The Land of Youth

Raised by wolves: San answers the call of the wild in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke

It is said that in the days after the firebombing of Tokyo, the sky over Japan turned crimson. Hayao Miyazaki, who was then four years old, would have watched the glowing firmament from the hills of Tochigi Prefecture, where his father, an airplane-parts factory owner, had evacuated the family in 1944. It was his only memory from the last year of the war. And in the way that the small hurts of childhood often become the obsessions of a lifetime, it may help explain Miyazaki's lingering fascination with the moment of transition between adolescence and adulthood. Here was nature's retreat in the face of perverted technology. Here, also, was a child's dream world of sunsets and pirates and fantastic airplanes threatened by a grim truth. In the image of a small boy watching the sky burn, one might be tempted to look for the genesis of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, the brilliant 1997 eco-parable screening at Metropolitan State University this week as part of a ten-film retrospective organized by Asian Media Access. For all of the film's gentle beauty, there is also sadness--a remembrance of a childhood paradise lost. It is, in many ways, the culmination of a career spent chasing memories.

Tochigi Prefecture, long ago swallowed by the encroaching metropolis, is today a bedroom suburb of Tokyo. And Miyazaki, now in his late 50s, is the nation's preeminent animated filmmaker--often called "the Walt Disney of Japan." The analogy, however, is one that he disdains. Although Buena Vista, the film division of Disney's magic empire, is now distributing Miyazaki's entire oeuvre stateside, he has in the past dismissed the Disney product as "indecent" and "violent." Indeed, even by casual comparison, his films share little with America's beloved anthropomorphic vaudeville. Disney's milieu is the coming-of-age tale, in which a child takes tentative first steps into the world of doubt and fear and responsibility. There is a personified evil to overcome, and the child must learn to dissemble and conquer. Think here of The Lion King replaying Hamlet in the veldt, or Beauty and the Beast with its jigging furniture and jumbled fetishization of consumer goods. Childhood, in the world of Disney, is a sort of larval stage, where children are shorter, snider versions of their adult selves.

If Miyazaki's movies, in which no wrongs are righted and no villains vanquished, are decent by contrast, then it might stand to reason that they would be dull by comparison. Yet they prove quite the opposite. In the most ordinary of places--a rain-soaked garden, a deep, blue Mediterranean lagoon, or a sunlit glade--Miyazaki evokes childhood's never-never land as it truly is: wondrous, sometimes frightening, but never childish. Childhood is serious business for children; that Miyazaki treats it as such makes his films resonate for both adults and young audiences.

Miyazaki's gentlest film is also, not surprisingly, one of his most successful. In My Neighbor Totoro (screening 12:30 p.m., October 23), a genial blend of The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland, two young sisters spending a month in the country stumble upon a giant forest spirit: a puffball with round, innocent eyes and a Cheshire Cat grin. Big Totoro, as they name him, is zipped about the forest by Catbus, who as that name suggests, is half cat and half bus. Although cats hold a place of reverence in traditional Japanese folk religion, Catbus, like Totoro, is an invention of pure fancy: a genial, bright-eyed sofa cushion with the charm of a child's well-nibbled teddy bear. (Miyazaki was initially loath to merchandise his characters, but he eventually relented, and stuffed Totoros quickly became a feature in every Japanese household.) Indeed, much of the film's first half seems intended to excite a warm, fuzzy feeling in the viewer. The sisters play in lush grottoes beneath an azure sky, and luminous clouds gather at the edge of every frame. In one scene, the girls have planted seeds in the forest and are waiting in the moonlight for sprouts to appear. Totoro swoops down, and then, with a smile, takes them spinning over the treetops.

There is more to Miyazaki's story, though, than nocturnal reverie and imagined friends. The girls' mother, we learn, is in a nearby hospital and may be seriously ill. (Miyazaki's own mother spent eight years convalescing from tuberculosis during his childhood.) After a telegram arrives from the doctor, the younger girl, a precocious redhead named Mei, sets off to deliver a gift to her mother. When she becomes lost in the woods, her sister Satsuki, who is just old enough to understand the real implications of a mother's illness, must set off to find her. Satsuki, a girl on the cusp of adolescence, stands at once in two worlds; she is introduced to responsibility by a dying mother and lost sister, yet a benevolent fur ball and a bus-shaped cat (or cat-shaped bus?) can still save the day.  

Although anime has in the past decade become something of a cult item on American college campuses, it has long held a place of peculiar reverence in Japan. By one 1993 estimate, ten percent of the books published in Japan were comics, and anime epics regularly best imported Hollywood films at the box office. Like so many schoolboys in postwar Japan, Miyazaki was drawn at a young age to manga (comic books)--particularly those of Osamu Tezuka, whose New Treasure Island was the sacred text for young artists of the genre. Taking up drawing seriously was for Miyazaki less a rear-guard action against adulthood than a homage to his illustrious predecessors.

