Saturday, January 22, 2011

Much More Than Mere Anarchy

Hayao Miyazaki is one expert observer of children's behavior. Here's a a little scene from "My neighbor Totoro":

A family of three - a father and his 2 daughters - have just moved from the city into an old house in the country. This is the country house of everyone's imagination (and apparently beloved in Japan): a beautiful dilapidated structure standing amidst unruly grass, wildflowers and big trees, dark woods at the edge of the backyard and brooks and ponds with tadpoles and fishes.

Upon arriving at the place, the little girls race to the porch and with uncontainable excitement at having arrived at such a magical place, run and swing around a wooden column. But the old column, probably softened by rains and age, is unable to take even a child's weight and shows signs of collapse. The girls are shocked but not for long. Using a crazy, defiant logic that only children understand, the older girl pushes even harder against the column. It buckles even more under the force. The girls look at one another, scared, thrilled and delighted by this discovery.

"It's crumbling!" shouts the older girl. The younger sister, always repeating words and phrases uttered by her sister, echoes those exact words. The girls then run away from the porch, laughing loudly. They are so giddy at this new-found freedom, they break into cartwheels and a merry dance.

The scene is funny and touching. But it's also a little frightening. It brings back images from those well-known lines from Yeats' "The Second Coming". The kids are spinning out of control, they are pushing old structures down and they seem not to care about things falling apart. There is pleasure in construction and sometimes there is as much joy to be found in destruction. (Why was guitar-smashing popular with certain musicians in the 1960s? This is why.)

Now think of an adult's reaction to a crumbling column on the porch: what if it were to fall on the children? What about repair costs? Know a good contractor? Timber is so expensive this year! That paint job sucks!

But that is probably how the scene would have been written if the film were to be made by anyone else: the entire sequence viewed through the eyes of an adult, told with a cute-funny-mock exasperated tone. Instead, Miyazaki completely does away with adult presence in this scene. He lets the children be completely themselves in their environment.

So with one shot containing almost no dialog, Miyazaki sets up the contrast between the world of adults and the world of children. Adults have fears, anxieties and visits to the sanitarium. The kids too have those things (as we learn later in the film), but their lives seem to possess a different quality.

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