Thoughts on life after the PhD
Hi there. You don’t know me, and there’s really not much reason for you to take my advice about filmmaking. You make films, I just watch them. And I occasionally write about them.
But I’m writing you this letter anyway because I think your films are so, SO close to being great. You’ve been called the “new Miyazaki” (something you wisely choose to call an “overestimation”). But with just a few changes, I really think it wouldn’t be an overestimation at all.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Your visuals are stunning. Like, I could seriously just watch some of your movies frame by frame with the sound turned off and call that a great afternoon. It’s not just the grand, sweeping images that mimic crane shots, or the vivid colors in your classically pretty pictures of Japanese gardens and falling cherry blossoms. What I really love are the hundreds of tiny, intimate details. The labels on beer cans and chocolate. The vividness of raindrops in a puddle, so hyper-real that you’d swear you were looking at a live action image. The clutter of an apartment kitchen, drab grays contrasted with the bright colors of vegetables in a bowl of homemade ramen. The black-and-white shadow of a swinging door against an apartment wall.
I also love the way you pay attention to sounds. The hollow clicking noise that the string makes when you pull on it (two or three times, not just once) to turn on the single overhead light in a Tokyo apartment. The tinny echo of an iron door shutting. Trains–the sound of the railroad crossing, the repetitive “doors are closing, be careful” announcements, the murmur of eerily silent crowds disembarking.
Before I get to the stuff I don’t like, I should say that I’m not against sentimental stories as a rule. I adore Miyazaki, and plenty of his stuff is sentimental as anything. But there’s adding a pinch of sugar to your tea, and then there’s dumping in the whole bag. And your films frequently cross the line from pinch to bag.
So here are my suggestions. Take them or leave them.
1. Lay off the voiceovers. I’m kind of over voiceovers in general, but in your case they’re really, really unnecessary 90% of the time. Your visuals are so powerful, you don’t need a disembodied voice spelling out their meaning. Sure, a few words here and there won’t hurt, but in particular the excessive use of voiceover in “Kotonoha no niwa” just started to grate on my ears after a while. Some of the words are quite beautiful (“The sky was so much closer when I was a child”). But often that disembodied voice is just saying things that any viewer can infer. Let us infer a little.
2. Go easy on the soundtrack. Your trademark piano scores are pretty, to be sure, but I’ve got a thing about silence in film. It’s nice. So many films feel the need to always be banging us over the head with something–quick cuts, music, dialogue, explosions–that it’s nice when a movie just sits there for a bit and soaks in its own ambient noise. You do that occasionally, and it’s lovely. I’d just like to see more of it.
3. Ditch those pop songs. My God. I don’t know if you’re handcuffed to Johnnys or some other tyrannical music production company and are, like, required to use a saccharine, over-the-top pop song in the trailers and climaxes of all your films, but if you have any choice in the matter, my God, please stop. They’re horrible. They take everything from the realm of gently sentimental to treacly and tired.
4. Tell your actors to tone it down. For the most part your films are full of believable, naturalistic performances from your voice actors. But there’s inevitably some climactic moment where people start shouting or shout-crying, and then the movie just feels like a bad Japanese soap opera. I’m not saying cut out these scenes altogether–although some of them really don’t add much–just remember that less can be more.
All right, that’s it. Again, your stuff is gorgeous, and it’s your stuff, so you can make whatever the hell you want, even if beyond the visuals your films aren’t quite doing it for me. But I just have this feeling that if you made a few SLIGHT changes–changes that won’t alter the core of your aesthetic or your story–you could really make something amazing. I’ll keep watching to see what you do next.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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