Things To Know About Miyazaki Films

Hayao Miyzaki Howl's Moving Castle

1. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS FEATURE A TECHNIQUE CALLED ‘PILLOW SHOTS’

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

It comes from the famous director Yasujiro Ozu and is common in Japanese cinema. Why are they called pillow shots? It’s the cinematic equivalent of ‘pillow words’ used in Japanese poetry. A pillow word represents a sort of musical beat between what went before and what comes after. It functions as a kind of punctuation, signalling the end of something and a transition to something else.

Similarly, silence plays an important part in Japanese films, and Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t subscribe to the Dreamworks school of thought, in which kids need action from the get-go.

Although it looks as if nothing is happening in some of Miyzaki’s pillow shots, Japanese animators are more likely to use dynamic backgrounds and Western animators to use static ones. For instance, something in the Japanese background will be in motion and change. Even when there’s action going on in the foreground, Miyazaki will quite likely have something going on in the background.

2. THE ENGLISH DUBS AREN’T ALL THAT GREAT

The English translations of Miyazaki movies are often quite different. For example, the agency of Sophie is taken away somewhat in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle. Regional dialects are lost when they are dubbed into standard American English. Voices are quite different, also. Miyazaki’s children’s voices tend to be authentic child voice actors whereas sometimes Hollywood uses an adult to mimic a child.

Also, the English dubs tend to put words in where there were none, under the assumption that a young Western audience needs them. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, several additional words and sounds occur at moments of silence in the original.

3. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS TEND TO STAR GIRLS BUT THEY ARE ONLY ‘FEMINIST’ IN THEIR OWN, OLD-FASHIONED KINDA WAY

The Feminism Of Hayao Miyazaki from Bitch Media

4. BUT WHEN DISNEY’S MARKETING DEPARTMENT GETS A HOLD OF MIYAZAKI FILMS THEY MAKE THEM LESS FEMINIST THAN THEY WERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Miyazaki at the A.V. Club

Miyazaki at Bitch Flicks

6. HAYAO MIYAZAKI USES A WIDE RANGE OF CLASSIC LITERATURE AND BUILDS ON IT.

The name ‘Laputa’ (from ‘Castle In The Sky’) is derived from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, wherein Swift’s Laputa is also a flying island controlled by its citizens. Anthony Lioi feels that Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is similar to Swift’s Laputa, where the technological superiority of the castle in the sky is used for political ends.

7. THERE’S THIS JAPANESE CONCEPT CALLED ‘MA’

ma hayao miyazaki concept

When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.

Bright Wall Dark Room

8. THE FILMS ARE COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS ‘MAGICAL REALISM’

For more on magical realism see the blog posts by Michelle Witte.

However, there is a case to be made for reserving the word for specifically Latin American literature using magic to explore ideas of colonisation. To avoid this appropriation there is another word we can use: fabulism.

9. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS A WORLDWIDE INFLUENCE ON OTHER STORYTELLERS

Take 2017 Netflix series Okja as an example.

Kong: Skull Island is another: “Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took a page from Miyazaki’s playbook and decided to focus on the unique spirit of all living creatures.”

Lilo and Stitch, too, was apparently influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. “Kiki’s Coffee House” was inserted into the movie as a tribute.

[Miyazaki’s] stories are everything but cliché. There’s never a cliché I’ve ever detected in his stories; the storylines are completely original and the way the characters interact is very believable. I think that’s one of the things that inspired us to rewrite the book in the way our characters interact. You referenced that when we were talking about the scene with the sisters yelling at each other. It’s so natural and cathartic to see that going on. When characters interact believably, you believe in them and it makes it seem much more real to you. One of the big reasons we didn’t have this film as a musical in the traditional sense is that the minute a character begins to sing, it places that film in a certain realm, a musical realm, which is great but it’s not really happening the way we wanted this film to feel like it’s happening.

— Chris Sanders

Specifically, if you reference a film like Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, that film shares a lot of similarities with ours. We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, the sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly. It’s done in such a believable way… You’ve got these fantastic elements and yet you feel like you watched a story that really existed between a family.

— Dean DuBlois

Ubisoft’s Child Of Light was also influenced by Miyazaki, particularly the hand-drawn look of the art.

