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An Analysis of “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetic of Imagination”

By Joe Ma

The academic article, “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetic of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away,” technically does not require a previous understanding of the movie or of any Japanese terms as the author goes in detail about most of the concepts. However, there are instances where the author does not and having seen the movie and knowing basic Japanese is quite beneficial. This can be seen in the abstract where the author first acknowledges Spirited Away in its original language as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (lit. Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away). The author of this article is Alistair Swale from the University of Waikato in New Zealand; the publishing of this work was done by the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 2015. The main purpose of this article, and as quoted from the abstract, is that it “critically engages with the leading commentaries on nostalgia and memory in Miyazaki’s work” (Swale 413).

Throughout the article, Swale prefaces this idea of nostalgia as a question whether to be answered or not. Miyazaki’s work was first contrasted with Susan Napier’s understanding of nostalgia, which was the mournful side of nostalgia. If the idea lacked the emotions of sadness and mourning, it can’t be compared to nostalgia because of the word’s ambiguity. Swale ties this to the Japanese phrase of “natsukashii” in the article. However, like many Japanese phrases, it can’t be fully translated. It is often read as nostalgic, but it can be interpreted in both positive and negative ways. Miyazaki’s work was then analyzed under Thomas Lamarre’s definition of nostalgia. Lamarre looked at nostalgia in film through the use of technique. The flatness and weightlessness with a considerable amount of visual jitter is how nostalgia is portrayed in cel animation. Almost disregarding Lamarre, Swale points focus on R.G. Collingwood, and this idea of magic. Collingwood described magic as a mutual understanding between culture and emotion. Utilizing the many definitions of nostalgia, Swale concluded the article by showcasing the most nostalgic scene in the movie and how it was able to show aspects pertaining to each of the definitions of nostalgia.

There are many instances in this article where Swale uses logos. On page 413, Swale mentions how it is nearly impossible to recreate a historical past or a personal experience precisely and follows up with the fact that “any kind of authentic engagement is impossible and that all attempts to engage with the past are doomed to register as sentimental fantasy and pastoralism” (Swale 414). Although it is not possible, the article begins to describe Miyazaki as a culturist. This sentimental fantasy, or better known as nostalgia, is “a means to reclaim a lost past – an attempt to retrieve something essential to Japanese culture” (Swale 414). Swale neglects to mention that this has been very true for a few animated films of the past two decades. In the pre-2000s, there was Grave of the Fireflies and in 2016, In This Corner of the World. Both depict a “lost past” of Japanese culture since they revolve around the quintessential moment before World War II and the bombing of two cities.  To complement this, Swale, through Napier’s definition of nostalgia, comments, “With [My Neighbor Totoro]’s scrupulous attention to the architecture and landscape of prewar Japan, this film has one of the most explicit traits of replicating a past world now gone” (Swale 416). On the contrary, it seems that nostalgia does not always relate to a loss and instead, “Miyazaki’s preoccupation is not so much with ‘loss’ but with evoking a ‘world’, one that in fact transcends a particular time and space” (Swale 416). With this comes the idea of defamiliarisation, and Swale, through Napier, considers this contradictory to nostalgia, where it should be an engagement of the familiar. In all consideration, according to Napier, Spirited Away is not an homage to local culture but instead a general engagement of Japan’s past. Swale now analyzes Miyazaki’s work through the eyes of Thomas Lamarre. Lamarre is no simple person since he focuses on “the mechanics of cel animation as produced by the likes of Studio Ghibli, a bastion of dedication to the more traditionally rendered hand-drawn character design that is integrated into environments enhanced and embellished through 3D design” (Swale 419). In this, Lamarre sees how everything should be flat, weightless, and infer the passage of time in order to invoke nostalgia. Lamarre sees that Studio Ghibli is not embracing Japanese culture, and Swale takes note of it as his writing begins to be more biased against Lamarre. That’s for later though.

From Swale’s article, there was one moment where ethos struck me explicitly. During the Lamarre’s portion, Swale says, “Lamarre is not preoccupied with the authenticity or otherwise of the content” (Swale 420). This is quite interesting since there are some critics out there that will immediately claim that this anime is bad without seeing the context or the film for one second. It’s almost like favoritism. The usage of Lamarre, albeit criticizing Miyazaki, is quite important on the technique and content side of this article.

Swale showed pathos quite early on. Upon further reading, every moment that nostalgia is shown or spoken of, can be considered to be pathos. Although it seems that the source of pathos is told as a discussion of emotions, when reading, I felt a fair amount passion behind the engagement of different ideas. Swale claims, “Nostalgia in Spirited Away also works as a pure aesthetic category, generating pleasure in and of itself through momentary evocations of the mundane” (Swale 418). This can be complemented by Swale’s later comments of the movie’s later half. Swale mainly talks about the scene where Chihiro boards a train with No-Face or Kaonashi in the article. In that trip, Swale depicted the many parts that can be used as examples of nostalgia. A two carriage train meant rural, and white conductor gloves pay homage to the Japanese population. In the end, Swale says, “It is a scene that engages nostalgic content of a minute and intensely personal kind” (Swale 427). This is where Collingwood’s “magic” comes in. This sense of magic, as Swale mentions, is one that transcends culture.

