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“I was determined not to create a manga that people would read while they were eating soba noodles.” (In reference to Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki quoted in Schodt, 1996, 278)
In my first year of teaching, I had four classes of Year 8s (and one of Year 7) in an outer suburban, high migrant high school. Having struggled most of the year, with high spirited students who generally had a low commitment to learning a language (Japanese) to which most of them had little affinity, there were finally a couple of periods in that first year, where I really grabbed the students’ attention. Those periods were when I showed them the animated movie, My Neighbour Totoro or Tonari no Totoro (1988). More than I could manage with my albeit earnest teaching, this movie, directed by Miyazaki Hayao was able to transport these students to Japan, telling them a simple story of childhood, to which they could relate. At the same time, this story introduced the students to an idea of spirituality and imaginativeness, in a context of a rich natural world, to be enjoyed. After seeing this movie, my world was also enlarged, as I gradually managed to see and admire more and more Miyazaki classics and made sure when a new one came out, that I saw it as well.
Animator and director, Miyazaki Hayao was born in 1941. Japan was occupied by the United States four years later in 1945. He grew up with three brothers and a mother who had a long term illness. Miyazaki graduated in 1963 from Gakushuuin University’s Department of Politics and Economics, having been a member of a children’s literature study group (Schodtt, 1996). After graduation, Miyazaki joined Toei Animation, and started drawing Wanwan Chushingura, until the end of 1979, when he directed The Castle of Cagliostro (Miyazaki, 1984). In this essay, I will briefly discuss Miyazaki’s upbringing and career and then will attempt to delineate four themes which emerge in his compositions. These themes are Environmentalism, Shintoism and spirituality, Japanese cultural distinctives and lastly ‘the joy of flight’. I could have chosen a few other themes, such as feminism, but for the sake of this essay, I have reduced my scope to these four areas.
According to Schodt (1996), Miyazaki’s drawing is reminiscent of French comics, bringing to mind French master Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Often, Miyazaki’s anime have portrayed medieval Europe, or sometimes central Asia, reflecting his wide reading of Western literature. The protagonist, Nausicaä, of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is so-named after the woman in Homer’s Odyssey who saved the shipwrecked Ulysses, although there are also traces in this animation of Old and New Testament themes and ancient Greek and Norse myths (Schodt, 1996).
The genres of Hayao Miyazaki usually include science fictional elements and are often interwoven with other genres, as evidenced in Nausicaä and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), such as fantasy, comedy and romance (Cavallaro, 2006). Cavallaro states that one of the stand-out traits of Miyazaki is the ability to ensure that his characters are thoroughly individuated and distinct. Bertha (Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989), Old Sophie (Howl’s Moving Castle) or Uncle Pom (Laputa, Castle in the sky, 1986) would never be confused, despite the fact that all are elderly characters with apparent affinities.
The first most obvious theme, however, in Miyazaki’s animations has been one of treasuring the environment.
‘[When walking in Shakujii park, near Toei Studios]…I thought the trees were so beautiful. I also realized that Japan is beautiful when there are no people around. Japan became ugly because its population grew…’
-Miyazaki interviewed by Hiroaki Ikeda, Roman Album, My Neighbour Totoro, June 3, 1988, (in Cary and Schodt, 2009, 357).
‘…for me the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness deep in my heart. I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness inside my heart would also disappear and my existence would grow shallow.’ (Miyazaki quoted in Cary and Schodt, 2009, 360).
Miyazaki’s environmental concern is about much more than a sense of necessity, or to enable humans to survive. Rather, it grows out of his other main theme, namely spirituality or relatedness to the world. When he speaks of ‘darkness’ in his heart in the quote above, this is not darkness or evil in a classic Greco-Western sense, but rather a sense of spirituality. For the gods/the divine are found in darkness. A Shinto ethic considers the environment a living collection of interconnected beings worthy of respect (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009).
The afore-mentioned Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which symbolised Miyazaki’s break through into the animation world, is at heart an environmentally themed movie. This film shows consequences of global pollution and groups of people who are not taking responsibility for the environment. It opens as follows:
1000 years have passed since Earth succumbed to pollution generated by the very nations we now inhabit. Most of the Earth is covered by the highly toxic Sea of Corruption. (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009, 57).
The environment and the giant insects portrayed here, bring to mind Frank Herbert’s Dune (Schodtt, 1996). The two protagonists in this movie, Nausicaä and Kushana are both aiming to rid the world of the toxicity present in the environment. However, they have alternative approaches. Nausicaä seeks the answer by studying, learning about the environment and being a part of it, while Kushana is aiming to obliterate the toxic waste and all that represents it (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009).
