me that mothers frequently approach him to tell him that their child watches "Totoro" or "Kiki" every day, and he always acts horrified. "Don't do that!" he will say. "Let them see it once a year, at most!" In an essay he wrote in 1987, he was already concerned: "No matter how we may think of ourselves as conscientious, it is true that images such as anime stimulate only the visual and auditory sensations of children, and deprive them of the world they go out to find, touch, and taste."

This sense of the value of the real, and its discovery as a part of coming into the world, pervades Miyazaki's films. It comes through in another anecdote as well, taken from a Japanese documentary about the making of Spirited Away. It shows Miyazaki working with his team of young animators, and discussing with them the importance of incorporating real-life detail into the films. For one sequence, he tells them to think of how a snake falls out of a tree; but none of his young team members has actually seen a snake fall. For another shot, he tells them to think of how an eel resists being gutted; but none of them have seen that, either. Finally, he tells them for another shot to think of how a dog resists being given a pill; but again, the suggestion draws blank looks.
"Any of you ever had a dog?" Miyazaki asks.

"I had a cat," somebody volunteers.

"This is pathetic," Miyazaki says. The documentary shows the chastened staff making a field trip that night to a veterinary hospital, videotaping a golden retriever's gums and teeth, and then returning to the studio to study the video.

When Talbot finally talks with Miyazaki, he says more on this, including a profound dissatisfaction with modern life: "Everything is so thin and shallow and fake." He also said this:
"I'm not jealous of young people," he said. "They're not really free." I asked him what he meant. "They're raised on virtual reality. And it's not like it's any better in the countryside. You go to the country and kids spend more time staring at DVDs than kids do in the city. I have a place in the mountains, and a friend of mine runs a small junio-high school nearby. Out of twenty-seven pupils, he told me, nine do their schoolwork from home! They're too afraid to leave their homes." He went on, "The best thing would be for virtual reality just to disappear. I realize that with our animation we are creating virtual things, too. I keep telling my crew, 'Don't watch animation! You're surrounded by enough virtual things already.' "

In some regards, this sounds almost Luddite in its conservatism, but I think Miyazaki is onto something that has concerned me for some time, and increasingly so now that I am a father.

I remember my grandfather grousing about modern society along similar lines: "People today, they just go down to the store and buy their meat in a package," he would say. "They have no connection to this meat as once having been a living thing. It might as well be something they make in a factory." He too hated the fakeness that pervades modern life.

This isn't just grousing over "modern ways": it's a recognition that our materialism and desire for convenience and entertainment is leading us down a path where we lose our touch with what it is that makes us human.

Moreover, the right-wing "values" crowd is so eager to tout unbridled capitalism that it never seems to take stock of the fact that such an ethos is driving the very loss of values they're decrying. And I think progressives -- who are, at base, humanists -- should be taking stock of the need for the genuine traditional values we're losing in our rush to modernity as well.

Now, I have to confess: There's no way I'll be able to restrict my daughter's viewing Totoro to a single annual event; after all, a stuffed Totoro sits on the foot of her bed (along with a Catbus) to keep all the other monsters away. (I figure once a month should be OK.) But I do intend to make sure she also knows how a snake falls out of a tree, and a dog refuses to eat its pill. That she gets real-life experience to go along with her TV.

Nowadays, that's probably the best we can do. And thanks to Miyazaki, I don't have to worry that all of the values she consumes through the TV are thin, shallow, and fake.

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