The Book of Ma at Sarah Brook / Los Angeles

The Book of Ma / Organized by Keith J. Varadi

April 11 - May 4, 2024

Jenny Hata Blumenfield, Michael Kennedy Costa, Patricia Fern├índez, Luc Fuller, Andy Giannakakis, Susanna Kim Koetter, Hyungi Park, Keith J. Varadi

Sarah Brook
5229 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles



In the summer of 2020, my son was born. A neighbor who had become a bit more than an acquaintance had mentioned the film Porco Rosso by Hayao Miyazaki to me. At that point, I had only seen Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, way back when I was still in college. My neighbor, who was also still a somewhat-newish father, strongly suggested that I do a Studio Ghibli deep dive. I didn’t get to it right away, but one by one, I began to consume his films.

While going through Miyazaki’s filmography, I came across this interview Roger Ebert conducted with him in 2002, the year after Spirited Away was released and the year before I graduated high school and went away to college. There was one particular passage that truly affected me.

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 word.” 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.”

When I read Miyazaki describe the concept of “ma” to Ebert, it was a real a-ha moment for me. I had been contemplating and appreciating this idea of the pauses in between the action for most of my existence, but I never had a word for it.

So many of my favorite artists seem to embrace and put forth their own versions of ma. To me, ma isn’t just one thing; anything has the potential to be ma, but not everything does. It’s a vibe, it’s an essence; it’s fluid, it’s slippery. It is the calm presence of life and the moments (of) near death; it’s the often-neglected moments of living. It can happen at any time and at any place, but you must have a certain sort of awareness in order to experience it. You need to be perceptive, you need to be patient, and you need to be willing to adapt and change your perspective.

Keith J.Varadi, March 2024