Last year Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement with the release of his final film The Wind Rises. This film is one of the most perfect and poignant works of motion picture art, live or animated, I have ever seen.
The film reawakened controversy in Japan over Mr. Miyazaki’s political views. At the same time the film was released, the director published a political essay opposing proposed changes to the Japanese constitution that would allow the country to raise a standing army and declare war. He also argued that Japan ought to provide reparations to Asian women used as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II. Right-wing Japanese lashed out at Mr. Miyazaki’s comments.
Meanwhile, on the American side, some critics condemned the film for its sympathetic portrayal of Jiro Horikoshi, the aircraft engineer who designed the iconic and deadly Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane.
The 73-year-old director’s unwillingness to bow to any party’s political stance on the war shows him to be devoted first of all to the integrity of his artistic principles. Yet Mr. Miyazaki’s principles go beyond a mere dedication to art. From his earliest films to The Wind Rises, he has expressed what I would describe as a deeply conservative vision.
Mr. Miyazaki looks for everything that is good in human life, civilization, and the world, and centers his stories on enjoying and maintaining those things. He portrays ideals of virtue, compassion, community, and self-reliance, and places a high value on tradition.
Mr. Miyazaki’s conservative vision is expressed in a number of ways, including some that may not be recognized as conservative in American politics. Let us start with the most misunderstood, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of Mr. Miyazaki’s conservatism: his “environmentalism.”
On an artistic level, Mr. Miyazaki’s tales take place in gorgeously imagined settings. Sometimes the view lingers on a scene just to take in its beauty. Often his films’ environments feature nature and humanity in harmony, whether in agricultural landscapes, towns, or even cities. People, for Mr. Miyazaki, are meant to live in nature. Human culture is integrated with nature and is meant to inhabit it.
The setting is a living participant in the story. My Neighbor Totoro’s whimsical guardian spirits embody the ancient benevolent mystery of the countryside that takes care of two newly-arrived children who miss their mother, just as the people in the community also look after them. Likewise, in Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka wisely recognies that the tree sprites show the forest to be alive and healthy, though they terrify humans who have lost their respect for nature. In Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, even the hated “toxic jungle” turns out to have an important role in renewing a world that has been totally polluted by nuclear war.
Mr. Miyazaki opposes the exploitative use of nature for ends that are opposed to the harmonious flourishing of nature and human civilization. Most of the few true villains in Mr. Miyazaki’s films are exploiters: the Tolmeckians in Nausicäa who want to revive an incredibly destructive giant warrior; the shadowy Prince Muska in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, who hopes to harness the power of a flying city for world domination; or Madam Suliman in Howl’s Moving Castle, a sorceress who attempts to bring all the magicians in the land under her control and turn them into monsters of war. Mr. Miyazaki’s villains attempt to dominate nature in pursuit of political domination, and are ultimately destructive to both nature and human civilization.
Mr. Miyazaki’s respectful view of nature understands that the world is meant to be inhabited and stewarded by human beings. To exploit or even destroy nature for short-term gain is bad stewardship and harmful to humankind, since this world is given to us as our permanent home.
This is an element that sometimes recedes in American right-wing conservatism, which can be tempted to adopt a cartoonish “pave the planet” posture in reaction to anti-human environmental ideologies on the left. Nevertheless, regard for nature is a natively conservative disposition.
Mr. Miyazaki is not a knee-jerk environmentalist. “Nature,” or rather, nature’s representative spirits, are not always good. They can be infected by evil, both by human exploitation, and through their own weakness and malice. In Nausicäa, humans live in constant danger from a poisonous jungle and easily-angered giant insects. Spirited Away features a spirit world as morally complex as the human world, which the young human heroine must understand and reconcile in order to save her parents from a spirit curse. The political tension between the wolf guardians and the forest boars in Mononoke shows how in resisting the encroachment of human beings the defenders of nature can also be arrogant, hateful, and self-destructive. In that film it is Prince Ashitaka who ultimately reconciles humanity and nature by his own strenuous self-sacrifice.
Ashitaka belongs to the Emishi people, a minority race who were repressed and driven into hiding by the Japanese. When he is compelled to kill a demon boar god to defend his village, he is infected by its curse and must leave his people. The curse gives him a supernatural fighting ability, but he knows that violence, even for “good,” will hasten his corruption. In search of answers and a cure, he discovers the forest gods at war with the industrialist Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka’s ethnic history would have given him reason to join the forest gods in their campaign of revenge against humankind. Instead, outcast, friendless, and facing a terrible death, he strives for peace.