Unsurprisingly, Japanese culture also appears in Nausicaä in understories, myths and esoteric Buddhist themes (Schodt, 278, 1996). Originally, Nausicaä was developed by Miyazaki as a manga, or comic strip.
Miyazaki did not initially intend or believe that this manga would be animated, but in 1983, he was offered the opportunity anddirected the film and made Nausicaä so detailed and dense that the artwork was similar to an engraving. It was a complex story of the likes that few anime or manga had previously achieved. Miyazaki was very aware that in Nausicaä he aimed to produce a film which would not reflect a clear, logical development, but might rather ‘impart a vastness that we might not fully understand…’ (Miyazaki quoted in Cary and Schodt, 2009, 337). The box office success of Nausicaä, in March 1984, resulted in the formation of Miyazaki’s animation company, Studio Ghibli.
Nausicaä was set in the Muromachi era of Japan (1392-1573) and depicted a struggle between nature (gods of the dark forest) and humans, cutting down the forest for fuel. The end of this movie was a standoff, instead of a happy ending. There are references in Nausicaä to nuclear holocaust, alternative energy and wind power, linking to the fears of modern Japan (Schodt, 1996).
Some of the themes Miyazaki has worked with include reminders of our interconnections to the earth and with each other, reminders that greed and materialism defeat us (Callis, 2010). Anyone who has watched Spirited Away (2001), is drawn into a Japanese inspired world of spirits and gods. This is a mystical rendering of a story said to be a Japanese “Alice in Wonderland”.
My Neighbour Totoro also draws on respect for the environment leading to harmony and reward. Grave of the Fireflies (also 1988), shows the impact of war on the environment. There are signs of environmental decline in some of Miyazaki’s films, including Pom Poko (1994) and the recent film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). Odell and Le Blanc (2009) note some conflicts or cross purposes, however, in Ghibli films. For example, in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the mining village is seen as good because of its community work ethic, when the residents are actually evidently stealing from nature. Nausicaä is an environmentalist, who uses a flying machine to get around. In Princess Mononoke (1997), the women working at the factory are viewed as good community workers, although they are producing weapons and iron that put them in conflict with the forest and nature (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009).
Shintoism and spirituality
I didn’t intend to make her a Joan of Arc and I wanted to get rid of any religious undertone. But in the end it became a religious picture with that scene [after Nausicaa dies and is held up by the ohmu] … I do like animism. I can understand the idea of ascribing character to stones or wind. But I didn’t want to laud it as a religion. That is why Nausicaa isn’t Joan of Arc.
-Miyazaki Hayao, “Nature is both Generous and Ferocious”, Roman Album, Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, Tokuma Shoten, May 1, 1984, in Carey and Schodt, 2009.
Miyazaki’s thoughts on the character of Nausicaä above show an effort to avoid particular religious intentions, although he also can see that it is hard to avoid. Japanese mythology and spirituality is nonetheless an important theme in Miyazaki’s films, indicated by customs and culture referred to within the animations. For example, kami spirits in Priness Mononoke and obake spirits in Pom Poko. There are metamorphic kitsune and tanuki (Foxes and badgers) (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009).
The heroine in Nausicaä, despite the Homerian name, was inspired by Japanese mythology, in a tale from the Heian period (AD 794-1185), about a strange insect loving princess (Schodt, 1996). She is a ‘princess who loved insects and …after coming of age, delighting in watching such things as caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies…According to the stories, at a time when most girls like her would have shaved off their eyebrows and stained their teeth black, she kept her teeth white and her eyebrows black and looked terribly odd.” (Miyazaki, 1982).
In the context of this spirituality and as noted above, Miyazaki dislikes the Western dichotomy of light versus dark. This is a simplistic discussion, believes Miyazaki. Rather, the gods are in the darkness, usually in the forest or mountains. Therefore, the Japanese venerate certain forests and natural objects, and consider many places to be off limits and sacred.
A sense of what is Japanese has also driven Miyazaki, despite his frequent compositions on non-Japanese topics.
Japanese distinctiveness (日本人論 nihonjinron)
Whilst the above term might be taken within Japan to be a very nationalistic sentiment, Miyazaki has actually through his work reclaimed this as something different. Miyazaki relates how he gradually came to realise Japanese culture was not actually closed and isolated, but was actually related in various ways, for example to the Bhutanese and Nepalese who like fluffy, sticky rice, as well as related to other places with broadleaf, evergreen forest. In opposition to the idea of nihonjinron, or in a new definition, his work has shown an essential human condition and diversity.
