The Philosophy of Miyazaki – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Hayao Miyazaki!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Jackson Maher
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Patron Executive Producer: Brent Krafft
The Philosophy of Miyazaki – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, guys? Jared again. Today we’re talking about the Walt Disney of anime, Hayao Miyazaki. With eleven feature films and over 125 major awards under his belt, Miyazaki has become a household name, even in the West. So, what gives the films of Miyazaki and his team of badasses at Studio Ghibli their films that extra Miyazaki-feel? Well, beneath all the cursed-tentacle pigs and giant Cat-bear things there’s a cohesive philosophy at play, here: the Japanese religion of Shinto. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Miyazaki. And you know the drill – spoilers ahead.
A recurrent theme running throughout all of Miyazaki’s films is a love for nature. At times, this can be fairly over of the top, such as in the battle between the humans and the forest in Princess Mononoke. “What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace.” Or the battle between the various armies and bugs in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. “Insects and humans cannot live in the same world. You know that.” Actually, let’s roll the opening credits for Nausicaä for a second. Yep, there it is — the film even comes with the World Wildlife Fund’s stamp of approval. While we could chalk all these moments up to Miyazaki being a tree-hugger – seriously, he’s actually opening a nature sanctuary later this year – we think it has more to do with Shinto, which holds a deep respect for nature.
For the uninitiated, Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion that believes we share our world with a variety of gods and spirits, called kami. Importantly, kami is both singular and plural, referring not only to the myriad of spirits in the world, but also the divine essence that connects all things. This interconnectedness is critical to understanding the religion. Whereas you and I might see a giant tree and think, “Wow, that’s a big f**king tree”, a shintoist might recognize it as a yorishiro, an object in which a god can reside. It’s no longer just nature, but part of the divine fabric of reality, and as such, deserves our respect. And while Japan is one of the least religious countries in the world, over 80% of its population participates in Shinto traditions. Seriously, the only thing Japan has more of than shrines are vending machines. But, how does this all relate to nature and Miyazaki? Well, according to historian Lynn White, religion plays a large a part in shaping a culture’s treatment of the environment. For example, Judeo-Christian traditions state that man has “dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. Basically, in the West, nature has historically been our b*tch. But in Shinto, because everything possesses a spiritual component, the religion is non-anthropocentric. Humans aren’t at the center of the universe.
For our boy Miyazaki, that means that his films deal with a lot of peace and loving between human and nature. So, if you were wondering why the protagonist from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind continually tries to make peace with some pretty terrifying bugs, well there you go. “Ohm, please forgive us for disturbing your nest. We’re very sorry. We are not your enemies. We mean you no harm.” Consider My Neighbor Totoro. When sisters Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe move to a idyllic village out in the country, they find themselves living alongside a whole host of spirits. In their attic, for example, running around the gohei – or a charm that blesses a house – is a swarm of little soot sprites. But instead of portraying these adorable little guys as other-worldly, the local wise-woman treats them like familiar wildlife. “So, they’re a kind of ghost then?” “Don’t worry, dear. They’re nothing to be afraid of. If they decide you’re nice people, they won’t harm you, and after a little while they’ll just go away.”
In this world, spirits aren’t something to fear, but rather a part of everyday life. This casual acceptance of spirits’ place in the world – and the respect they deserve – is captured in small moments throughout the film, like when Satsuki gives thanks to a local shrine for offering her shelter from the rain. Or when the Kusakabe family pays respects to the yorishiro in which the God of the Forest, Totoro, lives: “Thank you for watching over Mei and making us feel so welcome here. Please continue to look after us.” “Please continue to look after us.”
