Cátia Peres – Out of Gravity: Physics in animation and in the films of Hayao Miyazaki

Historical context on physics, physicality and behaviour

From an historical point of view, physics played a role in animation when defying the laws of physics and physicality since its inception. When Émile Cohl brought Fantasmagorie (1908) to the screen, the world witnessed a figure on a black screen transforming its shape and its physicality, floating in the air, free from the weight of “true life.” When Winsor McKay brought Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) to life and made her dance as lightly as a plume, animation was once more setting a tone for the liberation of physicality and gravity from the earthly laws of physics. Eisenstein’s studies on Disney (2010) proposed an understanding of the essence of animation in relation to the nature of frame-by-frame changeability, as the liberation of the individual portrayed in movement and form, in what he named the Eternal becoming ability, the freedom from ossification, and consequent non-stable form of plasticity, in animation:

The rejection of the constraint of form, fixed once and for all, freedom from ossification, an ability to take on any form dynamically. An ability which I would call ‘plasticity,’ for here a being, represented in a drawing, a being of a given form, a being that has achieved a particular appearance, behaves itself like primordial protoplasm, not yet having a stable form, but capable of taking on any and all forms of animal life on the ladder of evolution. (Eisenstein 2010, p.117)

The animated film benefitted from a singular freedom, one that allowed any philosophy or approach to themes, any behaviour and physicality of its characters and objects, and any world or universe to be transformed. Luca Raffaelli (1997, p. 113-136), examines the three different philosophies of the major players in the animation (Disney, Warner Bros. and Japanese Animation) industry on the interpretation of themes of physicality, gravity, and physics. According to Raffaelli, Disney’s approach related to the tone of celebration and victory of the war, with one single character acting as “one for all.”  With “The 12 Principles” (Johnston & Thomas 1981, p.41), Disney achieved a coherence and security of style, and with it a world of physicality where characters could squash and stretch, but within limits of physics and within the framework of the comic gag formula. Raffaelli further notes how Warner Bros. broke this frontier of physicality and physics into a world of extreme physical and violent characters, all acting against each other. Characters could fall from the sky, but were never at risk; they act in a role-playing game and comic gag. Raffaelli also outlines the approach of Japanese animation (Heidi From the Alps), with themes related to the embracing of a journey of change (Raffaelli, p.125), with formalistic aspects of exaggerated expressions, and limited production values of constrained animation. This provides a different answer to physics and physicality in a flat approach to form, mass, weight, depth, volume, behaviour and fluidity. As such, the animated film intrinsically defied and generated “other laws” of physics that allowed the visibility of different orders and structures of worlds and physicality to be visible.

Introduction to the concept of analysis: Physics and icastic form

Like many other directors of animation, Hayao Miyazaki has consistently challenged the laws of our physical world in his films. Miyazaki depicted scenes above the skies, defying gravity, altering the laws of weight, modifying depth into flat sceneries, depicting changes of state in the physicality and behavior of its characters and defying our natural world of perception. There is therefore a question to be asked regarding Miyazaki’s values of aesthetics and physics that use airborne machines, magnetic forces, crystal powers, flying objects and flying characters in order to understand the intentions and proposals of his worlds. In some cases, some of these entities fly or float in the air, according to our real experience of the world: birds, airplanes and clouds. But in other cases, some entities challenge our perception of the real world, such as flying castles and islands, flying characters, natural powered glides, heavy flying battleships and others. In order to analyze Miyzaki’s proposal, we relate of the concepts of “physics” (A. Einstein, 1936) and “icastic form” (I.Calvino, 1988), which provide the key to our concept of analysis: “physics” in animation. Regarding the concept of physics, in “Physics and Reality,” Albert Einstein writes,

on the stage of our subconscious mind appear in colourful succession sense experiences, memory pictures of them, representations and feelings. In contrast to psychology, physics treats directly only of sense experiences and of the “understanding” of their connection. But even the concept of the ” real external world “of everyday thinking rests exclusively on sense impressions.” I believe that the first step in the setting of a “real external world” is the formation of the concept of bodily objects, […] – the meaning of the bodily object. […]. The second step is to be found in the fact that, in our thinking (which determines our expectation), we attribute to this concept of the bodily object a significance … This is what we mean when we attribute to the bodily object a real existence. (Einstein 1936, p. 349-352)

We found in Einstein’s writing the first step to understanding that physics is to structure meaning. This early reference helped us to understand that whatever “world” we face, its existence is defined by the attribute of “meaning” and “significance” to forms (or bodily objects) under the perception of our senses, pictures and memory. As he argues,

ahead of the notion of objective time there is, however, the concept of space; and, ahead of the latter we find the concept of the bodily object. The latter is directly connected with complexes of sense experiences. It has been pointed out that one property, which is characteristic of the notion “bodily object” is the property which provides that we coordinate to it an existence, independent of (subjective) time, and independent of the fact that it is perceived by our senses. We do this in spite of the fact that we perceive temporal alterations in it. (Einstein 1936, p. 349-352)

