Sunday, August 5, 2012

BRAVE - Part I: Traces of Miyazaki

Pixar's latest film may feel like a letdown to the animation community because of its retreat into the abhorred fairy tale ghetto. But while the story and characters essentially follow the Pixar rules of storytelling, some of the magic aspects are more closely resembling Hayao Miyazaki's princess films than Disney's. The following essay is first and foremost concerned with these allusions and whether they add up to something more profound than superficial homage. I will look at BRAVE's Pixar lineage in a future post. 

When you read the following paragraphs, please keep in mind that I thoroughly enjoyed many aspects of BRAVE and certainly recommend it.

"At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki." (John Lasseter)

According to John Lasseter, Pixar itself was modelled on Studio Ghibli. While Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar directors from Tony Bancroft to Pete Docter never tire of proclaiming how much Miyazaki's films mean to them and how they are continuously influenced by the Japanese master's work, the key elements of Miyazaki's style haven't hardly been surfacing in their films yet.

One might point out that Up with it's elderly protagonist, the flying house and the rousing battle in the sky might have been inspired by the Japanese auteur's love for fantastical aircrafts (and Howl's Moving Castle in particular). Also the fact that both Wall-E and Up start in one place and are suddenly going off into a whole different direction may owe a great deal to Miyazaki's episodic screenwriting (or rather storyboarding) style that is organically evolving during production.

Altough Brave still is a typical Pixar film, it is the studio's first picture that bears traces of Miyazaki's archaic fantasy universe as seen in Nausicaä (1984), Mononoke Hime (1997) or Howl's Moving Castle (2004) with the most obvious parallels being the bow-wielding redhead princess and the depiction of the magical aspects of the story.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Japanese trailer for Brave focuses on the darker aspects suggesting a larger thematic scope than the story ultimately lives up to. In what is practically an amplified version of the exciting earlier teaser, Merida comes off as a distant cousin to female warriors Nausicaa and San (Mononoke Hime) whose adventures to save enchanted forests full of intriguing creatures required real acts of bravery.

Early Brave Teaser

Full Japanese Trailer

The eerie blue "will o' the wisps" suggest an animistic worldview and - although firmly rooted in northern folklore - are thus reminiscent of the white spirits who accompany the travellers through the forest in Mononoke Hime.

Strangely sounding forest spirits (Mononoke Hime)

Blue "will o' the wisps" leading the princess to her destiny.
While the Japanese trailer is giving away almost all the mystical locations, Pixar's two best kept secrets - the mother's transformation and the identity of the witch character - are still not revealed. As it turns out in the film, the woodcarving witch is a lot closer to Miyazaki's ambivalent elderly women and sorceresses than to a Disney witch or evil queen. Even the design seems to be inspired by various female Miyazaki characters not least by the bewitched Sophie of Howl's Moving Castle.

The wise old woman with Nausicaa (1984)

The wise old woman with Ashitaka (Mononoke Hime, 1997)

Yubaba and twin sister Zeniba in Spirited Away (2001)
Sophie transformed into an elderly woman by a witch (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004)

Brave's woodcarver witch

In spirit and scope Brave may be farther away from Mononoke Hime than Avatar (to pick a recently successful western equivalent which also lacks Miyazaki's more subtle storytelling approach), but I still think it's rewarding to explore its storyline and characters a little further in the context of Miyazaki's works.

A Princess Is Not Inherently Bad
Much has been written about Pixar's lack of female protagonists and the deploring fact that the long awaited first heroine is a princess. However, kingdoms, princesses and magic have always been part and parcel of Miyazaki's epic stories, whether they were set in medieval or post-apocalyptic Japan or an alternate version of Europe. Nevertheless, no audience in the world would confuse any of them with Disney's softened princesses derived from harsh folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm or literary fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen.

Miyazaki circumvents the most problematic aspect of princess protagonists by avoiding romance and marriage. Despite Nausicaa's friendship with Asbel, a foreign prince, romantic love is of no importance to the story. In Mononoke Hime it's not even an option for its two more mature royal protagonists.

The relationships at the heart of many a Studio Ghibli film are based on deep feelings more closely to a child's love. Such profound non-romantic affections are most obvious in children's films like Totoro (1988), Ponyo (2008) or Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Focusing on the relationship between an adolescent girl and her mother, Brave is following this path quite closely in the beginning.

Not So Brave
While one can perfectly picture Nausicaa staying childless and happy, Merida is not likely to "stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset" for the rest of her life. In fact, as the ending suggests (Merida is riding together with her mother after having fought for her right to choose a husband), her unwillingness to marry may have simply been the result of her not being ready for it (and the whole mother-daughter conflict a natural stage of adolescence).

