Extra Miyazaki And Mythology

PHD student Lawrence Carter looks into Japanese culture to find the inspiration behind Miyazaki’s films.

Following the UK release of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises [Kaze tachinu] - a movie concerned with the very real actions and consequences of Japan's involvement in the Second World War - it seems like an apt moment to look back over the filmmaker's more fantastical creations. As you're sat in the cinema watching what is Miyazaki's final film, it is worth bearing in mind the significance of this departure from fabricated fiction. Over several decades Miyazaki has built his reputation, and more broadly the Studio Ghibli aesthetic, upon the foundations of what Susan Napier describes as a 'fantasyscape' - a liminal space wherein the imaginary becomes possible. One of the most striking aspects when viewing The Wind Rises is the director's break from this realistic narrative mode, whilst at the same time retaining aspects of his established visual and aural style, giving audiences of his final film an eerie sense that the history on screen occupies a quasi-surreal position distanced from the horrific realities of wartime Japan.

Over the past ten feature length films directed by the filmmaker, Miyazaki has exposed his audiences to representations of both traditional Japanese legends and classic Western folklore. I will examine examples of both here, to show how the Miyazaki model for managing mythologies remains constant regardless of the source material. For the Japanese mythologies, let us look at Miyazaki’s most famous film, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi [Spirited Away]. In this anime, there are countless references to Japanese mythology and cultural practices, particularly in regards to the religion of Shintōism. For example, we see several kami – gods – many of whom need to be cleansed in the Japanese bathhouse due to pollution and human activity. Aurora van Zoelen observes that this mirrors the Shintō concept of the necessity to purify spirits as well as addressing the Shintō concern of respecting one’s environment. Yet another notable kami reference is the imposing figure of the ‘Radish Spirit’. Rayna Denison comments that in Japan this character is referred to in marketing materials as Oshira-sama, or White Spirit, referencing a Shintō deity of the same name even though the character in the film looks nothing like traditional depictions of Oshira-sama. Spirited Away not only deals with the ranks of Japanese kami but also with their demonic counterparts, oni. Noriko Reider notices that the character of Yabuba is an example of an oni archetype called a yamuaba – translated as ‘mountain witch’. She goes on to directly compare Yabuba and her son Bō to the legend of Yamuaba and her son Kintarō, noting that the two sons are often shown in similar attire: Kintarō is depicted wearing a red harakake, or apron, marked with the Japanese character kin ( 金 ), connoting gold, compared with Bō’s bib which reads bō ( 坊 ), meaning boy. Throughout all of these examples, we can see how Miyazaki has started with a concept from Japanese mythology and then departed from its fantastical origins in order to make his own point, whether for comedic effect or to press ecological and ideological arguments.

The filmmaker’s penultimate film, Gake no Ue no Ponyo [Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea], is a reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Little Mermaid in a Japanese setting. 'Ponyo' is the tiny little fish who becomes human to spend her life with five-year-old Sōsuke. As a basic premise, obvious parallels can be observed between Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo and Disney's The Little Mermaid, both of which draw upon Andersen's source text. Yet the most noteworthy difference between these two films is their underlying theme; The Little Mermaid is obsessed with the Western dream of obtaining true love’s first kiss whereas Ponyo is concerned with saving the world from rising sea levels and environmental disaster, once again echoing the Shintō belief in the necessity for ecological balance. So despite the Western nature of the narrative, Miyazaki manages to reference Japanese cultural values through the ideological message of the film.

In returning to The Wind Rises, you could argue that Miyazaki has moved beyond references to Japanese mythology. After all, the film is based on indisputably real events concerning the building of the Zero warplane, and significantly, as Cari Callis comments, this is an effort towards which Miyazaki’s father himself helped create aeroplane parts. Yet there are still links to be made; the Shintō religion was used to justify wartime atrocities, rally support around the deified Emperor, and utilised as an argument in persuading the kamikaze pilots themselves. If this is indeed Miyazaki’s final film, it is understandable that he wishes to end his career – which has relied so heavily on positive associations of Japanese mythology – with a depiction of the least defensible actions inspired by Shintōism.

Laz Carter - PhD student at SOAS, University of London - https://www.soas.ac.uk/cfss/ https://www.reflexivehorizons.com/

The Wind Rises is in cinemas now.

3 back issues for £7

3 back issues for £7

Buy Now