The idea that bodily objects are subject to space and time, gives the object an existence and behaviors within limits. Einstein continues, “Poincaré has justly emphasized the fact that we distinguish two kinds of alterations of the bodily object, “changes of state” and “changes of position” (1936, p. 349-352). Poincaré’s references regarding the alterations of “state” and “position” of the bodily object, objectifies the variations of the bodily object within its limits. In this respect,

All that is necessary is the statement of a set of rules, since without such rules the acquisition of knowledge in the desired sense would be impossible. One may compare these rules with the rules of a game in which, while the rules themselves are arbitrary, it is their rigidity alone which makes the game possible. (Einstein 1936, p. 349-352)

Einstein provides enlightenment on how to actualize the rules of a universe in order to establish the limits by which a world can exist. The congruence of its rule, gives the order by which a world exists in one way and not any other. In the animated film, however, the verisimilitude with reality does not seek to validate the real laws of physics, but instead, what those laws re-create and propose in the animated film and how they differ from our reality, is the goal of our analysis.

We found in the “Six memos for the next millennium” from Italo Calvino, the importance of imagination, visibility and the icastic form for the analysis of the animated film. According to Calvino,

The danger we run into losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colors from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact think in terms of images. I have in mind some possible pedagogy of the imagination that would accustom us to control our own inner vision without suffocating it or letting it fall, on the other hand in confused, ephemeral daydreams, but would enable the images to crystallize into a well defined, memorable, and self sufficient form, the icastic form.  (1988, p. 92)

If, as Einstein suggests, physics play a major role on creating the rules, the structure and order by which a world can exist, the “icastic” form plays a major role on giving form and “visibility” to the inner world of the individual. In animation, these two concepts together act as structured vision of the director, rendering visible the concretion of a new world, which would be impossible otherwise. As Thomas Lamarre notes, “figures in animation seem to obey other laws of physics” and “act, form and generate, other non-natural forces.” (2002, p. 346).  But what are those physics proposing? Scott Bukatman represents the relation between reality and fantasied worlds by identifying the “harsh physics” that these worlds produce – the “encounter to alternatives to the weighty structures of the real” (2003, p. xiii). For Bukatman, these “escapes” are more than retreats from an intolerable existence; they are escapes into worlds of renewed possibility” (2003, p. xiii).  In our view, in animation these “escapes” are the animation director’s natural environment of recreation and the expression of philosophy, values, emotions and the visibility of an alternative universe. As Miyazaki himself acknowledges,

creating Animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality, or suffering from a near-sighted distortion of their emotions. (2009, p. 25)

If Miyazaki’s worlds intentionally depict a fictional existence – that is, one that differs from reality – what is the purpose and intention of that world? In order to identify the proposal of the director we established a model of analysis regarding the physics of its universes, inhabitants, objects and elements.

Analysing physics in Hayao Miyazaki’s films: model of analysis  

Our model of analysis found inspiration on Paul Well’s model in what concerns the type of variables of analysis (1998, p. 36). But while Well’s model is, at its essence, an opposition of two extreme styles of representation or types of discourse, the essence of our investigation analyzes the intentions and the content of the proposal of the director (see Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1








The major difference between Well’s model and our own (above) is that we have divided our structure into three levels, which in our view, act together as a semiotic process of construction of significance. In common with Wells we retained the variables of narrative form, configuration (albeit in a different way), and continuity. We also consider seven others variables: universes, objects, sceneries, behaviour, time, content, dialogue and music, in order to characterize the content.

