Tender, exhilarating, and soulful. It’s a descriptive triumvirate that aptly sums up the artistry of one of the world’s greatest animators — and the towering global franchise that followed in his wake. Yet beyond these common characterizations, the precise source of his films’ enduring allure remains elusive.
What sets Miyazaki apart necessarily begins with the question of what seems distinct about his characters. Many of the most iconic scenes from the animator’s extended repertoire are ones that involve transformation. Some of these scenes are endearing or whimsical; others border on the grotesque. In “Ponyo,” a tiny aquatic humanoid by the name of Brunhilde, who later adopts the titular name of the film, uses magic to grow limbs in an attempt to become more human. In “Porco Rosso,” the titular protagonist — a former World War I fighter ace — is an anthropomorphic pig. One of the most disturbing scenes in “Spirited Away” is when ten-year-old Chihiro’s parents transform into animals after gorging on food in an abandoned amusement park.
What joins these disparate films is their intimate portrayals of how acts of transformation shape a person’s understanding of belonging and self-awareness. In “Ponyo,” Brunhilde’s acts of magic-induced metamorphosis are a currency of defiance, a way to communicate to her family a desire to escape her watery lair and inhabit the world of humans. Porco’s identity as a pig heightens his reservations about whether he can ever revert back to simpler pre-war times. Chihiro, terrified by the prospect of losing her parents, steps gingerly into the dreamlike world of Kami — spirits from Japanese Shinto folklore — in hopes of securing an antidote. In his richly surreal film “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Miyazaki’s protagonist Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the evil Witch of the Waste, and she communes with the mysterious sorcerer Howl in an attempt to regain her youth.
Miyazaki is not simply interested in the idea of change, but also what comes after it. Rather than the mere moment of transformation, the auteur is committed to chronicling his characters’ labored efforts to return to an original or prior state. For some characters, the desired return is to a physical body; others yearn for a previous worldview or state of existence. What unites these eclectic gestures is the retrospective awareness they activate: Only through the psychic and spiritual rupture of transformation are Miyazaki’s protagonists able to fully regard who they once were, and what they once had.
In one way or another, each of Miyazaki’s films features the dueling motifs of transformation and return. Yet we often step into these stories with the understanding that a total return to the past is, all too similar to in our real lives, impossible. It is the desire to turn back despite an awareness of this act’s impossibility that renders Studio Ghibli films interesting and frequently melancholic.
The affective and aesthetic impact of a Miyazaki film lingers for hours, days, even years after the screen cuts to black. Yet as we sit dumbstruck in our seats, watching the credits roll, a part of us understands that the wisdom his cinema confers is elusive, delivered in a wash of awe that starts to fade the moment we realize it has begun.
Miyazaki’s brilliance — not just as an artist, but also as a feeling human — lies in his ability to evoke the sensation of someone, transformed and adrift, reveling in the vast beauty of a new world while searching for a way back home. It is a feeling we all come to inhabit at some point in our lives; it is a complicated feeling, but a simple one, too.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.