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Michael Toscano

"Something Beautiful for Japan"

The moral imagination of Hayao Miyazaki.

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest animators in cinema history, if not the greatest. He is a national treasure in his home country of Japan, where, according to one incredible statistic, 96 percent of the population have viewed at least one of his films. Miyazaki garners almost universal respect from prestige critics, having won countless awards, including Berlin's Golden Bear, Amsterdam's Silver Screen Award, Venice's lifetime achievement award, an Academy Award for best animated feature, and, this past November, the Academy's lifetime achievement award.

So when in September 2013 he announced that he was retiring after the release of his latest film, The Wind Rises, moviegoers the world over grieved. While he has since made known his plans to illustrate a new manga—a Japanese comic—and to direct some short films for release in Japan, this is goodbye to one of the luminaries of animation and one of the greatest fairy tale makers in cinema history. Not even England, home to the richest tradition of fairy tales in modern literature, has produced a filmmaker of such decided significance for the genre. In light of his departure, there's no better time to reflect on his achievement.

To that end, we must go back to a night in 1945, when the US Air Force firebombed Utsunomiya, the city to which Miyazaki and his family relocated during the war. Miyazaki has vivid memories of the night of the bombing: "I was awakened because of the air raid, it was midnight, but the sky was dyed in red, no, pink, like an evening glow."

As Utsunomiya went up in flame, Miyazaki's father hid the family beneath a bridge. While they hunkered down, his uncle braved the streets to fetch a small flatbed truck, one of the few automobiles in the city. His uncle drove through the burning city, reaching Hayao and his family, who climbed quickly into the truck. Then, with little Hayao hidden beneath a futon mattress in the flatbed, his uncle drove them to safety.

It goes without saying that such a memory sticks with a child. But something else about that night resonated even more acutely:

[T]here were several people taking shelter under the railroad bridge, and I surely heard a woman's voice saying, "please give us a ride." … [A] woman holding a girl, who was one of our neighbors, came running toward us, saying, "please give us a ride." But the truck just took off. And her voice saying "please give us a ride" gradually died away in the distance.

Miyazaki was later greatly relieved to discover that the woman and child had survived, but the episode left him gravely suspicious about his family: "as a small child, you want to believe that your parents are good people, the best in the world. So I suppressed this memory inside of me for a long time."

Eventually, he did confront it—and his parents. And when he went to university, he studied Japan's war record more closely. The more he learned, the more he came to believe that all of Japan was guilty of the crime of World War II: "Japan as nation [was] doing many horrible things such as massacres in China, the Philippines, or other countries in South East Asia. I have to conclude that Japanese as a whole were perpetrators."

The villainy of imperial Japan fused with his parents' callousness to create a crisis in Miyazaki's moral identity: "I realized that there was a terrible fraud at the base of what I was, at the base of my life from the day I was born." Yet, Miyazaki knew this was too simple. On a daily basis his parents were caring, decent people; so, too, were many of the people of Japan. How could such common and agreeable men and loving women contribute to such moral horror? How could so much dark come from so much light?

This dilemma is at the heart of Miyazaki's moral imagination. Critics frequently note (and sometimes complain) that he seldom portrays purely wicked villains in his films. Miyazaki once told Cine Front, "If you cut out the complex aspects and look at everything just as good or evil, I don't think you can grasp the true nature of things."

He thus has spent his career making films in which the villain stops to give the helpless woman a ride. Or, as he himself put it, "I realized that I wanted to make an animation with a kid," meaning himself, who says to his parents, "please stop the car."

He is also fascinated by deeply conflicted, morally weak, or, at the very least, dangerously immature heroes who must overcome great temptation or fail. A striking example of this is Prince Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, a character whose demonically cursed right arm lashes out against his will to murder those whom he hates. "Does that right hand of yours desire to kill me?" Lady Eboshi asks Ashitaka calmly as his left hand holds his right back from running her through with a sword.

And yet, Miyazaki's obsession with moral complexity is matched by a deep longing for the pure and simple. Thus, fairy tales have been his genre of choice, children are frequently his heroes, and unspoiled earth is a persistent theme. Since his very first film in 1984, his moral realism has spurred a yearning for immaculate purity.

Yet all that came to an end with The Wind Rises, a biopic with heavy traces of autobiography. In his final film, after thirty years of filmmaking, Miyazaki abandoned the quest for purity and resigned himself to his cultural and cosmic fate, that of being a Japanese soul constituted by both light and dark.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Wind Rises is a beautiful, pessimistic, and indeed controversial film with an unexpected subject: Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M, the Zero, Japan's deadliest fighter plane in World War II and a key piece in its campaign in China and (closer to home) the assault on Pearl Harbor. Americans know Horikoshi's work best as the plane that Kamikaze pilots plunged into American warships at the Battle of Okinawa. At the beginning of the war, the Zero roamed the Pacific theater, appearing to ensure and symbolize the inevitability of Japanese victory. It was eventually knocked from the sky, and Utsunomiya, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, left unguarded, went up in flames.