Ashitaka’s disposition shows another facet of Mr. Miyazaki’s vision that by American standards may not seem very conservative: a strong preference for peace and almost complete renunciation of violence. His stories do not avoid situations of violence and conflict. War creates the setting and at least part of the central problem for a number of them, including Nausicäa, Laputa, Porco Rosso, Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and of course The Wind Rises. Nor does Mr. Miyazaki provide trite answers to difficult questions. In choosing nonviolence, many of his heroes choose a difficult, sacrificial path. When her father is killed and her tiny country is invaded, Princess Nausicäa accepts the humiliation of defeat in order to save her people and, ultimately, human civilization. This kind of pacifism is only achieved through work that is active, painful, and difficult. It requires decisive leadership. The same can be said for many of Mr. Miyazaki’s young heroes and heroines. They bring peace through self-sacrifice, hard work, and inner transformation.
Outside of exceptional characters like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,, this is not the sort of pacifism practiced by our draft-dodging leftist elites, who rail against war while out of office and once elected embrace the easy way of power.
When characters do engage in violence, Mr. Miyazaki shows that this, too, is no easy thing. As the selfish young wizard Howl falls in love with Sophie, he resolves to stop running away from his enemies and turns to fight in defense of those who have become his family. The fight is inescapable, but it almost destroys him. In the end, what saves Howl is Sophie’s bravery and love.
Speaking of Sophie, let us notice Mr. Miyazaki’s marvelous female characters. A number of his films—Nausicäa, Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s, and From Up On Poppy Hill—have a female protagonist. In a way, each of these films is a “coming of age” story, as the heroine steps beyond her childhood environment to discover her own individual personality and strengths. Princess Nausicäa, already a leader, successfully overcomes an extreme political and ecological crisis to save her people and become queen. Kiki’s tale is distinctly framed as a rite of passage in which the young “witch in training” establishes herself in an unfamiliar town, experiencing the joys and trials of human interdependence. In Spirited Away, Chihiro must work hard and overcome difficulties to redeem her bestial parents. Howl’s heroine Sophie is already an “old soul,” but a jealous witch’s curse sends her on an unexpected journey in which she and Howl both learn to shoulder the burden of love and responsibility. Umi, the heroine of Poppy Hill, is also very mature and responsible at the beginning of the film, but in the course of the story she grows in self-understanding and is able to deal with grief over the loss of her father.
It would be difficult to say exactly what qualifies as a “feminist” film, but there are a few easy ways to identify candidates. One is the “Bechdel test.” Does the film have at least two female characters, and at least one scene in which they discuss something other than a man? Another test is to see whether a female character in the film has her own plotline and concerns independent of those belonging to a male protagonist.
By either of these measures, Mr. Miyazaki’s films do very well. The effect of the “male gaze” on female characters is generally absent, although Mr. Miyazaki cops to spending a day at the railway station sketching how women’s skirts move as research for Kiki. (I am inclined to think this reflects the artist’s obsession with realism and detail.) Mr. Miyazaki’s female characters are not objectified or overly sexualized. They are as complex and independent as his male characters, or even more so. Male and female characters alike are unique individuals, with specific quirks and even inconsistencies, like real people. They are also recognizably masculine and feminine, yet are not compelled to exist within to narrowly-defined gender roles. Sexuality is not as important as personality and relationships.
If this is feminism, Hollywood needs much, much more of it. Mr. Miyazaki’s vision of authentic human life reaches beyond modern politicized categories toward a deep respect for the human being.
In his memoirs, Mr. Miyazaki explains how his artistic vision is to create a vision of beauty and goodness that presents a real alternative to the frantic, debased, consumerist, pornographic, isolating entertainment world many Japanese teens inhabit. This desire first took shape when Mr. Miyazaki was 17 and his father took him to see Japan’s first animated movie:
At the time, his ambition was to become a manga artist, and he was sketching what he describes as “an absurdist drama”, but the purity of the emotion in The Tale of the White Serpent moved him to tears. “It made me realise what a fool I was,” he wrote two decades later. “Despite the words of distrust I spoke, I yearned for an earnest and pure world. . . . I could no longer deny the fact that I wanted to make something life affirming.”
Love and Family
Mr. Miyazaki is especially concerned about the way Japan’s young people have lost their sense of wonder from living in a completely disenchanted, materialistic world. Michael Toscano writes in Curator magazine: “He fears Japanese children are dimmed by a culture of overconsumption, overprotection, utilitarian education, careerism, techno-industrialism, and a secularism that is swallowing Japan’s native animism.” A debased anime and manga culture is ruining children’s imaginations, and boys and girls have even stopped being interested in each other. Mr. Toscano notes: “In its 2013 survey of the sexual habits of Japanese, the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) discovered that a catastrophic number of Japanese teens and young adults, aged 16-24, have lost the desire for sex. A quarter of Japanese young men were ‘not interested in or despised sexual contact’; 45 percent of women reported the same.” Possibly with this fact in mind, Mr. Miyazaki has commented that the only way to preserve Japan’s future is to “conceive as many children as possible.”