As schoolboys are wont to do and because he could not draw the human form, he began by doodling war machines: tanks, ships, and especially airplanes--which have held an honored place in his work ever since. By his school years, Miyazaki had also become an ardent socialist. Although he eventually tempered his politics, historical materialism nevertheless underlies much of his later work, and most especially Princess Mononoke, a creation myth based upon the endless contest between industry, laborers, and the natural world. If Miyazaki refuses to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, a Weltanschauung he considers both uniquely male and uniquely Western, he does suggest that change is precipitated by discord.

As he struggled to articulate his ideological perspective, Miyazaki was also troubled by what he saw as a derivative drawing style. According to a story from his school days, the artist burned an enormous manga manuscript because he thought it bore too much resemblance to the work of Tezuka. He was, like many aspiring artists, frustrated to the point of attrition. Then, in his final year of school, he went to see Taiji Yabushita's Legend of the White Serpent, an animated feature based on a Chinese folk fable. Miyazaki fell in love--not with anime, but, as he would later admit with some embarrassment, with the film's heroine. His ardor--we must assume unrequited--would eventually manifest itself in the plucky young female heroines of his own films.

A sort of Lolita complex often casts a shadow over anime's gender dynamic, perhaps because the movies are made for and by men and occasionally exhibit a misogynist streak. Miyazaki, ever the gentle spirit, is the exception. He chooses female heroines, he says, because he likes women, and because he does not like violence or the good-versus-evil paradigm common to male characters in mainstream animated movies. And consequently, Miyazaki's girls are everything that Disney ingénues are not: industrious, intelligent, confident, and fully autonomous of Prince Charming.

Miyazaki's most memorable female muse is Kiki, an aspiring witch and the heroine of 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service (2:10 p.m. October 23). In the film, a reworking of a children's book by Eiko Kadono, the young Kiki is sent off to make her way in the world with a broom and a black cat (voiced in the American dub by the late Phil Hartman). In a foreword to the film, quoted in Helen McCarthy's detailed filmography Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (Stone Bridge Press), Miyazaki said he wanted to explore "the lives of so many young Japanese girls today who are loved and supported economically by their parents, but who long for the bright lights of the big city."

What is striking about Kiki's adventure, however, is the background art of Studio Ghibli, named for the filmmaker's favorite Italian airplane. (The studio also includes Isao Takahata, the director behind the heartbreaking World War II anime, Grave of the Fireflies, screening 12:30 p.m. October 24). By 1989 Miyazaki and his comrades had mostly forgone their previous work in television serials, with their constricted budgets and unreasonable deadlines, and could thus devote all their resources to a single film project. The results are sparkling blue Mediterranean seas, intricately detailed cityscapes, and pastel sunsets with colors too beautiful to name.


There is a Japanese phrase that translates to "Paris of memories." This imagined Europe--a world of quiet hedgerows and walled gardens unspoiled by war--is a favorite setting of Miyazaki's, and features most prominently in Porco Rosso (4:10 p.m. October 23; 2:10 p.m. October 24), a film about a World War I flying ace with the head of a pig who battles buffoonish sea pirates over the Mediterranean. According to Miyazaki, the film was made as a self-indulgent diversion from his manga opus, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Yet it is also perhaps his most adult movie, with shades of Casablanca and Hemingway in every frame. There is one exquisitely beautiful sequence in which the pig flies up above the clouds during an air battle and watches his comrades drift into the starry stratosphere, where an immense formation of battered airplanes--all the dead pilots--drift forever like a cloud of fireflies.  

Miyazaki, who often caricatures himself as a hog, has explained the film's pig-headed hero as a middle-aged man who is so disillusioned with society that he can no longer identify himself as human. "I'm disgusted by the notion that man is the ultimate being, chosen by God," he explained in a 1993 interview. "But I believe that there are things in this world that are beautiful, that are important, that are worth striving for. I made the hero a pig because that was what best suited these feelings of mine." Oddly packaged heroes are, of course, an old Disney trope. But Miyazaki's crimson pig gives us a protagonist who is uncannily human and thus never completely heroic: He fights, drinks, and only acts the hero when his hoof is forced. It bears noting, also, that although he is a mere cartoon pig, his is a more developed personality than that of half of the pretty young things now gracing America's screens.

The set piece of Porco Rosso is a thrilling dogfight during which planes dart against a sun-streaked cloudbank like gilded sparrows. Flight, as in Miyazaki's films, is a metaphor for the ephemeral. The American writer Alexander Chase once described the exhilaration of flight as that of hanging poised beneath the illusion of immortality and the fact of death. This tenuous balance is particularly poignant in Miyazaki's vision; as long as the hero stays above the clouds, love and youth cannot fade.

Although Porco Rosso is in many ways an action film, it bears little resemblance to either Disney's kinetic fare or the hyperrealistic "mecha" school of Japanese anime, typified by Akira. Aside from a fascist government agent lurking at the edge of the story--a hint of darker things to come--there is no villain and no real violence. In style, too, Miyazaki's film is a departure from familiar Japanimation. If the mecha school, with its sleek Art Deco lines, pop-culture import, and unrelenting dystopianism, was a product of the 1980s bubble economy, Miyazaki's films seem to hearken back to the loud-and-loose radio serials of the Fifties.