At the level of meaning, we analysed the worlds of Miyazaki under his references, values, ethic position, both from his writings (1998, 2009) and explanation of visuals and also by reference of scholars. In the tradition of works such as Utopia (Thomas More, 16th century), New Atlantis (Francis Bacon, 17th century), and Brave New World, (Aldous Huxley, 20th century), we found in Miyazaki’s films a pattern of worlds that do not exist in time or place and further, defy the laws of physics in several aspects. The floating island of Laputa, the forest of insects in Nausicaä, or the amusement park in Spirited Away, are some examples of immersive fictionalized worlds. Although these films deal with themes or issues that are rooted in the real world, they are intentionally represented as fictive, yet retaining the possibility of a utopian world. By utopian worlds, we consider the proposal of a place or state of being that leads to the possibility of social change and an alternative and positive answer to the often-apocalyptic back stories or events in the films. In the eleven feature films directed by Miyazaki, some speak about a positive answer to war (Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind (1984), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Porco Rosso (1992), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), The Wind Rises (2013); others speak about the positive answer to the protection of our natural world: My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997); and others propose a positive answer to human values, family values or society values: My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Spirited Away (2001). Miyazaki’s filmic universes reflect his deep concerns with “the fate of eco-systems, the ever-present phantom of war, the evils of totalitarianism and the vicissitudes of self-development” (Cavallaro 2006, p.9). The physics of his worlds propose parallel and alternative and transformed worlds in diverse geographies and diverse time scales (p.9), going from a fictionalized but still recognizable historical past (Princess Mononoke), to the contemporary present (Spirited Away) and to the post-apocalyptical future (Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind), including floating islands and alternate technologies such as crystal magnetism (Laputa: Castle in the Sky). These universes rarely constitute a direct relation to the time and place of contemporary Japan. The same dissonance of time and place is given to the physics of Miyazaki’s worlds, which similarly do not constitute an exact replica of our current reality. The same differences occur with the protagonists’ characterization, which is usually not aligned with contemporary female and male stereotypes, in mentality (values) or appearance (clothes, haircuts or of individual objects) or in terms of oversexualizing the female characters, which is often common to commercially-produced Japanese animation. The characters of Nausicaä, in Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, Sheeta in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Satsuki, in My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Fio in Porco Rosso, San in Princess Mononoke, Chihiro in Spirited Away, and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle constitute an unusual number of successful female heroines of varying ages who are given unusual empowerment such as mental and decisive power or natural powers and energies which allow them to perform heroic deeds. The worlds they inhabit allude to the possibility of change, of faith in the story and in social changes. The deep values of the director are expressed in universes that seek change and expression and which demand real-world action. As Miyazaki frames it, “inspired by that trigger, what rushes forth from inside you is the world you have already drawn inside yourself, the many landscapes you have stored up, the thoughts and feelings that seek expression” (Miyazaki 2009, p. 27-28). More simply, the director’s inner values, worries, feelings that seek expression are transported to the film, but constructed before long the film starts, representative of the icastic form proposed by Calvino (1988).

At the level of form, we analysed the physics and physicality rules of variables such as: form of characters, form of scenery (natural rural landscapes or fantasy landscapes above the clouds), and the form and families of objects or vehicles (either mechanical or powered by natural means).[1] As acknowledged by Miyazaki and others, his films are generated first in visual form (usually without a script), via storyboards, concepts, layouts, sceneries, objects and characters. Physics at the level of form are generated, coded and transformed as an intricate part of the story, allowing in its semiotic process a series of reconfigurations of characters, objects and places, on which Miyzaki places a strong symbolic process of changing meaning. “While visualizing the settings, structure, movement, and speech of the various characters, and drawings – we try to construct scenes so vivid and emotional that will make viewer’s palms sweat from the drama, or their sides split with laughter from the gags” (Miyazaki 2009, p. 31).

Regarding form, Miyazaki’s singular configuration of young female heroines who are empowered by supernatural forces, art or spirit, and are linked to the natural world but are not reflective of the laws of physics. Kiki masters the broom into the skies, Nausicaä masters the art of the glide, Sheeta is empowered by the flying stone, San masters the spirit of the forest. The empowerment of the female heroines is oriented towards natural forces rather than towards machinery, proposing an alternative to technology and destruction. As Susan Napier notes, tapping into natural power also drives the psychological characterizations of the female characters (2005, p. 154). Similarly, Cavallaro identifies Miyazaki’s heroines as “active, independent, courageous and inquisitive” (2006, p. 11). The female heroine is an ethical model of gender equity, wherein girls can act to change values and mentalities. The recurrent encounter between human characters with “non-human and strange creatures,” offers a path to transformation and a confrontation of the characters within form (Peres et al., 2017). The beasts’ army, in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, are not humans in war tanks attacking the village, yet they retain a similar form borne from such existing objects – scary in meaning, shape, scale, number and behaviour. Taken as a whole, the beast army is a symbolic depiction in form and meaning as dangerous and out of human control. Although they are depicted as strange animal figures, the eccentric design of the radioactive creatures evokes a confrontation with fear, survival, destruction and death. The army’s configuration presents an alert to what the world could become if humans do not protect their communities from nuclear power.

Similarly, in Spirited Away, when Chihiro’s parents are magically transformed into pigs due to their own greed, the same level of symbolism, visual metaphor and transformation of physics is deployed. It depicts how we have the capacity to become bestial if we don’t defend our ethical human values. Graphics and symbolic formulas are used to depict transformations in the form and physicality of the characters, in a system of physics that allows change made visible through powerful semiotic value, excellence of design and eccentricity of the film’s aesthetics.

