Learning from Miyazaki: Pacing

Minor Spoilers for Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle

Miyazaki is often praised for the spell-binding nature of his films. Here goes John Lasseter in the introduction to Starting Point.

His movies have balance–both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to Castle of Cagliostro and see it. That car chase up on the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment before. That’s pacing.

A big part of pacing is contrast. I’ve chosen two examples from Castle in the Sky where we have a seemingly unnecessary slow-down before a moment of “action.”

First, we see Pazu need help fastening the amulet before jumping off the roof. Sheeta helps, and he gives her a smile. Then, boom.

Later in the film, Pazu fires a cannon to burst open a wall. On his first attempt, the gun jams. This brings us up short for a moment, so our attention can catch up and anticipate the blast.

Pacing isn’t just for action. It’s also for characterization–of the characters and the setting. Lasseter speaks of needing a slow moment after Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 to let the impact of her story sink in. Miyazaki does moments like these after major revelations as well, but what stands out to me more is the minor actions he has us watch early on.

These things take time and effort to animate, but Miyazaki thinks its worth it so that we can see how these characters move. In this example, Sophie brushing her apron shows that she’s tidy. 

It should be noted that part of why these moments don’t lose our attention is because Miyazaki keeps a string of danger and mystery pulling us along. Both before and after we see Sophie in the hat shop, we also see the wizard’s castle and strange flying warships.

Of course, all the magic of pacing can’t be summed up in “fast” and “slow”. It would take several more posts to discuss all the possible beats that Miyazaki uses.

Here are two more kinds of beats Miyazaki uses well…

1) In The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, I came across the term “white moments”, coined by Daniel Neyer, to describe moments “when the heart warms and expands”. This is given as a unique feature of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the example of her father asking when she got so big, but I think white moments exist in all Miyazaki’s films. (More here.)

2) In Starting Point, Miyazaki gives special weight to scenes where a character is running, striving for something. He says this is difficult in animation because of the number of frames, and how you often lose the height of the step. I could give screencaps from Miyazaki’s films, but I think the best example of a “running” beat I’ve seen comes from Mamoru Hosada’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

There are several kinds of beats available to writers. The key is how you put them together, how they contrast and compliment. Today we’ve mostly focused on fast, slow, and push.

Next post, we’ll look at emotion: the kind of push/pull that has made young-adult novels so hot.


Breakdown: Spirited Away

Spoilers! Obviously!

I could wax poetic about Hayao Miyazaki for ages. Today, building off last post on Flaws in the Disney Machine, I’m going to focus on two areas where Miyazaki excels over Disney, even over Pixar.

Character Design


In a 1996 interview, Hayao Miyazaki wondered,

“could we depict an affirmative character with a so-so looking girl? What we are doing is a show in a sense, after all. […] They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more.”

In contrast to the Disney animator who complained that women were hard to draw because they had to be cute, Miyazaki set out to create a female protagonist who was ordinary. He gave her a snub-nose, awkward movements, and over-sized clothing because he wanted the audience to admire her for her personality rather than her looks. (I’m not just being mean; I got this from The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki. I hope it’ll expand more on this in Turning Point.)

I believe he carried this idea in choosing his next film as writer/director, Howl’s Moving Castle, where Sophie spends the majority of the movie as an old woman.

Ponyo is pretty cute though. As are the girls in The Wind Rises, from what I can tell. Perhaps Miyazaki wasn’t as bothered by this because of their age.

Miyazaki might not want us to identify with Sen/Chihiro because of her looks, but he does use appearance to draw us closer to other characters. Not beauty, but familiarity. Lin and Haku both look quite a bit more human than the other spirits.

Lin is a weasel spirit; Haku is a dragon/river. But they look like people.

Whereas most of the spirits have their proportions bent.

This affects the audience’s sympathies. The boiler man might have six arms, but his face is more proportionate than the other spirits as well. Pixar did something like this with A Bug’s Life.

The grasshopper, the bad guy, is the only one with six arms. This makes him less human, and moves our sympathies away. Well, Heimlich (the caterpillar) has a bunch of arms. And tiny eyes. But he’s comic relief–we don’t need to identify with him the same way either.

Miyazaki takes this further. Somehow the effect works and isn’t questioned. I’ve never heard anybody ask why Haku and Lin look like people.

Implied Themes

A story’s main theme usually mirrors the main character’s arc. I think of this as the stated theme. The thing the story is trying to tell you.

In any kind of communication, there is subtext. Things beneath the surface that are assumed, never said. I think of these as the implied themes.

Disney and Pixar focus the story quite well on their stated themes, and have the entire film working towards that one statement. But it lets us use our own assumptions to fill in the background, rarely pushing for complexity.

The stated theme of Spirited Away is simple. Sen/Chihiro’s arc is about not giving in, gaining confidence, trusting her gut, cooperation, etc. Depth comes from the multiple layers of implied themes.

The first implied theme is about greed. When they discover the abandoned amusement park, the father mentions that there used to be many of these all over the country, built without much thought. The spirit bathhouse can be viewed as another display of opulence.

Other displays of greed are more explicit. The parents become pigs. No-Face offers gold to the bathhouse workers, they go crazy for it. And the money turns out to be dust.

Let’s say the second implied theme is feminism, partially addressed above.

Next is environmentalism. This is present in almost all Miyazaki’s films, here evident when they have to pull gunk from the river spirit.

Finally, Miyazaki is the master of not having a true “villain.” The characters refuse to stay fixed as either purely “good” or “evil.” Haku, Lin, and the boilerman are all kind to Sen/Chihiro, but also have moments of hostility. Several characters physically transform to mirror their change.

Yubaba is the closest thing to a villain, but even she has a kinder side, helping in the bathhouse and mothering the baby. Then, when Sen meets the kinder twin, Zeniba/Granny, Miyazaki uses the exact same character design.

At the final test, Yubaba seems like she might back out when Boh says that he won’t like her anymore if she makes Sen cry. It is Sen (after calling Yubaba “Granny”) who declares that she’ll take the test, and Yubaba simply says “See if you can tell which of these pigs is your mother and father” without any further goading or threats.

I like the balance and layer of themes in Spirited Away but it’s this last one that makes me consider the film a masterpiece. Miyazaki jokes that he finds drawing evil characters unpleasant, so he simply doesn’t do it (22:20-ish). Really, this is an issue of point of view, as he’s alluded to more seriously elsewhere. The ability to see multiple perspectives. It’s not easy to write a story without a villain, but he’s done it repeatedly, making sure to humanize both sides.

I have a lot more to say about Miyazaki. The next post will focus on pacing.