A number of Mr. Miyazaki’s tales contain themes of love and romance. However, romance per se is never the focus. Mr. Miyazaki’s couples are more companions than lovers. What is more important than romance is the way lonely and vulnerable individuals are integrated into relationships of mutual reliance and responsibility, which generally benefit everyone around them.
This is not to say that Mr. Miyazaki presents an idealized image of families. Many of his young protagonists lack one or both parents. Some parents are bad role models, like Chihiro’s materialistic glutton parents, or Sophie’s shallow fashion-plate mother. Some families are just dysfunctional, like the sky pirates in Laputa, sons hanging on Dola’s matriarchal apron-strings while Dad spends all his time secluded in the engine room. But there are also realistic, stable families with diligent and committed fathers and wise, caring mothers, as in Totoro, Ponyo, and Poppy Hill.
The oddest Miyazaki family is the accidental household that gathers around Calcifer’s magical hearth in Howl’s Moving Castle. When “Grandma” Sophie first arrives in the castle, Howl and his apprentice Markl inhabit a terrible mess. Sophie cleans house and becomes a much-needed mother to Markl. Howl also grows in responsibility as he and Sophie learn to love one another, and the last scene pictures the trio in domestic happiness, having by this point also picked up the senile former Witch of the Waste and Madame Suliman’s asthmatic dog Heen. Their non-biological family holds out hope that even people who have been cast out and wounded by society can find a healthy place to belong.
Here we must mention the enigmatic Lady Eboshi in Mononoke. Eboshi has angered the forest gods with her guns and destruction of the forest. Yet, at the same time, she shows great compassion to the lepers and former prostitutes who work in her factory-fortress. When Ashitaka confronts Eboshi about the curse she caused, Osa, one of the lepers, speaks up:
“Young man, like you, I know what rage feels like, and grief and helplessness. But you must not take your revenge on Lady Eboshi. She is the only one who saw us as human beings. . . . We are lepers. The world hates and fears us, but she took us in and washed our rotting flesh and bandaged us. . . . Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed, but still, you find reasons to keep living.”
Although Irontown is destroyed in the denoument, the end of the film sees Eboshi promising her people that they will rebuild, this time with Ashitaka’s help. Mr. Miyazaki refuses to condemn her enterprise, suggesting that his view of a harmonious society has room for technology and industry.
Mr. Miyazaki’s stories employ some of the same tropes as other contemporary anime—action heroes, fanciful flying machines, and robot warriors all play a part. What sets Mr. Miyazaki so far beyond other directors, in addition to his unquestionable superiority as an animator, are his real, dynamic characters. All of his stories involve sympathetic individuals taking responsibility, making difficult choices, and developing into better, more mature people. If the director is trying to teach his audience one lesson, this is it. The primary lesson is not “you must save the earth,” but “you must change your life.”
Spirited Away, one of Mr. Miyazaki’s most symbolic films, works out the theme of transformation almost by way of parable. Chihiro’s parents represent the failure of modern Japan. They are reckless, impatient slobs, driven by bodily appetites, who don’t care about tradition. Their disrespect for the “old paths” is explicitly symbolized as their shiny new car careens along an overgrown road past shrines which they treat with no kind of respect. After pigging out at a magic buffet, they are transformed into swine.
When Chihiro arrives at the witch Yubaba’s bathhouse, she is required to perform a number of labors. Spirits visit the bathhouse to be purified and refreshed. Chihiro frees a river spirit of the garbage that has made him filthy—cleaning up after consumerism, if you will. But environmental pollution is not her most difficult challenge. Chihiro also confronts No Face, a masked spirit who tempts the bathhouse workers with gold and begins devouring everything in sight. He has no authentic personality and tries to buy regard with shiny nuggets. When Chihiro makes him vomit everything he has consumed, he is humbled and, for the first time, begins to find fulfillment in serving others. Finally, Chihiro helps to liberate a spirit who has been enslaved by Yubaba, winning freedom for herself and her parents at the same time.
Traditional Values and Religion
Religious tradition—of a characteristically Japanese variety—also infuses Mr. Miyazaki’s films. The director’s beautiful art presents a pure, spiritual view of the world, encouraging awe and respect. Shinto affirms that everything is not only physical but also spiritually significant. In order to live in and care for such a world, a person’s soul must also become pure. This is what Mr. Miyazaki is doing with his stories of personal transformation: encouraging purification in virtue, aiming at a kind of childlikeness. Mr. Miyazaki’s simplest stories—Totoro and Ponyo—are also his most mature, portraying human beings living in harmony with one another and nature. Adults work hard and live disciplined lives. Old age is honored and children are welcomed and included in daily life. When children encounter the elemental spirits, adults respond not with cynicism or disbelief, but joyful affirmation, remembering the wonder of childhood.