10. HAYAO MIYAZAKI LOVED BOTH JAPANESE AND IMPORTED CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Like a disproportionate number of adult story creators, Hayao Miyazaki was a ‘physically weak’ child and the time not spent on running about was spent reading. Open Culture published a list of Miyazaki’s favourite children’s books showing that (of course) he didn’t just enjoy stories for and about boys, but loved stories about girls equally. Miyazaki didn’t stop reading children’s books just because he stopped being a child, either.

11. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS THE ULTIMATE PANTSER

A plotter describes a storyteller who works out the plot outline before fleshing it out. They know the ending before even starting to type. A pantser is the opposite of this, working out the plot as they go along. Miyazaki is the ultimate pantser because he has an entire studio working for him, under his direction, and none of these people knows how the story is going to progress. Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Scripts undergo numerous revisions and workshopping before filming begins. For this reason, the Studio Ghibli plots feel quite different from Hollywood blockbusters, and even more meandering than most indie films. For Miyazaki, the main thing is emotion. Emotion is first and foremost; plot is secondary.

Miyazaki also never studied screenwriting.

12. VILLAINS ALSO DEVELOP AS CHARACTERS

Miyazaki’s baddies are rounded characters in their own right. There’s no clear line between good and evil. An example of a character who is ostensibly a villain but who has a soft side is No Face from Spirited Away. He begins as greedy but becomes an ally.

There’s no binary of good and evil. These two things coexist in the same characters. The protagonist doesn’t win, but grows and adapts to a world that isn’t built to their needs.

Characters begin flawed and end flawed. There’s not the same sort of character arc as we are accustomed to in the West, though writers such as Matt Weiner have embraced this realism. Don Draper never really evolves, either. The goal in a Miyazaki movie is to develop emotionally. Any external goal is secondary. Western stories tend to use an external goal as a metaphor for internal change.

Whereas the humans in Miyazaki films have complex emotions, the fantasy characters do not. We are never let in on what they are thinking. They remain mysterious to us. Mysterious creatures hold our attention in a way that an empathetic human character does not.

13. FLIGHT IS VERY IMPORTANT

Miyazaki’s father owned a plane company and Hayao is fascinated with flight. Every single one of his movies contains a flight scene, or a scene in which a character sees something from a long distance. More on the symbolism of flight.

14. MIYAZAKI DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A PESSIMIST

But doesn’t want that to come through in his movies. He wants to offer young viewers a sense of hope. This reality versus aspiration is evident in each of Miyazaki’s films — the themes demonstrate that the mind of the creator is focused on issues such as corporate greed and environmental destruction, but the endings of the stories are still hopeful.

15. MIYAZAKI DOES NOT LIKE HIS STUDIO DESCRIBED AS ‘THE JAPANESE DISNEY’

Far more accurate to call him ‘The Japanese Yuri Norstein’. Norstein (or Norshteyn) is a Russian animator born the same year as Miyazaki (1941). These men have lived through the same world events.  Take a look at a few of his productions and you’ll see the similarities. Hedgehog in the Fog is his best-known work in the West:

 

16. THE AUDIENCE FOR GHIBLI MOVIES AREN’T JUST CHILDREN

Certain films such as Totoro and Ponyo are written with young children in mind. But when stories are written to appeal to human emotion, there is no upper age limit. Miyazaki works under the principle that children don’t necessarily have to understand what they see right away — they can see something now and understand it later. That’s just fine with him.

17. GEKIGA, NOT MANGA

Miyazaki began his career as a manga artist and is influenced by a type of manga called ‘gekiga’. This literally means ‘dramatic pictures’. It was a term coined by manga artists who wished to separate their own work from ‘less serious’ cartoonists. Creators of gekiga tend to depict more realistic humans and backgrounds. Miyazaki has no love for the manga industry in general, and its cheap tricks to get an audience reaction. He avoids large, flashy moments in favour of small, subtle ones.

18. ANIMISM

Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all  have a distinct spiritual presence. Even rocks, weather systems and certain words are considered animated and therefore alive.

Miyazaki believes people to be part of nature — this is the traditional Japanese way of thinking, unlike in other major world religions, in which humans (specifically male humans) are thought to be at the top of some tree of life, with animals placed her for our own use.

19. HILLS, VALLEYS, COVES AND CLIFFS

Miyazaki’s films rarely take place on flat landscapes. Japan, too, outside the megacities, is hilly. In stories, these features of land elevation are symbolic.

20. WEATHER AND EMOTION

Human sensibility is also conveyed via the weather. Rain, wind, sunshine — these mirror the emotions of the characters. This is called pathetic fallacy.