‘My culture went far beyond the idiotic Japanese who started the war, beyond Hideyoshi Toyotomi who invaded Korea, and beyond The Tale of Genji that I detested.’ (Interview, June 3, 1988 with Hiroaki Ikeda in Cary and Schodt, 2009, 358).
Miyazaki deliberately made a very Japanese movie, in Tonari no totoro, or My Neighbour, Totoro. This movie included a combination of locations including Sakuragaoka, Kandagawa River where he grew up and the landscape of Tokorozawa where he currently lives (Carey and Schodt, 2009, 350). Miyazaki says that the totoro creatures in the movie are ‘goblins of the transitional phase when Japan hadn’t become entirely modernized’. (Carey and Schodt, 2009, 355). This movie considers modernisation but also harks back to an earlier time in Japan in its depiction of a rural hamlet. Some have said that this movie is encouraging nostalgia, but Miyazaki was emphatic that this was not the aim. ‘…I didn’t make this film out of personal nostalgia for that time’ (Carey and Schodt, 2009, 355). At the same time, he was not interested in returning to the ghosts and spirits of old mythology, such as Shigeru Mizuki, a manga author known for tales of horror and ghosts. He imagined that a cat goblin turned into a bus, making the cat-bus. This cat-bus from My Neighbour Totoro, is, today, a well known symbol of Miyazaki’s, holding pride of place in the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, an enormous soft toy for children to scramble over. Miyazaki in this way transformed old goblin symbols into a modern but still Japanese mythological ideas. Miyazaki made the film, aiming to encourage a spirit of playfulness, hoping that children would be encouraged to look ‘under their houses and to look in the thickets behind shrines’. Perhaps it is also this playfulness which instigated the final theme as an ongoing part of Miyazaki’s work.
The joy of flight
Miyazaki: “I personally find airplanes cool and I love flying scenes.” (Cary and Schodt, 2009, 341)
Flying is the final theme which I will briefly explore by reference to Miyazaki Hayao’s films. This flying obsession perhaps started as a child. Miyazaki’s father worked at Miyazaki Airplane and Hayao began to develop a love for flying machines (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009). He drew what he saw but also imagined new forms of aviation. As a result, flying machines are found in Conan, the Boy in Future (1978), The Castle of Cagliostro and in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Also, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, The Cat Returns (2002), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Tales from Earthsea (2006) and Spirited Away. To take one example, in Majo no takyubin, or Kiki’s delivery servi, Kiki, the 13 year old protagonist, has a special skill, the ability to fly through the air.
The four areas briefly introduced from Miyazaki’s oeuvre of work are of course, interwoven and undoubtedly interpreted variously. Miyazaki himself has noted that it was not until his thirty’s that he developed an environmental appreciation and awareness and presumably his emphases and ideas have developed and changed as well. He has a sense that concern for the environment is only appropriate springing from a transcendence of the earth. His interests in children’s literature and wide reading of Western classics have informed his portrayal of Japanese and other subjects, and enabled a fine portrayal of the human condition, which has been appreciated around the world. At the same time, his sense of the child’s perspective and playfulness expressed in flying machines have metaphorically enabled his detailed animations to not only take off but soar.
Callis, Cari, ‘Nothing that happens is ever forgotten’, in Josef Steiff and Tristan Tamplin, (2010) Anime and Philosophy: Wide eyed wonder, Chicago, Carus Publishing Company.
Cavallaro, Dani, (2006) The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers.
Hairston, Marc, ‘The Reluctant Messiah: Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Manga’, 173-184, in Toni Johnson-Woods (ed), (2010) Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives, New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Heinricy, Shana, (2010), ‘Take a Ride in the Catbus’, in Josef Steiff and Tristan Tamplin, Anime and Philosophy: Wide eyed wonder, p 1-11, Chicago, Carus Publishing Company.
Miyazaki, Hayao (March 30, 1984), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Guide Book, Tokyo, Tokuma Shoten, in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Shodt (transl), (2009), Starting Point, Hayao Miyazaki: 1979-1996, San Fransisco, Studio Ghibli Inc.
Miyazaki, Hayao, (September, 25th, 1982), Animage Comics; Wide Edition Nausicaä Valley of the Wind, Vol. 1, Tokyo, Tokuma Shoten, in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Shodt (transl), (2009), Starting Point, Hayao Miyazaki: 1979-1996, San Fransisco, Studio Ghibli Inc.
Schodt, Frederik L., (1996) Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, Berkeley, Stone Bridge Press.
Shaw, Daniel M.P., (2005), ‘The Way forward? – Shinto and a 21st Century Japanese Ecological Attitude’, Dissertation submitted in part completion of the MA in Values and the Environment, Lancaster University.