The Animated Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki: Filmic Representations of Shinto

By Wright, Lucy; Clode, Jerry | Metro Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Animated Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki: Filmic Representations of Shinto


Wright, Lucy, Clode, Jerry, Metro Magazine


The place where pure water is running in the depths of the forest in the deep mountains, where no human has ever set foot, the Japanese have long held such a place in their heart.

Hayao Miyazaki 1998 (1)

JAPANESE ADORE THE ANIMATED FEATURE FILMS OF Hayao Miyazaki. Children often know the dialogues by heart, and grandparents, salarymen and teenagers enjoy them just as enthusiastically. Toys and merchandise of his animated creations occupy an important space in Japan's 'character culture'. Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) eclipsed Steven Spielberg's E.T. to create a new domestic box-office record, only to be nudged out by James Cameron's Titanic in the same year. Four years later, Miyazaki's follow-up, Spirited Away (2001) became Japan's highest grossing film and received global recognition with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Despite commercial success and increasing global attention. Miyazaki's production studio, Studio Ghibli, is a self-contained, proudly noncomputerised anime house where artists are exhorted to draw everything by hand.

In addition to examining his recent box-office success Spirited Away, this essay will offer an alternative reading of one of Miyazaki's earliest feature films. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984). Nausicaa marked his expansion from comic artist to film director with the translation of his popular and long-running manga (comic) of the same name into an animated film. Our specific focus is how Miyazaki infuses his richly detailed works with an animistic worldview that references Japanese beliefs. practices and mythology deriving from Shintoism. In these films. pre-modern expressions of Shintoism are visually transformed and introduced to a largely urban audience through symbolic moments that offer a resonant connection, albeit a mediated one, with the natural and spiritual worlds revered by the Japanese.

Hayao Miyazaki: Global Gaze, Local Focus

The global reception of Miyazaki's work has accompanied a wider export of Japanese popular culture which Douglas McGray coins Japan's 'Gross National Cool'. (2) It is suggested that such success is built on Japan's unique ability to 'glocalise' a host of foreign influences for re-packaging to a global market. As media and cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi notes, Japan's recent cultural expansion is premised on a strategy of blurring distinctively Japanese attributes of exports to create 'culturally odourless products'. (3) In particular, animation and game software destined for export are prone to mu-kokuseki--the erasure of racial and ethnic characteristics and any context that would embed a specific culture or country. (4) The strategy has been refined and 'perfected' in Japan's immediate cultural markets in East and South-east Asia, where a resurgent Japanese presence sits uncomfortably with historical memory and narratives of nation.

Initial academic focus on Miyazaki has similarly scrutinized his films for diluted identity, in particular, there is debate as to whether Miyazaki's characters can be described as 'Japanese'. While most of Miyazaki's characters have distinctly Western features--large eyes, pale skin, red hair--they have, however, also curiously been (reverse) assimilated and 'Japan-ized' for consumption by a local audience. American anime scholar Susan Napier suggests that Miyazaki's non-committed expression of ethnic features allows his characters to exemplify more Western models of courage and heroism. By merging Japanese and foreign traits, he is able to subtly erase traditional distinctions, providing a textual template to infuse his characters with new possibility and optimism. (5) Most of Miyazaki's lead characters are young girls whose bravado stands in contrast to the scarcity of convincing female protagonists presented in the passively feminine shojo genre that dominates mainstream anime. In one of Miyazaki's earlier films, Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), the enterprise and courage of a young witch is brought out by a thoroughly European setting, complete with unfamiliar continental architecture, puzzling geography and troublesome traffic. …

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