I’m currently working a whole lot around the genre of the films created by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. I am watching and re-watching his movies, listening to a bunch of podcasts about his oeuvre, watching videos and interviews of him and reading his books. This includes Starting Point, a compendium of essays, letters and talks from the period between 1979 and 1996. A lot of what is written in there is very inspiring and interesting—also because it doesn’t show only one kind side of his character—but one text that really struck me is the transcript from a talk he gave in 1992 to a group of kids in Elementary school.
The talk is named ‘The Type of Film I’d Like to Create’. It covers briefly animation techniques, but seems to explore the idea of shifting perspective to discover how the world could really be if seen through the eyes of someone else—in this case a mouse, a bee or a tree. Let’s have a look below at some parts of the text.
Something that made me happy reading this text is the vulnerability Miyazaki is showing in the beginning of his talk. The following piece is the opening paragraph.
Good afternoon, boys and girls. My name is Hayao Miyazaki. I’m not particularly good at speaking in public, so if I run into any trouble I intend to have your teacher Yamazaki-sensei back me up. I’ve been creating animation for thirty years, so based on this experience, I’d like to share something with you—something that I think I may know a little bit more about than you do. I’d like to talk to you today about time.
This way to open the talk by introducing his discomfort talking in public is a beautiful acknowledgement, that any improviser—and honestly human—could take example from. It seems that the oddness Miyazaki feels towards being around other humans and the exposition, later, of his vision of the world and dreams, make him show vulnerability. That is something I wish to see and hear more, especially from respected middle-aged men.
About changing perspective
When drawing pictures for animation, we have to study how fast lots of different animals walk. And if we were to look out the window and carefully observe how fast children of your age walk, we would find that it takes them about half a second to take one step. So in other words, in one second you can take two steps. […]
Now, let’s think next about how fast a mouse walks. If a mouse only this big takes half a second per step, it will take him an awfully long time to walk from here to here. [Miyazaki points from one edge of the teacher’s desk to the other.] Since mice can only take very small steps, at one half second per step the mouse would also be walking very, very slowly. But mice are actually really fast, right? Sometimes mice walk really slowly, but most of the time they’re scampering around. They’re moving super fast.
Now what about elephants? When we’re making an animated film and drawing pictures of elephants walking, we have to think about how long it takes an elephant to take a step. […] When we create animation, we draw 24 pictures for one seconds of film. So we always have to think about how we should use the 24 drawings to depict one second. And after doing this sort of work for a long time, I realised that a human child takes half the second first step when walking, an elephant takes two seconds, and a mouse walks much, much faster. But I also begin to realise that to this child, the elephants, and the mouse, they’re all taking steps of the same related length, so that’s to an elephant, a human, a mouse, or even a bee, what we think of as a second is experienced differently.
About our very unique abilities
This is the introduction sequence of his idea of shifting perspective when it comes to time and space. It all comes from the very pragmatic need to understand movement for animation purposes. But out of this practicality emerges a need to change the way you see the world, and the way you depict the world. And Miyazaki goes even further. The consideration of time and space being relative then opens new perspectives. As much as the time is going way slower for mice, it goes the same way for bees, that are then able to avoid rain drops as they see them coming. The whole perception of the world is changed.
Think about fish, swimming in the water. Well, some fish sometimes jump out of the water. But when the fish are swimming in the water, do you think that the fish actually think they’re in the water? You boys and girls live in the air, but I doubt you’re going around thinking about living in the air. Still, you’d really get upset if the air started to disappear. […]
They think it’s completely normal to be living underwater. Their way of viewing things is completely different from that of humans.
It leads him to re-consider what is ‘normal’ and what is not. To start respecting others, you need to understand them, and thus to first accept that what is ‘normal’ to you is normal to you only, and that we all have our own version of ‘normal’. Us improvisers know something about that: how many people around you think that you are crazy to get on stage like you do?
Just like when we are walking around on two legs, birds probably don’t think about how they hover and fly when they’re fluttering their wings and tails in the air. But how is it possible? I have to confess that I’m only guessing, but I think maybe it’s because birds can actually see the wind. And maybe it’s because birds don’t live as long as we humans do. So although it only takes a second for a strong gust of wind to make us humans get all upset, for the birds that second seems much slower than it does to us.
Here is a development that builds on the fact that a different perspective is giving not only a different understanding of the world, but also different abilities. The possibility to see different things. As much as we humans want to see the wind, or clearly perceive the movement of bees’ wings, or the movement of continents, we will always be limited by what makes us human.
Rather than making a film with bees in it, using an electron microscope to just magnify and reveal their world, I’ve always thought that it would be far more interesting to make something from within the world of the bee, from the perspective of the bee. Such a film like this would probably be much more interesting than one about going to another planet. I’ve always thought this, but somehow it’s always been too difficult to do.
About what we can learn for our lives
You may wonder where I want to go with this. Why am I fantasising about bees and trees, about birds and mountains? Because we are nothing different, and all this apply to us, humans. Our perception of time is different when we are a kid and when we are adult. Our perception of space follows the same logic. And by extension, our perception of the world surrounding us is no different. This difference in how we perceive things leads not only to have different feelings or opinions about the same topic, but simply to be blinded to some elements that might be extremely clear to others. These blindspots are the reason why we should listen better to others.
I want to understand what sexism feels, I’m learning about this topic, and I myself have my own personal experience of the patriarchy. But this will never allow me to understand what it feels to live in a society where I’m in one of the oppressed genders. Even if I would move today in a matriarchal society for a year to ‘feel it’, I grew up treated by society like the member of the dominant gender. Even if my parents raised me on many level gender-less, they themselves live in that society. I studied in it. I worked in it. I live in it, everyday, going to the bakery, walking in the streets, scrolling on Facebook. And I’m part of the demographic where I could replace ‘sexism’ by ‘racism’, ’homophobia’, transphobia’, ‘ablism’, ‘agism’, and so much more.
I am not saying that because I want to whip myself or guilt-trip the people that are part of my demographic. I am saying that because I think it echoes what Hayao Miyazaki exposes so clearly to kids in the beginning of the 90s talking about bees and trees.
Diversity in improv is not just something that is needed to bring different stories on stage. It is essential to tell stories ‘from within’, instead of commenting from the outside—as accurate as the portait might be. A movie from the perspective of bees is not about giant flowers, but about how bees’ lives are affected by these flowers. The quality of what is brought by a diverse cast is irreplaceable, and making space for these voices is the only way for us to hear these stories with the quality they deserve. We are all unique, and are the only ones able to talk about our experience of the world. Bringing diversity into your world will make you discover wonders you literally cannot imagine, will make you a better improviser on stage, and will open your horizon a little more to diminish your blindspot—the very one we are unable to see until we learn something new and look back on our past ignorance. If you are afraid of the privileges you would loose by doing so, I promise you that there is in there more to win for you than to loose. It will make our community on- and off-stage better, create better shows and better stories for everyone.
To conclude paraphrasing Miyazaki: such improv like this would probably be much more interesting than one about going to another planet. We already have everything we need, we just have to look around.