A guest post by my sister Mariel Marchetta, assistant editor and co-writer of “God, Robot”.
So as a woman, and a young one at that, it might not be surprising that I tend to be a fan of a good romance in my stories. I’m certainly no fan of The Notebook by any means, but there’s nothing like a well executed romantic subplot. My recent foray into Miyazaki has been three movies so far–Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, in that order–and each one has included a romance, and each one has caused me to reflect on the way we approach romance in western animation. I’m not an anime fan, so I don’t know if it is a culture-wide difference, but whatever the reason, there is something about Miyazaki’s approach that is just fundamentally different; something that I think a lot of aspiring storytellers could learn from.
Let’s start with the most obvious: there is no Big Damn Kiss. At first I thought this might be attributed to the characters’ ages. After all, Pazu and Sheeta are at most 14, just on the border of being too young for romance, and Chihiro is only 10 in Spirited Away. But the trend continues in Princess Mononoke, with protagonists that have to be at least 16 years old, and probably older. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, despite other characters commenting on how in love Ashitaka is, the most the two get is a hug. And yet, you find yourself rooting for them just as much as any couple in a Disney movie. So what is it that makes this work?
The secret lies in two things. The first is that Miyazaki never puts the focus on the romance. There is no moment in those films that feels like it was put there to show their compatibility. For example, in Tangled, there is a scene where Rapunzel and Eugene explore the kingdom of Corona; it’s basically just a montage of them having fun together and Bonding, all to lead up to the Oscar bait love song they share. Western movies have these kinds of things all the time; here’s a falling in love montage, here’s them getting a moment to just talk to each other to show their chemistry.
Miyazaki doesn’t do that. The romance doesn’t come in big moments, but in small gestures during the big moments. One of my favorite moments in Castle in the Sky is when Pazu and Sheeta are keeping watch together while staying with the Dola gang. Pazu shares his blanket with her, tells her that it’s great that they could keep watch together, and promises that when they find Laputa he wants to go back to the place she grew up. But narratively its purpose is for Sheeta to give exposition that sets up how they defeat General Muska at the end; it is never about Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship. Even the scene of them laughing and rolling in the grass together after landing on Laputa is really an excuse to show off the stunning visuals of the floating city. Likewise Spirited Away uses scenes of Haku imparting important exposition to Chihiro interspersed with small gestures like giving her food and having a genuine smile on an otherwise cold face. Even in Princess Mononoke most of the romance comes from the intensity of Ashitaka’s devotion to protecting San during climatic battles.
That’s not to say ‘bonding moments’ are bad, of course. Where would Aladdin be without ‘A Whole New World?’ Or Lion King without ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ But there is something authentic and refreshingly organic about the way Miyazaki weaves together small moments to let the viewer figure it out for themselves. When Pazu begs Dola to let him join her to rescue Sheeta from the army and exclaims that ‘Sheeta means everything to me!’ after knowing her all of a day and a half (maybe), we believe him. Not because we were given a montage of them falling in love, but because they’ve had each other’s backs 100% of the time up until that point. You don’t need a declaration of love when Sheeta gives up her freedom and throws herself into Pazu’s arms before tearfully sending him away to protect him. It feels more like the romance happened because that’s just who the characters are, not because he wrote it intending one from the start.
There’s something else about a Miyazaki romance that I think really speaks to the superversiveness that permeates his work. Love is never, ever a weakness. Now that isn’t to say that it’s portrayed as a weakness in a Disney movie, per se, but it’s certainly an obstacle at times. Hercules almost dies because he gave up his strength for Meg’s freedom, Eugene almost dies because he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair rather than letting her be Gothel’s prisoner, etc. But this isn’t ever the case in a Miyazaki movie.
Pazu’s love for Sheeta gives him the courage to do everything from fighting the army to joining a gang of pirates. Not once does he waver in his mission to rescue her. Not once does he look scared, even while being shot at; after all, the most important thing is that Sheeta is in danger. Haku is injured by a witch’s spell and healed by the power of Chihiro’s love for him. One of the most powerful moments of Princess Mononoke is when Ashitaka falls into the water during a battle, while San is being suffocated by the demon tendrils of a boar being consumed by his own hatred. Ashitaka hears a voice ask him: what will you do for the one you love? And Ashitaka bursts out of the water with renewed strength to rescue San from the demon boar. Princess Mononoke is practically a Romeo and Juliet story where they bring together their feuding families instead of dying. Love never hampers anyone’s ability to achieve their goals. Love is never an inconvenience. Instead it’s a weapon in the arsenal, providing healing and strength. So how can the viewer come to any conclusion but that their connection is just as deep and meaningful as any western romance?
When it comes to Miyazaki himself, he says:
I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.
I offer a challenge to any writers that are thinking of adding a romance to their stories. Do not frame the question as ‘how can I show these characters are in love with each other?’ Or even ‘why are they in love with each other?’ Don’t worry about if they get a kiss. Instead, ask ‘how will they inspire each other to live?’ And work from there. I guarantee that if you do, a kiss is the least important thing they’ll need. I know I would take Pazu and Sheeta flying off into the sunset together over a peck on the lips any day of the week.