3 universal themes in the works of Miyazaki
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
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The worlds created by Miyazaki are vastly different from its western counterpoint Walt Disney, as it uses the elements of fantasy and folklore to address more mature and universal themes. However, the strong contrast created between the whimsical and dark tones of each story helps to clarify its theme without patronising the viewer; no matter their age. It should also be noted that these themes are deployed authentically to address issues present in the real world and not for the sake of engaging a wider viewership.
This theme is prevalent in almost every single one of his 11 major features but the attention that it receives varies. In some works such as Nausicaä of the valley of the wind 1984 (which is a WWF certified movie) or Princess Mononoke (1997) the theme of nature is made completely explicit and is contrasted with the idea of technological progression, or in some cases such as the wind rises (2013) it is more or less treated as a great force or calamity. But do not be fooled as this love for nature stems mainly from the Shinto religion and not from being eco-friendly alone.
A famous example is perhaps from the iconic bus stop scene from My neighbor Totoro, that depicts Satsuki thanking a local deity for taking shelter from the rain in the shrine.
To understand this better, it is critical to learn about the central concept known as Kami. This umbrella term is used to refer to the various life forms of this world and the divine essence that interconnects all of them, similar to the Spinozean substance. This draws away from the western or instrumental view of nature and favors a more intrinsic view. Another helpful Shinto concept is Yorishiro (依り代・依代・憑り代・憑代) which refers to large and often extraordinary bodies of natural creatures and plants that are fit to host a God.
This attention to interconnectedness and the overall zeal of the Japanese people for the Shinto religion is perhaps why the protagonists of Miyazaki features often seek to strike a balance in resolving the conflict between man and nature. But this is not done shortsightedly, In the case of Princess Mononoke the contrast between the progressive views of Lady Iboshi and the anger of the forest Gods is handled carefully and in a none polarizing manner as we learn both about the benefits (empowering women and lepers and creating an economy) and its misgivings (disrupting the flow of life and Ashitaka’s curse) before the final conclusion. Technology itself is not the problem, (Miyazaki’s love of flight and flying machines helps to hammer this point home) but rather only when it desecrates the environment and does not honor the sacrifices of the Gods or Kami.
Overall it can be said that the theme of nature isn’t used to demonize technology but to show that man is a part of the whole and not outside of it; this reflects Shinto’s outlook on life;as Kami are believed to be "hidden" from this world, and inhabit a complementary existence that mirrors our own: shinkai (神界, "the world of the kami").:22 To be in harmony with the awe-inspiring aspects of nature is to be conscious of kannagara no michi (随神の道 or 惟神の道, "the way of the kami").. It therefore challenges our views on the harmony between progression and conservation as opposed to simply providing an Aesopean peace of advice.
Female characters created by Miyazaki are never shallow or overshadowed by a male counterpart. On the contrary, all of them struggle for change and have to overcome obstacles to realize their clear cut goals. They only differ in the scope of their struggles, some are more whimsical and personal like Satsuki’s quest to find her little sister or how Kiki is forming her identity as opposed to large scale war and resistance by Princess Mononoke.
It should be noted that being a hard-nosed heroine does not turn these characters into full blown Valkyres or Amazonian warriors with no room for femininity, while they are fierce and bold; they are also nurturing, compassionate and capable of channeling nature and magic. The audience gets to see them in their lowest moments, doing daily acts, interacting with the environment and companions. These fleshed out female characters show us that womanhood is not an ideal but rather as a journey; as a process of becoming. A perfect example for this form of everyday heroism and self realization is the tale of Sophie in Howls moving castle (2004), we see Sophie learn to love herself and in the process watch Howl fall in love with the strength and courage of her character.
So, if you are bothered by misogynistic media and need to feel empowered, a Miyazaki feature is a good place to start.
Aviation and Flying machines
Another stable in the visual repertoire of Miyazaki are flight and flying machines;this is perhaps connected with Miyazaki’s own childhood fascination and an era when the nation of Japan was enthralled by aviation. Characters are shown to fly magnificent machines or to transform into flying beats that get around obstacles with great finesse. Generally characters transcend boundaries; or the audience is treated to a festive visual delight. But, other than symbolising hope, freedom and change; it shows us that freedom comes at a price in the case of the wind rises or Howl’s moving castle.
The best example for this symbolism of flight is found in the short animated music video that Studio Ghibli created for the track "On Your Mark" by the Japanese rock duo Chage & Aska created in (1994).