If I were to choose my favourite movie directors of all time, some familiar names might appear prominently on the list: Peter Weir, Paul Verhoeven, Kurosawa Akira. But the top name would not be a person associated with films in the traditional sense – Miyazaki Hayao, a superlatively brilliant artist and a Homeric narrator. I do not make such an epithet lightly, by the way; his own Nausicaä, far from being a mere caretaker for a wounded Odysseus, stands out as an iconic, heroic figure of her own, instantly recognisable to fans of animation worldwide. Miyazaki-sensei‘s stunning landscapes, his knack for depicting the otherworldly in ways which are by turns both endearing and nightmarish, his sensitivity to complex characters and toward depictions of good and evil – all are at this time practically hallmarks of his style, and need no introduction. Many are familiar with the anti-war and environmentalist themes of his films, particularly those like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. But there is further a gentle, personalist radicalism which underwrites even these.
With good reason, it does not occur to many to look to Japanese animation for its deep insights into our political life or cultural or religious condition. Though its leading lights may have such key social insights (Tezuka Osamu with Astro Boy was one of the first, but other notables include the Sinophile Dr Tanaka Yoshiki’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Ono Fuyumi’s Confucian-flavoured Juuni Kokki and Taniguchi Gorô’s egalitarian yet quasi-nationalistic Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion), it is generally taken for granted that Japanese animation and manga, being aimed at a consumeristic – and now global – mass market, will avoid such sticky wickets and steer themselves toward easily-digestible forms of light entertainment. Yet Miyazaki sticks out in such a genre like a bent nail, much the way the (in many ways similarly-minded) Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, does in the oeuvre of newspaper comics.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, his directorial debut film, takes place 1,000 years after a catastrophic total war powered by gigantic machines of destruction (the ‘God-Warriors’) has destroyed human civilisation, and in a world which is mostly subsumed beneath a jungle which is absorbing and purifying the poisons left by the war machines and by civilisation generally. The environmental themes are apparent even in the premise, but he even brings to light religious ones. The humans in the story have begun telling themselves a myth, that a Messianic hero clad in blue and traversing fields of gold will come to restore humanity to its proper relationship with creation.
The story of Nausicaä is, in part, the story of the fulfilment of this prophecy, drawing deep parallels with classical Christianity. Nausicaä finds herself at the crux of a power struggle between the technological empires of Tolmekia and Pejite, trying to defend the gentle way of life represented by her Valley – they also use technology against nature, but the technology is small and appropriately scaled: wind turbines that can be fixed by one man (or woman); insect charms; small torches; the Möwe and the antique gunship. She empathises with the giant insects of the toxic forest. In the end, she ‘dies’ surrounded by a stampede of enraged insects in an attempt to return to them a baby that had been tortured by Pejite (whose blood had stained her dress blue) – and having died for the sins of humanity, she is lifted up on the calmed insects’ golden feelers and restored to life. At the end of the day, the technology of the God-Warriors cannot bring new life to humanity; only Nausicaä’s act of self-sacrificial love can.
Some of the same themes are explored in Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, but from different directions. In Mononoke, the religious themes make themselves felt through Shintô forest gods and their war with human industry, as represented by Tataraba (Iron Town) and its mistress Lady Eboshi. The male protagonist, Ashitaka, is placed under a monstrous curse by such a god, and is forced out of his village to seek out the cause of the curse; in doing so he places himself in the middle of the conflict between Eboshi and the forest gods (among whom is San, a human girl who was abandoned to a wolf-goddess who raised her as their own). There is a salvific arc to the story, and his curse is lifted, but the ending is deliberately ambiguous: the old gods are dead. The forest is re-growing itself even after Lady Eboshi kills the Night-Walker (and destroys her town in the process), but it will no longer be the forest San remembered. Eboshi will rebuild the town, but we do not see this or know what effects it will have. And Ashitaka and San are still caught between them in an eternal pilgrimage, neither one fully settled or at peace. In a way, this ambiguous ending strikes a much more profound note than Nausicaä does, leaving the grand questions open. Miyazaki yields neither to triumphalism nor to pessimism, but the closing image of the new shoots of forest growing among the wreckage, holds out an almost Chestertonian hope.
Castle in the Sky retains some themes held over from when Miyazaki was himself a Marxist (though he abandoned dialectical materialism during the creation of Nausicaä, he continued to hold alter-globalist and anti-capitalist sympathies) – the close-knit, heavily proletarian mining community from which the male protagonist Pazu comes is very much romanticised and practically idealised in the way the workers look out for each other, and come together to defend Pazu and his accidental compatriot, the princess Lucita of Laputa, from marauding pirates.