Besides, her suitors are so ridiculous that any sane person should have rejected them (the danger of war among the clans is never even noticeable). I am not so sure whether Merida would have been reluctant to trade her freedom in for a boy as intelligent and handsome as prince Ashitaka from Mononoke Hime.

However brave it seems to an adolescent girl to change her fate so that she can choose when and whom she will marry, Brave might have been a more powerful film had Merida chosen to fight for the right to stay single even as a mature woman. And let us not forget that she only had the courage to "change her fate" with the consent and support of her mother-turned-bear.

What made Brave a less courageous film seems to be partly based on the remarkable decision to portray Merida as a woman and not a man in a dress.

The Female Warrior Trap
Ever since female heroes (as opposed to heroines which most often are tragic characters) have become popular in mainstream action films they have usually been measured by their achievements in men's domains. Traditionally strong women are depicted as successful warriors - examples range from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien series (1979-1997) to Mulan (1998).

And although Merida's fascination for bow and arrow and her setup in the first half hour suggest such a familiar character, Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews have fortunately resisted the female warrior trap and thus made Merida a more interesting character than many of the sword-wielding amazons of the last decades.

Miyazaki often relies on gender role reversals resulting in both female protagonists and antagonists and men who prefer not to fight. With opponents who are seldom all good or evil, he achieves a considerable balance of ambivalent male and female characters. As mentioned above, Brave is more interested in its female characters and men are generally depicted as hoggish or rowdy children who hardly ever realize what is going on around them.

The mother-daughter-relationship, however, is rendered more subtly than in most mainstream family films. Although we experience the story more or less from a teenager's point of view, Elinor is never demonized and although she is not the one coming of age, she is changing as well.

But before that she has to undergo physical transformation against her will. As a bear she may be the one to take orders from her haughty daughter but unlike role reversal films like Freaky Friday or Brother Bear she does not have to earn her rightful place as a human being by walking in her daughter's shoes. She merely serves as a reminder to Merida of the consequences of her selfish behaviour.

In Miyazaki's films magic and the spirit world always co-exist with human reality even in modern-day films like Spirited Away (2001) or Ponyo. Shape shifting characters are quite common even in Howl's Moving Castle which is based on an English fantasy novel. But unlike transformed characters in European fairy tales like "The Frog Prince", Miyazaki's transformed characters (e.g. Sophie) are constantly changing.

Elinor's transformation is of the same nature. She is shifting from a queen in a bear suit to a real bear which is beautifully rendered by subtly changing animation styles. These scenes really shine with the most lifelike and realistic animation to be found in any Pixar film. The transformation itself is gladly left to the imagination. In contrast, the transforming characters of Mononoke Hime and Howl's Moving Castle are animated in most original and inspiring ways.
Transformation of a dying boar god in Mononoke Hime.

The stylization of Japanese character animation - despite feeling closer to live-action than the constant motion of the western "illusion of life" style - allows for such phenomena however. When Nausicaa or Ashitaka get excited, for example, their hair is visually developing a life of its own (see below). Funnily enough, reviewers have outbidden each other writing about Merida's hair having a life of its own. While one can see the metaphorical nature of such an observation it is simply inexistent in the animation (I haven't seen anything other than slowed-down but realistic overlap).

Ashitaka (Mononoke Hime) and..
...Nausicaa getting angry.
A Sense Of Wonder
Miyazaki's influence only goes so far even in the films of his most ardent American admirers. Visually, Brave is breathtaking and at times even magical. On the whole however, it lacks the quietness and natural pace of any studio Ghibli film. Although Brave's character animation seems to be far more inspired by real life than, say, The Lorax or Ice Age: Continental Drift, it still feels busy and a little too fast-moving.

To me, Miyazaki's slower narrative pace is essential to the creation of such memorably haunting pictures like the train ride in Spirited Away (see below). There should be time to breathe in a film, no matter how epic or small scale it be. At times Brave delves into a darker territory but it never addresses its adult subject matter as effortlessly and fearlessly as Miyazaki does. There is always some comic relief around the corner to lighten up or - more aptly - break the mood.
Spirited Away

If any studio in the western world has enough prestige, know-how and box-office power to change the notion of what a family film is and advance American animation once again, it is Pixar. Maybe they should invite Hayao Miyazaki as a director-in-residence. To really rise above  a well-made spectacular, a film should have a unique point of view that transcends pure entertainment.

Miyazaki's stories like Simpsons episodes often evolve into a different direction than one expects at the outset. This is one trait that Pixar has increasingly adopted and which, among other things, I will discuss in a future post about Brave's Pixar lineage.

1 comment:

Jonah Sidhom said...

This is awesome, you summed up my thoughts on the movie perfectly. Your idea there at the end about Miyazaki directing for Pixar made my inner geek very happy, but I doubt we'll ever see that happen.