Posted on: 17 June 2007
Features: What is Animation?
While still in production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first of Walt Disney’s animated features, was widely labeled “Disney’s Folly.” Considered a bad idea by just about everyone, including the animator’s own wife and brother, the proposed film raised doubts about the common spectator’s ability to endure a feature-length film of animation alone, a feat accomplished by only a handful of animators internationally and without much regard or financial success. But upon release, Disney’s Folly, his enterprise of three years, costing a then-astronomical $1.5 million, quashed all uncertainties. The film was a landmark, and until Gone with the Wind’s release the following year, it was briefly the highest grossing film ever made. The film garnered universal critical and commercial success, and earned Disney an honorary Academy Award in the form of one full-size and seven miniature statuettes. But this was already his seventh such award.
For much of the time between Snow White’s 1937 release and his 1966 death, Disney enjoyed unparalleled success with each subsequent feature his eponymous animation studio put into production. (Even when his immediate follow-ups, Pinocchio and Fantasia, failed to capture audiences upon first release, the studio’s highly controlled schedule of well-staggered rereleases would ensure future box office and home video successes for decades to come.) This total output, to say nothing of the merchandising empire it spawned, remains unsurpassed in duration or total gross, but it is mirrored remarkably by that of Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese animator whose first film, The Castle of Cagliostro, premiered over twelve years after Disney’s death.
Like many another major animator, Miyazaki has often been saddled with the superficial epithet of the Disney of his country, but this connection between the two filmmakers, or even the direct influence of one upon the other, remains mostly unexamined. There are many immediate discrepancies between both men, fostered largely by the geographical and temporal distance between them, to say nothing of the different cultures from (or for) which each was produced. But a thematic similarity persists between the work of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki (henceforth their utility as placeholders for Walt Disney Pictures and Studio Ghibli is implied), and this similarity is the more remarkable phenomenon that emerges in a comparison between them.
Snow White’s stature in our conception of the Disney oeuvre (to say nothing of its importance to animated cinema, in general) is manifest in its continued pride of place in the massive economy of the Disney universe. Merchandising has been a key part of the Disney business since the 1930s, helping (as it continues to do) to keep the business afloat when interest in the films themselves wanes. And the iconography of Snow White, Disney’s first “princess,” along with that of the Seven Dwarfs, continues to proliferate and propel an industry of t-shirt, coffee mug, and assorted tchotchke manufacture some seventy years after the young maiden first glided hyperrealistically across movie screens. She is the graceful template and paragon of Disney’s pure, artless heroines, of which there is a long, affluent line.
But artless though this heroine may seem, the means by which Disney’s animators realized her were far from simple. Using a combination of rotoscopic technology and William Garrity’s patented multiplane camera system (so painstakingly tested in Disney’s landmark short, The Old Mill), Disney’s two-dozen animators worked laboriously to create life-like figures and movement in every detail of the frame. This has been Disney’s trademark ever since: an uncannily perfect fluidity in the movement of bodies and materials, an almost unnatural articulacy of gesture, a hyperrealistic sense of mass, gravity, and texture. All this was thanks not only to Disney’s total faith in the viability of his dream of a fully animated feature film, but also to the dedication of his famously taxed animators, who worked long hours of overtime, voluntarily and often unpaid, attending in-studio night classes to hone their craft. Such long and laborious hours were ardently romanticized in the Walt Disney Company’s contemporary marketing of the film (as they still are in the film’s official histories) as so much “whistling while you work,” and of course this picture of cheerfully committed industrial labor also finds its ultimate personification in the film itself in the form of the merry, communistic dwarfs (“It ain’t no trick/ To get rich quick/ If you dig dig dig/ With a shovel or a pick”). But this industrial model also led to a rancorous strike among Disney’s animators in 1941, which in part led to Walt Disney’s notorious 1947 testimony to the House on Un-American Activities Committee on the pernicious influence of communists in labor organizations.
Whatever one might claim about the influence of Walt Disney’s work on that of Hayao Miyazaki, it is in this respect that the two figures, in biographical terms at least, appear most divergent. Having worked his way up through the ranks of the Japanese studio system, Miyazaki is less like Disney’s svengali than like one of his dutiful artisans. (Early in his career, Miyazaki was himself involved in organized labor, a sharp contrast to Disney’s rather more autocratic stance on the subject.) Consequently, in Miyazaki’s films, labor is often the site of great collaboration but is rarely romantic. It is more commonly industrial, dirty, and difficult, and no hero is ever exempt from soot and sweat, however undignified it becomes. And Miyazaki himself is intimately involved in the animation of his films, not merely as director, but as animator and as the final word in quality control. According to the website for Walt Disney Pictures, which now distributes Miyazaki’s films in the United States, it is estimated that the director himself retouched about 80,000 of Princess Mononoke’s 144,000 cels by hand, and according to Miyazaki himself, he personally inspected and approved all of them. But, like his great cinematic progenitor, Miyazaki embraces innovation as well as tradition, marrying digital technology with cel animation, and Mononoke marks the directors first significant use of CGI.
