Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Ma" and Tension-building, via Miyazaki

You guys know how I love the Japanese animation filmmaker Miyazaki? Well, I do. I love his movies. Totoro. Howl's Moving Castle. Spirited Away. From up on Poppy Hill. And many more. They are a great visual treat, and great feats of storytelling, with imagination that sidesteps the usual narrative conventions, not to mention: there's serious girlpower. His heroes and problem solvers are almost always young girls. There's no sexualization, either. Just power. Will. Spirit.

But more on that in a second. I mainly want to share this snippet:

Roger Ebert, on Hayao Miyazaki:

I told Miyazaki I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

"We have a word for that in Japanese," he said. "It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”
Is that like the “pillow words” that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?
"I don’t think it’s like the pillow word." He clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.
(via Sara Ryan's tumblr, via in turn various others; thanks!)

Isn't that good? I saw a blockbuster movie sequel this year (which shall remain nameless) that I was looking forward to, having enjoyed the previous movie. But this one, aside from other storytelling failings, existed entirely at a state of high-velocity high-stakes drama. EVERYTHING WAS LIFE OR DEATH! So, you know, you just got deadened to it really quickly. There was none of this "ma." I love the line above: "If you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension."

It's so important. As a storyteller, it's something I'm always trying to structure. Plus this: often I find the "at rest" moments to be the most fun and rewarding. From my very beginnings as a novelist I've been trying to strike the balance between imperative forward momentum and enjoyable interludes that exist purely for color, character development and fun. Like, for example, hanging around the Himalayan faerie bazaar in my second book Silksinger. Or like Karou and Zuzana at Poison Kitchen, in Daughter of Smoke & Bone. You can't indulge in too many of them or you slow down the plot. But if you don't have them at all, at least for me, I find that I care less about the plot. There has to be a feeling of life and reality extending beyond the plot. There has to be an established threshold of "normal" that is being overthrown by the high stakes of the current situation. Or else ... EVERYTHING IS LIFE OR DEATH yawwwwwn ...

So there's that. And just now, googling a picture of Miyazaki's girls, I came across this excellent explanation of why Miyazaki films are so much better for kids than Disney princess fare. Read it HERE. And there was this graphic I just came across too. I actually enjoyed all of these movies, but as an adult and storyteller and parent of a daughter, I have a deep unease about their message, expressed pretty well here:

Ugh, right?

(Also, here's a piece from bitch magazine on Miyazaki's feminism. Speaking of that magazine, when I was walking around Wordstock with Clementine last weekend, she, who is learning to read, asked me, "Mama, what does b-i-t-c-h spell?" Ha! It was the bitch magazine booth. Um, never mind that one for now, sweetie :-)


tone almhjell said...

So often, it is the ma that feeds the story's heart. That's where the true stakes are built, because that's where you grow to love the characters. The sipping of water in Fangorn. Diagon Alley. Not that these scenes have absolutely no connection with the plot, but they're mostly breathing scenes, where you can wish yourself into the world. I would love to shop at Ollivander's and eat warm bread on a Prague rooftop!

tanita♥davis said...

Oh, WOW, this is good stuff. I struggle to articulate the concept of that boredom, the idea that not everything leads to Moments Of High Destiny. Sometimes novel characters tend slightly toward megalomaniacal idiocy with that.

I love Miyazaki, and continue to treasure his films for those little moments of breathing room in his stories. Thanks for highlighting this.

And, GOOD LORD, Cutie Pie is already spelling? TIME FLIES. And HAH to the word Mommy wouldn't translate.

Kristan Hoffman said...

LOVE the concept of "ma" and how it enhances the story.

As for Disney... I'm not saying it's perfect, but that image and its summaries are incredibly reductive in a skewed way. Those are not the lessons I got from those movies as a kid. I'm not going to do them all, but for example:

Snow White - Be kind and you'll make true friends, who will help you out of trouble.

Beauty and the Beast - Intelligence is more attractive -- and infinitely more useful -- than beauty.

Cinderella - Hard work and a good nature build up good karma; in the end you'll get what you deserve.

Right or wrong, my point is that any of these stories can be interpreted (or twisted) to fit one's agenda. And I highly doubt that Disney is trying to brainwash girls into thinking beauty is the only measure of self-worth.

(And maybe the comments of your blog isn't the place to go into this defense, sorry... *sheepish look*)

Helen Peters said...

A lovely, thought-provoking post. and I love Tone's phrase, too - 'breathing scenes, where you can wish yourself into the world'. Those scenes are so important and I can't fall in love with stories that don't have those moments.
Thanks for your great blog, Laini - I always enjoy your posts.

LinWash said...

I'm a Miyazaki fan too, Laini. Thanks for putting into eloquent words why I so love his movies.

aquafortis said...