In addition, in Castle he further develops the critique of technology set out in Nausicaä. The technology of the fabled floating city of Laputa (which Pazu dreams of discovering, and from whose ruling family Lucita descends) is shown from two angles. The awesome destructive power of the automaton which falls from Laputa draws the ambition of the villain, Lucita’s cousin Romuska – but that automaton’s task upon being activated was merely to protect Lucita from harm. When they finally reach Laputa, Pazu and Lucita are surprised to discover that it has been made into a garden, with a mighty tree at its centre. However, Romuska captures Lucita, takes control of the city and unleashes the full destructive potential of its technology – not surprisingly resembling the blast of a nuclear weapon. Lucita escapes Romuska and gives a monologue about the need for human beings to retain their connexion with the Earth, which they cannot presume to transcend through technology. In the end, Pazu and Lucita destroy the base of Laputa. The garden, resting on the roots of the giant tree, is allowed to float away.
And then there’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s not a typical Miyazaki film, in spite of the prominent themes which generally recur in Miyazaki movies (like flying). There are no primal, elemental Shinto nature-gods warring with (or helping) humans; no legendary lost flying cities; no crypto-Christian Messianic prophecies to be fulfilled; no malign curses to be overcome – in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a witch, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wholly human story. However, this being a Miyazaki film, there are definitely religious and mystical overtones to it (including some he himself did not intend, perhaps, since he is on record as viewing religion with a somewhat distrustful eye).
The most striking thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is the imaginative way in which Miyazaki portrays human relationships and motivations, and thus begins to offer a deeper commentary on modern economic, social and religious life.
The basic conceit of the story is that when a girl born into a witch family comes of age, she must leave her parents’ home on the night of a full moon and seek out a new town to practise her craft. We see Kiki, accompanied by her black cat familiar Jiji, leaving her parents’ home (her mother is a skilled potion-maker with a slight tendency to be distracted, causing her potions to explode) – in spite of this radically-individualist custom the witches seem to have with regard to their trade, both her parents clearly love her and wish her the best, and she is surrounded by friends and neighbours who come to see her off. This is part-and-parcel of the rural intimacy which Miyazaki uses his incredible artistic talent to portray: the broad hillsides and shady brooks; the gappy picket fences; the old man riding his bike on a dirt road who shares a wave with Kiki. Notably, her mother gives her her own old broom to ride on – a broom which never loses its way even in a storm, which Kiki (reluctantly) accepts: filiality and the value of the old, the established and the personal are themes which return often in the film.
There is a definite shift in tone when Kiki arrives in her new town. The rural, intimate setting of her hometown, where people know her and her family, where the old lady Dora remembers perfectly well when Kiki’s mother arrived in their town, is replaced with a huge and impersonal city. Kiki is initially enthralled with the port city Koriko with its beautiful towers and bustling streets, but she soon discovers that she can easily be brushed aside in it. She stands at a corner, asking for permission to stay there and expecting the same kind of intimate, hospitable relationship her family had with their hometown. The scene is a heart-breaker: when confronted with this girl, the people around her all give her a wide-eyed look, before trading uneasy glances with each other and then hurrying away. It’s none of their business, after all. And that before a police officer threatens to ticket her for unwittingly blocking traffic. It’s little wonder that after this experience, she ends up blowing off the one person who does show up to help her – the flight-obsessed boy Tonbo.
Koriko certainly has its saving graces, though, and plenty of them. Not just Tonbo, but the baker Osono who runs the shop “Gütiokipänjä” – who stands as a striking counterpoint to the city folk we have seen thus far. She actively cares about her customers, which we see instantly as she is trying to return a pacifier to one of her customers who left it in the shop. Kiki returns it for Osono, and Osono immediately invites her in for coffee and gives her a place to stay. When Kiki comes up with the idea of running a delivery service, Osono offers to give her the use of the bakery’s phone to start up her business, with free room and board in exchange for some part-time help in the bakery.
The economics which the protagonists of Kiki’s Delivery Service engage in are not capitalist economics – Osono does not charge Kiki rent or offer her a pittance in exchange for running errands, for example – but rather mutualist economics. No thought of reward is given when Kiki offers to return the pacifier, when Osono offers her a place to stay, when Kiki offers to help around the bakery or when Osono offers the use of her phone. Certainly both Kiki and Osono are entrepreneurs, and no governing authority makes its presence obviously felt here, but they treat each other with dignity and kindness rather than trying to swindle each other – Kiki helps out in the shop, and Osono steers customers toward Kiki. Both seem to do so out of deep-seated non- (if not counter-) capitalist values: in Kiki’s case, the customs of the witches; in Osono’s case, a sense of hospitality and pride in her trade which goes well beyond the profit motive.
