Pass the Popcorn: We Fly With Our Spirits

Kiki & birds

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week, for our weekly dose of pop culture, Jay wrote about the rise of mopey, whiny self-pitying youth fiction, and offered some examples of where to look for something better.

Then, yesterday, I noticed the news that next month, after a four-year wait, U.S. audiences are finally going to get another Hayao Miyazaki movie. Ponyo opens Aug. 14. Last July it opened in Japan on 481 screens – a record for a domestic film – and had grossed $153 million by November.

Obviously the blog gods are demanding that I write about Miyazaki for this week’s Pass the Popcorn! Often called “the Japanese Walt Disney,” Miyazaki has produced a series of outstanding animated movies. One of the most amazing things about his work is its incredible range – from delightful family movies that kids and adults can enjoy together (hence the very apt comparison to Disney) to great epics about wars among gods and wizards, in which life ultimately triumphs over death, but not without paying a horrible price (definitely not Disney fare).

This week, continuing Jay’s theme, I’ll stick to the lighter stuff you can watch with your kids. Some other week I’ll write about the more grownup Miyazaki films.


My Neighbor Totoro, one of his earlier films, is about two young girls who move into a new home and discover forest spirits living nearby. We gradually learn that the girls’ mother has some kind of serious ailment and lives in the hospital, and they get to see her very rarely; their adventures among the forest spirits are a substitute for the normal life they can’t have. Whether you think the spirits are real or imagined – I think the movie pretty clearly indicates that they’re meant to be real – doesn’t really alter the main point; we rely on fantasy to survive reality. (The setup mirrors Miyazaki’s own childhood; for eight years his mother was constantly in the hospital with TB and his family moved around a lot.)

Totoro’s greatest strength is its fantastically original visuals. In what has become the iconic image for fans of this movie, the girls are waiting in the pouring rain at a bus stop by a road that runs through the woods, and then unepectedly turn around and discover a forest spirit standing in the rain next to them – waiting for the forest spirit bus, which apparently uses the same stop as the human bus. Not knowing how to respond to each other, the girls and the spirit just awkwardly keep standing there, waiting for their respective busses.

When the spirit bus comes, in the form of a giant cat, they decide to get on that and see where it goes, rather than wait for the human bus and go where they’re supposed to. The bus bounds off through the forest, running on its cat-feet rather than riding on wheels.

Totoro bus

I’ve started with Totoro because it’s chronologically first (at least, of the Miyazaki films that have gotten wide exposure in the U.S.) and is also the most suitable for even very young children. However, it’s not the best stuff Miyazaki ever did, so unless you have younger kids whom you want to entertain I definitely don’t recommend making this your first Miyazaki movie.

The basic problem is the lack of a significant plot. The movie is really about a mood. For some people this just isn’t a issue; Totoro has a pretty significant fan base. For them, the magic and wonder, the astonishing visuals, and the poiniency of seeing the girls’ lives sliding slowly but surely into this alternate fairy-world in the absence of their mother are enough. But most viewers want a movie to go somewhere, and this one just doesn’t.

Sheeta & Pozu

By contrast, Castle in the Sky has plot coming out of its ears. It’s very much an old-fashioned kids’ adventure story. And like the best old-fashioned adventures – and unlike the insipid, watery gruel kids usually get nowadays – it’s packed with tons of nonstop story and amazing events, but it delivers this rollercoaster ride without ever devolving into mere brainless fighting and running around. At its heart, all the action and adventure are about two young people who have chosen to do their duty in the teeth of all opposition and in spite of hopeless odds, and end up loving every minute of it.

Sky pirates

It’s telling that we have a whole genre of movies called “action” movies. In all but a handful of them, plot and character – traditionally the two great rival suitors to our minds and hearts – are equally sacrificed into the maw of mere frenetic activity. By contrast, the mark of a good “action” story is that all the action is about something – even if it’s something simple, like a boy who’s determined to vindicate the good name of his dead father, and a girl who’s determined to keep a mysterious artifact she’s inherited out of the wrong hands.

Ornithopter battle

The flip side of that is that Castle in the Sky isn’t philosophically deep. I almost wrote that it isn’t about anything important, but that’s not true – a story about two bright, scrappy kids who move heaven and earth against impossible odds for no reason other than to do the right thing is about something very important! But it’s not philosophical or complex; there are no layers of deeper meaning to explicate, as there are in so many of Miyazaki’s other films.

