As Ace and I have been going through these movies—some for the first time, some for a review—the trends and tropes that are specific to a particular director really start to stick out. For all intents and purposes, the more trope-y of the two directors is certainly Miyazaki, but again I feel as though that has more to do with his intended audience than his lack of creativity or inability to simply write a different story.
For a younger audience, it’s certainly easier to equate a message or a lesson with a certain set-up, and with so many of his films being about coming of age, Miyazaki had to have known that. Reading our previous review on Spirited Away, you’ll remember that I’m not particularly fond of the “everyone’s gotta be in love” trope and Ace’s peeve is the “strong females have short hair” trope (from the Princess Mononoke post); however the trope I’m going to discuss today is a little less overt and has much less to do with the perception of gender. Rather, it’s much more intertwined with the actual emotional state of growing up.
Usually, character-wise, the set-up of a Miyazaki coming of age film is laid out as follows: protagonist has lengthened exposure to one person (the friend/love interest) while strengthening familial bonds or creating bonds with their pseudo-family, then a smattering of secondary friends and acquaintances (with the ‘antagonist’ usually being a situation rather than an actual person). However, to add a dash of the fantastical even in a completely normal setting, and to set the tone of the protagonist’s maturity journey, Miyazaki employs a character that is readily found in many other forms of media: the animal sidekick.
Of course, we’re not talking sidekick in the sense of someone like Iago from Aladdin or even Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. However, if we take a look at Miyazaki’s films, it becomes clear that the small, seemingly normal pets and other creatures the protagonist comes across help to not only lead the protagonist further down the plotline, but also set the tone for what the character must overcome or must adapt in their own lives to reach maturity. Either way, it is through these creatures that the characters take the first step in realizing who they want to be.
I believe the first film that really utilizes this creative choice to the best of its ability is Kiki’s Delivery Service; the animal in this case, of course, is Kiki’s pet, Jiji. Jiji is a representation of what Kiki must overcome: her childishness. Jiji tends to be rather pessimistic, bratty, and selfish, which really is what anyone would expect from any young animal. The importance here is that Jiji is given a voice, so Jiji ends up being more than a metaphor for Kiki’s grip on her fears and her desperate need for companionship; he becomes a true personification of it. There’s a scene that exemplifies this where Kiki goes shopping and Jiji finds a mug stating “Kiki, it’s me!” A couple seconds later, Kiki buys the mug. It’s not the fact that she bought the mug that points out her flaws; it has to do with the fact that she was completely oblivious to it until Jiji pointed it out. Earlier, it was established that Kiki had a wish to save up for a pair of fancy shoes, yet here she is spending money on a mug for her cat because it reminds him of himself. In this way, it shows that Jiji, despite being pretty much destitute with his owner, still holds on to his childlike narcissism—the same kind of narcissism that makes those American Girl dolls that can be ordered to resemble one’s self so popular—and that Kiki is more than willing to enable it.
She doesn’t do this strictly out of love for her pet, but because she’s holding on to something familiar: she is unwilling to adapt to her situation fully. She would much rather spend her money on something from her childhood than save up for something that would definitively say that she is starting her own life. After this scene, I honestly can’t remember the mug showing up ever again, so that says to me that the act of purchasing the mug and owning it was much more important than actually using it.
Besides this scene, there are several others where Jiji is much more concerned with his own affairs than that of Kiki’s. The problem in this being that he’s essentially shirking his obligations to go hang out with his lady cat friend, for example. At the end of the film, Kiki can no longer speak with Jiji which, for the sake of this argument, means that her childishness has lost its voice and she has finally matured. I’m not the only one that says this; Miyazaki himself has stated that this is what happened, that at the end of the film Kiki “has matured beyond talking to her cat.” (Of which the quotation can be found in this book.) She has gained the confidence and will to see beyond her own needs and comforts, so Jiji has nothing to echo any longer. There is, of course, the issue brought up by of the dub retconing this since at the end of the American release she is once more able to speak with Jiji.
