Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Heart Miyazaki, And You Should Too

My nephew Henry is by no means a genius or anything, but he does have pretty cool taste. He likes the White Stripes and Fleet Foxes, sci-fi, and playing outside. He is obsessed with Mountain Dew (don't tell him about the woman who survived 5 days on a raft with only 2 cans of Mountain Dew). And ever since he was little, he has loved, loved, loved director, animator, and all-around awesome guy Hayao Miyazaki.

When Henry was 2 and 3, we were all forced to watch Miyazaki's meditation on Alice in Wonderland, entitled My Neighbor Totoro, over and over and over again. When H. was 3 and 4, we probably watched
Kiki's Delivery Service (featuring traditional anime-style voicework by Kirsten Dunst -- which means she YELLED ALL OF HER LINES IN A MONOTONE) 500 times if we watched it once. Today, we all got out of the heat to watch Miyazaki's newest movie to hit American shores, Ponyo. (Click here to see the trailer.)

What does all this have to do with the environment? Well, I'm glad you asked, because I love to preach the Gospel of Miyazaki to anyone who is unfamiliar. Throughout his career, Miyazaki's films have expressed a vision of nature as deep, dark, mysterious, and filled with magic. Humans, in Miyazaki's view, are often throwing nature out of balance through war, pollution, and greed, and it is his deeply ethical heroines and heroes who fight to bring that balance back.

Sounds like it might be preachy, but all of this is embedded within fast-paced, fantastical stories that are, most-of-all, insanely beautiful to look at. Ponyo is no exception, telling the story of a half-goldfish, half-girl who wants to be human, and who chafes at the restrictions of her father, who is busy trying to bring balance back to a sea polluted by human waste. Little Ponyo gets into trouble (like many real-life sea creatures) when she gets stuck inside a jar that pollutes the ocean and is freed by a human boy.

Sound familiar? Ponyo definitely parallells Andersen's
The Little Mermaid, but unlike Disney's version, this little mergirl is no shrinking waterlily. Loud, a little obnoxious, and filled with her own magic, Ponyo fights for her desires. The environmental message is definitely there, but kept mostly on the d-l, as it's voiced by Ponyo's nutter of a dad, driven a little bit crazy by the way humans abuse the sea.

It is the beautiful images of the sea and all of its lifeforms that will probably make the biggest impact on the worldviews little environmentalists, providing a counterpoint to the mostly pointless and ugly cartoons that fill most kids' days (including my nephew's). I can only hope that parents will get tired of the 3-D assault we've been getting at the box office this summer, and turn to this truly lovely vision of the world. Maybe more American kids will get hooked on Miyazaki -- because if any films deserve to be watched 1000s of times, they're his.

Seeing Ponyo just compounded the thoughts I've been having about our connection to the ocean. Just as I believe getting kids out into nature will help turn them on to environmentalism, so I believe that stories as deep and beautiful as Miyazaki's can help to unlock kids' ethical natures, their intellects, and their power. Wouldn't it be wonderful if schools took this into account - using such stories as part of a curriculum that helps children explore the ethics of their actions and impact on the world, and then using natural field experiences to help children find out whether they thrill to the oceans, the mountains, or some other eco-system entirely? What a world it would be ... right now, however, it's up to mamas, papas, aunties, uncles and others to begin this education. Too bad we have to wait until summer to teach these lessons, and probably will until standardized tests have a multiple-choice questions about saving the planet.

Just like Ponyo, we all started out in the ocean ...

Want more Miyazaki? Little eco-nauts will enjoy My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Older kids (and adults) will want to see Spirited Away (about a little girl who must save her parents in a strange spirit world), Howl's Moving Castle (the love and bravery of a young woman helps to end a war that is destroying her people, plus there is a walking castle with chicken feet, plus the Wizard Howl is a dashing cad with the voice of Christian Bale, plus there's a scarecrow companion that is way better than the one in Wizard of Oz, plus, like many of Miyazaki's movies, Howl includes beautiful vistas of cities by the sea -- can you tell this movie is awesome?) and finally, the classic Princess Mononoke, which is probably Miyazaki's scariest and most adult, but has some of his most amazing animation.

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