Hayao Miyazaki Says 'Ma' is an Essential Storytelling Tool

Ma - the secret ingredient you've been missing in all your films.
by Shanee Edwards - updated on November 27, 2023

Summer is the time for spectacular action flicks. Big explosions, heart-pounding car chases and over-the-top fight scenes fill the screen and audiences can’t seem to get enough. But not all movies thrive on loud, flashy and ostentatious action sequences. Sometimes, emotion and catharsis can come from stillness and silence on screen. One filmmaker who knows all about stillness and silence is renowned Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. Famous for the Studio Ghibli movies, Miyazaki has mastered the Japanese concept of “Ma” to create a deeper, psychological experience. So what exactly is Ma and why does it affect an audience so deeply?

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What is "Ma"? 

In an interview with film critic Roger Ebert from 2002, Ebert tells Miyazaki he appreciates what he calls “gratuitous motion” in his films, adding that, “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,” said Ebert. 

Miyazaki answered with, “We have a word for that in Japanese," he said. "It's called Ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally."

What is 'Ma' According to Hayao Miyazaki?

Spirited Away (2001)

Miyazaki then clapped his hands several times and said:

"The time in between my clapping is Ma. If you just have non-stop 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."

Read More: 101 Enchanting Animation Story Prompts

A Moment of Rest 

Using Ma allows the audience to reflect, imagine and interpret what is happening – not only visually, but emotionally. Instead of using dialogue to tell the audience how a character is feeling, Ma allows the audience to simply experience what the character is feeling along with them. 

Another way to think of Ma is like a gap, a pause, or a space between actions. In music, this pause is called a “rest” and balances the music with silence, which can have a very powerful effect by helping to build tension and suspense.

What is Ma According to Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki

Rests also help to create and maintain the rhythm for a piece of music, just as Ma helps to determine a rhythm in a story. Whenever there is a moment of silence or stillness in a movie or piece of music, the audience is able to prepare for the upcoming emotional or physical peak. 

Read More: WATCH: Domestic Trailer for Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises

Ma in Spirited Away

In this famous scene from Spirited Away, Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino takes a train ride with a masked spirit called No-Face as she contemplates the world around her. While the train is moving, Chihiro is almost completely still. This allows the audience to see what she is seeing (the outside world passing by) and feel what she is feeling (being just a small part of a big world). 

What is Ma According to Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away (2001)

This scene is incredibly effective for several reasons. First, the music is just achingly beautiful and doesn’t overpower the images. The sounds of water around the train add a feeling of nature, adding to the smallness of the people who exist in the world. The color palette is pale and haunting, and the ghost has an ethereal, transparent quality. The other people on the train look like dark shadows, as if they might disappear in the night. At the end of the scene, the ripples in the water behind the train indicate a fleeting sense of purpose. The camera then zooms in on Chihiro’s face, making it clear we are still in her world as night falls and the train sputters away. Chihiro’s stillness juxtaposed with the moving train gives a sense of time and place that is unique to her character and absolutely gripping to watch. 

Read More: 5 Trademarks of a Hayao Miyazaki Movies

Use of Ma in American Films

In American films, Ma can be seen in the way filmmakers use pauses, stillness and the timing of shots to create tension, atmosphere, and emotional impact. To create suspense, directors often use moments of silence or slow pacing to build anticipation and heighten the impact of a sudden event. 

Theme Music From Jaws 

In this scene from Jaws, the famous music goes, “Dun, dun,” then pauses before another “dun, dun,” as the lady swims in the dark and murky ocean. The music symbolizes the shark (or life’s hidden dangers) and the audience comes to associate danger and dread with the unnerving music that stops and starts.  


Jaws (1975)

The Whisper Scene in Lost in Translation

In dialogue-driven films, the use of pauses and silence between lines can add meaning and weight to the spoken words. But sometimes silence says more than any line of dialogue ever could. Writer/Director Sophia Coppola had a stroke of genius by not letting the audience hear what Bob (Bill Murray) whispers to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in this scene. In fact, they are standing in the middle of a busy Tokyo street and all the street sounds have been subdued to give emphasis to the quiet emotional moment the characters are sharing. 

Mexican Standoff in Reservoir Dogs

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino is known for bold violence and witty dialogue in his films, so there’s no chance of traditional Ma making its way into his movies. Instead, this Mexican standoff serves as a restful moment where the characters pause the action to reassess the situation and come up with a plan for moving forward. The characters are literally just standing there, with no action taking place so the audience can prepare for the bloodbath that’s about to come. 


While the traditional concept of Ma may not be widely used in American filmmaking, the idea of creating tension, balance, and meaning through the use of pauses, silence and stillness are certainly popular techniques seen in many movies and can trace their roots to the Japanese aesthetic of Ma. 

Read More: The Simple Guide to Writing Animated Screenplays



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