A Fruitful Pairing: James Cameron and Hayao Miyazaki

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A Fruitful Pairing: James Cameron and Hayao Miyazaki

castle in the sky

Whenever I reach the end of a season, my film-watching habits spin off in unexpected directions. After graduating from Biola, I went on a random tour through the Alien franchise. After finishing a novel that took a year to write – the longest I have ever spent on a single writing project – I jumped into the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable films. Earlier this summer, after concluding my first year of teaching, I spent the entire month of June almost exclusively watching James Cameron and Hayao Miyazaki films, more or less on a whim. Although I would not have counted myself familiar with either filmmaker (I had seen more of Cameron’s movies than not, but less than half of Miyazaki’s) and had little inkling that the two flavors would mix well, going through their filmographies concurrently proved rewarding, the kind of counterintuitive yet fruitful pairing that only a human could stumble upon; an algorithm would never put the two in the same room.

Some of the similarities are amusingly superficial, coincidental, and yet with each film, I was increasingly pleased by the unwitting aptness of the combination. Both filmmakers began their careers in the 1980s with science fiction epics that imagined the abuse of nuclear power as the downfall of the human race. In 1984’s The Terminator (top right), a quasi-Marian pro-life fable, Cameron pits the titular killing machine against the woman whose unborn child will become mankind’s savior after a nuclear apocalypse. In Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (also 1984, top left), set hundreds of years after just such a catastrophe, the titular heroine plays a similarly life-giving role, and is similarly embattled; in the film’s climax, a gigantic, skeletal machine (covered, Terminator-like, in rotting flesh) shoots nuclear blasts from its mouth. Cameron and Miyazaki are both environmentalists, feminists; in their earliest works, they frame strong female leads (to concede a clichéd phrase) as givers of life who defend the natural world against destruction and domination by the forces of technology.

terminators and miyazaki robots

Subsequent films do not necessarily challenge this paradigm, but they do nuance it. In 1986’s Castle in the Sky (bottom left), Miyazaki sets his themes against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, using the titular flying kingdom (which wields a fictionalized stand-in for atomic power) as an icon of utopian dreams that inevitably turn despotic. His heroine renounces her inherited right to this kingdom of death, but its benevolent robots act as her protectors, and, in the film’s most striking scene, tend a garden in serene silence, apparently unbidden by their human masters. Cameron’s Aliens, released the same year, employs a similar reversal – after Ripley has spent the entire film mistrusting him, the android Bishop saves her life and proves her wrong – but the more striking parallel is found in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (bottom right), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger switches roles from King Herod to St. Joseph. As a Terminator turned surrogate father, he is as hulking yet oddly gentle as Castle in the Sky’s robots.

Both directors’ environmentalist leanings sit – sometimes uneasily – alongside a sincere love of technology that makes itself felt in the plots as well as the craft of their films. Miyazaki loves flight and flying machines, but wrestles (in 1992’s Porco Rosso and especially in his swan song, 2013’s The Wind Rises) with the fact that the “beautiful, cursed dream” of aviation is invariably coopted for warfare; his love letters to aviation double as sobering history lessons. Meanwhile, 1989’s The Abyss and 1997’s Titanic – not to mention his real-life descent into the Mariana Trench – attest that Cameron loves the water about as much as Miyazaki loves the air. In contrast to Miyazaki, though, Cameron also loves weapons of war, and this is where the two diverge.

Although they are interested in many of the same ideas, Cameron and Miyazaki pursue those ideas to wildly different effect. Thematically, they are nearly twins; cathartically, experientially, they could scarcely be more dissimilar. Cameron’s films are intense and relentless, while Miyazaki’s are serene and delicate. Cameron has all the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer, though I do not mean this pejoratively, per se; he operates in the same disarmingly direct register as Steven Spielberg or Pixar Animation Studios, which is to say he is very clear on how he wants you to feel, and often quite good at making you feel it. In contrast, Miyazaki evokes emotion far more gently, subtly (especially by western standards, for no genre of film is currently tyrannized so completely by Hollywood convention as American animation).

Despite the extravagant success of Cameron’s films, I suspect Miyazaki’s work will last longer, lingering in the imagination long after the sensual thrills of Cameron’s films have faded. One need look no further than Avatar, a record-breaking pop-culture phenomenon that is now, a mere ten years after its release, generally considered passé. The comparisons drawn so far have been, as far as I know, the result of mere happenstance, but Avatar is overtly influenced by Miyazaki. Its lumbering militarized airships are straight out of Nausicaä or Castle in the Sky, but the most revealing point of comparison is 1997’s Princess Mononoke – a connection Cameron draws right off the bat with his opening shot:

From L to R: "Princess Mononoke" (1997), "Avatar" (2009)

From L to R: “Princess Mononoke” (1997), “Avatar” (2009)

Like Titanic before it, Avatar boils down to a straightforwardly Rousseauan myth: father culture is evil and Mother Nature is good, a simplistic moral schema reflected without complication in the tidy resolution of the film’s conflict. Mononoke, on the other hand, refuses to demonize any of the parties involved in its epic battle between man and nature, instead holding fast to a pacifist ethos that proves genuinely challenging. Neither can Cameron’s generic Hollywood pantheism compare to the eerie, uncanny power of Miyazaki’s animism, which is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and touches a far deeper nerve. Avatar’s nature goddess is a mere abstraction, a modern secularist’s idea of what primitive peoples must worship: a cosmic power socket, probably scientifically explainable, that the heroes can plug themselves into when they need to turn the tide of a battle. Eywa pales beside the numinous awe and terror of Mononoke’s primeval struggle between spirits, demons, and humans, which culminates in a god dying to bring life to his wayward children.

Avatar’s refrain – “I see you” – hearkens back to the thesis of Princess Mononoke: “To see with eyes unclouded by hate.” However, Mononoke’s closest spiritual counterpart in Cameron’s filmography is his most underrated movie, The Abyss – a wildly, naïvely, sublimely optimistic Spielbergian Cold War fantasy in which marital reconciliation saves the entire human race from the righteous judgment of angelic aliens. “We all see what we want to see,” the wife exhorts her husband. “Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.”

abyss - ponyo

From L to R: “The Abyss” (1989), “Ponyo” (2008)

While Avatar pulls from Nausicaä and Mononoke, with Ponyo (2008), it is hard not to wonder if the influence runs the other way. Miyazaki, trading the air for the water, summons up a storm of dazzlingly colorful imagery that seems to have come straight out of The Abyss. In both films, the love between a man and a woman (or a boy and a girl) becomes an icon of cosmic, apocalyptic, even eschatological union – of the ultimate reconciliation between generations, between nations (there is a definite swords-into-ploughshares feel to the denouement of The Abyss), between the creation and mankind. It is awe-inspiringly corny, or, perhaps, cornily awe-inspiring.

In this age of social media, it would probably do us all good to be less concerned with trying to curate our lives. I had no plans to spend the month of June the way I did; I watched The Abyss at the behest of FilmFisher editor Joshua Gibbs, and only watched Miyazaki’s films after years of persistent recommendations from various friends. Above all, in a time when countless algorithms are trying to predict what you would like to watch, such experiments are very human, for only we can slow down, listen to one another, and see what there is to see. This summer, try something new, something different. It might surprise you in the best way.

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