Hayao Miyazaki’s Anti-Comfort Movie | The New Yorker

According to my mother, my Ghibli childhood started when I was three. One day, seeing me and my sister bored and apathetic, she put down some sheet music she’d been practicing—quitting her career as a pianist to raise us—and started playing the score to «My Neighbor Totoro.» There it was, the wind blowing across Hayao Miyazaki‘s movies, the magic that colored ordinary life. When we moved to the States, my grandmother sent us VHS tapes of Miyazaki’s films from Japan. Over the years, the pile of tapes grew and stood next to the TV like a plastic babysitter. Every time the movie ended, I hit Stop and Rewind and the tape would rip out, hot as my sister’s face while she slept.

Miyazaki’s films have long been a kind of collective hearth, radiating his own theory of comfort. Comfort is woven into the very fabric of their worlds: plush grass, creaking floors, painstaking details lavishing warm, nutritious foods like ramen and porridge and eggs on toast. If there is a secret room or garden, as there often is, the space is stuffed with hundreds of pillows («Spirited Away»), amulets («Howl’s Moving Castle») or well-thumbed books («Whisper of the Heart»). But comfort doesn’t simply come from Miyazaki’s womb setting. It has to do with his characters themselves—characters who are introduced calming a raging insect, sucking blood from a wolf wound, or giving a pacifier to a crying baby. These people act with a gentle determination, anchored by the belief that being in the world means learning to care about something other than yourself. Miyazaki’s oft-repeated imperative—tomo nor ikiru (living together) – means finding respite in your surroundings.

The value of providing comfort is usually gendered: chivalry trumpets its work, while caring is invisible and mundane. Miyazaki turns this hierarchy on its head. Traditionally, men’s struggles are not about triumph, but care; these struggles, in turn, provide «care» with a social function outside the realm of the home. But convenience is not unlimited; it’s worth something to give. This is what lends care a touch of grace for Miyazaki. In the movie «Totoro», a boy gives an umbrella to two sisters and runs away, drenched in heavy rain. In «Nausicaä of the Wind of the Wind», the princess pulls off her gas mask to calm her companions, who are afraid to enter the poisonous forest. He smiles and calmly gives a thumbs up; later, out of their view, we see her gasping for air.

A few years ago, Miyazaki said that the mission of his work is «to comfort you – to fill a gap that may be in your heart or in your daily life.» And yet he has also long expressed ambivalence towards the idea. “Instead of watching my movie fifty times, kids should be doing something else forty-nine times,” he said in another interview in 1998. “In forty-nine repeat viewings Princess Mononoke, they come in something. And adults don’t realize that it’s something that can’t be regained.’

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Miyazaki’s latest film, «The boy and the heron,” opens in a place where no comfort can be found. Tokyo is bombed during World War II; a young boy, Mahito, runs towards the burning hospital but fails to save his mother. In another scene several years later, the stiff, polite Mahito has fled to a country estate where he meets his new stepmother, his mother’s sister, who is pregnant. His composure is deceptive. Although everyone around him seems to have moved on—his jingoistic father has not only remarried, but runs an aircraft factory for the Japanese military—Mahito is still seething with grief, reaching for his dead mother in his dreams. One day when he is coming home from school, he picks up a rock and hits himself on the head, making it look like he was being bullied. Drops of blood drip; at home, sick, crying huge Ghibli tears.

«The Boy and the Heron,» which recently won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, displays many of Miyazaki’s familiar designs. There is a child whose life is turned upside down, often by the death or illness of a parent, and a seemingly wise and supernatural creature—in this case, a great heron that materializes on Mahita’s estate and begins to speak. However, Mahito, unlike many of Miyazaki’s protagonists, seems unable to respond to, let alone reciprocate, the care of those around him. He has lost his mother and no amount of consolation will calm him down. He even stares at the old maids who try to reduce his fever. When the heron tells Mahita that his mother is still alive and then leads him to a mysterious tower in a remote corner of the property, we already sense that this story is going to be different from the one we’re used to.

