Today I want to tell you about a documentary I recently saw about the legendary Japanese animator, Hiyao Miyazaki, called “Never-Ending Man.” Miyazaki is the creator of many gorgeous films including “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” and “My Neighbor Totoro” (my personal favorite, because Mei = me).
I love his work because it is so odd, and so singular, full to the brim with appreciation for imperfect people and mysterious spirits and the world in which we all encounter each other. He is as charming and brilliant and weird as his work and I loved spending some time with him — watching him draw and obsess about drawing and chain-smoke and complain about being old while simultaneously pushing his team to deliver ever more magical and beautiful work.
But there is one scene in this film that I can’t stop thinking about — when his young CGI team shows him a creepy AI-created film in which a strange conglomeration of body parts moves in a not-at-all human way across the screen. Miyazaki is a Jedi, and the team is humbly excited to show him their work. But Miyazaki is deeply offended by it.
“Every morning … I see my friend who has a disability. It’s so hard for him just to do a high-five, his arm with stiff muscle reaching out to my hand. Now, thinking of him, I can’t watch this stuff and find it interesting. Whoever creates this stuff has no idea what pain is whatsoever. I am utterly disgusted.
If you really want to make creepy stuff, you can go ahead and do it. I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work at all. I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.”
The young nerds on the other side of the table are gobsmacked — their hero has just turned their world upside down. They woke up that morning thinking that they were going to show some cool stuff they developed to a master, and get his feedback, but they never imagined that the feedback would be “I am utterly disgusted.”
Miyazaki offers no middle ground on this. In his view, the whole reason to create art, or anything, is not to make money or push a technological envelope — but to dive into what it’s like to be a human being. Any new development that strips all that away — that cleanly deletes the pain and emotion and all the messy stuff that binds us together as living creatures — cannot be considered an advance.
He communicates this clearly, directly, and with such quiet vehemence that it took my breath away. It feels extraordinary to me, I guess, because I’m not accustomed to seeing people unironically standing up for the importance of encircling all kinds of human experience in our work. I’m not used to seeing such a clean and powerful depiction of what privilege looks like and how to blast through it it in the moment.
See, at first, these poor clueless AI nerds can’t even fathom what Miyazaki is trying to tell them, so thoroughly have they allowed their privilege as smart, able-bodied men in a bubble of science and tech and “whoa isn’t this cool” to block out the rest of human experience. Their privilege stops them from seeing how their work trivializes human pain, how their offerings might look to people who have suffered in different ways … but they are not the only ones.
The privilege that thin people have in this world makes it impossible to understand what it’s like to go through the world fat, trying to thrive in the face of a world that does not respect or make room for us.
My privilege as a white person hides from me the facts regarding what people of color experience each day from individuals taught to devalue them and systems designed to exploit them from the start.
That is the function of privilege in all its forms — it blocks those who have it from understanding and having empathy for what other people go through. This is indeed an insult against life itself.
How do we get past it? The only way I know of it is to stop, consider, and listen. To always ask ourselves, “What am I missing here? Who am I leaving out in my broad proclamations about What Everybody Should Do or Be OK With?” To make room for considering this question in our decision-making processes, over and over again. And when others show us what we are missing, as Miyazaki does for his nerds, we need to take it in, hurtful though it can feel in the moment.
As we learn, we will fuck up, we will continue to make mistakes, and we will learn from those mistakes. But that is how the process works. That is how we individually grow, and that’s how we as a culture can grow, too. As the great educator Robin DiAngelo has reminded us in her work on white privilege specifically, we don’t have to be perfect; we just need to be coachable.
Body positivity is not just about personally feeling less gross in our own imperfect bodies.
It’s about liberating and caring for everyone on this planet.
It’s about realizing that everybody deserves to be heard and considered and cared for — drug addicts, the mentally ill gentleman I saw on the street the other day, Miyazaki’s disabled friend, unhealthy people, fat people, trans people, people of color, old people, children. Me. You. We all deserve to be cared for and about. And as we learn to care for and embrace ourselves in all our imperfection, we learn how to do the same for others.
I’m inspired by Miyazaki’s consideration for the people who have been left out of the concept of “progress,” including, in many ways, me. And I’m left thinking about how I can circle myself and all the other marginalized bodies back in.
And it occurs to me that this is what the forward march of history looks like in real time — the constant, conscious effort to expand the circle of who we care about, and who we mean by “we.”