So on Sunday Abby and I went to see Ponyo, the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind such anime filme classics at Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighber Totoro. True to form, it's a fanciful and heart-warming tale in which a child finds something magical and some degree of environmentally-friendly adventure ensues.
Ponyo's worth seeing, by the way, although it's very much a children's movie, I think it has more of an American audience in mind. There are fewer strange Japanese cultural quirks in the background than some of his previous films. But something that really struck me about Ponyo was the tangibility of the human interactions. Sōsuke, our 5-year-old hero, has a very realistic relationship with his mother, Lisa, and behaves like a believable, normal 5-year-old placed in a strange circumstance. Lisa has a very realistic relationship with her husband. And then Liam Neeson comes out of the ocean to chase down his daughter who used to be a fish until she grew feet and began running across giant fish during a typhoon.
It got me wondering why these movies are so accessible, though. They all feature magical creatures and fantastical worlds; why do we buy it? Well, we buy it because so much effort is put into the normalcy of the characters. The same day I watched Ponyo, I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast about subplots, and one point that they brought up was that subplots reinforce the credibility of the storyteller. If you make the extra effort to get the unimportant bits right, then you can gloss over the important bits and people just assume that you got those right as well--and this is extremely important in a fantastical setting.
For example, an early scene in Ponyo basically amounts to a fight between Lisa and her husband, a chip's captain. He was supposed to be home, but he's going right back out to sea and she's extremely upset. Now, the captain's being at sea is important to the plot, but the fight about him going right back out to sea is extraneous as far as the main story is concerned. It also causes the first act to drag a bit (3-Act structure is not as embedded in Japanese storytelling, so we can't really count that against them), but what is succeeds at is showing us an insight into Lisa's character. The fight is carried out in Morse Code using signal lights between a house on a cliff and a ship at sea, so words have to be chosen carefully and delivered relatively slowly. The result is a woman who still retains a lot of un-vented anger and depression who has to re-summon her strength so she can go back to taking care of her son.
Sōsuke's role in the scene is more about setting up his actions in the third act--we see how he reveres his father and how he has some basic knowledge of nautical concepts, like communicating via signal light in Morse code. Later (mild spoiler), Sōsuke pilots a small boat to go and find his mother, and it only works because of the fight scene. Not only do we believe that this 5-year-old boy could be capable of steering a small boat, but are invested in his search for his mother because we care about her as well.
It's not universal, but there's a definite trend in Miyazaki films towards setting up a believable relationship between protagonists and their parents. So when we watch My Neighbor Totoro, we see two sisters who behave and interact believably, so when they get lost and cat bus has to come and save them, we're okay with that.