What makes a movie character relatable? What makes them fully realized and human? In this new video from Channel Criswell, Lewis Bond offers that some of the most three-dimensional characters actually appear in animated films, specifically those of master craftsman Hayao Miyazaki (“Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke”).
As Bond argues early on in the nearly 17-minute video essay, Miyazaki was not content with making “shallow” films, which animated features were often given leeway to be, especially early on in the medium. Miyazaki himself stated that, “one consistent theme in my work, is watching good animation, and surpassing it.” To achieve that lofty goal, the filmmaker embraced depth, focusing on emotionally layered, realistically conceived characters. “His aim wasn’t to make films that spoke down to children. His aim was to make films that would help us all understand the human condition,” Bond states. His narration continues, “Miyazaki’s animations aren’t about their external flare, but their internal subtleties.”
“Empathy and reality” prove to be the cited subtleties that define Miyazaki’s films and elevate them to a level frequently unattained in movies, animated or live action. No matter what else is going on visually, no matter what creatures or events appear and transpire, the director’s filmography is unanimously epitomized by his treatment of his characters and their humanity (whatever type of creature they might be). Miyazaki pays attention to the little things, infusing his characters with mannerisms and ticks that are so natural seeming, we might not pick up on them while watching. Yet, it is precisely because they are such natural, everyday human actions that his characters become so real. Bond highlights examples—how people in Miyazaki’s filmography put on or remove shoes, how they walk, how they move when sleepy. He concludes that, “Small details of such a precise degree are what make Miyazaki’s characters human.”
Of course, studying and depicting the way people move is just one component of creating realistic animated characters. As any filmmaker or filmgoer knows, cinema characters also need something to work toward. If they lack that, they have no purpose for being in the picture. The key to Miyazaki’s fully realized characters lies not just in their mannerisms and personalities, but in their objectives, which are often quite simple. By having tangible goals and identifiable traits, they become extremely three-dimensional. Over the course of his forty-plus year career, Miyazaki has time and again delivered deeply realistic characters to the screen, redefining animated cinema in the process, and proving an expert study of the human condition.
For more on how Hayao Miyazaki achieves such impressive levels of humanity in his films, as well as an explanation of the notion that “Children have to see something incomprehensible, that they will understand later,” check out the video.