But if the culture, historical contexts, and political leanings of each director diverge in more or less predictable ways, their sympathies (and especially Disney’s influence upon Miyazaki) remain striking. In each Studio Ghibli film, the Disney influence is first pronounced in the company’s similarly blue and white title card, which contains not Cinderella’s castle, but rather the outline of a gigantic Totoro, with a second nested atop his head. Totoro are conjurers of fantasy, benevolent yet rarely seen inhabitants of the forest, and like Disney’s image of a place of magic, these creatures denote a propensity for discovery that describes each of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Such potential for discovery is, however, scored in some horror; when the aforementioned Totoro smiles (in My Neighbor Totoro), he reveals his enormous teeth in an awesome grin.
In Snow White, as in much of Disney’s early work, this analogue between discovery and horror is also evident, particularly with respect to nature in general and the forest in particular. But it is not as essential to Disney as it is to Miyazaki. In one of that film’s bravura sequences, Snow White is threatened first with murder, then banished violently into the primeval forest, forced to run a terrifying gauntlet of monstrous, anthropomorphic trees. But all is shortly assuaged by a choir of animals and an unexpected shaft of golden sunlight, and finding herself in the cozy embrace of the natural world, our heroine chides herself for being so foolishly fearful.
Conversely, the evil that torments Ashitaka, the reluctant hero of Princess Mononoke, comes in the form of a curse, one strewn explicitly down his right arm, imbibing him with the lethal hostility of a warrior. In battles it robs him of discretion, guiding his arrows toward decapitations and not the merely debilitating injuries for which he would otherwise aim. And this evil comes straight from the forest—or more exactly, it is a materialization of the natural world’s war with man.
Nature is never wholly evil in Snow White and, but for the heroine’s brief, hallucinatory descent into the forest, the natural world engages in no direct conflict with humanity. Once recovered from her dizzy spell, Snow White politely introduces herself to the range of forest creatures that have attended her resuscitation, and promptly marshals them to her aid, enlisting them in a series of tasks and even inspiring them to help clean the dwarfs’ cottage. Like Cinderella’s mice, Snow White’s animals are essentially children to be coaxed, petted, and taught to do helpful things. (The only seemingly malevolent residents of the natural world in this universe are the vultures that lie in wait for the moment in which the evil Queen meets her fate, but even these are only rather passively acting according to their nature.) The essential moral goodness of nature is consistent throughout much of Disney’s work, and it finds its apotheosis in the semi-messianic story of Bambi (and, thereafter, The Lion King), in which the good-hearted son of the King of the Forest is raised in the harmonious and close-knit animal community that is “Nature.” Bambi is somewhat different from Snow White in that it explicitly marks the difference and incompatibility of the animal kingdom and the world of “Man,” but as the former are so fully anthropomorphized in the Bambi universe, the distinction is predominantly metaphorical.
Though many of Miyazaki’s forest dwellers have human qualities, there is little question that living harmoniously amongst the creatures of the forest is not permitted for humans, with San, the titular princess, and (occasionally) Ashitaka being the only exceptions. Man and nature are in permanent struggle, and while Ashitaka maintains a friendly and equitable relationship with his red elk, Yakul, this loyal companion is nonetheless mute, clearly domesticated, but nonetheless very much an animal. The forest itself is a mystical but unwelcoming place, known and feared only superficially by humans as a land of the Gods—animals from different species and denoted by their tremendous size and age. All are governed by Shishigami, the Forest Spirit. He is not mortal, as the Gods, and is introduced fearfully: we see his hooves as he walks and nature immediately flourishes around them, and withers and dies as he moves past—he bestows life, and he takes life. In effect, he is a receiver of human fear. Shishigami is also a deer, his antlers in abundance in an ornate crown and his eyes large and expressive. His entrance in a shaft of golden light, his species, and his stature closely resemble that of Bambi’s King of the Forest, and so the equation of both characters with God is made explicit in both instances. Each embodies a mute and immutable natural force, wise, powerful, and, in spite of humanity’s stubborn fear of them, good beyond question.
