Wick-Quoting #8: Imagination Within Imagination

I wanna get private lessons

Introduction

Pretty much every one of Miyazaki’s films contains imagination one way or another.  All of his films are a product of his own imagination after all; however, what about the supposed imagination of the characters within Miyazaki’s films?  Do the characters really imagine these dream-like worlds or fantasies, or are they actually part of the real world within the film?  For example, in Spirit Away, the young girl, Chihiro, is trapped in another world, distant from her own.  At first, she even mentions the possibility that it is all a dream – she even tries hitting herself on the head a couple of times with no avail.  And the film tricks you at the end, when the parents notice the car covered in twigs and leaves, as if it was sitting there for days.  Why does Miyazaki do this – making it a possibility that his characters may be imagining certain important elements and characters – in his films, which realms created by his own imagination?  Miyazaki is known for never being direct with his audiences.  An imaginative world with characters getting lost within their own little imaginative worlds shows Miyazaki’s circuitousness.  So what exactly results from this?

In films, the overall goal for directors is to immerse their audiences into the film, and connect them with the story and characters.  To do so, many different strategies are used, including relatable characters and the following of the growth of the protagonist.  Nowadays, directors rely on 3-D, the cheap and easy method, to further immerse viewers with their films.  Miyazaki’s strategy is to have his characters create an imaginative world of their own, inviting viewers to enter the world of the characters, rather than the world of Miyazaki.  It is, after all, much easier for viewers to relate with the character and her world than with the director and his world.  For starters, characters are seen on screen, while directors are hidden as puppeteers.  So, for Miyazaki to have his viewers engross in his character’s imagination rather than his own makes watching his films a much more enjoyable experience.  In Spirited Away, watching Chihiro interact with characters from her imagination is much more believable and interesting than watching Chihiro interact within another’s world, such as Miyazaki.  In this way, Miyazaki should be viewed as the creator of Chihiro, not Chihiro’s imaginative world.

Spirited Away – Young Fears

Chihiro, the young protagonist, can be easily related with young audiences, and “serves as a potential role model for today’s generation of apathetic Japanese youth” (Napier 288).  The horror of her parents being turned into pigs is something which young audiences can relate to – the fear of transformation and shape shifting.  With this act of transformation, the film is able to mix humor and horror.  Young adults constantly experience transformation in their lives – whether it has to do with ghastly puberty, or just natural steady growth of height.  Young audiences can relate with Chihiro and her world, especially because it is a world created and experienced by a young adult as shown on screen.  It would have been much different, and not as smooth in narration, if Chihiro was an older adult experiencing the trauma of watching her parents turn into pigs.  In that case, the film would eradicate all humor and settle with just horror.  That’s one of the benefits of young adults: the world which Chihiro experiences is acceptable mainly due to the fact of her age; so age has a determining factor of viewers accepting creativity and their willingness to follow it.  We as audiences succumb much more to Chihiro as a character and her imagination because she is at the acceptable age to have these sorts of wild fascinations.  An older character experiencing such imagination would only constitute as a crazy individual, belonging in a mental institution.  Chihiro’s young, imaginative world allows for comfortable, enjoyable viewing.

Now it is not certain that it is Chihiro who creates this other world or that this other world existed and Chihiro just happens to stumble into it.  But this really doesn’t change the fact of who the person in charge of the world is.  Miyazaki created Chihiro, and Chihiro could have possibly created this other world with Haku in it.  Chihiro is still the one who’s in question of imagining this world.  She is also the one experiencing it.

Spirited Away borrows from earlier works, including Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, both stories containing little girls driven by their imagination.  Alice, who experiences a wild adventure in her “dream,” and Dorothy, who enters another world after being knocked out from a tornado, have similar elements with Chihiro.  All three of them enter their world of imagination through a certain portal: a rabbit hole for Alice, a tornado for Dorothy, and a tunnel for Chihiro.

Tunnels are an important medium in Spirit Away.  Chihiro went through a tunnel, which sparked the beginning of the imaginative world.  The tunnel is key to handing over the creative power from Miyazaki, to Chihiro.  This act is necessary in order for viewers to have the mentality that it is now Chihiro’s imagination that they are experiencing.  Even though the tunnel is Chihiro’s portal into her imaginative world, it is not as apparent as Alice’s or Dorothy’s, in that Chihiro is not shown falling asleep.  This only emphasizes Miyazaki’s pleasure of confusing his audiences by not being completely clear in his storytelling.  All that is shown is Chihiro walking through the a red tunnel while clinging desperately onto her mother.  It is clear, however, that the tunnel is the link between the real and fantastic, by the different environments at the opposite ends.