And it’s through befriending these spirits – particularly the large Totoro – that our heroes resolve the film’s big crisis. When Mei goes missing at the end, it’s Totoro who helps Satsuki find her with the help of this weird cat…bus…thing… Seriously, I don’t know what to call that! By having his protagonists respect both the spirits and the wildlife they inhabit, Miyazaki inverts traditional, Western views towards the environment. In the West, we’ve historically looked at the land in terms of its instrumental value – what it can do for us. For example, Aristotle remarked in his book Politics, “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”. And for us red, white, and blue-blooded Americans, we can see this in the concept of Manifest Destiny – i.e. how we must spread out across the country and convert all this nature into usable land. In short, we’re consumers and the earth is our Walmart. However, if we factor in that the land is imbued with spirits, then we have to concede that the earth might have some intrinsic value – i.e. value for its own sake. Much like Kant formulated that people – or more broadly, rational agents – must be treated “as an end, never merely as a means,” so too must the land, which is full of thinking, rational spirits, be treated as end, not as a means.
And it’s in how these two perspectives on nature fail to meet, that we find the root of conflict in Miyazaki’s films. For example, look at Ponyo, Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid. In it, the magician, Fujimoto, opposes his daughter Ponyo’s desire to become a human on the grounds that they use the ocean for their own gain. in fact, the only reason why Ponyo ends up meeting the little boy, Sosuke, in the first place is because she gets swept up by a passing ship trawling the ocean; or, in layman’s terms, when a ship essentially rakes the ocean with a giant net, destroying reefs and underwater habitats, all for a quick buck. When Fujimoto finally recovers Ponyo, he offers some pretty scathing criticism of mankind. “Human? What do you know about humans, Brunnhilde? They spoil the sea. They treat your home like their empty, black souls. I was once, long ago, a human myself. I had to leave that all behind to serve the earth.”
That’s right, apparently you can’t love the ocean and be human at the same time. And to be fair, this clash between intrinsic and instrumental value has some pretty dire consequences. Because Ponyo’s father refuses to let his daughter become a human, and because Ponyo refuses to go back to being a fish, the natural order of the world begins to fall apart. The moon falls closer to the sea, the waves takes on a life of their own, and half the town looks like a coloring book page inspired by the Day After Tomorrow. But Sosuke and Ponyo manage to stave off the end of days by proving that humans can love nature for itself in the most literal way possible. After helping Sosuke traverse the flooded island to get back to his mom, Ponyo uses up all her magical power and returns to being a fish. When asked by Ponyo’s mother – the spirit of the Earth and Goddess of Mercy herself – if Sosuke knew that Ponyo was a fish and could love her anyway, he responds, “I love all the Ponyos.”
Sosuke demonstrates that humans can intrinsically value nature by actually falling in love with a fish. Relieved, Ponyo’s mother puts her daughter in a bubble and with a kiss from Sosuke, Ponyo transforms permanently into a real girl, thereby putting the world at ease again. While Ponyo chooses to ground this mismatch of values in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way, more often than not in Miyazaki films, we see it embodied in the conflict between nature and technology. And perhaps nowhere is this interplay more noticeable than in Miyazaki’s darkest work, Princess Mononoke. In the film, Prince Ashitaka travels to the industrial holdout, Irontown, to understand what’s causing the great spirits of the forest to become cursed. As it turns out, Irontown, under the leadership of Lady Eboshi, has been cutting down the forest in order to bolster its own supply of iron. In choosing their own material gain over the sanctity of the forest, the residents of Irontown have started an all out war with the God of the mountain, a war which Ashitaka is determined to stop.
What’s particularly interesting is how the townspeople view this deforestation in relation to the idea of progress. Before Lady Eboshi came along, they tell Ashitaka that it was impossible to settle here. “The problem was, before we could dig for the iron, we had to clear away the forest, and that’s what made the boar angry.” “Then one day Lady Eboshi showed up along with her warriors and her rifles.” This last point is important. The townspeople view iron and guns – and more broadly, rationality – as a vehicle for progress. With science and rationality on their side, humans think they can live anywhere and do anything. But it’s exactly this mindset that philosophy’s Ron Swanson, Martin Heidegger, says leads to a warped idea of reality. Because we’re focused on viewing nature only through the lense of science and technology, we’re blinded to the true essence of things. So, trees become wood, beaches become iron sand, and a giant walking god becomes a big pain in the ass.