In most of Mr. Miyazaki’s films Shinto themes are expressed one way or another. In Mononoke, as Freda Freiberg observes: “Ashikata [sic] can function as the intermediary between the imperialist and capitalist Japanese and the non-human world because he belongs to a human tribe which reveres nature and believes in animistic gods. San refuses to accept her humanity and identifies only with the non-human world.” Similarly, Princess Nausicäa mediates between technology-obsessed humans who don’t respect nature and the destructive wrath of the Ohmu, giant insects who are nature’s protectors. It takes a pure heart to save the world.
Spirited Away is again possibly Mr. Miyazaki’s most explicitly religious film, drawing many themes from Shinto, the ancient stream of Japanese tradition that venerates ancestors and honors the spiritual presences of the natural world. James W. Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura observe regarding the enigmatic character of Chihiro’s friend and protector Haku:
Haku is in some respects the embodiment of . . . traditional Japanese cultural values. His attire resembles that of the Heian period—he wears something similar to a hakama, part of a Shinto priest’s formal costume. Besides this courtly dress, his speech is formal and traditional. When he refers to himself, he does not use the more colloquial “boku” but the more formal “watashi.” And when he addresses Sen, he uses the ancient, more noble aristocratic term “sonata” . . . . The fact that Haku embodies certain traditional values, that he is the one who helps Chihiro in the transitional world, and that Chihiro in turn helps Haku remember his identity, invites interpretation. Perhaps Miyazaki is affirming to contemporary viewers of this anime film some important insights in the Shinto Japanese tradition . . . that can be helpful in these modern times.
Chihiro illustrates Mr. Miyazaki’s belief that although the young are most at risk from the wrong turn modern Japanese culture has taken, they are also the key to its recovery. From Up On Poppy Hill, written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Gorō, also reflects hope that that Japan’s youth can bring new life to old traditions. In the story, Japan is preparing to host the 1964 Olympics and prove itself as a modern, progressive country. But in seeking to erase the shame of recent history, the country is in danger of neglecting the precious things of the past. Umi, though, faithfully remembers the past in small but significant gestures. The first scenes of the film linger on her morning routine of making breakfast for the family and her grandmother’s tenants. Her first act is to place a glass of water and a fresh cut flower in front of her father’s portrait on the side table—a Buddhist gesture of ancestral honor. Every morning Umi also raises the signal flags her father taught her to fly, although it has been many years since he was lost at sea.
The plot of Poppy Hill turns on the “Latin Quarter,” an 18th-century hotel that has been occupied by generations of high school academic clubs. The school plans to knock down the dirty, dilapidated building to make room for new construction. The clubmen protest, but they seem fated to lose. Umi intervenes, organizing a squadron of girls to supervise and assist the boys in decluttering, cleaning, and fixing up the building. School spirit thrives, and the clubhouse gets another chance.
This is the essence of conservatism. Like the clubhouse, tradition can gather dust and become less useful through neglect. The solution is not to condemn tradition, but to toss the dusty newspapers, scrub the floors, replace the broken windows, take down the “no girls allowed” sign, and give the whole thing a bright new coat of paint. Young people who honor the past and have hope for the future can save tradition from obsolescence.
As we have seen, Mr. Miyazaki’s art represents a conservative challenge to many aspects of modern Japanese culture: its historical amnesia and forgetfulness of traditions; its disenchantment of family and childhood; its worship of technology and its exploitation of nature and humanity. All these are cultural directions incompatible with the Japan that Mr. Miyazaki loves. But, as a conservative, he does not merely denounce modern ways. Instead, through his art, he entrances us with the vision of what a good, harmonious, and beautiful life can and should be.
Returning to The Wind Rises and its critics: does Mr. Miyazaki have a responsibility to condemn Jiro’s indirect participation in that conflict? Can the film have any kind of moral obligation to make a point, specifically, about the war? Today the war is no longer a live political issue. Everyone responsible for it, and most of those who personally remember it, are dead. Mr. Miyazaki himself was only four years old when the war ended.
The Wind Rises is Mr. Miyazaki at his most melancholy. Its characters are blown—literally and figuratively—by the wind. They are carried aloft by dreams, and their dreams are swept away by events. The whole world is descending into a madness that neither Jiro nor his Thomas Mann-quoting German friend can either affect or control. What then is left for them? Jiro invokes the line of poet Paul Valery: “The wind is rising! We must try to live!” He tries his best to live through engineering and love. Ultimately, all is swept away—his work by war and his wife by disease—and he has only the memory of his dreams to comfort him: that these things were good, and that he did well to pursue them.
The conservative has a tender affinity for precious things that are passing away. Sometimes they can be preserved and brought to new life. At other times, they may only be preserved in memory for another generation such as ours, who may open the record and feel them in our own hearts, inspiring us with reverence for the fading beauties of our time.
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