Yet this last work is in some respects not characteristic of Miyazaki. His films are above all stunning works of art. Setting aside The Wind Rises, they are numinous fairy tales that stir the heart with the universal desire for adventure, love, peace, friendship, magic, mystery, and the divine. More—they are elegant, quiet, something that Hollywood films rarely are, especially its animated ones. His films have a reserved eloquence, a humble expressiveness. Watching Miyazaki can be like reading George MacDonald's The Golden Key for the first time: one senses that one has entered the deeper logic of myth.

Miyazaki does—and only does—hand-drawn animation. The tone and rhythm, the "pacing," of his films is famously restful and can be awkward for first-time American audiences. Disney animation, by contrast, is fluid and active—critics call it "busy." Think of a Disney princess. She is twirling, leaping, tripping, falling, fainting. She is pouting, smiling, with eyelashes batting. Miyazaki's characters have time for the "extraneous"; they breathe deeply between actions.

In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki explained, "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally." He continued, "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."

The effect of ma is perhaps most especially felt in Spirited Away. The heroine, Chihiro, a typical Japanese girl without any exceptional merits (or so we think), is swept into the spirit world, where she must rescue her love Haku from a deadly curse placed on him by the powerful witch Zeniba. Chihiro must travel to Zeniba's island and beg for Haku's life. Surely this is the moment when a stirring soundtrack with heavy rolls on timpani should swell as Chihiro rides grim faced towards her enemy's lair, right?

In most every other film in this genre, yes; but with Miyazaki, no. Instead, Chihiro takes a sleepy, danger-less train ride through the spirit world, passing by shadow people who wait patiently for their own train to arrive.

It feels more like a pensive ride through Middle America than it does a heroic climax. It is beautiful. And in the hands of any other director, it would have been a tonal disaster. But it emerges so seamlessly from the rest of the film that it does not register as deeply strange. Yet it is. Or, rather, it is masterly.

Miyazaki's films may be quiet, but they are also wild. They are lively and strange, and his audience is enlivened and made strange by them. The off-putting quality, in a good sense, of Miyazaki's films frequently elicits comparison with Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. While it is surely a compliment, the parallel is false. Carroll was playing logic games with, among other things, twisty non sequiturs and hilarious equivocations of terminology. As delightful, imaginative, and weird as his stories are, they are not fairy stories.

On the other hand, Miyazaki makes pure fairy stories. His spirits are unbound and his gods powerful and capricious: they are devastating, uplifting, aloof, generous, shadowy, luminous, absent, present, asleep, awake, perilous, wonderful, all according to their own whim.

Miyazaki is an animistic pagan with an imagination innocent of what we in the West sometimes call "modernity." Or rather, he is a rebel, a revolutionary in conflict with what he calls "modernism." I say, "he calls" because what he means by "modernism" does not appear to be a fully fleshed-out genealogy of modern philosophy and society, such as those offered by certain great Catholic philosophers. So what does he have in mind?

I only have an impressionistic grasp of it, but enough to report that it has something to do with what he sees as the false promises of Japan's postwar industrialization; the sedation of the Japanese people by consumption; the digitalization of the Japanese imagination; the addiction of the Japanese to gadgetry and, ironically, manga and anime; and the hopelessness of a Japanese people who are uprooted from their own traditions, spirituality, and environment.

While I don't have time to address these hugely important themes here, I flag them to show that Miyazaki's struggle against modernism is first and foremost a struggle for the soul of Japan. I mentioned above that Miyazaki's films stir "universal" desires. But this is not his intent. He makes films for and only for the Japanese. The worldwide appeal of his films is a byproduct of their substantial and tangible immersion into the history and selfhood of Japan.

But even that is too abstract. The magisterial Spirited Away was made for a particular person, his friend's daughter, whom he once affectionately called a "lazy bum." Chihiro, the film's heroine and herself a lazy bum, is an avatar of his friend's daughter and of all the other little lazy bums in Japan. "Awake, little lazy bums! Awake, oh ye lumps on logs!" calls Miyazaki-san.

According to Miyazaki, whatever Japan's modernism is, it estranges Japanese children, especially girls, from the world around them. Ennui has gripped them in their earliest years. This occurred to him on an outing with his aforementioned friend and said lazy bum. His friend would call her twice and even thrice and, for whatever reason, the bum did not—seemingly could not—respond quickly. Miyazaki concluded that this was not a matter of disrespect but rather was symptomatic of a strange spiritual deafness that she had "caught" from the larger malaise of Japan. If the bum cannot hear her parents, he thought, who or what in the world can she hear?