Nothing is sacred anymore, and this is especially true to Lady Eboshi. “She’s not even afraid of the gods, that woman.” And while the forward march of technology has brought some good to the townspeople – empowering women and giving work to the literal lepers of society – it also comes with some pretty big drawbacks. Namely angry wolves, boars, monkeys, and some pretty nasty curses. So, what’s the overall takeaway, here? Are all of Miyazaki’s films just thinly veiled odes to nature? And is the message really as simple as trees are good, and technology is bad? Well, let’s not go full Thoreau yet. After all, nature can be pretty damn scary in Miyazaki films. In the futuristic apocalyptic nightmare that is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the humans live in a world invaded by a toxic jungle. “It’s so beautiful. It’s hard to believe these spores could kill me. Five minutes without a mask and I’d be dead.”
Oh yeah, and did we mention the swarms of massive killer insects that live in it? Similarly, spirits aren’t always your friend. In Miyazaki’s most famous work, Spirited Away, the little girl Chihiro enters a mysterious, deserted town with her parents, only for them to be turned into pigs. In Chihiro’s quest to change her parents back, she enters the service of the evil witch Yubaba and runs into this unruly patron, No-Face. Yeah, not exactly a friendly figure like Totoro. But if nature and spirits aren’t always good, then it stands to reason that society and technology aren’t always bad. Case in point, in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s last film, technology is never presented as something to fear. In fact, it’s freak events of nature – like a massive earthquake and disease — that create a lot of the conflict in this world. As the protagonist Jiro learns in one of his many dream sequences, airplanes for him aren’t the same as Lady Eboshi’s guns. They’re not meant to do battle or to further materialistic gains. As his idol, Giovanni Caproni states, “Airplanes are not tools for war. They’re not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.”
In the end, what it all seems to come down to is the idea of respect and balance. In shinto, certain actions create a sense of ritual purity, they give peace of mind to your own spirit and those around you. The dead must be buried for their souls to be at peace. Local gods and wildlife must be shown respect, and their sacrifices – even for the benefit of mankind – must be honored. If not, these angered spirits can become cursed. Or ya know, this: “A monster!” It’s not a matter of land being good or technology being bad, so much as it is about living in harmony with the natural world. To hammer this point home, let’s have a quick look at Castle in the Sky, which follows the young boy Pazu and the princess Sheeta’s quest to find the long lost, flying city of Laputa.
As it turns out, Sheeta’s amulet points the way to the city, and with help of some friendly air pirates, the duo races to reach Laputa before the military. But when the pair finally arrive, the city’s not what they expect. In the century since its abandonment, Laputa has become overgrown with plants. And those giant scary robots in the distance, well it turns out they’re more of the Big Friendly Giant variety. Instead of killing people, they tend to the wildlife. And, much like in the shinto tradition, they also pay their respects to the dead. “You’ve picked another flower for the grave. How kind of you.”
In essence, Laputa has become the perfect synthesis of nature and technology a giant tree even growing around its main crystal and power source. It’s only when the army arrives, and particularly Muska, that this stasis is broken. As Muska violently rips through the vegetation that has taken over Laputa’s control room, he attempts to turn the city into a massive weapon. Watching Muska’s disregard for the natural world, Sheeta finally realizes why her people left Laputa in the first place. “Now I understand why the people of Laputa vanished. There’s a song from my home in the valley of Gondoa that explains everything. It says, ‘take root in the ground, live in harmony with the wind, plant your seeds in the winter, and rejoice with the birds in the coming of spring.’ No matter how many weapons you have, no matter how great your technology might be, the world cannot live without love.”
Determined to stop Muska, Pazu and Sheeta then recite the forbidden spell. Instead of letting Muska break the balance of the world, they destroy Laputa altogether. As the city crumbles, though, the tree and the power source remain intact, soaring through the sky together. So, what do you think, Wisecrack? Should we value wildlife for its own sake, spirits or not? Or, should we value it for what it can offer us? Maybe if not materially, at least in quality of life? Or is it more about a balance in all things?