But if you’re just looking for a great fantastic adventure that doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mold, check this out.


I saved the best for last! Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lot like the best Pixar movies – it’s formally a kids’ story, but it’s about something adults care very deeply about, so they can enjoy it just as well as the kids can, if not better.

Kiki is a 13-year-old girl who’s training to become a witch. Following ancient custom, she has to spend a year away from home, and the movie is about Kiki’s struggle to establish herself independently. Witches need to make a living, just like everybody else, and in the movie’s narrative world they support themselves by developing useful skills – potion-making, fortue-telling – and selling their services to customers. 

Kiki needs to develop a skill that she can use to support herself. But her mother (who has trained her to this point) is a little flaky, and hasn’t managed to teach her any useful skills. She can only do the two basic things that all witches can do – fly on her broomstick and talk to her black cat – neither of which seems to promise much hope for independence. And her initial experiences in the big city leave her feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.

Perhaps worse, she’s landed – so to speak – in a city where there are no witches and haven’t been for a long time, so she’s viewed as weird and alien by everyone around her. Required (again by ancient tradition) to wear a distinctive black dress, she sticks out like a sore thumb everywhere she goes. Walking alone down the street, she passes a gaggle of brightly dressed girls, briefly overhears their giggling and gossip, and then catches a glimpse of herself – darkly dressed and alone – reflected in a shop window.

Oh, and of course there’s boy trouble. She knows none of the “cool” boys will be interested in her, which is hard enough, but on top of that, she has managed to catch the attention of a geeky kid who’s fascinated with flying, and hence with her, but not so great at taking the hint that she doesn’t want him around.

Kiki & Tombo

Her only consolation is Jiji, her supportive but heavily sarcastic black cat – voiced, in a virtuoso comedic triumph, by Phil Hartman. This was one of the very last of his performances; the English-language version of the movie was released on May 23, 1998, five days before Hartman’s death.

Jiji & Lily

You will have surmised from the title that she takes the only talent life has given her and makes that her calling – being able to fly, she can offer the city’s fastest delivery service.

But that’s just the beginning of the story. Flying becomes a job, and it’s not fun anymore. So she can rely on her flying to become independent, but if she does so, flying can’t be what it used to be to her. Gaining her adult independence through flying means losing her childlike delight in flying – because taking childlike delight in something depends on doing it for its own sake.

And then she wakes up one day and discovers that for some mysterious reason, she’s lost her powers and can’t fly anymore. If she can’t figure out what’s wrong, she’ll have lost both the childlike delight and the adult independence that flying gave her – she’ll have lost everything.

She comes to realize that the problem is precisely that she’s been so anxious to become independent, to fit in and be a normal girl, and all the rest of it. By making these anxieties the center of her attention, she’s lost the love of flying that was powering her talent in the first place.

Kiki & Ursula

“When you fly, you rely on what’s inside you, right?”

“My mother says we fly with our spirits.”

Childhood isn’t enough, so we need to become self-reliant, but self-reliance isn’t enough, either. Self-reliance needs to serve a purpose beyond mere self-reliance, or it becomes devoid of meaning – and as a consequence, the talents that make us self-reliant become corrupt or impotent. The mere enchantment of childhood that naively enjoyed exercising a talent for its own sake can’t be sustained if that talent is going to be what you make your living at. But if you want to keep the talent healthy, you have to have some reason to do it besides merely making a living – as one of Kiki’s older and wiser friends puts it, “we each need to find our own inspiration.”

Kiki recovers her ability to fly when she discovers what flying is really for.

Don’t miss this gem of a movie.

3 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: We Fly With Our Spirits

  1. These are great movies. I think all of his films feature flying. It both allows for great visuals and captures a mood.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    All of his films do feature flying – his father ran a company that built airplane parts (rudders, if I recall correctly) and he was fascinated with flight from childhood.

  3. […] are huge fans of Studio Ghibli. (If you don’t know what that is, educate yourself. Here are a few of my reviews of his movies. Then check out Ghibli Fest and get cultured!) One Ghibli movie […]

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