This notion of good in the animal and in the human worlds – especially in its fervent opposition to evil – is essential to both filmmakers, though this morality is expressed more rigidly in Disney. Both Disney and Miyazaki regularly depict mythological scenarios in which good and evil intentions are easily discerned, and in which, broadly, the Good must vanquish the Evil. Their films are typically set in centuries past, in lands populated by princes, princesses, queens, kings, and warriors—in short, the world of the fairy tale, where moral distinctions are easily and broadly defined. The world of Snow White, one admittedly and rather simplistically derived from the Brothers Grimm, is one in which good and evil are sharply distinguished. Each of the main characters is perceivable at a glance to be either essentially good or essentially evil, and even those subsidiary characters, like Grumpy, who seem to blend the two, do so in such a way as to be perceptibly good or evil from the start. Virtue, vaguely defined, is the property that is most noticeably good about Snow White, and this is emblematized by her inherent, unconquerably beauty. When ordered to kill the innocent princess, the huntsman blanches on account of her fairness; when faced with an intruder, the dwarfs are nonetheless assuaged by her beauty; and although he first spies her in the rags of a scullery maid, the Prince (himself a thinly sketched, but clearly virtuous character) recognizes and falls in love with her intrinsic, indomitable, and visible goodness. Snow White is the “fairest in the land” – even in rags – and, unlike the Evil Queen, she makes nothing at all of this quality, accepting it as the natural mantle of good people.
Discussion of superficial beauty is all but absent in Miyazaki, though his protagonists are, generally and conventionally, beautiful. In this sense, his heroes and heroines are, like Disney’s, patently virtuous characters. But where Miyazaki differs from Disney is in his antagonists, who are more clearly judged by their values and ethics than they are for anything else. In Miyazaki, while there are many characters who seek to do evil, there are nonetheless virtually no truly evil characters like Disney’s subtly named Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Maleficent, One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, et al. Certainly no character in Miyazaki’s universe is felt to so righteously deserve her demise as the Evil Queen, who is thrown from a cliff by a well-timed (and moralistic) bolt of lightning, flattened by a boulder with which she had meant to “crush [the] little bones” of the dwarfs, and finally (we presume) torn apart by vultures.
In Mononoke, the Evil Queen’s counterpart — indeed, her doppelganger, down to her purple cloak and black balaclava — is Lady Eboshi, the proprietor of an iron mill, in which she employs women as workers, men as guards, and the elderly and diseased as weapons-makers. She is, for all intents and purposes, an optimal Miyazaki villain, but she is only so as her vanity – although not the fatal trait it is in a Disney villain – eclipses that of the remaining characters. But as most every other Miyazaki villain she manifests a moral relativism, being neither essentially good nor essentially evil. Eboshi’s aim is to decapitate the Forest Spirit (it is the only manner by which he may be killed) as he – as she is – is a propagator of fear, however unwittingly. Unlike the Evil Queen, Eboshi has a rich backstory (she is a former impoverished prostitute made good and determined to provide a life for those like her), and her evil actions, such as they are, arise quite visibly from her own misunderstandings, prejudices, and, most importantly, vanity. This final fault she shares with the Evil Queen, but while Snow White’s nemesis is plagued by a thoroughly shallow desire to be prettier than her princess, Eboshi’s vanity is a more complex drive for a preeminence over nature in support of still more complex social, political, and personal aims.
And so, as in many Miyazaki films, the drama lies not in the struggle of good characters to (brutally) vanquish the evil ones, but rather to hold out long enough and peaceably enough so that the “evil” characters may see their error and change. That Miyazaki not only admits but narrativizes this change again and again in his films marks a crucial distinction between his work and Disney’s: Disney’s works are allegories wherein we learn how to behave rightly or wrongly; Miyazaki’s are more like character studies wherein we learn how we might behave better or more compassionately. And this difference of intent befits the distinct aims of each: Miyazaki is more of an activist, particularly with respect to issues of ecology, whereas Disney is more of a traditionalist, concerned with morality for its own sake.
Whatever their differences on this point, however, Disney and Miyazaki both frame their battles of good and evil, rather conventionally, as the struggle of a romantically linked couple versus a villainess. This is the case not simply for the films at hand, but for much of the major canon of each director, and this shared narrative framework suggests much about the ways in which each filmmaker represents gender in his films. Femininity is an especially important subject for each, and the difference of attitudes expressed about women is readily apparent in their characterizations. Miyazaki’s heroines are often adolescent, but no less resourceful, loyal, and honest, while Disney’s half-dozen or so “Princesses” are indeed simply princesses, and rarely actively heroic. In Disney, female characters are essentially girls who must passively undergo hardship in order to learn a prescribed lesson, get their man (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), and thereby achieve womanhood. On the other hand, Miyazaki tends to present characters, even (or especially) very young female ones, as secure individuals, usually of impermeable moral character, who usually actively pursue selfless ends without having to learn lessons or await salvation from male characters (Spirited Away, Nausicäa, Mononoke). Snow White’s mantra of passivity is “One Day My Prince Will Come,” while San goes after Ashitaka with a knife.