Even in Porco Rosso, with its wartime iconography, Miyazaki's aesthetic celebrates the sublimity of imperfection. His planes are magnificent contraptions, cobbled together from historical spare parts. His characters, all bulges and bristles, follow the contours of nature--albeit magnified for comic effect. Where mecha anime is obsessed with the robotic and the cybernetic, Miyazaki draws the floral and the faunal. His "natural" worlds are built with the intricate internal logic of an airplane engine, yet they are forever looking backward to the lost continent of youth.


The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once called childhood "the kingdom where nobody dies." Perhaps, then, the last moment of childhood is when we first understand that we are not meant to last forever. The recognition of mortality is also an introduction to the middle kingdom of adolescence, in which the limitless ecstasies of childhood are hemmed in by the finite boundaries of the adult world. A profound sense of this quickening lies at the heart of Miyazaki's latest feature film, Princess Mononoke (7:10 p.m. October 22). "We can see the 21st Century clearly," the filmmaker explained in a 1994 BBC documentary. "I wonder how we see ourselves and our audience and our children [living] in this chaos. We're in a period when we can't avoid asking ourselves questions."

With Princess Mononoke, both Miyazaki and his studio appear to have grown up. A $20 million production budget allowed them substantial use of digital CGI shots (or bluescreens) for the first time, including panoramic camera sweeps over primordial swamps and sylvan glens that achieve an almost photographic clarity. And while the film itself is certainly a fairy tale--"mononoke" means "spirit" in Japanese--it is not a children's film. (For a start, the hero makes a nasty habit of carving his enemies like baked hams.) Like adolescence itself, Princess Mononoke might be best understood through its contradictions: It is a violent film that advocates peace, a period drama condemning modern ecological irresponsibility, and a myth steeped in truth.

As with his previous films, Miyazaki sets Princess Mononoke in a less complicated past. The time, in this case, is Muromachi Japan, between the end of the feudal age and the "floating world" of the late medieval period. In spare contrast to the pastoralism of My Neighbor Totoro or the utopian Europe of Porco Rosso, this most recent film takes place in a disintegrating Elysium, full of gentle spirits but defined by human violence.

The world is young and suffering growing pains: As human iron foundries encroach on Japan's ancient forests, the slumbering gods rise in protest. Their apocalyptic confrontation is precipitated by Ashitaka, a young warrior who accidentally kills a deity disguised as a rampaging boar. Exiled and cursed, he sets out into the wider world, encountering a spectrum of folk icons, both corporeal and divine, along the way: San (voiced by Claire Danes in the American release), a princess raised by forest spirits who has cut all ties with humanity; Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), an ambitious foundry owner whose logging operation is angering the gods; and Shishi, an omnipotent "evening spirit" who takes the shape of either a beneficent deer or a destructive wave of darkness.  

In summary, at least, Miyazaki's tale bears much resemblance to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Yet if Tolkien found in his imagination an allegory for the Second World War, Miyazaki presents a more complex parable: No one character in Princess Mononoke is entirely villainous and no one entirely decent. The gods are wrathful and often irrational. The humans are greedy and often stupid. It is not surprising, then, that when the apocalyptic battle between god and human finally occurs, there are no clear victors. Ashitaka has found love with San, but she can never reciprocate. Human society is in shambles, but perhaps can be rebuilt. The gods, defeated and diminished, have retreated into the deepest part of the primordial forest.

In the film's final scene, the once-verdant forest has turned to a barren, ash-gray wilderness. Beneath the dead branches, a lone forest spirit waddles into the frame. Progress may be relentless, Miyazaki suggests, yet we might still make peace with change.

Soon after its theatrical release, Princess Mononoke became the highest-grossing film of all time at the Japanese box office. It was eventually displaced by the landing of Titanic. And perhaps a comparison of the two films would prove instructive. Like Mononoke, Titanic swims in contradiction: It is a tragedy of nature over technology made possible by a triumph of technology over art. Where James Cameron and company spent their millions building an ocean and a ship--a monument to hubris--in order to re-create history, Miyazaki drew a vision of the world as it was, and might yet become. Titanic was titanic, where Miyazaki's film is elegant and controlled, directing its message beneath the radar of cynicism. Even as Miyazaki himself looks deep into the past, his secret purpose is to open our eyes to the possibility of all things.

Princess Mononoke is, in that respect, the resolution of everything the filmmaker had worked toward in his earlier movies. The Promethean effort of producing his summa poetica--he personally drew 80,000 of the film's 140,000 cells--had nevertheless drained him, and in 1997 he hinted at retirement. Miyazaki wanted to make room, he said, for younger animators. His eyesight was failing as well, and he wished to retreat to his mountain cabin--a master at rest.


The films of Hayao Miyazaki are screening along with four other Studio Ghibli films, October 22-24 at the Metro State University auditorium; (612) 376-7715.

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