Feb 21 2013 10:30am

A Heart’s a Heavy Burden: The Simple Love of Hayao Miyazaki

Ponyo on The Cliff by the SeaI'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.

Spirited AwayThen 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.

Howl's Moving CastleAnd 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?


Christopher Morgan works for and You can find him on twitter as c_morgs65.

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Julia Broadbooks
1. juliabroadbooks
Oh, I love Miyazaki. Howl's Moving Castle is my favorite - funny, thrilling and underneath it all that sweet romance.

I've always loved Beauty and the Beast. I especially love the Disney telling of it because, despite all the current marketing, it's the story of a beautiful girl who is valued far more for things besides being pretty and the truth that love is the opposite of selfishness. Plus, the library. Swoon.
2. LindaMorris
Love this post. I came to Miyazaki's movies through my young son, who loves anything with fantasy and wild imagination. But I've stayed for the great characters. I'm torn between Sprited Away and Ponyo as my favorites. And hey, you could kind of call Fudd singing Wagner a romance too. He loves Brunhilde 'til he realizes it's just Bugs Bunny in a blonde braided wig, right?
"Oh, Bwunhilde, you're so wovely."
"I know it, I can't help it!" Makes me smile every time.
Megan Frampton
3. MFrampton
My son--now 13--is a huge Miyazaki fan, and before he was able to read we watched one of the movies which wasn't dubbed, but subtitled, so I had to sit there and read the whole thing aloud (I am a good mom). Since then, we've watched nearly all the films, and they are just so stunning in both visual and story terms. My favorite is Howl's Moving Castle, I think, because of the romance (of course!).
Christopher Morgan
4. cmorgan
@Juliabroadbooks I think we can all agree on Beauty and the Beast. Though My personal favorite was always the Robin Hood with the Fox.

@LindaMorris Spirited Away is my favorite. And I hadn't thought about that. Though Buggs and Elmer make me smile no matter the context.
Lege Artis
5. LegeArtis
Oh, my first HM was Princess Mononoke and it still holds special place in my heart. I watched it several times and I always find new meaning in story.... Howl's Moving Castle is my favorite also... I actualy read a novel too, but I liked HM vision better. It was incredible.How awesome would be if he and Ursula Le Guin came to an agreement about Earthsea story....?
Christopher Morgan
6. cmorgan
@LegeArtis, Sadly, it was Miyazaki's less talented son that managed a version of Le Guin. Not sure if you saw it or not, but apperantly the father was very upset with the son. Don't get me wrong, it still had the Miyazaki visuals, but the characters severly lacked the same life.

To this day I still haven't seen Mononoke, which is sad I know.
7. Kiwi3p0
I was introduced to Miyazaki through a reference in an anime forum. At the time I was really into Manga and Anime specifically this day I still love Inuyasha. My first movie of Miyazaki's that I watched was Spirited Away...and I was hooked...I have since watched them all with Howls Moving Castle being my absolute favorite followed by Princess Mononoke.....cmorgan you really really really really need to watch that one!!!
8. wsl0612
@LindaMorris, shouldn't that be "Oh, Bwunhilde, you're so wovewy"? :-)

Count me in for the Warner Bros cartoons love, but I have little knowledge of the other anime under discussion. I know of it but have never viewed it. My viewing of Japanese related cartoons is limited to "Battle of the Planets" Go G Force!
Christopher Morgan
9. cmorgan
@Kiwi, Hey, ol Inuyasha, and Vash The Stampede, got me through my share of Undergrad nights too, so I understand. I keep meaning to watch Mononoke, it's just a matter of getting off my butt and finding a copy.

@wsl, hey as long as you love Warner Brothers, we will make room for you. Just take comfort in the fact that anime got A LOT better after G Force. I never really understood why those kids were birds, but there you go. You don't really have to enjoy anime though. You get almost the same wonderful characterization and heart punches in Pixar movies. I mean if you weren't crying at the end of the first 10 mins of Up you have no soul. It should be worth mentioning though that John Lassitar, who was one of the founders of Pixar, is a HUGE fan of Miyazaki.
Lege Artis
10. LegeArtis
@chris- yes, I saw Earthsea and I'll be forever sorry there isn't any decent adaptiation of Le Guin's work....
11. eugenie1000
I love all three of these movies. Spirited Away holds a special place in my heart because it was the first one I watched and the character development is so wonderful. I bought the DVD copy so I could would have a copy to show my 3 and 1.5 year old nephews once they are older.
After seeing Howl's, I had to read the book and loved it too. Ponyo was not as much a favorite....Brunhilde kind of annoyed me; but I loved Soskue. I also enjoyed Castle in the Air. I haven't watched others, but try to keep a lookout.

I am a Pixar girl as an adult (for my 34th birthday, I made everyone go with me to watch Wall-e). I look forward to being "dragged" to the movies by my nephews to watch "kids" movies. Growing up though, I loved the Fox and the Hound and a movie called water babies.
Christopher Morgan
12. cmorgan
Eugenie, Pixar is a whole other article all together. As to Wall-E, I've never cared for a character that can only say one thing as much as that little trash compactor.

Fox and the Hound is right up there with Milo and Otis for me, I just can't watch it again.
Heloise Larou
13. Heloise
I have to admit, I tend get somewhat grumpy every time I see Miyazaki classified as a creator of cartoons - he is a filmmaker plain and simple, and as such is up with such greats as Ford and Hitchcock; and My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away are among the greatest movies made ever. And in the light of that, I cannot help but feel that describing him as someone who makes "comforting cartoons" that are on par with Elmer Fudd, just better, rather belittles the achievment of one of the greatest visual artists alive.
Christopher Morgan
14. cmorgan
@Heloise It is without a doubt that Miyazaki is a talented creator and magnificent director. However, he is also credited as the writer for all three films above. Not only did he, along with Takahata, create the visual legacy of Studio Ghibli, but Miyazaki also both wrote and directed Totoro, Ponyo, Howel, and Spirited Away. By saying that his cartoons are comforting are not intended to belittle the man.

