Miyazaki: What his Movies can Teach you About Effective Communication

anime of a little girl peeping into a hollow viewed from inside the hollow
Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

As a teen, I enjoyed going to the movies with my friends. Those days, we watched movies in nearby cinema halls. As we walked back home after the show, we’d have spirited discussions about the plot, characters, acting and screenplay. We ripped apart the dialogs, scenes and nuances and finally pronounced our verdict on each aspect. Next to actually watching the movies, this was my favorite thing to do.

The only exception was when the movie was too good, too touching and made a deep impression on me. That’s when I’d pull away from the group, silently walking far behind, hugging my new emotions to myself. Thoughts I didn’t mind sharing. Thoughts made words. But raw emotions? They were too new, too raw and too important to me. I needed to examine them before I could convert them into thoughts and I didn’t want anyone else’s interpretations and opinions mucking them up. I had to know first hand, how I felt, before I could let others see my feelings, and put them to test. At such times, I’d behave like a dog with a secret bone.

I think I’m still the same. Anytime I am in a situation that’s too intense, too precious, my instinct is to shut up. Words feel like intrusion and seem to take a little something away from the situation. Silence allows me the space and time to observe things and people. Silence allows another type of intelligence to emerge — the kind that is usually suppressed by the noise and brilliance of words.

This is probably why I fell in love with Miyazaki movies in the first place.

The first time I watched a Miyazaki movie

I had never seen a movie with so many silent frames. Especially an animation film. The movie had so many frames where nothing seemed to happen. The characters would be almost still. There would be no conversation for quite time. The first time this happened, I thought my screen had frozen. But no. It hadn’t. The character’s hair was gently waving in the breeze. Her eyes were glistening. And there was a butterfly flitting across the frame.

Ever since, I have watched many of Miyazaki’s movies. I have enjoyed so many such frames where the characters stands quite still, perhaps staring at the back of a departing tram. Or someone is staring vacantly at a flickering lamp. Or someone else is sitting quietly, while the shadows around them sway in rhythmic motion.

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

Somewhere a small animal moves…then stops…then lifts its head to look directly at me. It knows I am there. Watching.

Oh. That chubby mouse is too heavy to be carried. Presently they are dropping height. Soon, they land, embarrassed, but too proud to accept the outstretched hand of our heroine. Meanwhile someone else’s eyes widen slightly. Or do they?

There are even times when the character stares back at me. There is something in her eyes. Resolution? Optimism? Grit? I am yet to discover. But I am hooked. Her clothes billow around her..it’s exciting…something is about to happen.

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

Sometimes as a character looks away far into horizon, I follow his gaze. I hope to understand…his longing. His wistfulness. There is a little pulse throbbing in his jaw, and it feels real enough to touch. Elsewhere, a stream is gurgling out of sight. Blades of grass bend and bow to the will of the strong winds. And who is that, stealing a sideways glance at our hero? What is their intent?

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

Through all of these scenes, there was not a word in sight. Not a one.

And through all of these scenes, I have been there. Right there. Inside the frame, not outside. It makes me wonder. How is it that we can feel this way? And if a movie can engage and engross, why are we unable to do the same in real life scenes, with real people?

Much later, I came across an old interview (Roger Ebert with Miyazaki) where they discusses this aspect of silence (or space) in Miyazaki movies. While Ebert calls it the “gratuitous motion”, Miyazaki refers to it as ma. Or emptiness. He goes on to describe ma as the little gap in between two claps. It is there intentionally in the movies, he reveals.

The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over— Hayao Miyazaki

Ma —from which the right words (or action) can emerge.

Ever since, I have tried to understand ma. I have looked for it in various art forms and in real life conversations. It is getting harder and harder to find it in human interactions these days. There is so much noise and speed, so little ma. We leave very little space between our days, tasks, thoughts. And words.

I have tried looking closely into how negative space is used in paintings and photography. I have tried listening closely to the gaps between the drip-drips of a leaky faucet. I have tried looking for the empty shape formed by two branches of the tree outside my window. I have wandered through my home looking for the gaps in the shadows cast by light on our white walls. And I keep wondering why all these gaps are so restful. And how it is that artists know and use this aspect so well while we squander it away like it was worthless?

Miyazaki mentions that most filmmakers are afraid of silence. I don’t think it’s just the filmmakers. Most of us are the same way. We are so afraid and awkward in silence that we immediately jump to fill it with stupid words. Why are we so horrified by the idea of silence?

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

Is it because silence feels “lonely” and we don’t like feeling cut off from humanity? Is it because silence makes us feel disconnected? Is it because we deeply believe words are the only way to connect with others? If you have ever felt any kind of real connection, even for a moment, with another human, plant, animal or a thing, you already know that this is not true. The connection, even if temporary, did not happen because of words. It happened in the space between the words. It was in the smile, the facial expression, the touch, the smell, the body language, the energy, the sounds, the heartbeat. Why then are we collectively banishing this wonderful realm of the “nonverbal” and behaving like it doesn’t exist? Why, are we always talking, talking and talking?

Movies like Miyazaki’s harness all those subtle signals that we are constantly sending and receiving - without words. They effectively use and amplify those cues that are constantly binding or repelling to us. So what can we learn from them? How can we apply this lesson to make our communication and interaction more effective?

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli

The power of silence

A friend of mine attended a course recently. During a group exercise, the participants were paired off and asked to ask and answer one question each. The constraint? They each had to count to ten (silently) before they answered any question. My friend tells me that it was the hardest thing he had done in a while. To sit awkwardly, and not run away felt unnatural to almost everyone. The point of this exercise was to see if they could overcome the initial urge to react/respond immediately to a question. Some were able to use these moments to notice themself and the other person, and others crumbled into dust. This was a course on effective communications and marketing.

I don’t really think we need to count to ten each time we talk to someone around us. But I think it’s a great exercise to wait a beat before responding immediately with words. We may then be able to use that slice of time to look — actually look at the person before us. We hardly look at anyone, even when we talk to a family member. We are too preoccupied. We are mostly talking to ourselves or some image in our head. That takes us somewhat offline from the scene. Looking, listening, taking a moment to absorb all the sensory details even in familiar surroundings might allow us to connect back online to the moment before us. We might even understand the current state of mind of the person we are talking with.

Attention is connection, attention is empathy

Try this if you like. Try paying attention to someone and being indifferent to them and their mood at the same time. It’s very hard. Attention is engagement. It is a great way to connect to people and things. It’s hard to be apathetic to someone while you are engaged with them. It’s only when we are full of thoughts and in a gush of words that we lose the nuance in the conversation.

Miyazaki clearly knows something that most of us actively deny. He knows that we don’t always need words to listen, watch, experience and share. That’s why his movies are crafted the way they are. That’s why we are drawn to these scenes that theoretically should bore us to our back teeth. Only they don’t. Instead, they captivate us, and we are deep inside, but without feeling trapped. These movies set an example, if we are willing to learn. They help us understand that when we participate in an interaction fully, and keep all our senses open — not just our mouths, we might be able to have a very different kind of conversation with one another. Our interactions may become more effective, more colourful and textured. Like the scenes in a Miyazaki movie.

Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli



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Hi! I write about things I learn in life. The funny thing is I am constantly learning. And unlearning. There’s no reason anyone should ever stop doing that :-)