Maybe there was a limited amount of kairos, because I didn’t see it being heavily used by Swale. When I did, it was usually as snappy remarks to excerpts prior. In Susan Napier’s portion, there was an excerpt where Napier states that in Japan, there is a lyrical sense of mourning present in anime and live-action films. Swale immediately highlights this lyrical sense as a mixed ordeal. “The term ‘natsukashii’, often translate as ‘nostalgic’, provides some clues to this” (Swale 415). A following excerpt has Napier stating that the term “natsukashii” is not translatable. Swale follows-up, still with the mixed concept, that nostalgia does not need to be about mourning, but instead “it can signify intense pleasure at the thought of a reconnection or a reawakening of a pleasant set of mental associations” (Swale 415-16).

There are mentions of bias, but it seems more like passive aggressiveness towards one another. In this instance, it would be Lamarre. Lamarre has pointed out many problems with cel animation. The fact that it is flat, without weight, and requires a fair amount of work to replicate the motion of time. On page 422, Swale sees that Lamarre is intrigued to why there is this persistent use of cel when 3D is available. The problem is that Miyazaki is a staunch cel user. Every frame is hand drawn. There is nothing bad about it, but from a business’s perspective, there are limitations like time, cost, and final product. That seems to be in line with what Lamarre is thinking. With this, Swale pokes at Lamarre’s train of thought and explains that “[Anime Machine, Lamarre] is not at all clear [on] how it ‘thinks’ nostalgia in specific instances” (Swale 427). In other words, nostalgia should not and could not be determined by artistic technique alone.

Some parts of the article were unclear or felt misconstrued and were open for further discussion. On page 414, Swale referenced Stuart Tannock on how nostalgia has changed its connotation over the past two decades from a negative quality to one that is akin to the positive appreciation by society and culture. Since I had no prior understanding of film theory circa 1990, it was not easy to understand. On page 415, as quoted from Swale, “Spirited Away, given its rather distinctive treatment of nostalgia and identity, provides an appropriate vehicle to demonstrate the analytical utility of this more emphatically aesthetic approach” (Swale 415). Having seen some of Miyazaki’s other works, I was really wondering what “distinctive treatment” this movie got. Spirited Away got the same strong heroine treatment as My Neighbor Totoro and even Princess Mononoke. The only thing I see different in Spirited Away is the hint of a darker message. Swale could have done some more explaining here. On page 422, Swale claims, “The fact is that both animators and filmmakers in Japan have remained less inclined to fetishise photorealism or action ‘realism’, and are relatively comfortable with framing and movement that at times even overtly clash with cinematic realism more conventionally understood” (Swale 422). Yes, I did use the word “claim” here. There are problems with this claim since there have been countless moments of realism that occur in anime. Since this paper was published in 2015, animated works before 2014 should be fair when arguing about this. In 2014, P.A. Works came out with Shirobako. This anime was an homage to the animation industry. It was literally an anime about the insides of the industry. If that is not “real” enough, there was Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second from 2007. Many people have taken scenes from that movie and compared it to their real-life counterparts, and it was almost line for line. That’s just to counter the photorealism part. For the action “realism,” I will be focusing on body actions. The best example has to be from any of Naoko Yamada’s work. K-On, for example, features a scene where all the main characters run together in motion. It is not normal motion, but it is the motion of a person’s center of mass moving about. When looked from a different perspective, it is a human walking but animated with such realism. On page 424, Swale says, “Miyazaki’s impact on both the Japanese and non-Japanese audiences, where he succeeds in facilitating precisely such an imaginative engagement regardless of the cultural specifics” (Swale 424). Swale forgot the fact that Studio Ghibli did land a deal with Disney and with that came dubbing sequences for the films. This points to the reason to why other anime films do not do as well, and Swale did not mention this.

This article posed one question for me. Why this movie? I’m not saying that Spirited Away is a bad movie. It is that there are so many other films that might be better at evoking nostalgia. There is Grave of the Fireflies for pre-WWII, 5 Centimeters per Second for distant relationships, and The Anthem of the Heart which pays homage to a lot of childhood stories. Since Swale needed movies before 2015, I do understand. Most of the more controversial yet nostalgic films came out in 2016. Other than that, even watching Spirited Away over the weekend, I see that sometimes nostalgia comes in discrete, tiny forms. It seems normal from one’s views, but with further analysis like Swale, it is an homage or a scene of nostalgia.

Work Cited

Swale, Alistair. “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 39, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 413-429. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10357823.2015.1056086. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.