Falling asleep watching a Studio Ghibli film feels natural. It’s dreamy; it’s nightmarish; the tether to reality is simultaneously obvious and befuddling. A young girl dances with light beings in an alpine meadow; an old man crawls out of a heron’s beak; children follow a fuzzy egg-shaped monster into the deep forest.
Oddly, falling asleep to The Godfather feels similarly bizarre. Waking up sporadically during these movies I find the characters are as confused as I am by the situations they find themselves in. In Studio Ghibli movies, the characters approach the unclear and the unknown with curiosity, whereas in The Godfather, the characters respond with violence and paranoia. The stories we tell ourselves tell us how we view the world and interact with it. These stories show that our perception of reality is to be questioned, and they propose dramatically different responses to uncertainty.
Studio Ghibli is a master of childlike ignorance. Their youthful characters inhabit a spectacular watercolor world of discovery, cleaning their new homes and passing into shadowy forests to make new friends. Even many of the initial antagonists transform into friends and allies by story’s end. The world the children live in is filled with mysterious buildings and strange characters with unclear backgrounds. Not everything and everyone is to be trusted, but nothing is to be judged. The unknown is treated with kindness and curiosity. Evil is nebulous and always evolving, but all challenges are to be overcome through friendship.
Francis Ford Coppola has a drastically different approach to the unknown in his Godfather films. The audience slowly becomes acquainted with the agendas of key characters, and the kingpin at the center of the plot is faced with how to best assert power over his empire, his family, and his reality. Similar to the plots in Studio Ghibli films, evil is unclear and ever-changing, but in The Godfather trilogy, antagonists are rarely befriended. Rather, they are often violently, quietly subdued, and their killers can walk away with the cannoli. Trust and loyalty are of the utmost importance because it gives the kingpin some sense of security, but the plots are motivated by the kingpin’s gradual realization that he cannot trust his grasp on reality. In the second film, the new kingpin and successor to Don Corleone, Mikey, devolves into absolute paranoia and loses the family he is supposed to trust, protect, and love. Mikey’s perception is always changing, and those around him are forced to adapt and change accordingly. The story Mikey tells himself is of constant betrayal, and soon all he can see is betrayal.
The antagonists in all the plots I mention here are nebulous and dynamic, and often overwhelmingly horrible. In The Godfather, there is the horse’s head in a man’s bed and bullet holes in the master bedroom wall. In Studio Ghibli’s fantastic realms, parents turn into pigs, and blob henchman escort evil witches. In both stories the true nature and purpose of the antagonist entities are always unclear at the beginning, and the plot of the stories are motivated by discovering and neutralizing the threat to the unstable status quo.
Other films move in a succession of plot points that climax as a clearly logical result of events, meaning that a sleepy audience member in the movie theatre cannot recover from a quick doze. Waking up, one has missed a key fact that is crucial to the plot. However, in films like the aforementioned, the exposition and everything after leave the audience with unanswered questions. The plots are not progressed solely by the revelation of facts, but by the characters’ changing perceptions of reality. Why do the odd bunch of characters in Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle all decide to take care of the mean old witch? In the second Godfather film, why does Mikey have his brother killed after they make up? How do all these characters, in both films, decide who to trust and who to push away?
Plots that are motivated by the introduction of new information depict a rational approach to an objective reality. The tension, the mystery, is simply in navigating obstacles for the achievement of new information to defeat the concrete threat. In contrast, by telling stories that depict characters embracing uncertainty and practicing curiosity, we do not restrict our world view to a binary good/bad. In perception-motivated plots, the audience is asked to try to understand characters’ motivations and perceptions of a dynamic world.
Stories like these make me wonder. There are conclusions but not all conflicts are resolved. I love the implicit mystery of these stories. There is a certain familiarity in being on the precipice of the subtle unknown, for, in many of these stories the unknown becomes known and sometimes even comforting. Of course, no story perfectly captures reality and we should not trick ourselves into believing that, but after watching films that feature characters navigating dynamic, opaque worlds, no longer do I feel as though my ignorance is as much of a handicap but that instead my confusion is normal. I will likely continue dozing off while watching beautiful films, but hopefully upon returning to the waking world, nightmarish threats will fade away and I will see the nuance in uncertainty.
We don’t see the world how it is – we see it how we are.
– Anaïs Nin