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November 29, 2012

I'll make a Miyazaki fan out of you

During my first weeks here, before I found about dorms like Stony Island, Broadview, and McLean, I thought that International House was the geographical equivalent of Siberia at UChicago. That was during my first week here, when I was fresh off a four-month-long summer of lounging around my house. My only exercise had been crossing the street to buy more Tostitos and Diet Coke from the 7-Eleven. So when Friday night came around, I was exhausted after a week of walking to class from my dorm. I realized Ida Noyes was only a five minute walk away, and since I loved the Hayao Miyazaki films I had already seen—Ponyo, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle—I began seeing Doc Films’ series of Ghibli Studio movies (Ghibli is the studio that distributes Miyazaki’s films) every Friday. I began to compare them to the Disney movies I’d grown up with.

As a disclaimer, I do not include Pixar movies in my discussion of Disney movies. The creative process that goes into crafting a Pixar feature has little to do with Disney itself. Disney bought Pixar and rebranded its movies to make it seem like they succeeded after the ‘90s. For this reason, I’ll focus on Disney movies from that time, which is known as Disney’s Renaissance Era due to the films’ massive collective success.

On to my next disclaimer: some of you may think that the characteristics I attach to the Miyazaki films could be attributed to children’s movies from other non-Disney studios like DreamWorks, Blue Sky, or Pixar itself. Well, that’s true. But I chose to compare Disney’s golden age with Miyazaki because both represent children’s movies that became classics for entire generations of moviegoers from all over the world. Films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast may have come out before I was born, but I spent whole months of my childhood watching each one repeatedly. To this day, I burst into song when I hear Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Children in Japan grew up watching Disney movies too, but for them the films don’t have the same significance as Miyazaki’s movies. Without further ado, let’s explore the similarities and differences between these two iconic studios.

We’ll begin with sources of inspiration. The generic Disney formula goes as follows: Find a classic tale already well known to the collective human consciousness, so that there is sure to be some excitement or curiosity in seeing its characters brought to life. True, Disney always tweaks the tale to fit other parts of the Disney formula (The typical U.S. history student exclaims, “Pocahontas was 11? Disney lied to me?”), but the fact still stands that few Disney movies, and practically none of the Disney golden age movies, are original stories

Miyazaki, on the other hand, tends to write completely original stories and create new characters. As is the case with Shrek, the Miyazaki films that are based on books can’t be compared to Disney movies since the characters, although not completely original, are definitely more obscure than, say, the Little Mermaid, Hercules, and Aladdin. One of the best things about going to Doc Films on Fridays was sitting down and having no clue (except, perhaps, the film’s title) who the protagonists of the movie would be.

Many Miyazaki films also contain an environmentalist message. Disney movies never touched this subject, nor did any of them try to promote other socially related themes either, except for tolerance and diplomacy, which were championed in Pocahontas. The themes tended to be much more personal, and the message was always something about following your dreams and being yourself. The protagonists of the Miyazaki films tend to do this as well, but the message is never as clear-cut as in Disney films.

There’s also something to be said about the nature of Miyazaki’s villains. While the Disney baddies are all-around horrible beings with no redeeming qualities, Miyazaki sometimes offers less black and white situations. Princess Mononoke is a prime example of this, as the main antagonist has genuinely good intentions for her actions, though they are ruthless. Then there is Porco Rosso, in which the villains function as tools for comic relief and have redeeming qualities. Some Miyazaki films don’t even have an antagonist. My Neighbor Totoro, for example, is about two young girls who befriend a mystical being that lives in the forest near their house and whisks them off on adventures. There’s a conflict, but it doesn’t arise from the sinister plans of another character. Kiki’s Delivery Service is also similar to Totoro in that sense, since the climax involves Kiki, the main character and a “good” witch, overcoming a huge personal obstacle. So while Disney movies inevitably feature a battle between the protagonist and a villain who clearly deserves to perish, this won’t always be the case in Miyazaki’s films.

There is one element the Miyazaki films lack that works very well for Disney—songs. I mentioned “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” earlier, but I’d be just as likely to lead a group rendition of “Under the Sea” or “A Whole New World.” Maybe it has to do with the superb quality of the songs, written by high-caliber artists like Elton John and Phil Collins, but some of the most enjoyable moments of Disney flicks are the musical ones. Some of the Miyazaki films have beautiful scores, but again, it’s not exactly as natural to break out into epic war battle music as a song with catchy lyrics.

Despite my criticisms of Disney’s films and more lenient stance towards Miyazaki’s, I don’t regret owning all of the former on VHS. Maybe if I had seen both sets as an adult, I wouldn’t have a soft spot for Disney. But there really is something to be said about being inspired to be yourself and follow your dreams, and it’s sometimes said in catchy tunes. They are quality films, and chances are you’ll fall under their spell.

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