Miyazaki’s fantasy worlds are usually places of instruction, places where young boys and girls are introduced to a culture of care. In these hidden and elaborate kingdoms, children are transformed from strangers and outsiders to workers and become part of the community. They are tasked with cooking or cleaning and are led by an older sister who watches over their work with dull love. Whether it’s the pregnant baker in «Kiki’s Delivery Service» or the salamander-swallowing spa attendant in «Spirited Away,» these sister characters are the first to be impressed by the protagonist’s work ethic and the first to fear for their health. being. The one lesson connecting almost every Miyazaki film was this: to work hard is to be a person worth caring for, a person who deserves comfort. (This is also why the characters who are drawn without sympathy are usually aristocrats, men in suits, and spoiled girls who can’t see the care of others who defend their world.) Studio Ghibli’s true fantasy has less to do with flying castles or mystical beasts than with the idea that if outsiders become insiders, comfort providers, they become natural beneficiaries.

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And no one needs comforting more than this boy who breaks a rock on his head. But in the surreal tower of «The Boy and the Heron» such comfort is denied. Once Mahito enters the tower, the film continues with a dreamlike logic, the illusions of which only heighten his sense of isolation. A stumpy man in a costume emerges from the heron. Mahito meets a woman named Kiriko, who saves him from a flock of vicious pelicans and shows him how to skin and carve a fish. With their entrails, they feed a flock of Warawara, scum-like orbs that float up into the sky, souls destined to be born in the real world. Mahito gets his work done, but there is no community to join. He won’t make any friends and nobody cares if he does a good job or a bad job, even if he does his job well enough.

Perhaps the tower’s most striking characteristic, however, is that it has too many Mahitas. Kiriko has the same scar on her head as him. The film is largely populated by birds and every bird seems to be waiting for him. Parrots, pelicans and herons say: «We expect you», «We have been waiting for you», «Your presence is requested.» The effect is claustrophobic. There is no scope for Mahita to introduce himself or remake himself; the world has already decided who he is. Watching «The Boy and the Heron» makes you realize that the alien characters in Miyazaki’s earlier films—screaming boar monsters, inhuman orbs, giant insects—actually reinforced our sense of comfort. They were part of Miyazaki’s central journey, where the stranger turns into the familiar, and the selfless care of a child helps bridge a great divide. This process is not possible when the fantasy world is constantly flashing and reminding you.

Scene by scene, «The Boy and the Heron» reveals the limits of the philosophy Miyazaki has pursued throughout his career. In the tower, Mahito learns that some forms of care can be like putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound. The dying pelican tells him that the tower is a prison – the pelicans tried and failed to escape and are now forced to eat Warawara to survive. Mahito cannot preach care to a starving pelican; the bird has no choice but to hunt. He meets a girl named Himi who can shoot and control fire and doesn’t seem to need care. They joined forces to rescue Mahita’s stepmother, who was also stuck in the tower. But when they find her, she is on the verge of giving birth and is very upset, shouting that she hates Mahita. Mahito, who previously rejected her care, now comforts her and eventually calls her «mother» – which of course means accepting the death of his birth mother. At the end of the film, Himi returns to her own world, which turns out to be the past: she is the mother of Mahito and, as we saw in the opening sequence, condemned to death in the bombing of Tokyo. Only by returning can he become Mahita’s parent and be the source of comfort he once had. In this film, providing care does not guarantee its return, or the cost of providing it is absurd: death.

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Comfort, in other words, is no longer a reliable guide to the world. «The Boy and the Heron» has its Japanese title «How do you live?» Genzaburō Yoshino’s 1937 novel, a kind of ethical manual that arises from the bond between a boy and his uncle. In the pivotal scene of the book, a boy does not stand up for his friends when they are beaten up by a pack of bullies. After hundreds of pages of ruminations on the ethical life, he just watches the event paralysed. This moment shatters his image of himself; he sinks into a deep depression and imagines that his friends are condemning him for his cowardice. Yoshino’s book is one of Mahito’s prized possessions, and we see him cry as he reads a copy written by his mother: “For grown-up Mahito.” But the novel’s vision of growing up isn’t about learning how to dispense care; it’s about realizing that we are not who we want to be.

Instead of comfort, Miyazaki gives us another ointment. At one point, Mahito reaches the top of a tower where its creator, a tired wizard, uses a pencil to tap on a precarious pile of white blocks that represent the universe. The world is ending, says the wizard, and he has traveled a long time to find blocks untainted by evil—blocks pure enough to rebuild the world. Will Mahito be his successor?

Mahito refuses. He points to his scar and explains that he is already tainted with malice, that he must reckon with his actions. For the first time in Miyazaki’s work, tomo nor ikiru is not used to collapse the binary—man and nature, man and woman, individual and society—but to address the self. Mahito has to get rid of the comforts of the new world. Instead of regained innocence, he chooses to live with himself, this difficult process that can never completely stop. ♦


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