However, just because he is one of the better animators alive right now doesn't overpower the fact that the characters or stories that he creates are any less moving or powerful. Just because something rekindles your child like wonder or registers on a deeply emotional or personal level, and you aren't appreciating the artistry does not mean that it is an inferior work. Something us romance fans and and genre readers in general can relate to. Just because the story appears simple at the surface, doesn't mean that it is any less moving. Being a fan of a genre literature, my tastes are often dismissed as child-like and immature. Just because a label says that you write stories about elves doesn't mean that you are any less talented. Just like when I say someone makes cartoons doesn't mean that I don't think of their work as mature. As I said in the comments above. I cared more about a robot that could only say his name than I did any other character I encountered in a movie that year. Hell, Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies had me in tears, and when it was released in Japan it had to be shown with Totoro because the thought was that it was too depressing.

And to be fair, I never said they were better than Elmer Fudd, both Chuck Jones and Tex Avery are just as big of contributors to animation and the development of cartooons as Miyazaki. Just as Walt Disney and John Lassiter are.
15. JudyK
Thank you so much to writing an article about romance in Anime. Good article and bringing light it the subject matter.
16. ACarroll
This was my first click thru on today's newletter, Chris! I love Miyazaki, Howl's Moving Castle especially.

Also in my top tier for animation and romance is Voices of a Distant Star. Warning: have someone close by to cuddle up with. By the end of it, you'll be glad you did.
Christopher Morgan
17. cmorgan
@Judy Glad you liked it. There are some pretty amazing love stories, and stories in general, found in Anime, I just don't have the breadth of knowledge to do it true justice. These are just some of the ones that I am most famililar with.

@Allison Glad you liked it. I haven't heard about VOices of a Distant Star, but it certainly looks interesting. Consider it on the To Be Watched pile.
18. Huntress778
All 3 of those movies, plus other Miyazaki films, can be found among my rather large anime collection ^_^ also love Disney and Pixar... there's just something about animated films that make me go all fangirly, and I have long passed the teen phase...

Thanks so much for writing this article and spreading the Miyakai love :)
19. jenagainjen
Miyazaki's Whisper of the Heart and the loosely connected The Cat Returns. Wonderful stories about two different types of loves. Both of them just make me sigh in happiness.
Christopher Morgan
20. cmorgan
I love THE CAT RETURNS. That Baron is so freaking cool, and I am almost positive it's not just that the english dub is done by The Dread Pirate Roberts himself, Carey Ewels.

I just recently heart about WHISPER OF THE HEART, I'm yet to watch it. Another Ghibli Film worth note is MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMATAS, which is just about the most honest take on what it means to be a family that I have seen outside of THE INCREDIBLES.
21. ladynat
Vash Kawaii!!!!

Animated romances...Rumiko does romances wonderfully. One Pound Gospel, Ranma, Maison Ikkoku, and Inuyasha. Marmalade Boy holds a very large piece of my heart. Even thought you need a score card to keep track of who is dating how. Hana Yori Dango the love triangle between Domyogi, Ryu, and Makino. Squeee!!!! Ah My Goddess! Vampire Hunter D! Anime is full of beautiful sweeping love stories. Sometimes tragic, sometimes painful to watch, full of the pure innocence of first love, and always filled with great life lessons.

Disney does it well. Asia does it better.
Lexie Matias
22. OtterPuff
Absolutely love your post!
Though I admit Ponyo is perhaps my least favorite out of all of Miyasaki's movies. My favorte is Howl, and I actually like it more than the book.

Anyway, I love cartoons, all types, really. American, French (who can forget that awesome adaptation of The Last Unicorn?) and Japanese.
It's one of my ares of expertise.

and, like you, I go back to these stories over and over to remind myself of the awesome and relax and just because they are brain candy at it's best. But like all good brain candy they got hidden depths.

Rattatuille makes me cry each time I watch it because I'm just so damn happy Remy gets to live his dreams, I love watching the Little Mermaid, Cinderlla and Sleeping Beauty. Beauty and the beast is in a category of it's own.

the Tiny Toons and Looney toons were the stuff of my childhood, and a whole host of Japanese animation like Remi and Candy and even these crazy mecha stories :p
23. Allan-Hatai
@jenagainjen Whisper of the Heart is my absolute favorite Studio Ghibli film. I think it's partially because I relate to the heroine more than any other heroine inthe films, but it's also because it's such a simple story that has so much impact on my view of the future. (Sorry, started to pontificate...)
And, of course, I have to give a shout-out to Fruits Basket, which is one of my favorite romantic animes. I mean, when you think about it, how can you measure Tohru's love for the Sohmas? She goes through so much in the course of the show, and even more in the manga, just to be with them and help them be happy. I don't know if there's a deeper love than that.
24. Ashmore
As an avid cartoon watcher I'm always trying to find the one gives me that good old dose of nostalgia from my childhood. For many many years Don Bluth's The Secret of Nimh and All Dogs Go to Heaven, and The Last Unicorn were the ones that did it for me. And then there was Spirited Away, I can't say anything that hasn't been said by anyone else but I think y'all know what I mean. It's the greatest animated film I've come across in a long time.
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