I've a confession to make. I, Christopher Charles Morgan, love cartoons. There is nothing nearly as comforting as cartoons when you are feeling crappy. During a particularly rough week in grad school, I remember just sitting up all night and watching Looney Tunes. And nothing sets things right like Elmer Fudd singing Wagner. That's the thing; there is a certain quality about well-made cartoons that manage to capture everything great and pure about childhood. And there are few people out there that make better cartoons than Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki.
Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli has since put out some of the greatest cartoons ever. Miyazaki himself has been responsible for the majority of Studio Ghibli's success in the field. He focuses on creating modern fairy tales and translating popular western fairy tales and stories for a Japanese audience. While almost all of his films capture the essential sweetness and simplicity of childhood, there are three that capture romance and love at its most pure.
The first and perhaps one of the most familiar to English-speaking audiences is Ponyo. At its core, Ponyo is a Japanese interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Little Mermaid, complete with the trial of love between the hero and heroine (which could result in the daughter of the sea being turned to sea foam). Miyazaki's version has a much happier ending.
Ponyo is the story of Brunhilde, a fish-girl who is the daughter of a once-human wizard who lives under water. Discontented with life under the sea, Brunhilde escapes her father's castle and finds herself trapped in a bottle that washes up on a beach. The human boy Sosuke finds and rescues Brunhilde on the beach, renaming her Ponyo. The pair is instantly smitten with one another, so that even when her father reclaims her, Brunhilde refuses to be called anything but Ponyo. She escapes again , which inadvertently causes the seas to rise and to cause massive storms. Ponyo returns to Sosuke, but the two have to solve the problems that Ponyo's escape has caused.
What makes the story so sweet is Sosuke and Ponyo's innocence. The two are quite young, but you know that they care for each other in a way that few couples manage. There is a kind of devotion they have to each other that only a child could manage; they give each other the kind of trust that someone who has never known any kind of meaningful loss can manage.
Then there is the slightly older Spirited Away. This one is an original story about the young girl Chihiro who is moving to a new town, leaving all her old friends behind. While getting lost on their way to their new home, Chihiro's mother and father stumble across a strange old town in the woods that seems empty, but has restaurants filled with incredible amounts of delicious food. Both begin to feed themselves while Chihiro begs them to leave. Seeing that her parents won't listen, Chihiro sets out to explore the city and encounters the young boy and wizard, Haku. Haku doesn't hesitate to tell Chihiro to get out of the town.
Chihiro returns to her parents to find that they have been turned into pigs and soon founds out that the town is a haven for spirits and ghosts, and as a human she can't exist in the town after dark. Haku soon finds and assists her. He takes her to the city's bathhouse run by the witch Yubaba.
Chihiro must then work for the bathhouse while trying to hold on to the memory of her name and parents, both stolen by Yubaba. It is Chihiro's love that is able to free her friends from evil. She is able to find Haku's name, give Yubaba's child his independence, and help a wayward spirit named No-Face. In a way Chihiro's love is more mature than that of Ponyo and Sosuke, mainly because Spirited Away is about growing from a whiny child resistant to change into an adult who takes responsibility for what happens. Chihiro is able to make this transition because she draws strength from the love of her friends, and they are changed by her.
And finally there is my personal favorite Miyazaki film. Adapted from the incomparable Diana Wynne Jones's novel of the same name, Howl's Moving Castle is about the young woman Sophie and how she learns to live life and appreciate all that comes with loving a self-absorbed, yet well-meaning, wizard.
Sophie is a hatter in her late father's hat shop. She is content to just work while her prettier sister and mother have all the fun. That is, until she encounters the eccentric wizard Howl while on her way to visit her sister. Howl swiftly and accidentally involves Sophie in his own personal war with the evil Witch of The Waste. Angry with her involvement, and with another contender for Howl's Heart, the Witch curses Sophie to look the age that she acts, so Sophie is turned from a pretty 18-year-old brunette into a 90-year-old grandma.
Sophie journeys into the Waste and is found by Howl's moving castle. She then meets the castle's power source and Howl's personal Fire Demon, Calcifer. Calcifer agrees that if Sophie breaks the spell binding him to Howl's castle, he will in turn break Sophie's curse. As a cover, Sophie tells Howl that she is the new cleaning lady hired by Calcifer. Sophie learns how to be young from Howl. She learns that you can be pretty by finding your own voice, that you don't need the love and admiration of every man, just one. And from Sophie, Howl learns that you don't need magic, or a moving castle, or anything really to have courage and face down your fears.
Howl's Moving Castle is another example of how love is as much a transformative thing as it is an emotion, a theme addressed again and again in Miyazaki's work. He constantly reminds all of us that to love someone is to be changed by that person, and we in turn change him or her. Miyazaki shows that we are all capable of the love that a child gives freely, it just takes courage, responsibility, and occasionally a bacon hating fire demon.
So do you have a favorite cartoon romance, or am I the only one not willing to grow up?