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Welcome to Animation Globe where Headstuff’s animation expert Joseph Learoyd analyses films of the form from around the world. This entry does not focus on a particular movie but the Japanese concept of Ma.
Frequently we get films that have scenes full to the brim with long-winded dialogue, often times a necessity to evolve the plot. Sometimes though we are given the art of Ma: the Japanese word for gap or pause, the space between two elements.
Common in everyday culture, it extends into film and animation in a way that can deeply enhance the emotions of a scene. It can refer to emptiness within a shot, be that space between dialogue, or a period of quiet reflection. In order to better understand such a beautiful yet subtle concept, we need look no further than the stunning work of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. The poetic concept of Ma weaves its way through all of Ghibli’s output, no matter what the setting of the animated narrative. The animations all contain silence, moments of peaceful tranquility. Miyazaki explained the concept as the time between the clapping of hands and that without such space a tale can become overly crowded and busy. The breath that Ma gives us can enhance the tension within a film or animation.
From the train journey of our protagonists in Spirited Away to the peaceful scenery of My Neighbour Totoro, we are given moments to breathe between points, transitioning from one form to another. This is extremely effective because it provides us some time to understand the world that our characters inhabit. We have a chance to use our senses to better perceive the environment and the emotions that such scenery or action invoke within us. We can experience the diagetic elements without being flung head first into the next segment.
Ma doesn’t have to be without sound. Background music is often weaved through the scenery in order to create feelings. Similarly to Disney, the silent character is a staple of Ma. A non-speaking role such as the scarecrow in Howl’s Moving Castle, the forest spirits in Princess Mononoke or the magic carpet in Aladdin here in the west can be added into the mix to aid the protagonist, often allowing for comedic moments. These characters, although silent, still have feeling and characterisation something that is in itself an expression of the art of Ma.
Animation and music work together in Ghibli films to establish character development. Although not always spoken, the actions of a person played out on the screen are what develop them into three-dimensional figures. As laid out in The Illusion of Life by Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson (often seen as the essential handbook of the animator), we are given the 12 principles of animation, 12 concepts to develop life through the form. Using Ma as a developmental concept here, we can take three very important principles: appeal, staging and timing. Appeal refers to the charisma and style of a character; staging to the setting and environment; and timing to the amount of time it takes for an action – or in the case of Ma, spacing, to play out. These principles blend together, working symbiotically between scenes of immense action and dialogue and create a state of dynamic balance.
Miyazaki has become a master of this art, and by doing so, has opened his films to a larger audience. Through the art of Ma, we have a universal concept of community: one of timing and spacing that goes further than the confines of verbal language. Ma, although subtle, has been around in animation and cinema forever, pulling us into a scene and spitting us back out with a better understanding of that which we have just experienced.