The short answer is, the spirits and the gods. "Arise, little lazy bum! Yubaba has turned your parents into pigs and you must save them from being made into ham sandwiches!" "Don't be afraid, oh, you whiny lump! Your mother is ill and the forest keeper Totoro has lent you his twelve-legged Catbus to whisk you to the hospital so you can watch over her from a tree branch!"

In Miyazaki's films the gods usually dwell in what I can only describe as "deep nature," edenic pockets of the world where gods, spirits, animals, insects, trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers rest unmolested. There you will find the clearest, most life-giving pools of water. There you will find the greatest silence, the deepest ma.

When I say unmolested, I mean that they haven't been discovered by men—that is, until they have been. Perhaps the most delightful scene in all of Miyazaki's films is in My Neighbor Totoro, when four-year-old Mei chutes down a hole in the ground only to plop hard onto her behind in Totoro's lair, a perfect womblike garden nestled unseen beneath the roots of a gigantic, ancient camphor tree.

Totoro let her in. Why? The gods are inscrutable, so I can't give an answer. But I can say this: in Miyazaki's deep nature, we not only find Totoro, we also find Mei. We not only find the gods, we also find little lazy bums. We find purity. We find the children of Japan.

Despite the great empathy with which Miyazaki portrays all of his characters and the undeniable whimsy and warmth of many of his films—especially his late fairy tales Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo—he can be alarmingly misanthropic toward those he deems responsible for environmental pollution, war and other great evils.

"I'd like to see Manhattan underwater," he told The New Yorker. "I'd like to see when the human population plummets and there are no more high rises."

Miyazaki rarely does interviews, but when he does a great anger can spill out. In a 1997 interview with Cine Front, Miyazaki explained that Ashitaka's demonic rage was based on the director's own fury: "At times, I have an emotion that I can't suppress, and it explodes so that it feels like my viciousness bursts out from all the pores of my body."

But if rage is a temptation for Miyazaki, his films refuse it the last word. Miyazaki has made two epics in his career, both of which focus on the same trinity of themes: war among men, implacable enmity between man and nature, and the use of technology by men to defeat their political rivals and destroy nature. In both films, the hero stays his hand rather than act out of his anger towards the evildoers; and his mercy leads to peace among men and the natural world.

These themes debuted in Miyazaki's first film, the post-apocalyptic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. About 1,000 years before, a global war peaked when the "God Warriors"—gigantic humanoid biological weapons—were deployed, covering the world in a nuclear inferno. The Earth, reduced to a poisoned desert, has evolved a highly aggressive defense mechanism, the "Sea of Decay," a global swamp which slowly spreads, spewing toxic spores into the air to eliminate the remaining humans. Guarding the swamp are the ohmu, colossal and intelligent insects fitted by nature for war with man. Caught between the ohmu and a resurgent empire which has unearthed a God Warrior to vaporize the Sea of Decay are the peaceful people of the Valley of the Wind, among whom we find our heroine, Princess Nausicaä.

As abstruse as the plot appears, it is perfectly Miyazakian. Nausicaä tells Lord Yupa, her sagacious mentor, "The pollution lies in the very earth itself. Even the earth of our valley." He embraces Nausicaä as she weeps. "I frighten myself," she says. "I don't know what my rage will make me do."

But Nausicaä overcomes her fury, saves the imperial princess from death, and even lays down her own life for the raging ohmu, which in the climax stampede across the Earth to complete mankind's extinction. Baba, an old, blind seer from the beloved Valley of the Wind, declares, "The anger of the ohmu reflects the anger of the Earth!" Of the resurrected God Warrior, she says, "The Earth knows it's wrong for us to survive if we have to depend on a monster like that."

Yet the ohmu are so moved by Nausicaä's love and friendship that they quit their anger, and, encircling her seemingly-dead body, revive her to life. They leave in peace, returning to the Sea of Decay, which stops spewing its poisons. Baba exclaims, "Such friendship and sympathy! The ohmu have opened their hearts."

This moment displays Miyazaki's imaginative uniqueness, or at least his immersion in traditions deeper than the standard environmentalism. On every hand today we are told that we should love and care for nature. But Miyazaki adds something unexpected: the conflict between man and nature will be resolved not simply when man loves the Earth but only when the Earth loves man in return. Strangely (and delightfully), he judges mankind and the Earth—and both fall short. Miyazaki's films have the ambiance of a Judeo-Christian ecology: the Earth has been poisoned by man and rebels against him because of him; and it is through man's love—indeed, self-sacrifice—that nature returns to its natural order, one of love.

The plot of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is based on the first half of a series of graphic novels that Miyazaki wrote over the span of a decade. If one were to read the series to its final panel, one would find Nausicaä speaking these closing words to the good people of the valley: "No matter how difficult it is, we must live!"