RELATED

How the Films of Hayao Miyazaki Work Their Animated Magic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

Must Fictional Heroes Be Likeable?

Short answer: Main characters don’t have to be likeable. But they do need to be interesting.

I enjoy certain friends who aren’t necessarily “nice” people, because they’re like characters in a book who reliably make any scene they’re in more interesting.

Tim Kreider, Your Life Is Not A Story

First, some ideas from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Lena Dunham has noted that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

People are used to seeing females portrayed as one of two mutually exclusive stereotypes.   They want a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist pitted against a conveniently evil, bitchy foil. That way they know which one they’re supposed to “identify with.”

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

I have nothing against lovable characters; there are a great many wonderful ones out there, and no one ought to go out of his or her way to deny a character’s best qualities for the sake of being called “uncompromising, hard-edged.” But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our characters down in them and see where they go. Which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.

Rosellen Brown

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods:

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

Next, Yorke talks about what we might call the character’s shortcoming or moral flaw:

We don’t like Satan in Paradise Lost — we love him. And we love him because he’s the perfect gleeful embodiment of evil. Niceness tends to kill characters — if there is nothing wrong with them, nothing to offend us, then there’s almost certainly nothing to attract our attention either. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness — and we love these things because though we may not consciously want to admit it, they touch something deep inside us. If you play video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and millions do), then you occupy literal avatars that do little but kill, maim, destroy, or sleep with the obstacles in your path. We are capable of entering any kind of head. David Edgar justified his play about the Nazi architect Albert Speer by saying: ‘The awful truth — and it is awful, in both senses of the word — is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too”? Or, in the cold light of dawn, “there but for the grace of God go I”.

The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious. 

Robert McKee makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy, though I don’t personally find this distinction useful when it comes to creating a fictional character. However, he reassuringly agrees with John Yorke’s idea that the audience must bond with the audience on a deeper level:

The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.

Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.

Empathetic means “like me’. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognises a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathise with every character in your film, but it must empathise with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.

Story

And this from an expert in the children’s literature world. On likeability in children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva also writes, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”

Children’s literature is different from adult literature in one main way: It has many gate keepers who are not the target audience. While publishers of children’s literature most often very open to characters with strong psychological flaws (understanding the way story works), books then have to make it past parents, librarians and teachers, who may hold the view that young readers blindly follow in the footsteps of naughty fictional children. Unfortunately, these (often conservative) gatekeepers have a very real effect on what actually sells, which no doubt influences what is published to some extent.

Another difference between stories for children and stories for adults: There are perhaps more Great Gatsby books in the children’s literature arena. By that I mean, they ‘star’ a main character who is actually the least interesting person in the story. They walk around as avatars for the reader, and because readers are all different, this avatar is as featureless as possible.

The brother and sister who star in A Series Of Unfortunate Events are almost completely featureless. Daniel Handler even avoided telling us anything much about how these children looked. They are instead surrounded by very quirky characters.

Bella Swan of Twilight is The Every Girl — white girl kind of pretty, who likes nothing out of the ordinary, and who mooches along causing no real trouble for anyone. Along with the Unfortunate Events children, Bella Swan is surrounded by a supernatural, unfamiliar world full of evil and suppressed desires.

Greg Heffley is arguably one of the least interesting characters in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His diary is a commentary on what everyone else is like rather than a psychoanalysis of himself. Greg is The Every Child. (The every American mid-Western heterosexual able-bodied white boy.)

Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience. Unlikeable characters are more safely contained to shorter forms. We can better accept the company of a truly horrible character across 20 pages of short story. Would we stick with Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl On The Plane” if it were a novel rather than a short story?

Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.

Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character. It isn’t kindness, shared values and being a good listener:

what-i-like-in-characters

James Wood makes clear his own position, criticising the type of reviewer who seems to think that:

Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.

How Fiction Works

This definitely has me thinking about picture books, and how certain readers require that any wrongdoing in a picture book must be punished, lest children think that it’s okay to steal hats, or whatever.

A MASSIVE PROBLEM WITH ACTIVELY WRITING LIKEABLE CHARACTERS

I believe one of the keys to writing fully realised characters is to refrain from judging them as an author. I don’t want the reader to feel as if I’m telling them which characters are good or evil, which ones they should like or hate. I want to get out of the way. I think my job is to tell the story almost like a good documentary filmmaker—with structure and style and good editing—but to let the characters and their actions speak for themselves. Every one of them has reasons for who they are and what they do.

