Totoro, Ponyo and Kiki

I love animation and I have a deep respect for all animators. I know how painstaking the process can be to go from an idea in your head to rendering out a finished animated sequence on the computer. Some of the most influential works of art in my life are animated films. Animation beautifully combines music, sound effects, motion and storytelling to affect our hearts like few other mediums can. So when it comes to what my son watches, I have opinions.

With regards to my son, nothing has gone as I thought it would. He has consistently surprised me everyday. Knowing how my wife and I were as children, we assumed he would be a sensitive little boy who quietly played by himself. Instead, we have a rambunctious manager who is constantly organizing the world around him to suit his needs. One of his favorite toys is a football. He loves anything that involves rough housing and jumping. He is a little animal. When Kali was pregnant, I imagined watching Pixar movies with him while laying on the couch. Nope. He could care less for sitting still or Finding Nemo. 

We’re very aware of the screen time our son gets, especially lately. He has started to demand TV, so we’ve taken a sabbatical from it. Trying to find a way to manage how much screen time he gets is difficult, especially with him not able to communicate verbally yet. I make my living creating motion graphics for video, so shows and movies are important to me, they keep me informed. Importance to me aside, I want to be conscious of the potential for TV abuse in regards to time-suck and dependency for my son.

Video as a communication tool is unique and powerful. With video, storytelling is efficient. You don’t need to do much on your part as the viewer, you just sit back and let the narrative unfold. This is why children are so captivated, it is the perfect medium for them. I would like for my son to have a healthy relationship with video. I am not going to keep him from watching cartoons or movies because I believe there can be a balance.

When my son does watch something, I’d like the quality to be high. Not surprising to me, he won’t watch just anything. He is picky and not everything can keep his attention. I once tried putting on an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, but the show lost him after too many close ups of inanimate wooden figurines. He did make an engine sound whenever the show cut to a lone train moving through their beautifully detailed world. Ultimately, no dice. I tried showing him my beloved Muppet Show. Unfortunately, he is too small to appreciate the muppets for their humor (even though many of the jokes fall flat today). I learned to speak english by watching The Muppet Show when I was little, so I have a strong connection to it. I know I can’t expect my son to share that same connection, but never the less, the show has heart and I hope to come back to it later with him and see what he thinks.


Totoro, Ponyo, Kiki and my son in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

One of the only animations he can sit through is My Neighbor Totoro. Being a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, I am pleased and also a little surprised. We watch the movie in Japanese with English subtitles, so it’s not like Wes understands what the characters are saying. It is the overall feel which grabs his attention.  He is captivated by Totoro. The films of Hayao Miyazaki have a quietness to them, they don’t startle you with sound effects or intense music. Put on a Pixar movie, even Wall-E, and you’ll find many loud scenes with explosions or crashes. Producers feel this is what it takes to grab our attention. My Neighbor Totoro’s loudest moment is when Totoro calls out for the cat bus from the top of a camphor tree. It’s a bizarre scene which will only make sense if you watch the movie.

 Miyazaki will establish a scene by holding on a shot of a babbling brook, or a meticulously animated field of waving grass for a relaxed while. Enough time for you to understand nature plays a role in the movie you’re watching. He’ll have his animators add in details you would have to pause or slow down to appreciate: a bee whose flight is burdened by the weight of pollen on its legs or an indecisive butterfly who can’t figure out if it wants to land on a flower. These decisions have more in common with a Werner Herzog film than they do with any other animated feature being produced today.

When my son first started watching My Neighbor Totoro, he would react and smile at specific scenes. This is how I knew he liked it. He would sometimes even turn to me with a big smile on his face as though he were trying to say, “are you seeing this?” The film follows a young family and their move to the country from the a big city. In one scene, two little girls help their father with the laundry by stomping on it with bare feet as they wash clothes outside. They say in unison, “itchi, ni, itchi, ni!” My son imitates them by stamping his feet and repeating back to them, “itch, itch, itch” in his tiny voice.

I then introduced him to Ponyo. He loved it. Ponyo is a magic sea creature who dreams of being human. She is rescued from a precarious situation by a boy named Sosuke. My son particularly responds to a scene where Ponyo and Sosuke are presented two hot bowls of ramen noodles covered with a slice of ham. He always smiles when Ponyo, in her eagerness to eat the ham, burns herself. “Hot, Hot” I say to him. I have taken to saying this to him whenever I hand him a bite to eat that is a little warm. “Hot, Hot!” He smiles. The loudest part in the movie is when a supernatural tsunami descends on Sosuke’s seaside town with waves of giant wriggling water fish. The music along with the scenery (rendered in electric greens and vibrant blues) all create a peaceful movie that has no real villain.

The last of this Wes/Miyazaki film trinity is Kiki’s Delivery Service. The film is about a young girl named Kiki who leaves her home to make it on her own in a new town. Kiki is a witch and comes from a family of witches. The movie isn’t what you’d think a movie about witches would be, though. There are no evil incantations or dark magic anywhere in this film. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a coming of age story about a young girl learning how to trust her abilities and believe in herself. While the nuances of the movie are lost on my son, he does respond to the pacing and visuals. Kiki has a familiar named Jiji. He’s a cat and my son loves him. There is a scene where Jiji hops up on a ledge. I don’t know why, but he thinks this is funny. He also likes a scene at the beginning of the movie. Before Kiki takes off on her journey, her friends and family root for her as she’s about to take off on her broom with a synchronized, “Go-go, Kiki! Go-go, Kiki!” He claps along with a big grin. The loudest part in the film is when a crowd erupts in a joyous cheer after Kiki rescues a friend from a fall and saves the day.

There are themes that connect the films of Hayao Miyazaki: nature, a cynical view of modernity, strong female characters, respect for children, antagonists who aren’t villains, beautifully researched and rendered environments. The worlds Miyazaki creates in his films don’t scream to get your attention. They don’t condescend and they very much respect you. I strongly recommend you watch his movies in Japanese with English subtitles. Disney, the U.S. distributer, has a tendency of changing the dialogue to adjust the story for American audiences, and worse of all, they add orchestrated music to scenes where in the Japanese version, silence makes a better emotional impact. Don’t let subtitles be a deal breaker for you, though. If you must watch them in English, Disney does a decent job of casting well known celebrities to do the voices.

If my son is going to watch cartoons, I would like for Hayao Miyazaki movies to be among the ones he does see. He has responded positively to them so far. I never feel guilty watching any of these films with my son. I can start watching any of them at any point, and be satisfied. My son can too, but of course, he’s a toddler.

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