Kiki’s is perhaps the most obvious example of the importance of these sidekicks, but another important role is played out by Moon, the cat from Whisper of the Heart. If you can recall, Moon is the cat that Shizuku came across while riding the train and then decided to follow all the way to Nishi’s antique shop. As opposed to Jiji, however, the first time Shizuku meets Moon is when she begins to mature. Moon is a wandering vagabond; he belongs to no owner and goes through life as he pleases, but he knows exactly where he’s going and what he’s doing at all times. Early on in the film, Shizuku is stuck in a rut in her life: every day is the same old uninspiring routine and she truly is lost. When she sees Moon, she finally deviates from her schedule and opens her mind to something new. It’s almost counterintuitive: Moon knows where he’s going, but Shizuku’s lesson from him is to not be afraid of not knowing where you’re going. It would be a little too much credit to say that Moon directly influenced her desire to become a writer, but if that cat wasn’t there to show Shizuku that not everything has to be on the straight and narrow, it’s entirely possible that she wouldn’t have gotten the chance to cultivate the gift that was inside of her.
One of the last prominent examples of this comes from Howl’s Moving Castle (which we haven’t reviewed yet, so don’t think you missed something). At the beginning of the film it does seem as though the protagonist, Sophie, has her life figured out and that she fully recognizes the burdens that come with being an adult. What she hasn’t yet discovered, though, is how to present herself with confidence to people outside of her family. Believing that she has no beauty nor anything particularly vital to offer the world at large, she hides herself away behind her large hats. Even when she is changed into an old woman, she seems to hide behind her old age as opposed to embracing her firey spirit as a part of her true self.
She meets with her animal companion, the dog Heen
(I didn’t know he had a name either), when meeting with the King’s royal sorcerer, Madame Suliman, under the guise of being Howl’s mother. Thinking that Howl has disguised himself as the dog, Sophie doesn’t hold back against the sorceress, and even when it’s revealed that the dog is, in fact, just a dog, Sophie seems to have found some sort of solace within the dog.
However, in my opinion Heen doesn’t embody the type of strength necessary to face down someone that could probably fry you like an egg. Instead, the lesson that he has for Sophie shows up at the end when—spoilers—Sophie believes that Howl has perished. Heen is the one that brings Sophie’s attention to the glowing of her ring, the ring that connects her directly to Howl’s life source. Heen is the would-be-spy that instead sticks to his loyalties and morals. Heen’s strength is not a firey strength—he’s a wheezy, old dog. A curmudgeon of a canine—his strength is the strength of perseverance under pressure. The strength to rise above that which would otherwise bring you down, and the wisdom to rely on other people. Looking back at the scene with Madame Suliman, this become the obvious message: despite being a tiny dog with tiny dog legs and a long flight of stairs in front of him, Heen still tries his best to reach his goals. However, he doesn’t hide himself away in the alleys, avoiding being seen, nor does he shy away from Sophie’s aid when she helps him up the stairs. It’s exactly the gentle prodding that Sophie needed to become the woman that she needed and wanted to be.
All hardcore Ghibli fans right now are probably wondering where the squirrel-fox, Teto, from Nausicaa is. It certainly is a noteworthy sidekick and did actually help to explain a little bit about Nausicaa’s character. However, as has been said previously, Nausicaa wasn’t really a coming of age film, especially apparent from Nausicaa’s lack of a character arc. Teto would have had nothing to teach the Princess of the Valley, because she already knew everything.
This trend is not true of every coming of age story from Miyazaki—I have a difficult time deciding if Ponyo fits into that category or not; it’s a fine line—but it’s prominent enough to make me believe that using animals as a stand-in guide to maturity is not just a coincidence. The lessons that they teach the protagonists may not be major or groundbreaking; they’re definitely not neon signs screaming “I’m a lesson, look at me”, but they still influence the characters in a way that would otherwise not occur quite as naturally or concisely. Maybe it’s Miyazaki telling his audience to look for aid in the most unlikely of places and the smallest of creatures: nothing in life is insignificant. We, as an ever-maturing people, must learn not to take anything for granted.