Sometimes when a writer sets up big flashing arrows that say THIS IS THE BAD GUY or THIS IS THE HERO, I can sense that the author is trying really hard to make the reader like or dislike a character because of how THEY feel about that character. A character can be a coward, a killer, a tyrant, or have any number of unsavoury characteristics, but it’s not your job as the author to judge them. It’s only your job to tell the story. Are you using words like “evil smile” or “brave composure” that show your author’s hand?

This is why I disagree with the idea of characters having to be “likeable” because “likeable” is judgmental on the author’s part. A character is inherently more interesting and relatable to readers if they are not easily so pinned down and judged.

I consider it a big success when readers argue about my characters. When a character I’ve created has both fierce admirers and fierce detractors, it means they’re a lot more like real people. Try to write real people and not judge them. That’s all you need to do.

@FondaJLee

That said, if you’re writing a truly despicable character, or a character who does despicable things occasionally, you will need to go out of your way to use likeability tricks.

IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM

A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue together, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.

Unlikeable The Problem With Hillary

Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:

I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham, quoted here.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has since shown her in-depth understanding (garnered from her own real life, I bet) of how tropes work in tandem, and against women. In reference to a misogynistic article from the NY Post, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:

This reinforces lazy tropes about women leaders in media:
– Older + seasoned, but unlikeable
– Passionate, but angry
– Smart, but crazy
– Well-intentioned, but naive
– Attractive, but uninformed or gaffe-prone

It’s unoriginal, lazy, and men don’t get the same either/or coverage.

These same paradoxes exist when crafting female characters for fiction.

If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, writers don’t need to create likeable main characters in order to make a mark.

If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.

And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral shortcoming’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially in stories for very young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological shortcoming’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)

I think it’s important to tell your story truthfully. And I think that’s a difficult thing to do, to be truly truthful, because it’s only natural to be concerned about offending people, or possible consequences. . . . Forget about likeability. I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off, is this idea that likability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world. That you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you’re supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy because you have to be likeable. And I say that is bullshit. . . . If you start off thinking about being likeable you’re not going to tell your story honestly. Because you’re going to be so concerned with not offending. And that’s going to ruin your story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from a speech at a Girls Write Now banquet

Rashida Jones was fired from the Toy Story 4 development team. She had this to say:

Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful.

“When I was writing ten years ago, I took what is typically considered a male character and would give it to the woman,” Jones said. “I’d get feedback saying, ‘She’s not likeable.’ I would think, ‘So fucking what. Every guy isn’t likeable, until he is.’ Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful. I want to find a way to tell stories from a woman’s perspective that doesn’t feel like it’s been put in the mouth of a woman by a guy.”

Indiewire

The story becomes even worse for female characters (and actual women) whose femaleness intersects with other things:

“i’m just so tired of watching how people talk about morally gray boy characters vs morally gray girl characters.

the boys get praised & coddled. the girls get torn down & judged. if your dark prince can be a secret cinnamon roll, why not the bloody princess?

i could write an entire academic paper, by the way, on how this is just symptomatic of how men—especially allocishet white men—are coddled/forgiven in real life, and women are punished.

i will not tone myself or my female characters down to fit some arbitrary, impossible “likeability” mould.

also, everything that diverts a female character from the white, skinny, traditionally attractive, abled, allocishet mould just makes them even MORE harshly evaluated. stacks the stakes even higher against them.

and hey, hmm, while you’re here, maybe think about how you’re judging the in real life women in your communities based on these standards. who do we come down hardest on? who do we watch most, waiting for a “mistake”?

Christine Lynn Herman on Twitter

The sit-com Fleabag is a concerning window into how likeable female characters need to be self-hating before we like them:

The Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive.

One of the few things associated with millennials to have received a positive public reception is a particular form of millennial art. This art revolves around an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not. The term masks the uncomfortable truth that she is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier. She’s often wealthy, but doesn’t think too much about it. Her life is fraught with so much drama, self-loathing and downwardly mobile financial precarity that she forgets about it, just as we are meant to. Her friends, if she has any, are incorrigible narcissists, and the men in her life are disappointing and terrible. Try as she might, her protest against the world always re-routes into a melancholic self-destruction.

