Friday, September 6, 2013

Miyazaki's homage to an imperturbable St. Bernard


Now that Miyazaki's retirement plans seem to be more definite than ever (unlike the three times before), it is a good point in time to dig deeper into what made his storytelling so different from mainstream animated features and yet so universally appealing.

His 1989 children's book adaptation KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE is a film that grows on me everytime I see it. Recently I have started to compare it to another blockbuster that came out in 1989: THE LITTLE MERMAID (Clements/Musker). As soon as I have figured out how to organize my thoughts and analyses, I will write a series of articles about these two films. But more on that later.

For the moment, I would like to guide your attention to a significantly more superficial observation that always makes me smile: The imperturbable St. Bernard.

If you have ever seen Takahata's ARUPUSU NO SHOJO HAIJI (HEIDI - GIRL OF THE ALPS, 1974) you will remember the grandfather's sleepy St. Bernard called Josef (or "Josefu" in Japanese). In the beginning the five year old girl does not know what to make of him as you can see in the following clip from episode 2:
I have chosen this clip because Josef's musical leitmotif (more like a fully rendered theme) is heard for the first time. To me, the dog's character is as much defined by this lumbering tune as it is by his cumbersume and phlegmatic appearance.

In episode 4, after it is implied that Josef is naturally chasing birds, he unexpectedly saves Heidi's pet bird Pitchi:

St. Bernards used to be called "Saint Dogs" because they were traditionally used for Alpine rescues and often depicted with a barrel of brandy around their necks in contemporary paintings. It is therefore only natural for Josef to be in the life-saving business as well.

Most often however, we see him dozing somewhere (see below).
St. Bernard Josef does not seem to be attentive but never misses anything that goes on around him.
15 years later, Miyazaki pays homage to Josef in KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE: Kiki's sidekick Jiji is forced to substitute for a stuffed cat that Kiki lost on the way to a boy called Ketto. Now Ketto not only has a pet bird that goes by the name of Pitchi, there is a sleepy family dog as well. Of course, the black cat Jiji is instantly afraid to be alone with the large dog. But Ketto's dog does not seem to be interested in following its instincts to chase the cat.
Ketto's family dog in KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE shares most of Josef's characteristics.
Although this dog is drawn much more realistically and does not really look like a St. Bernard, it shares most of Josef's characteristics in personality and appearance. Joe Hisaishi even paraphrases the recurring musical theme albeit more sophisticated as you can hear in the following montage of the three dog scenes:
Josef's reincarnation finally (1:11) saves the heroine's pet in a similar way. Here, however, it is not played for suspense but for laconic humor that derives from the dog's imperturbable motion.

1 comment:

Natalie Belton said...

Let us not forget, Madame Suliman's little dog, Heen, who has the same demeanor of the other dogs you mentioned. He even has coloring similar to that of a Saint Bernard.