At the level of movement, we analysed the variables of: behaviour (changes of state), continuity (changes of position), time and pace and also sound. Physics play a major role at this level as they advance all kinds of behaviours, interactions, transformation of characters, energies, gravitational issues, the timing of emotions, the film’s pace, its sound, and types of movement on the ground or above in the sky. The relation of physics with movement is crucial as it puts the world in motion, giving it a visibility, and existence in time, and making known the rules by which we perceive those transformations. The opening scene of Laputa: Castle in the Sky depicts a symbolic scene above the clouds, wherein Sheeta, with her eyes shut, is falling from the sky in the distance. Her descent slows, as the crystal pendulum in her chest glows with a bright blue light. As she approaches the ground, Paco, her male friend, opens his arms anxiously to catch her, only to find that her light body suddenly becomes heavy as her the light in her pendulum fades out.  This scene is portrayed at a slow pace, and with a light and poetic sense of falling, which feels very different from how characters fall from heights in Warner Bros. cartoons, for example. The slow pace and emotional acting timing creates a credible event, even knowing that these changes of state and position wouldn’t be possible, yet events such as these define the rules of physics of this world. The lack of gravity and depth (Lamarre, 2009) depicts a transformation of the character that suggests liberation from the earth, which allows for a new possibility and power of behaviour for the characters. In addition to this emblematic scene, in all Miyazaki’s eleven films protagonists are depicted flying or floating in the sky. The lack of gravity is given to islands that float, in the air walk of Nausicaä, in the flying scene of Totoro with the two sisters, in the flying scenes of Chihiro and the dragon Haku, even when Haku no longer in his dragon form and his ability to fly would be impossible for a human character. It is also manifest in the sheer quantity of gliders, planes, and air machines depicted in Miyazaki’s films. The amount of events without gravity implies an impossible type of behavior (possible in animation) suggesting a proposal that allows liberation and of freedom. As Napier (2005) suggests, “soaring images, from gliders and warplanes to the flying island of Laputa to Nausicaä’s climactic walk through the sky, Miyzaki’s vision reaches its most magical heights, suggesting the possibility of freedom, change and redemption” (2005, p.154).

At this level of movement, the transformation of states of the characters also plays a major role in forwarding the films’ messages. The physical and behavioural transformation of No Face in Spirited Away, from partially transparent and anonymous without face or other characteristics, to a monstrous beast, similar to a huge spider, that gains a strange and frightening voice, devouring other characters and pursuing Chihiro in a radical greedy and possessive behaviour, is probably the most radical physical transformation of Miyzaki’s films. No Face’s transformation serves as a warning: look what can happen if we lose our values; like Chihiro’s parents, we can become bestial and outrageous characters. Ultimately at this level of movement, Miyazaki demonstrates his ability of timing the acting into emotional scenes, transforming the configuration and behaviour of characters, allowing metamorphoses to happen, and defining a world of physics full of symbolism and metaphor. The illusion of movement in animation allows that in very frame, one can act and change, form, behaviour and meaning making the semiotic process very strong in Miyzaki’s language of coding and graphic formulas.

Synthesis and Conclusions

As a conclusion we came to the understanding that Miyazaki’s language and aesthetics depicts alternative worlds through a powerful semiotic process of intentional graphic substitutions of the real. Physics in the films of Miyazaki act as the agent of change structuring the pillars of the possibility of a new world to exist under “other” rules. Those rules make possible the liberation from the ground into worlds without gravity as a proposal of liberation and reform. We are convinced that Miyazaki’s intentional proposal declares an ethical reform and a positive answer to the problems of our times in: gender equity with focus on female empowerment, the protection of human and community values, protection of nature, the ever avoidance of technology and war destruction, use of natural forces and magnetism. The result is a world that doesn’t exist, it is fictional it is utopian world, but one, which intentionally discards the pessimism and decay of reality and one that proposes a positive possibility of change and ethical reform of the world values. In an overall it proposes a place of change, hope, dream, and a better fate for human kind. And with it, projects a sense of hope to our reality too, in the way we observe, reflect and defy the paths of future and the modernity of our world.

Cátia Peres is an Assistant Professor and PhD Candidate, at IADE, Creative University, in Portugal.



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Filmography (organized by chronological date)

Fantasmogorie. (1908). Film. France: Émile Cohl.

Gertie the Dinosaur. (1914). Film. USA: Winsor McCay.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.(1984). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki

Laputa: Castle in the Sky. (1986). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor Totoro. (1988). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Kiki’s Delivery Service. (1989). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Porco Rosso. (1992). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Princess Mononoke. (1997). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away. (2001). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Howl’s Moving Castle. (2004). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

Ponyo. (2008). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, , Studio Ghibli

The Wind Rises. (2013). Film. Japan: Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli


[1] The taxonomy and classes of human and non-human characters is presented in full in the complementary paper titled “Strange Creatures” (Peres, C. & al., 2017), which analyses only this variable of the model.