When my husband and I heard the Brooklyn Academy of Music was having a Miyazaki retrospective, we rushed to get our tickets, picking something that didn’t conflict with my babysitting schedule and that had subtitles. We both prefer the original voice work in anime and we kind of figured it would reduce the number of small kids in the theater. Neither of us has a problem with kids, but my husband hates when people talk during movies and small kids are prone to doing so.
So it was with great sadness that during our screening of Spirited Away, a four-year-old was seated behind us. Now the kid was actually very well behaved, for all that she was clearly terrified out of her mind. She was scared when the main character Chihiro was yelled at, she was scared of the spirits, she was scared of Kamajii’s multiple arms, she was scared when Chihiro hurt herself falling down, she was scared when Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs, she was freaked out by the size differences between Chihiro and the witch Yubaba and Yubaba’s baby, she was scared (justifiably) by No-Name, she was upset when Chihiro cried and when characters had to lie or hide their motivations. She was freaked out when the dragon was attacked by paper birds and when Chihiro stomped on a slug. And let’s not even talk about when Lin shoved a whole roast newt in her mouth.
Spirited Away is not a cute kids’ movie. It is a strange, two-hour long epic of loss, grotesqueries, and elegiac reveries. Literally every time the mom behind us whispered, “No look, it’s okay now,” another horrible thing would happen to Chihiro. And since the mom was not – thank god – reading the subtitles, the girl spent the times when she was not scared, confused.
Now, I’m not mad at the little girl – she was scared and I get that. When I was five, my parents took me to the re-release of Disney’s Snow White. I have a spectacularly clear memory of standing in the theater aisle, watching the Evil Queen chased over the cliff. I think I was in the aisle because I was leaving the theater. The year before, my dad took me and my 13-year-old sister to see Labyrinth. I have no memories of watching the film, but to this day, I can’t watch the sequence with the faces made by hands. I can’t even watch the kids show Oobi, because the hands as puppets thing freaks me out so much.
I’m not even mad at the mom. Kids have to learn how to act in polite society some time and it’s going to be an imperfect process filled with failures. Most of us should have some empathy as long as the parents are trying. (Remember we are all only one severe head injury away from acting like toddlers ourselves.) The mom did a pretty good job. Her daughter never yelled or screamed, or kicked our seats. I’m sure the people in the row in front of us couldn’t hear her at all. But the mom clearly had no idea what she was up against.
As one of those childless-Brooklyn-types, I shouldn’t, ostensibly, get a say in the “how to raise a kid” debate. But I have spent the last six months introducing the work of Miyazaki to a four-and-a-half-(now five)-year-old. And it has turned out rather successfully. I babysit most Saturday nights and our personal Miyazaki retrospective began after Lu and I had watched Tangled for about the tenth time. Tangled is an excellent Disney movie – it’s their best since Lilo and Stitch – but even superawesome babysitters have their limits. I’d recently gotten Lu’s eight-year-old brother E into Avatar: The Last Airbender, which he was only supposed to watch after Lu had gone to bed, but eventually she saw the show. Her thoughts? “I liked the fighting,” and “more like that.” So I brought over My Neighbor Totoro and her mom signed her up for taekwondo.
Here is the hard part: we had to watch that movie at least three times, in English, before she got it. She liked it the first time, but liking is not the same as understanding. What was amazing was that she instinctively understood American movies – we've watched Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, and the weirdly accurate Barbie and the Three Musketeers – with no problems. But Miyazaki movies caused more trouble – she wanted to know who the bad guy was and didn’t understand when there wasn’t one. When we watched Castle in the Sky and the initial bad guys turned out to be good that threw her for a loop. And childlike flirting? That was completely beyond her (in case you’re wondering why ‘love at first sight’ exists – it’s for four-year-olds). So we talked and talked through Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Ponyo, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Currently, I’m considering showing her either Porco Rosso or Arriety. But Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away are definitely for when she's older.
One thing I learned studying theater in college was, if you’re going to see a play and it’s been published, make sure you read it first. Surprise is a lesser value than understanding. Live theater is the perfect chance to mishear a line or have some other strange thing happen. And don’t even get me started on opera or ballet – you’d better know the story before you walk in unless you’re trying to be confused. A retrospective of children’s films is the perfect time to introduce children to the difference between how we watch a movie at home and how we watch in public. Because it gives parents the chance to show the movie to their kids before they’re stuck in a dark, cold room with five hundred strangers. At home a movie can be paused and kids can be asked what they think is happening and what will happen next. The kid will know that the movie has a happy ending. They will know if there’s a part where they want to cover their eyes. And that’s okay – it’s okay to wade into pop-culture with a kid, instead of expecting them to swim.
Mostly I feel bad for the little girl who sat behind us at Spirited Away. It’s a great movie, about the value of work, the perils of greed and the need to look past appearances. There’s a good chance that she will be scared of the film forever and possibly not even remember what exactly scared her. On the other hand, Lu recently bought her first DVD that she picked out herself. She picked Castle in the Sky. And I can’t wait until she’s old enough to read subtitles.