This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am writing in a creative reuse and community arts center. The goals of this center are to promote creativity, community, and environmental stewardship. My coworker told me about this place not an hour earlier, and already I am shoving past the building’s threshold, out of the crisp, cold evening and into the warm smells of dust and acrylic paint.
I am unable to catch my bearings, because my eye catches on everything it sees. Empty tins, jars, vases. Rusty keys, ornate beads taken off of well-to-do women’s wrists and necks, one-of-a-kind postage stamps, personalized ink stamps, paint brushes in mason jars, blank canvases, postcards of the seven wonders of the world. Maps and posters rolled into themselves, hinting at color, forcing you to open at least one of them to see what images and secrets they contain. Skeins of color coordinated yarn, rolls of brightly patterned fabric, holiday wrapping paper, bows, wood letters, hand-sewn aprons. And drawers: plastic drawers, metal basket drawers, wooden cabinet drawers, all filled with beautiful things that I cannot see that others have touched and loved and chosen to relinquish so that others might touch and love and use them.
This is a creative space if I’ve ever seen one, because even without touching any object in this building, I feel myself grasping at people, places, and things.
When I take my first tentative step, the image that comes to mind is Kamaji’s boiler room from the movie Spirited Away, a room filled with thousands of drawers, each containing an herb or ingredient, the specific contents of each drawer known only by Kamaji himself.
And as I begin to touch small objects, a clay pot, a wooden snowman, a stamp, I feel further and further immersed in the worlds of Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, has written and drawn countless beloved films, like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle In The Sky, and Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki’s films always feature child protagonists battling or discovering something, usually taking place in some fantastical world that is almost our own (I, like all children, love magical realism). These stories place emphasis on place, on human-nature relationships, and despite the repeated use of magic and the extraordinary: on the mundane. Writer Sritama Sen refers to this as “the celebration of the common.”
In nearly every Miyazaki film, there are long shots of nature: fields, forests, rivers. And there are close-ups of meals; my favorite is a scene from Howl’s Moving Castle in which eggs and bacon are being fried in a pan (over a sentient, speaking flame; do you know how amazing you are at creating a breakfast scene if I am more focused on the eggs than I am on the sarcastic fire demon cooking them?).
In Spirited Away, much of the story takes place at the bathhouse, and there are repeated scenes of Kamaji pulling open drawers and digging inside, searching for the perfect combination of herbs, salts, and oils.
Some might deem these scenes arbitrary or extraneous. If we know we’re in a bathhouse, why can’t we just see characters taking baths, why do we have to see the process of the bath being drawn? If we know the characters are going to discuss something important over breakfast, why do we need to see the breakfast being made?
Not only do these scenes force a sense of place, but including these mundane, common tasks, settings, and details is something Miyazaki prioritizes, as he wants to “teach children to appreciate the beauty of the world.” To a child, everything new is interesting, and by highlighting the ordinary, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And the extraordinary becomes interesting.
Sometimes there is no dialogue in these scenes whatsoever, they serve only to enrich the viewer, and alter the viewer’s mindset before reverting back to the plot.
Miyazaki has earned a reputation for prioritizing these visuals over the writing when writing a movie, which causes many to rightfully ask: how is that even possible?
When asked the question “is it true that your films are all made without a script?” in Paris in 2001, regarding Spirited Away’s opening European screening, Miyazaki responded:
“That’s true. I don’t have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film. I usually don’t have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keep working on the film as it develops. It’s a dangerous way to make an animation film and I would like it to be different, but unfortunately, that’s the way I work and everyone else is kind of forced to subject themselves to it.”
As a writer, even as a writer who prioritizes setting, this hurts my brain. Yes, I still believe that characters cannot exist without the settings they are placed in, but I do outline. I draft dialogue first half the time. I have some semblance of an ending when I write the beginning.
The sensory overload that I experience in this arts center is partially because I don’t even know where to begin, and partially because I want to touch and own and use and include everything in the story of my life.
This arts center makes me want to celebrate the common, and Miyazaki tells me I can do this, and that there is no right or wrong way to go about it. I could buy every ink stamp and map out a scene, I could write a chapter of a novel in indigo crayon like James Joyce. I could write like I normally do, in pencil, on my phone, on my computer, but only write what is in front of me. I could write only what I cannot see…
I unroll a poster of an ocean and pick out a postcard of an 1800s kitchen. Then I take a photo of some beads and send it to my old roommate in my hometown and tell her that I miss her.
…Or I could not write at all. I could buy a skein of yarn and crochet a beanie. I could cook an egg and eat it. I could go for a walk in the park and watch the ducks swim on the lake’s surface.
What if we as writers, instead of creating a place to force our story into, found a place that gave us something to write about? How beautiful it would be to step through a door for the first time and find yourself back at home, drawing a bath, cooking a meal, touching every object and looking at every tree as if you were a child.