Another Gaze

A Brief History Of Likeability

Likeable vs unlikeable characters are subject to fashion. In the 1990s there were a lot more unlikeable main characters, particularly in comedy.

An audience’s perceived wish to be around a likeable main character also varies according to region. It’s pretty clear that a British audience has a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters than an American audience. An interesting case study there is the character of David Brent, who is a thorough turd in the British version of The Office, but played in a more doofus, loveable fashion by Steve Carrell in the American series. The unlikeable British comedic character goes back further than Ricky Gervais’ creation — take Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, or Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born, who treats everyone around her with disdain and was even quite pleased when her first husband died.

Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’

In the 2000s, Tony Soprano is the archetypal antihero, neither likeable nor unlikeable in my view but interesting nonetheless — and definitely morally corrupt. Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’.

Don Draper is not a guy I’d like to know, and I believe he was written to be unlikeable, but on the screen handsomeness counts for a lot and I got the impression many heterosexual female fans of Mad Men didn’t mind Don Draper as much as they were perhaps meant to.

Breaking Bad ushered in a new wave of stories about ordinary, decent men who get sick of the system and decide to go full crim. More recently we’ve had Ozark, which is similar to Breaking Bad in many ways.

Bad Santa is an example of an unlikeable, disgusting person, but even he has his posse — people who will follow him around. This makes him a little more likeable.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman, and quite a few Will Ferrell characters are also unlikeable.

AS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE SPECIFICALLY

There are few genuine distinctions between what sells in children’s literature and what sells to adults, not least because adults buy all the children’s books.

Children’s literature expert Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva is perhaps offering a rather cynical view when she also says, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.

THE REQUIREMENTS OF SHITTY TV SHOWS

This is where there’s a place for unlikeable characters.

  • Mindless
  • Irredeemable, flawed characters
  • You feel like you’re in a position to judge the people you’re watching. “Whatever I’ve got going on, it’s not that.”
  • Soapiness, melodrama
  • If they’re better than you, the characters have to be better in really sexy ways
  • Ridiculous salaciousness

as explained by Roxane Gay in the Nerdette podcast

FURTHER READING

‘The Snail Under The Leaf’ Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

  • American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
  • Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
  • Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of YA books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.
  • The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.
This illustration by Ji-hyuk Kim conveys both the safety and excitement of the suburbs at night.

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

Bluebeard And Women Escaping From Terrifying Houses

“Bluebeard” is a classic fairytale — the O.G. tale of domestic violence. Any story in which a fearsome husband murders his young wife is probably a “Bluebeard” descendent. The husband in this tale is monstrous, and related to the archetype of the ogre.

If you’d like to listen to the tale, I recommend the (free) podcast version offered by Parcast.

I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.

illustration by Beauge Bertall
With horrific images like this, I’m not surprised. (illustration by Beauge Bertall)

As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of Bluebeard after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber.

The French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue.

DEATH BY ENGULFMENT STORIES

Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern tales, so is worth a read for that reason. Cruel as it is towards women, I argue that is a story for women.

Case in point, the covers of these pulp romances. Each features a woman escaping from a big, terrifying house (and presumably a monster of a man within). I believe Bluebeard is popular in the same way Dirty John popular — tales in which the young woman escapes unharmed from monstrous men reassure us that we, too, will be okay. (Even if statistics say otherwise.)

Marina Warner has written that Bluebeard is a story about a woman’s fear of death via childbirth.

The cannibal is a subject in a gendered plot in which cunning and high spirits win the day, and the boy’s own variety has eclipsed the girl’s in such stories’ transmission since the seventeenth century. Tales of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cycle menace their heroines with death by engulfment, and this obliteration, where a woman’s body is in question, often means sex or childbirth.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

This suggests that Bluebeard stories were told for women, by women — with childbirth being a peculiarly female fear. There are other tales which threaten death to female characters (and readers) with ‘death by engulfment’. Warner includes the Beauty and the Beast tales in this category.

When it comes to death by engulfment stories, we can go back further in the history of storytelling, to the tale of Psyche. Psyche’s sisters explicitly warn that her mysterious bridegroom is probably a monster who wants to eat her, especially if she becomes pregnant, as such tender meat delights beasts.

These feminine ‘death by engulfment tales’ contrast with the male analogue, in which a male character sets out to defeat an ogre and always wins by fighting his own big struggle against it. The ogre’s appetite exists to test the hero’s mettle — strength and cunning. These are about social betterment, not of psychosexual anxieties. Sex and marriage has always been more risky — and therefore more scary — for women.

