I’ve never really been interested in anime; I’m just one of those who don’t get it, I suppose. But ever since I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, I’ve been looking forward to seeing Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Last week I read an interview with Miyazaki by Roger Ebert. It contains this wonderful exchange:

I told Miyazaki I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”

Is that like the “pillow words” that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?

“I don’t think it’s like the pillow words.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb.”

That helps explain why Miyazaki’s films are more absorbing and involving than the frantic, cheerful action in a lot of American animation.

I’m really pleased to learn that word, ma. I agree with Ebert and Miyazaki about this, and it helps to explain a lot of my tastes: why I like football, baseball, and cricket better than soccer and hockey. Why most action movies bore me. Why I like games like Myst and Riven better than the first-person shooters.

During my first year in college, I spent a lot of time in the student center playing pinball. (That’s just one of the reasons that my first year was the first of more than four.) This was 1981/82, near the beginning of the ascendancy of video games. Asteroids was aging but still popular, and I recall Tempest and Frogger being among the things people were excited about.

There was an assistant chemistry professor who hung out with us at the pinball machines a lot. He had just left Berkeley, and seemed almost a caricature: long red hair and beard, etc. One day, he gazed mournfully over at the video games on the other side of the room and launched into a lecture. “Those poor guys don’t understand excitement. Those games give them a constant mid-level excitement; it just doesn’t stop, and that makes them numb. It’s hard to sustain, and it’s even harder to go up from there.

“Pinball is different. You can go a long time without anything exciting happening at all. It gets frustrating. But that frustration actually builds tension that sticks with you, and the longer it builds, the more exciting it is when the ball finally starts falling right and you ride and ride to a record game. The boring, frustrating parts actually increase the excitement when a pinball game really goes just right. That’s something the video games can never match. Pinball is a lot closer to sex.”

Obviously that’s not an exact quote … it’s been many years. But that’s the gist of it, and as funny as I thought it was, there’s a lot of truth in it.