These words from Nausicaä, the source for Miyazaki's first film, strongly echo the mantra of The Wind Rises, his last film: "Le vent se lève! … Il faut tenter de vivre!" ("The wind is rising! … We must try to live!"), quoted from Paul Valéry's "Le Cimetière marin" ("The Graveyard by the Sea").

But do the words mean the same thing? Let me answer by telling a story. Miyazaki has said repeatedly that he loves Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books. In the first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, the hero, Ged, a young mage, angrily casts a spell to defeat his rival Japser in a contest. Ged's spell unexpectedly summons a shadow creature into the world, and he is charged with a quest to track it down and defeat it. Ged chases it across the world, and as he does so he comes to realize what the shadow creature is: it is his own rage given form. He cannot destroy the shadow because it is an essential part of him, so he must embrace it. Le Guin has said elsewhere: "Light is the left hand of darkness. And darkness the right hand of light."

When I read the book, I must admit that I found this conclusion profoundly dissatisfying, and I still do. (I didn't realize, as a young teen, that this theme is common in Eastern philosophy.) But I tell the story to illustrate something about Miyazaki's film career. Like Ged, he spent most of it trying to defeat the darkness, to find purity within the fallen world. But in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki gave up this quest, and like Ged greeted darkness as a part of himself. From this angle, the "We must try to live!" in The Wind Rises is the completion of the "we must live!" in Nausicaä.

The Wind Rises sparked intense controversy in Japan and abroad because of its sympathetic depiction of Jiro Horikoshi. The film has been slammed by the Japanese right as traitorous and anti-war. From the left, critics have accused Miyazaki of celebrating the life of the man who engineered one of Japan's deadliest weapons. So which is it?

It is a bit of both. I described The Wind Rises above as a biopic with traces of autobiography, but the film is as much about Hayao Miyazaki as it is about Jiro Horikoshi, if not more so. For example, there are several major plot points, including main characters, which Miyazaki draws from his own life rather from Horikoshi's.

Ostensibly the film is about the invention of the Zero, but it really is Miyazaki's final statement about what it means to be a Japanese filmmaker in light of Japanese culture, the nation's horrific actions in World War II, and the onset of Japanese modernism. As grand as those themes are, there is even more at stake here: this is also his final statement on what it means to live in a cosmos of light and dark where all things come to naught, because even the purest thing contains within itself its own corruption, its own death. "We must try to live!" he says. Living, though, for Miyazaki means making films which, however inspiring, are subject to corruption and which contribute to the same modernist culture he deplores.

There is no salvation here, there are no sacraments, only humble resignation before cosmic forces. I would call it stoicism, but Miyazaki illustrates it too beautifully and fills it with too much ecstasy for that. If you said that Miyazaki has ended his career on a pessimistic note, I would be forced to agree with you. But I would hasten to explain that this film is where he has ceased his quest for earthly purity via animistic Shintoism, and instead resigned himself to fate, to live beautifully and lovingly in tragedy.

Is this resignation merely a sad capitulation to the modernism he has spent his career confronting? Arguably so. But I think not. For his acceptance of the darkness is an ascetic vision which contains within itself the word "no." Unlike the promethean quest in the modern West to overcome human frailty and wickedness by technological power, Miyazaki accepts humanity in all of its shadowy weakness.

The question which Miyazaki has been struggling with ever since that night in Utsunomiya is the question he places before Jiro Horikoshi in The Wind Rises, and thus, too, before the rest of Japan: Will I try to live? Miyazaki's Horikoshi desires from his boyhood to make beautiful airplanes; unfortunately, he can only do so if he submits to the needs and guidelines of the Japanese military. He can make warplanes, or no planes. Will he try to live? He has won the heart of a beautiful young Japanese maiden, but she has tuberculosis and will likely die in her youth. He can marry her and risk her early death, or he can deny himself love. Will he try to live?

Horikoshi ultimately chooses to live, which means that he chooses to accept the dark within the light, the tragedy in both creativity and love. But here we can see the essential calamity of Miyazaki's vision: to love is to choose a thing which finally dies, to create is to make a thing which does evil. Miyazaki is telling his audience something about his life and career. He is telling them that he is the boy who lay helpless that night in Utsunomiya, trembling beneath the wrath of American firebombs and before the godlike power of his parents. He is telling them that he is Japanese. He is telling them that he is human.

He recently published these words: "I am not attempting to solve the entire world's problems. There can never be a happy ending in the battle between humanity and ferocious gods. Yet, even amidst hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist."

In sum, Miyazaki is Japanese; he is light and dark; he is his father's son; he is from Utsunomiya, a city that burned; he must try to live. And he has. He is one of the true lights of cinema. Thankfully for all of us, Miyazaki has made something beautiful, something beautiful for Japan.

Michael Toscano is Director of Research Projects at the National Association of Scholars. He writes from Brooklyn.

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