Into the rabbit hole you go...

Within their worlds of imagination, they experience fears which are shared by young adults alike.  And upon conquering them, they all “wake up” to find that it could all have been just a part of their imagination, a dream.  This repetition of a young character exploring her own imagination is apparently a popular storyline in mainstream media.  Winsor McCay, a very successful animator during the early 1900s, made this plotline popular through his comic strip, Little Nemo.  In this comic strip, Nemo went to sleep in order to get to Slumberland, a world built in his dreams.  There, he battled monsters and saved princesses; but in the end of it all, he’d wake up and be scolded or comforted by one of the grownups of the household.  As history proves, having a story told through the imagination of the main character, is a successful and appeal tactic in story telling.  It is no wonder that this way of dreamlike storytelling is used again and again.

As mentioned before, immersing in a character’s imagination rather than Miyazaki’s, makes for a more enjoyable experience.  In Chihiro’s world, she comes across problems and fears that a typical young adult would have.  One of them is the illusion of disappearing from the minds of peers and family members.  This is a common problem young adults face, especially in high school, where being popular and noticeable are one of the main worries to have.  In order to prevent the fear of disappearing or being forgotten, young adults go great lengths, including dressing nicely, having intricate hair styles, and emphasizing on a certain skill.  Chihiro experiences the fear of disappearing in her imaginative world and initially refuses to eat the pill that Haku offers her.  Her fear of disappearing is evidently seen in her expression as he realizes her body becomes see-through.  With the image of horror on her face, viewers can share her fear of disappearing.  Sharing fears between characters and viewers means that a successful viewing experience is being had.

Chihiro realizes she has special powers

Another fear which is universally shared is the fear of heights.  This is a typical fear amongst humans, especially those of a young age.  Chihiro’s fear of heights is apparent in the scene when she attempts to crawl down the side stairs to Kamajii’s work area.  Chihiro’s imaginative world containing such familiar fears makes the film believable and amusing to watch, because we can relate to her fears as our own.  If we are to watch Chihiro as part of an imaginative world of Miyazaki, then we as viewers would have to cut all ties with Chihiro and her experiences, because we would have to view her and her fears as experiences of Miyazaki.  Therefore, Miyazaki acts as a barrier between his viewers and his characters and the adventures that they experience.  So Miyazaki directing his films through his character’s imagination removes himself as a wall, and allows viewers to be closer with his characters.   A good film can be partially determined by the linkage between viewers and characters: the stronger the link, the better the film.

Totoro – Childhood Memories

Totoro has the similar imagination-from-little-girls-is-socially-acceptable-and-interesting experience.    Throughout the whole film, it is unsure if Totoro is a figment of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, or if Totoro is an actual real being who appears only before them.  Nonetheless, Totoro is coined as part of the girl’s imaginative world, as seen in the scene where the girls first meet the grandmother figure and she explains to them how she was able to see the soot spreaders when she was little.  This explanation tips off the fact that the film from that point on will be seen as part of the girls’ imagination.  Being able to see things when you’re little obviously pertains to a child’s tendency to make believe and imagine.  Imagination as a child is something everyone has done in their life, so the way Mei and Satsuki act is familiar to everyone – from their hallucination of strange creatures down to their childlike fits.  These make the film a lot more interesting, especially considering Miyazaki’s concern that the film wouldn’t be that appealing due to its lack of plot.

How long can you balance for?

The film is filled with imagination from the girls, such as the soot spreaders in the new house to the infamous cat bus.  If you look at the film as a work of Miyazaki’s imagination, you see a plain, Japanese countryside with two young girls trying to satisfy their need of motherly affection through their imagination.  When you view the film as an imaginative world of the girls, the film becomes a lot more interesting.  No one but them can see Totoro.  Totoro helps the girls cope with everyday life.  Using their imagination, Mei and Satsuki allow audiences to see the world through their eyes.  Mei and Satsuki’s imaginative encounter with Totoro shows the excitement that rain can have in the umbrella scene.  Through their imagination, the girls also show an alternative explanation of how wind is made.  Having wind made by Totoro flying about is a much more captivating explanation than saying that wind is made when there exists a difference in pressure.  Through the eyes of fascinated children, audiences see how wind is created, seeds grow, and Totoro travels.  The girls’ imagination not only makes the story more attractive, but also life in general.  Most people would be much more excited in life if they could meet Totoro themselves.

