Ma—Space to Breathe

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Space Series

Today’s post is the first in a series on space. I’ve asked other writers to contribute guest posts, giving their thoughts on space—however they choose to interpret the word. I’m starting things off, so please fasten your seatbelt.

If you read Laini Taylor’s recent blog (which you can read here) as I did, you read about a subject I’ve also grappled with but could not articulate why until now. The post helped me understand why I felt exhausted at the end of some of the movies I’ve seen but always felt exhilarated whenever I watched a Miyazaki film. I know that probably makes no sense right now, especially if you haven’t read the post. I hope it will in a minute.

Laini quoted from a Tumblr post by Sara Ryan that discussed an interview the late film critic Roger Ebert had with Hayao Miyazaki. I won’t repeat the entirety of the conversation. You can read it in Laini’s post (and I totally recommend that great post) or the Ryan Tumblr post here. I’ll just repeat Miyazaki’s demonstration of the concept of ma, which sparked this post. I don’t want to come up with a poor explanation of what I think the term means, so here’s Miyazaki’s explanation:

He clapped his hands three or four times. “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.”



I still wanted to know more, so I dug deeper and discovered posts mentioning a 1979 exhibit (MA: Space-Time in Japan) by an architect, Arata Isozaki, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. In the search for information on that exhibit, I found another quote on ma, this time at a site called Big in Japan:

The Japanese spatio-temporal concept of ma suggests a gap, opening, delay or silence. It can be understood as a demarcated in-betweenness in space or time. A room, being the space formed inside walls, is ma. A pause in music, as the gap delineated between audible notes, is also ma.

In Miyazaki’s films, moments of rest are built into the action. Those moments never felt gratuitous to me. Instead, they have a meaning beyond just scenes of people staring at the pretty scenery. I can’t help thinking of the interlude in Miyazki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s novel) where Sophie and a young wizard in training, Markl, gaze at Star Lake or the scene in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä hears the prophecy of the warrior in blue—an interesting bit of foreshadowing in each movie. Some might roll their eyes at both scenes. But I love them, because though “rests,” they still advance the plot and help me understand the characters in a deeper way.


Nausicaä and Sophie and Markl

In contrast, I can’t help recalling some of the drawings of M. C. Escher, the well-known Dutch graphic artist, particularly his symmetry drawings like the one below (click here for others) where all of the space is filled with images. These drawings are the visual equivalent of some of the movies I’ve seen and also some of the books I’ve read over the years (and no I will not name them, so please don’t ask)—a space filled with action from Fade in or page 1 until the end (or fade out); no rest for the weary.


Reminds me of our fast-paced culture, where waiting is cut down to seconds. We fast-forward through commercials or skip them altogether to get to the program we want to see. Thanks to the constant influx of information, our brains rewire to the point where a slower paced scene in a book seems like a commercial—an unwanted interruption. We want to skip over it and get to the action.

Writers are told over and over: “You have to engage the reader at the first paragraph and hold on to that reader’s attention.” This accounts for the frenetic pace of many novels that aren’t even classified as thrillers. Stories about newborn kittens become The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition (the perilous account of the struggle for life among tabbies).

I find that I need space between the action, that moment of rest where I can breathe and interpret the action in the grand scheme of things. So I include those moments in my manuscripts even if there’s a danger that an impatient reader might simply skip over them.

How about you? Are you all about the action? Or do you, like me, need space to breathe? If so, how do you build those moments of rest into your narrative?

Escher bird painting from Nausicaä cover from Scene from Howl’s Moving Castle from Kanji character from Space image from White space from