Distinctions in happiness
There is a difference between a happy film and a film that makes me happy. OK, so those aren’t mutually exclusive categories. But I think you know what I’m getting at. It’s like the difference between a friend who has a particularly happy personality, and a friend whose presence makes you particularly happy. Both are wonderful to have around, but the respective happiness you feel with either is distinct. The former you are thrilled to see at a party. They liven everything up. They brighten everyone’s mood. The latter sort of friend is the one you find someplace quiet to talk to once the party gets loud.
The happiest film I’ve ever seen is probably My Neighbor Totoro. The happiest movie would have to be a movie about childhood. It’s not simply that it’s easier to be happy as a child. It’s that children more easily accept the possibility of wonder in everything. To a kid, My Neighbor Totoro is a reflection of the world as they see it. It is the opposite of whimsical. The happiest movie also needs to have some sadness in it. That was one of the wisest insights from this year’s wonderful Inside Out. Sadness is the companion to happiness, not the enemy. Both are part of the human experience. My Neighbor Totoro might be Hayao Miyazaki’s most deftly told story. The way he finds moments of joy that rise from moments of despair is heartbreakingly true to life. Most of the film’s sadness comes from the unending worry of two children about their mother, who is sick and hospitalized. The movie’s most joyful moment involves two children simply checking to see if their mother is doing well. This isn’t the happiest movie because it is endless sunshine. It is the happiest movie because you know the sun will eventually peak through the clouds.
The movie that makes me happiest is Whisper of the Heart. How do I define this quality? It is like an old friend. I watch it and feel immediately comfortable, warm, at peace. Your closest friends are those you know the most about; even their imperfections round them out as people and deepen your affections. The same can go for movies. I have spent much time trying to rationalize the strange ending to this movie, which involves an impromptu marriage proposal between its teenage protagonists. It’s the one time where seeing the man behind the curtain might be beneficial to the movie as a whole. Hayao Miyazaki, this time the film’s writer, decided to get preachy about the lack of commitment in “kids these days” by having these kids make an absurdly adult decision. Well, Miyazaki gets preachy sometimes. It’s how he rolls. We know that about him. The director, Yoshifumi Kondo, does his best to craft an epiphany out of the scene. Its aesthetic beauty when no one is talking is radiant. Without Miyazaki’s dialogue, it would have been a perfect ending. Its dialogue-free opening, for that matter, is perfect without qualification. It is as lovely as any movie’s, a slow descent into the Tokyo skyline at night, moving closer and closer until we are at street level. We meet the protagonist, Shizuku, leaving a store. The camera stops descending, and instead we see Shizuku walking home, waving at friends, greeting neighbors. It’s all so cozy, so alive, so familiar, so friendly without declaring it. My closest friendships are defined, for me, by their ease. We pick up where we left off, whether it’s been days or months.
It’s no surprise that Hayao Miyazaki was behind both of these films. Miyazaki’s sense of wonder is his most touted quality as a filmmaker, but I think his best is actually his ability to effortlessly capture basic emotional truths in his films and spin them into beautiful tales. When he makes a movie with the intent of delivering happiness, the screen sings.
Still, it means something to me that Yoshifumi Kondo took a Miyazaki script and turned it into the film that makes me happiest. And I wonder, sometimes, what might have been had Yoshifumi Kondo not passed away in 1998, with Whisper of the Heart as his only film. Miyazaki has made masterpiece after masterpiece. His movies are the life of the party. And it’s Kondo’s one movie that I pull away from the crowd to have a heart to heart chat on the porch.