Pixar’s film Brave is a modern, bowdlerised version of the ‘death by engulfment’ story. In that story, Merida is afraid of becoming her mother. She is afraid of being consumed by her mother, too, should the mother turn fully into a bear. This is a different take on the fear of childbirth story and is better tailored to a cohort of girls who will have some (though not full) autonomy over their own reproduction.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLUEBEARD

WEAKNESS

The woman of the story “his wife” finds the Bluebearded man next door creepy. Not only does he have a blue beard but his wives have kept disappearing without a trace. Her shortcoming, according to this story, is that after he goes out of his way to groom her by throwing lavish parties, she erroneously decides he’s not that bad after all.

Why is Bluebeard’s beard blue? I posit it’s for the same reason the Wicked Witch of the West was green in the Wizard of Oz film. (This has since caught on.) Blue and green are unnatural human colours, signalling illness and bruises, if anything. These colours signify monsters rather than humans. No one can reason with monsters. One can only try to escape.

I’d like to point out the contradictory messages contained for young women in Perrault’s stories. In Little Red Riding Hood girls are told not to trust their instincts with strangers, as bad men come in all shapes and sizes.

DESIRE

The young woman desires to get married. Let’s face it, in those days she had no choice.

OPPONENT

Bluebeard, the serial killer who gets some sort of sick thrill out of grooming new wives then using ‘reverse psychology’ as a reason to murder them.

PLAN

She plans to disobey his order not to unlock a certain door while he is away.

BIG STRUGGLE

The showdown between Bluebeard and the brave brothers, who come to save her with their naked blades.

ANAGNORISIS

She has had a lucky escape. If not for her brothers — a dragoon and a musketeer — she would have been killed. She realises that some men are nasty but can see that others are nice.

By way of the moralistic afterword, young women are warned against being curious. In fact, other versions of this story have added subtitles such as “The Effects of Female Curiosity” or “The Fatal Effects of Female Curiosity”. In the 1600s Charles Perrault was enforcing the message that wives must not pry into the business of their husbands or else they will find out things they don’t want to know. There is a long, long tradition of stories warning women and girls not to be curious. One of the earliest begins in the Garden of Eden, but can be traced through myth (“Pandora”) and fairy tale (“Bluebeard”).

There’s even

a bit of Bluebeard storyline that goes down even in the modern story for adults, Mad Men. In season three, Betty Draper finds the key to Don’s office drawer and finds evidence of a secret past life. This leads to the downfall of her current marriage and to a subsequent marriage to the nice(?) man.

"Open this drawer or I will."
“Open this drawer or I will.”

In another very popular AMC TV show we have a plot line which involves a wife’s downfall after she finds out the terrible things her husband is up to. Yes, I’m thinking of Walter White from Breaking Bad. What if writers had kept Skyler completely ignorant of Walt’s doings? One possible reading of that show, particularly in the earlier seasons, is that the less you pry into your husband’s business the happier (and less culpable) you’ll be.

NEW SITUATION

She is now rich, having inherited Bluebeard’s castle. (He has no children — otherwise the castle would have gone to his sons.) She uses some of her inheritance to marry off her sister, Anne, and then remarries, this time to a nice man, like her brothers.

“The Castle Of Murder” is a Bluebeard story from the first collection of Grimm tales. This one has a happy ending which gives the girl more agency than Perrault’s — an old granny in the basement has the job of scraping intestines of the women this psychopath has killed. (For what purpose? No matter. Let’s gloss over that.)

The granny helps the girl escape into a hay cart, which makes me wonder why she didn’t offer the same services all the other maidens who’d been brought to the house. In the end the psycho is brought to justice by the authorities and the escapee inherits his entire castle and marries into the neighbouring family who received her the night she escaped.

Examples Of Stories With Terrifying Big Houses

  • Rebecca (itself inspired by Bluebeard)
  • Jane Eyre
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • In Cold Blood
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (in a way — we expect the rich to be horrible but McEwan subverts our expectations)
  • Twilight series
  • Rats In The Walls by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Death Of A Salesman
  • Mad Men
  • American Beauty
  • Carrie
  • Psycho
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Sisters by Raina Telgemeir

FUTHER READING

Header illustration is by Trina Schart Hyman