The girls’ imaginative world not only makes the film more enjoyable to watch, but also makes their lives more enjoyable to live in.  With the absence of their mother, a busy father, and a recent move of place out in the country, the girls are in a bit of a tough spot in their lives.  Therefore, it is only natural for them to resort to their imagination to make their lives more exciting (they’re children afterall).  To see children enter their own world of imagination increases the satisfaction of the film twofold.  First of all, watching little kids playing around in their own imaginative world is naturally enjoyable to watch.  People feel good watching others having fun; it’s a natural reaction.  Secondly, watching children play in their own imaginative world allows viewers to reminiscence about their own childhood, which is usually a place marker of pleasurable times and memories.  Also, recollecting old childhood memories allows viewers to link their childhood with Mei and Satsuki’s, further increasing the bond between character and viewer.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – Inclusion of Comedy

Pleasurable memories are usually associated with specific people in a person’s life.  In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki shares a lot of her memories with her black cat, Jiji.  For some reason, whether it’s Kiki’s imagination or just plain magic, Kiki is able to understand Jiji during the beginning part of the film.  As Kiki builds relations with others in town, such as with Osono, Tombo, and Ursula, she begins to lose her understanding of Jiji.  It seems as though as she becomes more mature, she loses her childlike imagination of talking to animals.  This is a bit regrettable due to the fact that Jiji, like Calicifer in Howl’s Moving Castle, is the comic relief character of the film.  He has the lines which make the film a lot less heavy to watch, such as his comment of Kiki posing nude for Ursula and his whole scene with the female cat, Lily.  Not only do viewers benefit from Jiji’s humor of entertainment, but Kiki does as well.  Because it is her imagination which allows her to hear Jiji talk, perhaps she hears him as a sarcastic, comedic character, because that is what she needs most in her life at the moment.

Kiki’s imagination allows the audience to borrow her imagination and enjoy the sequence of Jiji acting like the toy with the old dog.  If it was not for Kiki’s imagination of being able to understand Jiji, then this priceless sequence would probably not contain the same elements of humor.  Jiji the cat would fail to deliver in this situation.  Jiji the comic relief character on the other hand is perfect, with his expression of terror as the dog sniffs him out and cuddles next to him.  Also, thanks to Kiki’s imagination, we as viewers are able to accept the fact of a sweating cat, which adds all the more humor to the sequence.

Cat's can sweat? In animation they CAN!!

Just because young audiences can connect with Miyazaki’s characters easier than older audiences doesn’t mean that only young people can enjoy his characters and their world of imagination.  True, a lot of Miyazaki’s films are focused for a younger audience, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is very popular among the young female viewers.  However, it’s not to say that older viewers can’t enjoy his works.  Older people were once young people as well, sharing the perks and uncertainties of what imagination could bring.  Also, Miyazaki is ultimately the one pulling the strings of the characters and their imaginative worlds, so if older audiences don’t directly connect with the characters and story, then they should still indirectly be able to tie with the film as a whole.

In Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, the characters express their own imagination to various extents.  By developing a world of their own, they are able to take some part of Miyazaki’s imaginative world and make it theirs.  It’s almost like the characters are stealing some of the spotlight.  In doing so, Miyazaki is removed as a barrier, further increasing the bond between the characters and the audience.  Being involved with the characters’ imagination rather than Miyazaki’s heightens the experience of believability and the impact that the characters have on the viewers.  In Chihiro’s case, the relation of fear, in Satsuki and Mei’s case, the recollection of childhood times, and in Kiki’s case, the inclusion of humor to prevent a lonely adventure.  It is amazing what Miyazaki as a director and storyteller can achieve.  By allowing his characters the unsure vision of an imaginative world, he is able to put emphasis on the characters of the film rather than on his storytelling.  It’s almost as if the characters are the ones controlling the plot of the story; afterall, the films are based on their imagination!

Work Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” 12 May 2010.

<http://www.ideonhosts.com/Miyazaki/Library/Spirited_Away/Napier-MatterOutOfPlace-Miyazaki-SpiritedAway.pdf>

Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. “Little Nemo.” 12 May 2010.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Nemo&gt;

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