The pearlescent works of animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki have been mesmerising audiences since the 1980s when he rose to fame as the golden boy of Studio Ghibli. The company’s first three films, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies (both 1988) are still regarded as some of Ghibli’s finest and have gone on to inspire countless filmmakers and artists.
One of the many directors who fell for Miyazaki’s pastel-coloured world was Wes Anderson, whose 2018 animated feature Isle of Dogs was influenced by films such as Porco Rosso and Spirited Away. In 2018, the director spoke to IndieWire about how he discovered Miyazaki: “I really got interested in Japanese animation in the time before I did Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he began “It wasn’t like I was a huge animation guy. This one, there are two directors who are our inspirations: Kurosawa and Miyazaki.”
For Anderson, one Miyakazi film has always stood head and shoulders above the rest: My Neighbour Totoro. Talking about the movie’s unique narrative structure, Anderson told Vanity Fair: “There’s a giant monster and a number of [soot] sprites, but two-thirds of the movie is spent cleaning the house, wandering the property, getting to know the neighbours, taking a bath—and there’s a lot of nature. There’s a different kind of rhythm and emphasis than you’d find in American movies.”
Unveiled in 1988, My Neighbour Totoro is indeed nearly entirely devoid of plot. However, the compassionate and immersive nature of the animated offering makes it so damn heartwarming that it’s practically impossible not to enjoy. Rather than barraging his audience with finely honed narrative arcs, Miyakazi pursued a more meditative approach to filmmaking. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki encapsulated this approach in a single word: “ma”, which roughly translates as “emptiness”.
After clapping his hands three times, he explained: “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.”
This attention to space is apparent in Anderson’s work as well. Whether it’s the brief pause between Ralph Fiennes’s discovery that he’s been framed and his subsequent retreat in The Grand Budapest Hotel or the pregnant silences that riddle Sam and Suzy’s conversations in Moonrise Kingdom, there’s always a sense that Anderson’s comedy comes not from his dialogue per se but from the way his dialogue is stitched into the scene itself.