Kiki takes pride in her craft also, and the customs and moral values of the witches in Miyazaki’s universe continue to take on their radical bent. When making a delivery, even though she is in a rush to get off work, she still refuses to take payment when it turns out the elderly woman who requested her services does not have what she was meant to deliver: a pie for her granddaughter’s birthday. ‘I can’t take money for nothing,’ Kiki says as she helps her elderly customer build a fire for the old wood-fired bread-oven which will be used to make the pie. Miyazaki’s attitudes toward technology are somewhat on display here as well.
Miyazaki‘s attitude toward technology, as shown above, generally seems to be a Schumacherian one: it becomes more dangerous the less it conforms to human scale. The same pattern seems to hold true for Kiki’s Delivery Service – the dirigible Freedom Adventurer stands in for the sort of technology which defies the human scale. It crashes into the clock tower and very nearly kills Tonbo. Even the smaller-scale technologies are treated with a sceptical eye. The elderly Madame’s microwave breaks down, and no one knows how to fix it – only a wood-fed oven can save the day. Very notably, “Gütiokipänjä” does not use electric technology; even the phone is old-fashioned. (But Kiki does use her dad’s old radio and Tonbo ends up building a pedal-powered plane.)
Even some of Miyazaki’s old class politics show up. When the Freedom Adventurer breaks its tethers and nearly kills Tonbo, Kiki has no time to bring her own broom, but must borrow the old implement of a middle-aged proletarian in a work cap and overalls – and this is the broom she is seen riding ever since. It does not seem accidental that in the end, the day is saved by this humble broom and the talents of the brave young girl riding it.
It is in exploring the nature of talent that Miyazaki treads onto the religious ground that seems to offer at least a partial underpinning for the mutualist economic and social relationships of his characters. Miyazaki seems to offer his own voice through Ursula, the barefoot young artist who lives in a cabin in the woods. Shortly after Kiki loses her powers, and is no longer capable of flight, Ursula comes to visit her. They discuss the loss of her powers, and then start talking about inspiration and the creative spirit: ‘the spirit of witches; the spirit of artists; the spirit of bakers! I suppose,’ says Ursula, ‘it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it.’
‘In today’s society… where anyone can earn money going from one temporary job to another, there is no connexion,’ Miyazaki states, ‘between financial independence and spiritual independence. In this era, poverty is not so much material as spiritual.’ It is part-and-parcel of Miyazaki’s gentle radicalism that he recognises that poverty is not just something physical – though it certainly is that also – but something spiritual as well. He is not uncaring toward views of poverty which focus on the physical aspects; this is best demonstrated by his sympathetic portrayal of the flawed Lady Eboshi (and the women of Iron Town) in Princess Mononoke, and of the miners in Castle in the Sky. But at the same time, each of his films tries to point beyond that existence – if for no other reason than that of inspiration, the spirit of the artist.
Miyazaki likes to describe himself in his rare interviews as a ‘pessimist’ – albeit one who tries his hardest to keep his pessimism ‘at bay’ in his filmmaking, so as not to impose his vision of the world upon the children at whom most of his films are aimed. His ambition is to depict worlds that might be seen through a five-year-old’s eyes, to make films that can be understood by a five-year-old, that speak to a purity of heart. It may be this tension which fuels his imagination to such vertigo-inducing heights. At the same time, though, it is difficult to avoid the vision in his films. In striving for that purity of heart, he arrives at something very close to a sense of solidarity:
“[T]here is no paradise on the earth. I believe paradise only exists in the memories of our childhood,” Miyazaki said in a 2008 interview, when discussing the 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “Because of that, many social movements that aim to make a paradise always end up failing. So we must accept that our world isn’t a paradise. That is something which is too bitter for us, though… Can we build democratic socialism? If it is possible, then I believe it can exist on the opposite side of globalism. In that sense I mean local production for local consumption: the wave of things like slow food or slow life comes more than once…
“My little wish is to wear domestically produced underwear… I imagine there are shoemakers or tailors in the area we live and we can order [from] them custom made underwear. The tailor says to me, ‘Your tummy has developed? Not good!’ The society is run by local production for local consumption and there aren’t any large social changes. I only dream like that. It might be a foolish dream though… Animal Farm tells a similar story at its ending: ‘We have a right to try again and again’. Though it’s an ending that differs from the story in the original novel, I agree with that idea.”