Ditto here on the Miyazaki fandom! I love his stories so much, and his heroines. In fact, my husband and I were just recently talking about how we need to re-watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind...

That is an AWESOME Disney princess graphic. I'm going to have to send that around.

Abigail Bunting said...

My two younger sisters and I all adore Miyazaki's films for precisely these reasons: female characters who are fully realized, and this concept of "ma" which allows for visual rest.
As you mentioned in your post, it's important not to forget to structure the "at rest" moment and just let the characters BREATHE.
Love the Disney Princess infographic!

Heather said...

I loved this post! I love hearing Miyazaki talk about his films... and I'd never heard of the concept of "ma" before... but it's something I've always felt in his movies, so it's nice to put a name to it.

As for the Disney Princesses... I have to agree with Kristan Hoffman... the messages of those movies can be skewed to fit any agenda.

Anonymous said...

Very Good point, Laini. Disney princesses are just caricatures. It upsets me when people talk about Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Belle etc. they automatically mean Disney princesses. Cinderella is almost a folk story, a version of it exists in many countries, the Chinese one is especially interesting for me.
The Little Mermaid is a beautiful sad and heart-wrenching story by Anderson, and it will take it a huge effort to get out of a pink sticky cough-syrup like sap of a false 'children appropriate' happy ending. It makes me sad to see children reading books written as interpretations of movies that were interpretations of real books.

Anonymous said...

I also appreciate Miyazaki for him not taking the viewers for fools. He doesn't over explain things, sometimes he doesn't explain them at all. He trusts you to have enough imagination to accept weird as is, just because it exists. (How weird is that cat bus in Totoro? Or Porco Rosso?) He makes you feel like you are actually watching some part of the universe that he has created, just having a little peek at things that are a part of the regular day and they are so much more that you are just guessing about.

Another thing that I find very unusual about his storytelling - is that they are antagonizing characters, but they are not necessarily "just your regular bad guy" flat. How cool is it that the antagonizing character in Ponyo is just an overprotective father? There are no negative characters in Totoro at all, and the story is still amazing. Every character is deep and conflicting and real even given that he is a pig, a weird creature or a monster who is taking a bath.

Kritika said...

Wow, I never realized how important "ma" was, but now that you mention it, I can't imagine a story being any good without it! Sometimes you just need a moment to ground yourself and appreciate the beauty of life - even if it's OH MY GOSH THE WORLD IS ENDING time. Thank you for sharing!

Also, I need to see more Miyazaki films! I've only seen Nausicaa and Ponyo so far.

Liana said...

There is a series of books that I stopped reading because the characters barely get a break in between really extreme tension/life-or-death fights. I got sick of it. And it happens to me the same way with movies. I get bored if car chases or fist fights go on too long.

But! In books or movies that let you and the characters "rest" in the world, I feel like there is more immersion for the reader or watcher. And in my opinion things are much more enjoyable, too.

I have read certain favorite books (including yours!) over and over again because they let me spend time in those worlds. It's an important gift for a storyteller to give! :)

Cristina said...

we're HUGE fans of his stories. They're so beautiful... (except for the mother in Ponyo, the boy's mother? I want to scream "SLOW THE EFF DOWN WHILE YOU'RE DRIVING WITH YOUR KID IN THE CAR!! every time I see the movie, hahaha)

The Ma moment, mmm wow! it's so true. It's in those quiet moments that you really get to know the souls of the characters, I think.

Laini Taylor said...

Cristina, that's hilarious -- I KNOW. And every time Jim or I does a driving maneuver that C perceives to be wild (it never is, in our defense), she says, "That was a Lisa turn!"


Karen lee Hallam said...

I'm very happy to read this. I'm reminded not to edit too much "Ma" out of my manuscripts. thank you.

You've just given me a new appreciation of Miyazaki's films, though my sons' watched most every film growing up. I feel the same about Disney, and glad to keep most of it out of the house.

kathrynleighaz said...

Although I generally agree that Disney princesses lack complexity and personality, I have to say that I don't believe Belle belongs on this shame list. She's the one doing the saving in her story, which should gain her some points. Additionally, she loves to read, which means that she has more than one attribute. She also goes for the ugly guy rather than the attractive one, sending an important message about the difference between lust and love.

Lizzy said...

Laini, I love you and the whole Miyazaki part of the post. But BOO to that awful graphic and all the Disney hating going on here. All of those princesses fought for their dreams and encouraged young girls to be proud and passionate in what they believed in.

It is Walt Disney Animation Studios that has made Studio Ghibli films available and widely distributed in America. So before you insult Disney's greatest achievements, you might stop to think who exactly made it possible for all of you to watch any of Miyazaki's amazing films in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a black Disney princess? She always seems to get left out.

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