In Hayao Miyazaki’s now-classic animated film Princess Mononoke (1997), the Lady Eboshi – founder and ruler of the industrial collective Iron Town – is perplexed by the moral ambiguity of the film’s protagonist, Ashitaka. “Why are you here?” she asks him, trying to gauge whose side he is on. “To see with eyes unclouded by hate,” is his reply.
The quote has become a classic, and aptly epitomizes one of the key qualities of its creator. For more than four decades Miyazaki has produced animation – including 11 full-length feature films – which endeavour, in differing ways, to do precisely that. His films offer a vantage not only on the periods and struggles woven into their plots, but offer a vital window into human nature itself. As much as Miyazaki drives us to consider the issues inherent in the context of his films – ecological devastation, militarism, love of nature and the innocence of childhood – he also urges us to reflect on ourselves, on what motivates us and on our ability to see and appreciate the truly valuable things in this world.
While there’s an entire industry devoted to studying and writing about Miyazaki and his works in Japanese, English-language literature, especially of the biographical type, is comparatively lacking. A two-volume collection of Miyazaki’s own essays, reflections and articles (Starting Point: 1979-1996 and Turning Point: 1997-2008, Viz Media) offer an excellent starting point, and there are a few other works available as well. But given his impact on film, and given his films’ growing impact in the western world, there’s room for much more.
Japanese Studies scholar Susan Napier contributes to the growing field of English-language literature on the topic with an excellent overview of Miyazaki’s work, its meaning and impact. Miyazakiworld proceeds through Miyazaki’s films one by one, offering a combination of historical context and content analysis. The latter is scholarly yet accessible, offering interesting insights to consider on the films; however it’s the historical context which is truly interesting.
Miyazaki’s films were influenced by a range of experiences and events. During his early years working as a lower-ranked animator with Toei Animation (the studios which later produced the 1995 television anime series Sailor Moon, among much else), Miyazaki became deeply involved in the studio’s labour union (he was a committed Marxist for much of his life, says Napier, and certainly retains socialist leanings while growing more critical of labels). The early film, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968), on which he worked as chief animator, was in several respects an idealistic effort to make a film that not only expressed the solidaristic ideals of the labour movement, but did so in a fashion that reflected those ideals in practice by bringing the entire film team together in a single common space as opposed to dividing them hierarchically across different floors of the studio (a dramatic idea at the time). His series Future Boy Conan (1978), set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic, ecologically ravaged world like several of his later works, drew on and reworked traumatic episodes from his childhood: an incident he recalls in which his affluent family were escaping from Allied air raids at the end of the Second World War and refused help to others as they drove by is rewritten in the animation, with the protagonists risking their lives to help those in danger instead.
Miyazaki’s political convictions often influenced the films in subtle yet important ways. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984) is a classic ecofable, influenced in part by a growing sense of ecological crisis in Japan and beyond. Nausicaa also demonstrates Miyazaki’s other great talent: producing manga. Although most of his life’s work focused on anime, he was also a skilled manga writer and artist. Nausicaa began life as a manga that Miyazaki started writing in 1982, initially on the condition it not be made into a film. Miyazaki soon changed his mind and agreed to produce a film version with himself as director. The manga, which ran until 1994, swelled to seven volumes and over 1,000 pages, and differs in many significant respects from the film version. Napier devotes a separate chapter to discussing each work.
Ecological crises are not the only influence on Miyazaki films. While developing the ideas for Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Miyazaki traveled through Wales, whose landscape inspired the film’s setting. The epic UK Miners’ Strike had just ended, and Miyazaki was deeply moved by the struggle of the Welsh miners, which is reflected in the portrayal of the mining communities in the film, with their stoic, long-suffering yet good-natured approach to life.
Miyazaki contributed to a number of lesser-known works, such as animated versions of Heidi (1984) and Anne of Green Gables (1979). These are considered in less depth than the feature films, unfortunately.
In addition to the historical and social contexts of the films, Napier explores the psychological journeys that inspired Miyazaki’s films as well. My Neighbour Totoro (1988), for example, appears to channel a Miyazaki grappling with elements of his childhood. Much like the young girl Satsuki in the film, Miyazaki grew up with a mother whose poor health kept her hospitalized much of the time, and Miyazaki had to mature quickly and learn to look after the household as a child, from cooking to cleaning, much like Satsuki in the film. On a deeper level, the film reveals young children struggling to deal with trauma. Elements like the sessions of deep belly-laughs with their father, and their encounters with My Neighbour Totoro (perhaps a mysterious, magical stand-in for the ubiquitous ‘imaginary friend’), reflect coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma the young children felt as a result of their mother’s illness. The darker, emotional and suspense-laden scenes at the end, as the girls each struggle with their respective fears of losing their mother and then with Mei’s getting lost in the countryside, were all inflected by episodes from Miyazaki’s own childhood, including his own fear of losing his mother, episodes of missing children he remembered from his youth, and the grief he felt over the death of a pet dog as a child.
Napier’s overarching argument is that Miyazaki’s films are more than merely enjoyable masterpieces of animation. She argues that Miyazaki is an auteur—”a director whose personal and artistic vision is so strong that each film consistently contains trademarks that make his or her entire work a distinctive cinematic experience.” As a scholar, she says, she faces skepticism at the idea that an animator can be an auteur, and her book is largely an attempt to demonstrate that they can (hence, its effort to balance biography with cinematic analysis). Some of the trademark characteristics of Miyazaki films include apocalyptic imagery and strong “females who lead us through the endtimes.”
Children are a key staple of Miyazaki films: in addition to drawing on his own childhood, he has very distinct ideas about the importance of children. He believes children’s ability to see the beauty of the world and revel in that simple beauty and innocence is something adults need to be reminded of and to learn from. Some of his work, My Neighbour Totoro, for example, represents an extended effort to portray the world through the eyes of a child. Describing Mei’s ability to discover and not feel frightened by the fantastical creature Totoro, Miyazaki explains that “she has not had her childhood violated by adult common sense.” At the same time, Miyazaki had a complex childhood himself, which has led him to form very adamant notions about the importance of children not being smothered by their parents and being able to develop and pursue their own distinct identities and interests. Still, he wants children to get out and live in the world – he even admonishes them, ironically, for watching anime videos, emphasizing that it’s more vital for them to get away from screens and go outside and play.
Nostalgia for the past is also a key element of his films, both the past of an individual’s childhood as well as that of former eras, as evidenced in his many works which take place in a context of fallen civilizations and the unearthing of historical mysteries or, more prosaically, historical periods of Japan (especially the pre-war era). Miyazaki is staunchly anti-war and pro-environmentalist, yet he approaches these themes idiosyncratically and from a deeply personal position. He’s too much of an individualist to care for organized movements and slogans, and troubles the neat message boxes activists have built for their causes (for example in his most recent film The Wind Rises (2013), which takes as its protagonist the developer of Japan’s Zero fighter jet; here the development of technology is seen as a beautiful thing despite its ultimate appropriation for war; the anti-war messaging is more subtle, woven into the everyday tyrannies and resistances that characters engage in).
It is this combination of themes and imagery which constitutes Miyazaki’s work as an auteur, and comprises what Napier refers to as ‘Miyazakiworld’: an “immersive animated realm that varies delightfully from film to film but is always marked by the director’s unique imagination… a realm where hope triumphs over despair.” A realm, in other words, that our society is sorely in need of, on many levels. Napier’s excellent volume combines biography with cinematic analysis in a manner that is as accessible to the general reader as it is satisfying for the more engaged scholar, and offers a valuable addition to English-language scholarship on the world’s most loved animator.