From the male perspective, the hero in each film experiences something akin to love at first sight. But while the Prince overhears (and then harmonizes with) the lonesome Snow White as she croons wistfully into a wishing well (“I’m wishing/ For the one I love/ To find me/ Today/ I’m hoping/ And I’m dreaming of/ The nice things/ He’ll say”), Ashitaka is rendered speechless at the sight of San, her face doused in blood, sucking the poison out of her wolf-mother’s wound. In the course of her film, Snow White changes in many significant ways – from starry-eyed girl to maternal figure to object of desire to living corpse – but she remains passive throughout. Feeling shame for causing childish annoyance when cast into the forest, she becomes a “woman,” then immediately becomes a “mother” of sorts to the dwarfs, then in “death” becomes a passive figure again, waiting for the Prince’s arrival and his bestowing of a Kiss of Life. Throughout the film, housework and wishing for things are her primary activities, and what problems she is equipped to handle (the fuss of house chores, for example) are usually negotiated by singing.
The presentation of women and romantic relationships is always far more nuanced and progressive in Miyazaki; women (old and young) are actively heroic and the romantic bonds that they form, when not entirely incidental to the rest of the film, are part of their heroism and have the power to, effectively, improve the world they inhabit. Most each of them will undergo a maturation similar to Snow White’s, but it is mostly internalized. And more significantly, this maturation is often facilitated by vulnerability or insecurity and not the teleological narrative logic that compulsorily establishes Disney’s films.
There is Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a teenage witch compelled to leave her family in search of employment in a larger city in which she knows no one. Within weeks of her arrival, her self-confidence lapses and she finds her magical faculty, namely the ability to fly on a broom, unresponsive—in an attempt to ascend on a routine delivery she is thrashed against the perimeter of an alleyway before arriving back upon the ground, bruised. Kiki’s desired independence and self-sufficiency result in isolation and spite. Her improvement will not be engendered by a Prince Charming (there is one potential love interest, of whom she is largely resistant), nor will it by the philanthropy of the natural world—her pet cat, Jiji, even, selfishly favors the company of his like to his owner’s mounting inner conflict.
Kiki’s strife is loosely presaged by that of young Satsuki in My Neighbor Totoro. She and her younger sister, Mei, have moved to a rural location with their father in proximity to their mother, who is hospitalized nearby. Satsuki’s sole responsibility is to tend to Mei, who one day opts to visit her mother on foot (the hospital is several miles away from their house). Having lost her sister, Satsuki panics, and recruits her neighbors to help her search. In an instance of unexpected distress, the neighbors drag a pond in search for Mei’s little body—Satsuki realizes with alarming gravity that she may be responsible for her little sister’s horrible death.
Both Kiki and Satsuki are well-intentioned girls, and their conflicts, however temporarily intensified, are not uncommon to the comprehension of individuality and responsibility that characterizes prepubescence. Notably, both of these characterizations are largely asexual, both films that house them largely unromantic. Female sexuality is at most a peripheral subject in Miyazaki’s films, one only marginally less pronounced than romance. The notion of love, or beauty, is almost entirely incidental, background elements to a larger tapestry of ecological or internal struggle. This is one of the fundamental differences between Miyazaki and Disney, whose films are basically about both the realization and reward of an inherent honesty and physical beauty. Indeed, if there is an analog to Miyazaki’s resilient young heroines in Disney’s work, it is his young male characters, like Pinocchio, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dumbo, and Bambi, whose rites of passage, while still moralistic in nature and doubtlessly inevitable, nonetheless require their protagonists to seek out and claim the happy endings that are their birthrights.
If many of the discrepancies between the two filmmakers and their work arise out of inherent differences in their cultural and historical contexts, this is nonetheless not to valorize one over the other. Miyazaki may be indebted, as many (if not all) animators are, to Disney’s vision, commitment to innovation, and acute sense of visual narration, but his style is no less individual or even idiosyncratic for it. And while many of Disney’s political leanings, insofar as they can be prized from the text of his films, seem reactionary when contrasted with Miyazaki’s, this merely marks the distance between the rise of Hollywood and the economic “miracle” of post-war Japan. Such distance remains the most compelling aspect of our comparison, because of what both men share in spite of their discrete careers, eras, and cultures. The foundations for each’s work remain varied, but the same conclusion strews essentially each film in discussion, be it Snow White, atop her beau’s horse, gazing into a sunset, or a lone kodama greeting us in an otherwise empty hidden forest. These are images of hope and reassurance, punctuating a larger, shared harmony.