Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki detests being referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney. The great animator and storyteller admires the gorgeous animation of classic Disney films, but finds them lacking in emotional complexity, the element he prizes above all else.
Miyazaki’s films are celebrated for their mystical, supernatural elements, but they take shape around the human characters inhabiting them. Plot comes later, after he has figured out the desires driving his people. “Keep it simple,” he counsels in Lewis Bond’s short documentary The Essence of Humanity above. An interesting piece of advice, given that a hallmark of his 40-year career is his insistence on creating realistic three-dimensional characters, warts and all.
American animators are also taught to simplify. They should all be able to sum up the essence of their proposed features by filling in the blank of the phrase “I want _____,” presumably because such concision is a necessary element of a successful elevator pitch.
As Bond points out, Western animated features often end with a convenient deus ex machina, freeing the characters up for a crowd pleasing dance party as the credits roll.
Miyazaki doesn’t cotton to the idea of tidy, unearned endings, nor does he feel bound to grant his characters their wants, preferring instead to give them what they need. Spiritual growth is superior to wish fulfillment here.
Such growth rarely happens without time for reflection, and Miyazaki films are notable for the number of non-verbal scenes wherein characters perform small, everyday actions, a number of which can be sampled in Bond’s documentary. The beautifully-rendered weather and settings have provided clues as to the characters’ development, ever since the lovely scene of cloud shadows skimming across a field in his first feature, 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro.