Hayao Miyazaki began his career at Studio Toei, and quickly found himself involved in the union struggles occurring at the time, efforts which eventually saw he, Isao Takahata, and others virtually forced out of the studio. Rising to prominence in this milieu, Miyazaki spent his early life as a self-proclaimed Marxist, and the artistic priorities set by those politics survive even into his present work. In the 80s he declared that he wanted to, “always be aware of the dangers of being too wishy-washy, to be aware of the relationships between media creators and consumers, capital and labor.” Yet, within a decade, this belief in Marxism totally crumbled. With the fall of the USSR and the writing of Nausicaa, Miyazaki’s faith in historical materialism—which centers class struggle and the relations of economic production in its analysis—collapsed, and he declared that the kind of thinking where, “if things like the distribution of wealth and the means of production were properly taken care of, everything would get better”, was something he could no longer accept. Indeed, in 1994 he claimed that, “Leaving decisions up to the collective wisdom of the masses just results in collective foolishness”, as well as saying, outright, that “Marxism was a mistake,” and from here, the ecological tones already present in his work became even more central.
As a director whose films often tell quite political stories, it’s worth pondering what they actually say, how they tell the tale of Miyazaki’s own evolution as a thinker, as well as what they mean in their own right. Over the course of his career, Miyazaki constantly returns to common points, though often in changed ways; his ambiguous feelings towards the Japanese nation, animist environmental tendencies, opposition but resignation to the historical process of industrialization and modernization, empathy towards all human and non-human life, the nature of childhood and adulthood, the value of labor, and so much more. Of course, throughout all of his work, there’s an ever-present focus on flight, and much of his concerns with technology can be understood once his portrayal of the wind-based form of travel is divined. Yes, to understand all of it, we have to look at every major worked he helmed, and to begin that task, it’s time to start with his only complete TV anime: Future Boy Conan.
Released in 1978 and based on Alexander Key’s, The Incredible Tide, Future Boy Conan takes place after a catastrophic war is fought between the United States and Soviet Union, tearing apart the surface of the planet and leaving little arable land to sustain the human population. The main character, a young boy named Conan, is raised by his grandfather, a former scientist. At the start of the series, he meets a girl named Lana, who’s fled from the fittingly-titled nation of Industria, which wants to rebuild the world which was destroyed through the labor of its underclass and the technology which comes with that power relation. However, Lana has spent time on another island known as High Harbor, a relatively peaceful, agrarian community which offers the truest hope of survival for the human race. Throughout the story, Conan and Lana work together to protect the remaining world from Industria and its cruel leader, Lepka. At the end, they see success, destroying the planet’s last warship and sinking Industria. Ensuring High Harbor’s safety, Conan, Lana, and many others return to the island Conan grew up on, which is now a larger landmass, to repopulate it.
Without a doubt, Conan has a Marxist bent. While it makes no attempt to defend the USSR’s own developmental urges, it alters the novel’s portrayal, in which High Harbor is the West’s successor while Industria is the Soviets’. Indeed, Industria in the anime represents not the sins of some supposed communism, but instead the faults of industrial society as a whole; there’s no indication, compared to the novel, of who began the war, but it didn’t matter much by the time the bombs dropped. Industria’s class structure, in which a great many workers are forced to slave away underground, all while the nation colonizes abroad in order to forcibly gather more resources and workers, is more reminiscent of the US than the USSR, but clearly, neither nation is meant to be viewed positively here.
No, it’s the unstoppable drive for quote-unquote “progress” which the series marks as malignant. After all, not only did industrial civilization destroy the Earth, but it threatens to do so again if the ruling class of Industria gets its way. Yet, one might object that this isn’t a very Marxist view of things. After all, isn’t Marxism explicitly about progress, specifically towards communism. Well, yes and no. It’s true that many interpretations of Marxism take that view, where communism is, in effect, what the return of Christ is for Christians; a certain-to-happen event coming in the future, one bound by the forces of the world to bring humanity to its next stage. However, this is not a universal trait of Marxism, and it’s one which has become less popular in the last fifty years; Marxists may still be communists, but the idea of communism’s inevitability isn’t exactly the rage, especially as climate change threatens to end us before revolution can ever come.
And it’s with that caveat that I believe the Marxist and ecological tendencies in this anime see themselves combined, not unravelling fully until later in Miyazaki’s career. See, Conan is a very Romantic series, not in the sense of love, though Conan and Lana are cute together, but in the sense that everything is portrayed with a certain Romance, drawing upon the 19th-century movement which reacted to capitalism’s encroachment by turning to nature’s beauty, specifically by attempting to revive the spirit of Medieval romances which focused on chivalry and pastoralism. High Harbor isn’t perfect, but its agrarian system of production is one that avoids the danger industry poses for society. That said, it’s not as if the series doesn’t allow for expansion, or the development of production. Technology is allowed to return when it doesn’t come in the form of a giant, humanity-threatening warship. Indeed, workers rise up and seize Industria by the end, escaping with all the others to the healthy lands. Miyazaki is clearly hesitant, even at this early point, to believe that industrial society can be maintained, at least in the form we use it today, and yet the series still has some belief that workers can bridge what Marx himself called the metabolic rift, that gap between human production and the environment we exist within; there’s still hope that, through the power of labor, we can synthesize as best as possible the needs of humanity and the rest of nature. In many senses, while the world is destroyed and billions have died, this is a very optimistic future; eventually, the survivors’ descendants will spread, perhaps without a need to reestablish a destructive capitalist society.
Of course, the Romanticism of Conan has one other trait we must touch on; the Romanticism of a young boy. Don’t worry, all I mean by that is that the series glorifies Conan’s form of masculinity; there’s a purity to it, as his supernatural strength allows him to help Lana and others without the barriers drawn up around adult men. In Conan, children like Conan and Lana were literally born after the disaster, and thus, in a certain sense, free of that original sin known as capitalist-derived ideology. Gender relations still exist in this society—Miyazaki is only so radical—but they’re purer, what some might wrongly call more natural. The selfishness and perversity of adult men are traits not present in Conan himself, who’s able to help save the world as a result of his youthfulness and sacred bond with Lana. This level of Romanticism hardly sticks with Miyazaki for long—as we’ll see, it fades as he grows further from Marxism, reappearing from time to time in changed ways—but it’s an important starting place for understanding him. Yet, this optimistic, relatively Marxist work of his was not his only one, as a year later he’d return to the franchise he’d worked on before, Lupin III, for his first theatrical production.
The Castle of Cagliostro, released in 1979, is a strange entity within the Lupin franchise, in spite of its current place as its most popular entry. Significantly toned down in many regards when compared to its predecessors, it’s a far more Romantic work. While Lupin himself is always something of a gentleman thief, the gentleman side is often far weaker than the thief bit, and his perversion is a constant element in many other Lupin series. Here, however, it’s an almost purehearted desire to help the damsel-in-distress, Princess Clarisse, from the threat of arranged marriage to her evil uncle, that motivates the majority of his actions.
To understand this film in particular, it’s worth thinking about what Lupin represents. In my video on remakes last year, I mentioned that much of the reason we love characters like Lupin is that they hurt those we intuitively recognize as harmful to us: the extremely wealthy. Absorbed in a belief that capitalist property relations are natural or just, we can’t totally forgive Lupin—he’s still a thief, after all—and yet his thievery isn’t really all that bad. It’s inherently somewhat Romantic, in fact, especially as he has little concern for what’s done with the wasted treasure he gets.
When Lupin nabs a stash of gold, we all recognize that, at its core, the metal’s pretty useless to the world; these pointless treasures have little to no utility. Lupin takes that implicit recognition and makes it explicit by practically throwing it out as soon as he’s satisfied the thrill of taking it. This is what’s so important about him as a character, and what’s so Romantic about it. He’s not a Robin Hood, an outright benevolent figure who we all recognize as basically morally correct to his core. Robin Hood deprives the rich of their ill-gotten wealth and returning it to those who actually need it, something that most people unconsciously accept as the right thing to do, hint hint, but while Lupin lacks this redistributive element, he can’t be called a bad guy either; he steals from those who deserve it purely for the sake of it, and it’s hard not to admire a guy so willing to do what he wants even as it upsets those in power.
In this context, it’s worth understanding why Cagliostro is often seen as “one last adventure” for the Lupin crew. It’s not the chronological last event, insofar as the series has any consistency, and the 2018 anime even demonstrated that quite directly. It is, however, the symbolic “last burst” of the Romantic thievery Lupin himself participates in. Rather than act for his own interest on any level, such as in his usually characteristic pursuit of girls, he works almost purely for Clarisse’s actual well-being after meeting her. It’s the ultimate act of the Romantic hero, recalling the false but memorable days of European chivalry, and yet it’s bound to die, just as the kingdom itself is clearly not long for this world, sustaining its practically medieval structure purely on account of its small size and its irrelevance to world capitalism.
Yet, the film’s ending, which reveals that the true treasure hidden by Clarisse’s kingdom are ruins of a Roman city, makes clear that this conclusion to Romantic thievery can have a greater ending than simply saving a girl; by taking from those who seek to do ill, in this case the evil Count as an allegory for the ruling classes as a whole, we can regain the Earth as a whole, and with it the history that they’ve cast aside, while ignoring the meaningless, ultimately false wealth they’ve accumulated for its own sake. This isn’t to say the film is literally revolutionary, of course, but in it, the death of Romanticism isn’t seen as purely bad, even given Miyazaki’s clear admiration of it as an aesthetic in his show from just one year prior. Romanticism is a reaction to the conditions of privatization and industrialization that surrounded it, and once those conditions fade, so too will the movement. It’s a bittersweet ending, and the intrusion of the police to once again chase Lupin acts as a safety valve which returns everything to the status quo, but the potential for a utopian exit from our present situation is opened up by the film, at a time where Miyazaki’s own hope in such a revolutionary break was still alive. His next works, however, served to indicate his growing distrust of such a perfect result.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, or more specifically, its film adaptation, may be seen as the beginning of the end for Miyazaki’s Marxism, and the first point at which ecological concerns eclipsed productive ones for him. Set a thousand years after an apocalyptic world event, young princess Nausicaa is a wind-rider, and travels the surrounding area in order to scavenge what her village needs from the environment around her, protecting the kingdom from the toxic Sea of Corruption and the insects who inhabit it. After a massive airship from a neighboring kingdom crashes in the Valley’s fields, the powerful Tolmekian Empire arrives, killing Nausicaa’s father before taking her with them. On this journey, Nausicaa learns more about the most powerful insects, the Ohmu, and is made aware of the fact that the Sea of Corruption is purifying the world, slowly returning it to a state befitting pre-industrial life. As the Tolmekians bring an ancient bioengineered being known as a God Warrior back for a pivotal battle, Nausicaa sacrifices herself to help a single young Ohmu, and is then revived by the insects, returning Christ-like to help rebuild her kingdom in league with others.
Central to the film, far moreso than the manga which I’ll be covering later, is the Valley of the Wind itself. A near-constant backdrop, almost everything our lead does is for the sake of her kingdom. An agrarian community built primarily on sharing due to its relative lack of excess, there’s little sign of capitalism or anything of the sort, unlike in the industrial kingdom that the young prince Asbel comes from. Life in the Valley of the Wind is far from ideal in many ways, yet it is life, and a nearly utopian one at that until the invasion of the Tolmekian army. Similar in depiction to High Harbor in Conan, what makes the Valley of the Wind so effective as a utopia may be that we don’t live in it. While those in the kingdom seem happy enough, they’re beset on all sides by more powerful forces, and just on the border of a life-ending forest. It’s a hard existence, one which would be ill-fitting for most people in the 21st century. Yet as we stare down the barrel of the climate change gun, it’s difficult to conclude that an agrarian life like that in Nausicaa is a bad thing. The elements we idealize, from the tight community to its sustainable lifestyle, are exactly what most of us, especially those of us in the First World, don’t have, and they naturally lead us to understand Nausicaa’s desire to protect it, even as we wouldn’t want to live there ourselves. I’d hardly wish to live in Heaven as described by many Christians, but it’s inarguably a utopian vision, and the same applies to the Valley of the Wind.
At its core, the Valley of the Wind gathers both its power and safety from, well, wind. The strong winds in the valley prevent the Sea of Corruption from spreading anything beyond trace spores into the kingdom. Furthermore, wind power shows Miyazaki’s acceptance of some technologies; windmills are perfectly acceptable, and while far from ideal, airships are okay too. However, while a great many flying machines appear in the film, there’s a clear dichotomy between Nausicaa’s Mehve, which primarily uses her understanding of the wind to stay aloft, and the giant airships which, like the one in Conan, make use of dangerous power sources to lift great masses of soldiers into the sky. Wind power is not only free but natural in Miyazaki, and though this’ll be examined more thoroughly in his next work, the active desire to fight against it in the form of airplanes and their ilk clearly marks a dangerous trend in human development, one that the director, in his love of these vehicles, finds himself deeply ambivalent towards.
Ultimately, the Nausicaa film, as opposed to its manga counterpart, tells a messianic story, yet this in itself does not deny Marxism. Nausicaa returns from the dead, legitimately in a crucifixion pose, yes, but in doing so she comes armed with greater knowledge, assisting in the improvement of production and productive forces. Signs of a belief in labor’s power still exist within the text, though evidently in an increasingly pessimistic form. However, even stronger is the focus on ecological systems, and what we might call the assemblages within them. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing defines ‘assemblages’ in this context as “open-ended gatherings” that let us “ask about communal effects without assuming them.” In other words, they are connections between various entities in diverse forms, where individual elements are separable from one another yet also fundamentally tied. While human societies play a role in the natural assemblages built around the Sea of Corruption, they hardly take a primary role. Nausicaa herself, in protecting the Ohmu both as a child and then as an adult, recognizes other life as equally valuable to human life—but, notably, in the film it stops there, never implying that other life is superior to human life. Increasingly, Miyazaki’s work is growing away from a direct focus on production and historical materialism, towards a study of ecological assemblages heavily informed by animist religious philosophies such as Japan’s folk beliefs. Still, Marxism was given one last major chance in his following film, the first work properly made by Ghibli.
1985’s Castle in the Sky tells the tale of two children, Pazu and Sheeta. A poor orphan in a mining town, Pazu finds Sheeta after she’s escaped an attempt to capture her and her pendant, learning that she’s the heir to the castle’s royal line. Together, they work to escape the pirates who had chased her previously, but ultimately find themselves unsuccessful. However, after being recaptured, Pazu is able to convince the pirates to help them, and they rescue Sheeta while losing the amulet. Going after it, they eventually reach the eponymous castle, and after a fight with a man who reveals himself to be Sheeta’s cousin, the sole other heir, they defeat him, preventing him from forcibly marrying her and sending him to his death below. Following this, they recognize that the castle, in spite of its beauty, serves little purpose aside from wonton violence and control, and they send it to its own doom before returning to the mining town, the two of them happy together.
Castle in the Sky draws much of its imagery from the 18th and 19th century, and the titular castle’s true name, Laputa, comes directly from Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels. As an early steampunk work, one of relatively few in anime, this is quite fitting. Steampunk could, perhaps, be viewed as the antithesis of Romanticism, and yet in another way, it’s simply an updated rendition of it. On the one hand, steampunk glorifies industrial society, usually Victorian Britain and worlds like it, crafting an aesthetic wherein the absolute power exerted by England at the time was capable of continuing forever. This is not to erase the fact that steampunk, like its close neighbor cyberpunk, was born with a skepticism towards imperial and industrial expansion. Many steampunk works highlight the danger that these technologies might pose to colonial subjects, or the disgusting labor conditions that undergird such a system in the first place. Yet, in spite of that, there is, as in cyberpunk, a utopian character to these worlds, one that conflicts with the revulsion that the Romantics felt towards the actually-existing steampunk that surrounded them.
However, this glorification of a past period, one before capitalism had intruded over so much of daily life, when there was still some small measure of enchantment to the world, is actually very aligned with the project of Romanticism. The difference, of course, is that Romanticism is increasingly untenable, and realistically died in the 19th century itself; while we still gaze at nature with reverence and longing, most of us are now three hundred years from industrial civilization’s rise, not one hundred, and the idea of accessing the pastoral grasslands of medieval Japan or England is nothing more than a joke. Even those living in rural areas feel the effects of capitalist disenchantment on their lives, apparent in the many deindustrialized towns across the Global North, or in the horrifically poor towns of the Global South; it’s a small group which still resists with any potency. In light of this, steampunk, which pictures a malignantly utopian version of industrial society, offers just a little bit of that magic we’re missing from our lives today.
But okay, that clarifies the genre’s broader political appeal, what does Castle in the Sky specifically communicate? First off, it is, as I claimed, perhaps the last work in Miyazaki’s portfolio to focus specifically on workers as a class, though it’s hardly his last piece to focus on labor in less materialist ways. Drawing inspiration from Welsh miners, the film released shortly after Thatcher’s infamous strike breaking moment, tied only with Reagan’s victory over the air traffic controllers’ union in signifying the death of organized labor and the victory of neoliberalism over the coming epoch. Castle in the Sky, which argues for the dignity of workers and their independence from those who rule them from above, must be understood in this context. Miyazaki claimed that a reason behind making Castle in the Sky was the fact that, “In Japan, the idea of workers with a true sense of solidarity … is a thing of the past,” responding to the horrific destruction of the labor movement that surrounded him at the time. It’s notable that Pazu is a worker himself, and allegorically causes the ruling structure and the age of Modernity it rules, the castle in the sky itself, to come crashing down to Earth.
Yet, reducing the film solely to its appeals for worker solidarity and liberation would be wrong-headed. After all, while it’s a steampunk work, Miyazaki’s typical skepticism with technology remains present, though perhaps in a reduced and more Marxist form. As academic Thomas Lamarre has pointed out, the film’s opening shows that the cycle of wind itself allows for technology to develop, only for that technology to eventually work against the wind and, inevitably, to come crashing down. As in Nausicaa, it’s not hard to read this sequence: human technology exists, it will develop, and there’s no helping that. However, we must go with the wind, not against it, or we risk perishing ourselves, and Modernity certainly went against the wind. What’s interesting is that, compared to Nausicaa, the film is far more anthropocentric; our actions hurt ourselves in Castle in the Sky, while in his earlier film they hurt the planet. Perhaps they’re best understood together; ecological danger caused by runaway technological development will ruin both us, more specifically those among us who are most vulnerable, and our surrounding environments. Forging the connection here, however loosely, between workers and ecology is an important move, and unfortunately one he won’t revisit for a while. To intercede with my own politics for a moment, I believe this linkage, which offers to mend the metabolic rift, is the most important thing to organize around for the next century.
In many ways, the narrative of Pazu and Sheeta reflects elements of both Conan and Cagliostro. The forced marriage plot beat returns, as does the juvenile romance between an ordinary boy and a girl with magical powers and important knowledge. As in those films, and in Nausicaa, this is ultimately a story of redemption, as humanity is saved from its past sins by the messianic figures of Pazu and Sheeta. To quote Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, revolutionary redemption, “call[s] every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question,” refusing to accept a history of constant domination by the ruling class and the dangerous technology it gestated. The utopian visions of these films is their ability to pierce through this fiction that the victories of the past are always admirable, to empower the disempowered, even as the worlds in these films, like ours, are incredibly fraught. Before too long, this unambiguous possibility of redemption would be questioned, though not necessarily rejected. Before that, however, the problem of children became a central one for Miyazaki.
My Neighbor Totoro, more than any other Miyazaki work, is not simply a popular movie, but an institution, and while it’s not a franchise as such, Totoro himself is one of the most popular mascot characters in Japan and around the world, rivaling the likes of Doraemon and, of course, Pikachu. Something must be particularly appealing, on all levels of the art, to achieve that level of popularity, and Totoro certainly is. Telling the story of two girls, Satsuki and Mei, who move to a rural village with their father to be closer to their hospital-bound mother, they discover a series of tree-spirits called Totoros in the midst of their childish adventures, who they eventually rely on when Mei becomes lost searching for their mother after falsely getting the impression that she’s in danger. Totoro and the famous catbus transport them to the hospital, where they leave a gift for their mom. The film resolves thusly, with the girls happy and their mother eventually safely returning home. Compared to most Miyazaki films, it’s light on plot, and also fairly short. Yet, in spite of that, it holds its own politically among the rest of his works.
Totoro is, of course, concerned with childhood, but the question has to be asked: what kind of childhood? As scholar Karatani Kojin claims, “although the objective existence of children seems self-evident, the “child” we see today was discovered and constituted only recently.” In other words, while young people have always existed, often being given their own social role, the specific role of the child that we recognize today was formed only in the last few hundred years, largely as a result of the distinction capitalism has made between private and public life, as well as various struggles surrounding “child” labor and education. It’s in this context that we must understand Totoro, because it’s specifically interested in how these socio-political changes might shape the figure we recognize as the child.
Totoro was released as a double feature with Studio Ghibli’s most well-known work not directed by Miyazaki, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. In that film, a pair of children struggle and eventually die at the tail end of the Pacific War. The work employs a certain irony, clearly marking the cause of their death as being Japan’s nationalism, while also declaring that it was their attempts to live up to that nationalism that really sealed their fates. For this reason I, following Phillip Wegner, would like to propose that Totoro is an alternate reality narrative. While supposedly set in our fifties, Totoro shows little intrusion from those elements which doomed the children of its sister film; industry is never seen, reverence of spirits remain a part of life, and perhaps most importantly, there’s little sign of the American occupation which, if set when it’s said to be, would have ended a few years prior at the latest. Even if not literally an alternate reality tale, a what-if of sorts, Totoro is filmically still asking a question of how the world might be if modernization had gone differently, in a manner more in harmony with nature, and how that might affect children. Given the happiness of Satsuki and Mei, and the almost total lack of negative events that they face, it’s pretty obvious that any potential effect is a positive one, as rather than being prepared for a future of industrial labor, they instead get to interact freely with nature.
Of course, the forest itself is also central to any analysis of Totoro. The titular character appears to be the spirit of the giant camphor tree next to the girls’ house, and this tree is part of a so-called satoyama, which one might describe as the landscape used for agriculture, especially the wooded regions. While satoyama are necessary for any agricultural production under this definition, they’ve gained note over the last century due to attempts to restore them, for both ecological and community reasons; perhaps those two things can’t be so easily separated. Certainly, the Totoros’ recognition of the girls signals that they’re more than willing to live alongside humans even today. Yet it must be acknowledged that there’s also an element of national pride to satoyama restoration, at least in many cases, and it’s that I want to pull out. This is a controversial claim to make, but I believe that Totoro is, to at least some extent, a nationalist film. Yet, it is not the jingoist nonsense that’s attacked in Grave of the Fireflies. Instead, it’s a nationalism based on a Japan before modernity, and the utopia it presents is simply the satoyama itself, opening up room to believe that through an engagement with past cultural values from before Western modernity, Japan can restore itself to a society which flies with the wind, rather than against it. In this sense, I suppose it’s another work concerned with redemption, but in this case, it’s for those lost in Japan’s pointless struggle for more and more power, rather than the working classes more specifically. Just as with more harmful nationalisms, this is ultimately false, and this mythical Japan never existed, but it might be a useful fiction for convincing kids to love trees.
While a Marxist-influenced skepticism towards industrial mass society is still alive and well within Miyazaki’s works, Totoro shows a shying away from any specifically Marxist framework, and an ever-growing appreciation for a Shinto-inspired animism embodied in the Totoros themselves. As in his other narratives, he builds a utopia here where the disenchantment of industrial life can be overcome, and the lives of the girls is certainly quite enchanted. On childhood, a topic Miyazaki will return to, the film makes it clear that the difficulties of growing up, which are very much real and expressed in the girls’ fears about their mother, are best resolved by inhabiting the world in some authentic way, working with the nature around us. In the end, however, while it may be a utopian vision, Miyazaki isn’t stupid: there’s no true escape from Modernity, not at this stage; after all, satoyama preservation is a distinctly modern concept, and any satoyama that’s been restored is certainly not the same as it was before it needed to be in the first place. It may be a better rendition, but it’s certainly not an extended pre-modernity. His next film would take a break from the focus on natural landscapes, but it’s no less concerned with the problems of growing up under this modern, industrial condition.
Where Totoro is perhaps symbolically set in an alternate reality, Kiki’s Delivery Service literally is. Not only does it take place in a non-existent Northern European city that’s simultaneously somehow both Mediterranean and French, but the technology on display is all out of whack, and while it roughly aligns with the 50s, the same period as Totoro, there are a great number of objects and symbols which cast doubt on that assumption; the only sure thing is that it ranges somewhere from, say, the 30s to the 70s. Starring a young witch named Kiki who’s sent off at the age of 13 to find herself a city to live in with her cat familiar, Jiji, she ends up growing disappointed when she learns that few in her chosen town care about magic. Fortunately, a nice baker takes her in, and she sets up a delivery service using her broom. As various jobs go wrong, and she finds herself unable to connect properly to a boy interested in her, Tombo, her depression catches up with her, and she finds herself unable to fly or talk to Jiji. That is, until Tombo is involved in an airship accident and ends up hanging far above the ground. Here, she regains her motivation, and thus her powers, and she manages to save him. At the end of the story, she declares that while there’s still times she feels sad, she’s happy with the city she lives in.
The world of Kiki’s is one where witches are rare enough to be a spectacle, but not so uncommon as to be valuable after the novelty’s worn off. Truly, compared to Totoro, it’s a disenchanted world. No wonder, then, that Kiki finds herself depressed; there’s little use for magic when we have modern technology. Not all of it is directly portrayed, but industrial society comes with its consequences; medicine, flight, so many things once best kept in the domain of witchcraft are now achieved through scientific rationality. Even Kiki’s mother, a witch herself, measures her potions like a chemist, and for whatever value that may bring—and certainly there is some—there’s a loss to it as well. Surely, Kiki’s ancestors had an easier time, living in an age where witches served a real utility. This disenchantment of modern capitalist society is clearly marked as akin to the disenchantment of adolescence and artistry in Modernity; Kiki is shocked by all of this at 13, just as a great many teenagers are forced to understand, having left true childhood, something of what the world’s like, losing much of their childish wonder in an ultimately bittersweet move. Would Kiki be able to see the Totoros? Who can say, but it’d certainly be more difficult for her than it was for Satsuki and Mei, just as it’s easier for them to notice what still remains of magic in our society. The airship disaster at the end of the film, which takes lines directly from our world’s famous Hindenburg disaster, drives this point home; Modernity is fundamentally disastrous, causing far more problems than it claims to solve. Its lies of continuing enchantment will always, inevitably die, but who are you to stop them?
Yet, as always, there are utopian elements in this world as well. It’s seemingly at peace, and where intercontinental passenger airships were sent to the farm in our world after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, they continue well into the 50s here. Indeed, while large industry is alluded to, and surely must exist for the sort of city which relies heavily on automobile transit, it’s never shown in any great detail; the best examples of labor we see are Kiki’s deliveries, Tombo’s plane construction, and the bakery. What ties all of these together? Well, they’re relatively independent ventures, and yet they connect those around them, creating a web, perhaps even an assemblage of producers. Of course, this is obviously a capitalist society, so it’s not the union of producers Marx discussed, but that’s actually essential. In Kiki’s, the importance of labor is absolutely central; it’s upon feeling as if she can’t accomplish what she’s meant to that Kiki grows depressed, and finding a job that connects you to a joyous environment is clearly one of the main tasks for young witches. Yet, what’s noticeably absent here is any critical eye towards labor itself; certainly, the workers in Castle in the Sky are idealized, yet their plight is apparent as well. No such thing is true in Kiki’s, because while the main characters all perform labor, they are certainly not a proletariat, lacking any conception of what class they might be a part of, or any real bosses to speak of. While Miyazaki may not have totally abandoned Marxism at this point—his interviews are slightly vague on exactly when this occurred—it no longer held any real presence in his films by Kiki’s.
As a Marxist myself, it may sound as if I believe this is a negative development for the film in relation to his past works, but I’d argue that it’s actually not; the appeal of the movie lies chiefly in the relative freedom Kiki possesses, both due to the freeing power of flight, and the freedom inherent in lacking hierarchy. If only so many could avoid feeling exploited in their labor, then perhaps depression would be so much easier to overcome; at least, that’s what the film says, and while this is a romanticized view of artistic labor more likely to come from a successful director like Miyazaki than a poor in-betweener, it still has some merit to it. Of course, it’s got some realism as well; Kiki does not overcome her depression, not entirely, and it’s not the labor alone that connects Kiki to her surrounding environment, but the humans she interacts with because of her labor, those who extend their arms to pull her up when she’s feeling down. Without an active attempt by those she works for, Kiki actually finds her work quite alienating at points, as she conveys packages she has no connection to. As I said earlier, this is in many ways a depiction of an assemblage, which all cities might be said to be in a certain way, and it’s without a doubt Miyazaki’s kindest depiction of the urban landscape; it makes a fitting pair with Totoro’s satoyama. Ready to leave both urban and rural spaces behind in the last of this string of nostalgic films, his next work would directly tackle the issue of nostalgia itself, with fascism’s approach as a key backdrop.
1992’s Porco Rosso is set in the early 30s, a time where Italian and German fascism are growing increasingly powerful and the Depression has its grip on most of the world. A World War I veteran and bounty hunter, Porco Rosso, who’s been transformed into a pig by a curse, attempts to avoid arrest by the fascist authorities. Along the way, he meets with his lost love Gina, now a singer, and Fio, a young airplane mechanic who comes to develop a crush on him. Curtis, a man interested in both women, eventually ends up dueling Marco, Porco Rosso’s real name, for Fio’s hand, and loses before the fascist air force arrives in order to shut them all down.
Perhaps the most famous line in this film is Marco’s statement where, when asked to return to the air force he responds, “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.” Obviously, this is a hilarious quote in itself, one made even funnier when you learn that Miyazaki made a comic wherein supposedly heroic Nazi tank drivers were drawn as pigs, and it’s also one which clearly signifies that Marco, in spite of his fairly serious misogyny and status as a World War I hero, is not the kind of man who’d be caught dead working for Mussolini or some nebulous idea of the reborn nation. Yes, the film is obviously antifa propaganda, that’s inarguable. However, what I think is important here is that, to a large extent, fascism in Porco Rosso is boiled down to its aesthetic. It’s dark, seemingly powerful, and based on raw numbers, not on any so-called “authentic” qualities of those who abide by it or by any purity in their culture. There is no joy to being a fascist; even a creature as ugly as a pig—and while real pigs can be quite cute, Marco is one nasty lookin’ dude—is still a lot prettier than a fascist. For most ideologies, this would be a pretty facile argument, yet so much of fascism’s appeal lies in its aesthetic, it’s such an, as Walter Benjamin declared, aestheticization of politics itself, that there’s real power in mocking its looks and charm. After all, it only takes some leaked audio to see what really lies beneath the surface of a fascist’s charming rhetoric and fashy—I mean flashy—facade.
So, what does Porco Rosso pose against fascism? Well, I don’t think I need to tell you that it’s Romanticism, that old aesthetic that Miyazaki hadn’t truly embraced in proper form since Cagliostro, even as he’d taken elements of it for Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s. Certainly, the work is more critical of this Romanticism than his past material was. Porco’s sexism, as well as the overall sexism of the male characters, is directly tied up with their particular attitude, the same attitude which allows them to live as free spirits while the most atrocious ideology in human history gains power. While Miyazaki, and perhaps most viewers, find this misogyny charming, it’s certainly negative, and while I’m not of the opinion that we should outright call Miyazaki a feminist, his works wouldn’t stoop that low. Yet, in spite of this, and other concerns, it’s still a Romantic film at heart. And, as long as you’re not willing to put your life on the line and face the fascists head on, perhaps that’s the best weapon you’ve got.
After all, Fascism harkens back to a nonexistent past, one more in tune with the environment and the world as a whole, and Romanticism does the same without the baggage of national genocide on its hands. Both aesthetics will propagandize using pastoral vistas, and both, while calling back to pre-modern times, could only ever arise in a modern state where going back is impossible, but for however many faults Romanticism may have, its aesthetic is at least a prettier lie. Yet, ultimately, it’s still a thing of the past; it’s wonderful, and Miyazaki clearly admires it, but it’s utterly cut short by the arrival of the fascists. An unproblematic Romanticism was murdered as soon as the reactionary powers took elements of it for their own cruel ends. It’s sad, but it’s how things go.
How does this Romanticism tie into airflight, though? Airplanes are clearly a complicated subject for Miyazaki; as one of his later films will detail further, they’re designed and produced for war and death, and yet they remain beautiful. They maintain the ability to fly both with the wind and against it. Perhaps airplanes are Modernity, and it’s for that reason that Miyazaki works so hard to redeem them, even as he never learns to truly do so. As time goes on, he develops into an increasingly anti-modernist director, perhaps to the extent you could call him an anarcho-pastoralist or something of the sort, and yet he cannot give it up. The airplane, the city, they exist. They can’t be erased. All we can do as those who recognize this is use them to fly freely, rather than to box our enemies in.
Lastly, I think it’s necessary, before moving on, to touch on labor in Porco Rosso. Even this is marked with the tinge of Romanticism, as the airplane shop run by Fio’s grandfather is a happy, though very difficult place. Yet, with the Depression raging, unemployment is a serious issue—the grandfather’s sons ditched to find work elsewhere—and it’s not as if no complaints are voiced; those working are simply women, who’d have little hope of other work in the first place. As in Kiki’s, labor certainly does build connections here, but the potential harm of this is not overlooked; after all, while Fio is able to become the head at the story’s conclusion, toppling the patriarchal nature of the company, it’s still, in the last, an airplane manufacturer, likely to make machines for Mussolini’s forces. A good life in this film is not one free of problems or potential harm, but one where you get by with what you’ve got, and push the boundaries to ensure that what you’ve got never shrinks too small. Such an optimistic ending must’ve been a nice change of pace for those simultaneously reading Miyazaki’s almost-finished Nausicaa manga, which took sharp and misanthropic turns as it continued past the anime.
Nausicaa’s manga is a dark work, finished as it was in 1994, three years after the fall of the Soviet Union. By the time of its completion, Miyazaki had lost all faith in Marxism. Indeed, he said after the fact that, “I don’t think I abandoned Marxism because of any change in my position within society—on the contrary, I feel that it came from having written Nausicaa.” Similarly, he’s mentioned that the fall of the USSR was less impactful to his ideology than Nausicaa. Of course, I don’t believe we can trust this straightforwardly. A person’s own art is not some external eldritch horror which enters their mind and changes them; Miyazaki was already primed for a political shift as he wrote the manga, affected by outside forces, one of which likely was his own changing class position, and through the manga he discovered how to articulate his new beliefs. Still, Nausicaa occupies a special position in his portfolio due to this; not only is it arguably his longest work, his most epic in scale, and ultimately his greatest, but over the course of its run, the immediate shift in Miyazaki’s ideology can be seen. For this reason, I believe it deserves particular attention.
The Nausicaa manga diverges from the anime practically from page one, but to simplify things, most of the events in the film happen in the manga as well, though the God Warrior is never awakened by Tolmekia, and rather than survivors from Asbel’s kingdom, the Tolmekian army is faced up against the Dorok Principalities, a highly religious group whose leader, the Holy Emperor, dominates the people with his psychic powers. In addition to the Doroks and the Tolmekians stand the worm-handlers, a pariah group used as mercenaries, and the Forest People, a small collection of humans who live in harmony with the Sea of Decay. While the story is too epic to fully recap here, I’ll deliver the briefest explanation I can: rather than die and be revived as in the film, Nausicaa is simply injured and healed. Eventually, she comes face-to-face with a Dorok-engineered mold which creates a dangerous miasma, attracting the Ohmu, who sacrifice themselves to stop the mold and create a new Sea of Decay. Protected by the insects, Nausicaa learns the truth of the world; in the center of the Sea of Decay lies a pure land, a Romantic dreamworld. Following this, Nausicaa helps awaken a God Warrior, which treats her as her mother even as it spews radiation all around it. On the way to the Dorok central city, Nausicaa discovers a strange place where all the treasures of Western civilization still exist; she abandons it nonetheless after learning that the humans of her time can’t live in the land purified by the Sea of Decay. Once at the city, she enters the monolithic Crypt, where she confronts the AI programmed by the scientists of industrial society. There, it’s revealed that all of Earth was engineered, that the humans of Nausicaa’s time are altered to be able to live in the polluted atmosphere, and that the Seven Days of Fire which destroyed the world were an intentional attempt at resetting it by a group of ecologists. The AI keeps the humans of industrial society in the Crpyt, ready to release them when the Sea has spread far enough. Despite protestations, Nausicaa destroys this, admitting that even though she may doom humanity, she’s not willing to cling to a false hope created by the technology that rendered the world as it was. In her final words, she urges the remainder of humanity to live in spite of hardship.
Rather than the messianic figure of the film, the Nausicaa of the manga is an apocalyptic woman, and as Susan Napier has rightfully pointed out, very shamanistic. Central to Nausicaa’s journey is her ability to interact across multiple planes and between multiple types of being; she can communicate with bugs, the God Warrior, the AI, and even the dead, in various ways. Her ability to forge assemblages beyond the material is what gives her the chance to decide the world’s future. Yet, using this, she makes no attempt at crafting some sort of agrarian Millenium Kingdom as in the film. Indeed, she never returns to the Valley of the Wind in spite of being its Queen for most of the story. Perhaps the point at which Miyazaki was the most pessimistic, having seen the potential for world socialism fall into ash with nothing to show for it, and confronted with the human population’s continued refusal to address pressing ecological concerns, the manga is increasingly difficult to read towards its latter half; there’s almost no hope for utopian escape here, and Nausicaa throws away all the chances at it that she’s presented with. In her mind, neither a Romantic fantasyland nor a bio-engineered redemption is worth it as long as they bear the mark of Modernity. Yet, this is what makes Nausicaa an endlessly enduring work.
Within the Crpyt, Nausicaa replies to the AI, which asks if she’s willing to cause mass extinction, with these words, “Your question is laughable. We have lived all these centuries with the Sea of Corruption. Extinction has long since become a part of our lives.” This exchange is an extremely realist position, lacking the utopian vision Nausicaa displayed in the past. Simultaneously, it excuses her actions, writing the prevention of extinction off as impossible, while also providing its own sort of hope. After all, humanity and other species, through their cooperative assemblages, have continued in the time of mass death. Nausicaa may be inviting doom, but at least she’s not holding out hope for some magic solution.
Moreso now than in 1994, we are facing down this exact same conundrum. The idea of preventing another great mass extinction event is a fantasy, utterly impossible to actually achieve. For whatever we damage we can curtail, and there’s still great room to mitigate things, we are already fucked. Hundreds of millions of deaths are practically guaranteed at this point; our goal must be to prevent that number from growing to billions. The struggle between the Tolmekians and the Doroks over scraps, as the environment only further degrades by their actions which don’t even attempt to build a better world, is not far off from the events currently caused by the capitalist classes least at risk from the coming apocalypse. Yet, for all this, we must take heed of Nausicaa’s word; we must live. What else are we to do, give in and die? No, humanity has made it through a great deal, and extinction is all around us. It has become inherent to our lives. But we must remember that after saying this, Nausicaa returns and helps those still left, trying to craft a humanity, a world that can survive what’s to come. Surely, that’s possible for those of us still in the 21st-century as well.
But this utopian belief in the ability of humanity to power through is not all the manga contains. No, it also has a far darker side than even that; Nausicaa very well may have consigned humanity to oblivion, and if so, that might not be entirely bad. Where the film established other life as equal to humans, in the manga it clearly becomes superior. Fail as they might, other species attempt to build mutual assemblages, at least on an ecosystemic level if not an individual one. Humans, even in the twilight of their existence as a group, continue to squabble over ever-decreasing amounts of land, desperate to exert their own power, to the point they’ll destroy the land itself to get what they want. Hell, to “save” humanity, a group of scientists were willing to temporarily doom the Earth. How is this a species worth saving? There’s a certain antipathy towards the concept of change just as prevalent in Nausicaa as its hope for our survival, a belief that we can only make things worse. Perhaps it’s right. Nonetheless, it’s an attitude that, if universally adopted, would doom us all. It’s something we must resist, and in his own unique way, I believe Miyazaki recognizes that. Yet, it’s hard to deny the appeal of giving up when the obstacles seem so insurmountable and decided by past actions.
Regardless, one thing is clear in this manga; the idea of Western civilization must be left behind. It may not be so easy to do so entirely, after all, Nausicaa continues to fly using machines derived ultimately from our time, yet for whatever technologies we may borrow, we can’t accept the system behind them. Those profit-motivated inventions are dangerous; Nausicaa leaves behind the European paradise for a reason, as no matter how beautiful the music stored there may be, it comes with the scourge of imperialism, colonialism, and violence, no longer capable of redemption in a world long since ravaged. No, animism and extremely local politics are back in, a reaction to the faltering belief of both Miyazaki and the world as a whole in the ability to meaningfully direct large, structural change. As much as I still believe in the workers’ revolution myself, I find myself considering we may not have enough time on my darker days. Perhaps we are living in the twilight of humanity, chilling as that is to imagine. It’s that mood that Nausicaa taps into so perfectly, making it Miyazaki’s best work, and he would never again come so face-to-face with utter despair. This conclusion would be a tough act to follow, and due to shifts at Ghibli it took a while, but for his next work, the director continued many of Nausicaa’s thematic impulses, while setting them in the past rather than the future.
1997’s Princess Mononoke is particular in that, unlike Miyazaki’s other works, it’s set entirely before modernity took hold. Occuring in a somewhat anachronistic version of the Muromachi Period, which lasted from the 14th to the 16th centuries, the main character, Ashitaka, is a prince of the sole surviving Emishi tribe, which was otherwise wiped out centuries prior by imperial rule. When a demon pig attacks the village, Ashitaka’s arm is corrupted in fighting it, and he’s banished for the protection of his homeland, told to look for a cure with “eyes unclouded”. After a shady monk tells him to seek help from a powerful Forest Spirit, he encounters a fight between gun-wielding men, led by the powerful Lady Eboshi, and a girl, San, who identifies with and fights alongside wolf gods. Taken in by Lady Eboshi, Ashitaka learns that her industrializing Irontown is damaging the ecosystem, but simultaneously benefiting those who truly need support. After saving San from the town, Ashitaka is injured, and healed by the Forest Spirit. It’s revealed that Eboshi is working with the monk to deliver the Spirit’s skull to the Emperor in return for Irontown’s continued autonomy, and her forces decimate the remaining spirits who fight against her. As the Forest Spirit’s head is stolen, it destroys the entire land, unable to serve the recuperative role it had when it was whole. However, Ashitaka and San work together and return its head, and though it still dies, it heals the land in doing so. Rather than stick together, Ashitaka stays with Eboshi to rebuild a better version of the town, while San returns to the forest, though they promise to meet again.
The world Ashitaka comes from is Edenic, a relatively untouched land free of the sin that the outside world is capable of bringing. His village’s structure is closely aligned with primitive communism, that period of human existence which occurred before the introduction of a class system, which has always played a role as a paradise which, through the messianic power of revolution, we can regain in new and improved form. Yet, Ashitaka himself is never to return to the village after leaving it; this revolutionary redemption is not a literal return, and the best we can do for those of the past is respect the lives they lived and move to make our own world better. Indeed, the ending of the Nausicaa manga is reversed here; while Ashitaka also demands that life continue on, he does so by working with Eboshi’s group to build new settlements. With eyes unclouded, he can look at the past for what it is, a terrible series of tragedies with some kernel of salvageable beauty still held within them. Despite almost ruining the land for generations, Eboshi is worth working with, because what else is to be done? Ironically, this is the same as Nausicaa’s ending in action, as she too leaves to build a better world, yet it’s tonally so different that the message it’s sending feels worlds apart.
Yet, like Nausicaa, the seeming inevitability of all the events is not lost on the film. Rather, it’s shockingly progressive, not in the sense of egalitarian, or leftist, but in that it understands the value of quote-unquote “progress”, something many Marxists, funnily enough, could not despise less. Eboshi is an objectively positive figure to many of those around her. She employs lepers, sex workers, and others with no place left to go. At a time where imperial rule is minimal, where a new shogun has not yet stabilized power and roving bandits are running roughshod on much of the countryside, she’s built a self-reliant community capable of resisting attempts at subjugation. Ashitaka recognizes that her actions against the Forest Spirit must be opposed, and for that reason he fights against her. Yet, this does not mean she needs to be unilaterally cast aside. She’s no fascist, and learning from what’s occurred, she has the potential to build a truly utopian community with Ashitaka’s help.
The Emishi village from which the boy descended may not be returned to, but another land may be. Perhaps, in an ideal world, this industrialization would simply not occur. The ultimate death of the Forest Spirit, the inevitable demystification already ongoing, certainly signals that as the case, and Eboshi isn’t cautious in amplifying the metabolic rift that I spoke of earlier in the video, that industrial division between humans and the environment, though again, she does so with the best of intent, unlike most historical industrializers. Yet, we can’t stop the wheels of history merely by wishing for it to be so. No, the ethnic minorities, the outcasts, the traumatized, the poor, they’re capable of taking hold of history and bending it to their will, but there’s certainly no going back. Perhaps through Ashitaka, the angel who can gaze back at Paradise, knowing what we lost in our fall, while still understanding how to move forward, a healthier relationship to the coming Modernity can be built.
The spirits of the forest, as in Miyazaki’s other works, are part of natural assemblages, ones worth revering, and the possibility of doing so while embracing some elements of Modernity is made blatant in Ashitaka himself. Arguably, the film goes too far in its optimism; it’s unclear what kind of world Ashitaka and Eboshi will build, and who’s to say if the power attained by the oppressed under Irontown’s old regime can be maintained? Yet, there is at the core a hope for humanity; we can see with eyes unclouded, if we absolutely try our best at doing so. San is able to reconcile with humans because Ashitaka proves that the relationship between human production and natural ecosystems need not be so antagonistic, that the metabolic rift isn’t fundamental to human life, but to certain ways in which it can be organized. Doubtlessly, there’ll be changes. Nothing is static, even when humans aren’t part of the picture. Yet, a healthy relationship is possible. All is not lost. And after Nausicaa, that’s a very important thing to hear. Miyazaki would remain in Japan with his next film, once again taking a highly critical but still loving look at the nature of that dangerous word we call progress.
2001’s Spirited Away is by far Miyazaki’s most popular work worldwide, and took a chance to return to the present. Set in the late 90s or so, after the Japanese asset bubble popped, ending 40 years of growth and plunging the country into its so-called ‘Lost Decade’, a girl named Chihiro is moving with her family to their new home in the suburbs. As her dad attempts to take a “shortcut”, they end up in a supposedly abandoned amusement park stocked with food, which both parents eat before promptly transforming into pigs. Realizing the place isn’t so abandoned, Chihiro is brought along by a boy named Haku, and ends up working in a massive spirit bathhouse. Here, the establishment’s leader, Yubaba, takes her name as a way to chain her, renaming her ‘Sen’. Realizing that Haku needs his name back to be free, she ingratiates herself, working hard alongside the other employees who service patrons including gods and spirits. After a strange spirit called No-Face takes a liking to her, and grows upset when she doesn’t respond, she travels outside the bathhouse, leaving No-Face with Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba. On the way back, Chihiro recalls Haku’s name, realizing he’s the spirit of a river she fell into years prior. Having returned, Chihiro retrieves her name from Yubaba and promises to meet Haku again, before leaving with her parents, now restored to humans.
While no time is actually spent there, the film opens alongside a suburb, one that Chihiro’s parents plan to move into. A row of virtually identical houses, minus the paint, there’s nothing appealing about them, yet they feel the need to buy into the system anyway. Spirited Away is deeply concerned with consumption, specifically overconsumption, and the negative effect it has on our relationship to the world. Upon arriving at the supposed amusement park, Chihiro’s father comments that it’s one of many places shut down after the bubble crashed. The dreams of true economic prosperity, and the material pleasures that would lead to, are dead. Yet, upon finding food, they eat anyway, just as they buy into the Modernist imposition to buy a house in the suburbs even as the actual reason for doing so has become quite vague. Here, there’s consumption without reason or caution. While this is clearly a moral failing—they’re not made into pigs for no reason after all—there is a sense that these issues are structural, and not merely individual, yet that’s not apparent until No-Face walks on frame.
Upon entering the bathhouse with the use of fake gold, No-Face goes on a consumptive rampage. He learns to speak by eating a little froggy boi, and sucks up anyone who upsets him, though they first have to consume a commodity he offers for him to do so. Eventually, he grows to a massive size, and bids Chihiro to come to his room. Now, this scene, one that’s deeply uncomfortable, is clearly meant to evoke a sense of prostitution. You don’t call young girls to your secluded room in a bathhouse without that intent, and while that’s not what No-Face specifically wants, it’s clearly what it represents. In other words, No-Face signifies an evolved form of consumption from Chihiro’s parents, where even other people have become just one part of the broader platter of things to devour. And how is he broken from this? Well, he loses his mass as Chihiro refuses to consume his gift herself and then causes him to throw up what he’s consumed. With the addition of the kindness she shows in allowing him to come with her, he ultimately manages to find kindness himself after becoming Zeniba’s spinner and presenting Chihiro with a hairband that he himself produced. In other words, it’s through human connections, ones often fostered through labor, that happiness can truly be discovered, not through participation in the realm of commodity consumption. Local, small-scale trade, is what this film promotes. Yes, it’s a return to the same ideas that we saw in Kiki’s!
Yet, there’s also something of Mononoke in this film. Like that work, it’s set at a time of transition; not literally, but artistically. The bathhouse is not feudal, it’s got a smokestack and employs complex, industrial machinery, yet it’s not a place that’s on the cusp of the 21st century. Rather, its aesthetics are more Meiji-era in appearance. As a result of this intentionally transitionary time period, I believe this film is also one worth reading with eyes unclouded, viewing it through the lens of progress. Even on the border of absolute suburban hell, a world of spirits still exists, though it’s become detached enough from the disenchanted world that humans rarely interact with it. As human society has changed, so has spirit society, and that’s not wholly negative. The bathhouse would not have been possible in the Forest Spirit’s time, and given the soothing role it serves for tired spirits, perhaps some elements of society’s progression have been good. Over Mononoke and this film’s runs, Miyazaki has, in spite of his serious hesitance towards modern technology, ultimately found a way to embrace it, if not whole-heartedly. Understood with the context of Nausicaa, this makes sense; the only way to leave modernity, after the abandonment of Marxism, is apocalypse, and for however likely that may seem, it’s not the preferable option.
Haku and Chihiro forge as strong a connection as Sen and her wolf-mother did, in spite of meeting 500 years later. Utopia here is figured not as the bathhouse itself, which while warm and inviting has a great many downsides, but the connections forged there and elsewhere. The raw fact of progress is not positive, but it opens space for encouraging potentials. In what form exists the work’s negative thoughts, then? Well, of course, the answer is once again overconsumption. Nothing, changes, and ultimately, while Chihiro is affected by the experience, her parents still move her into the suburbs, none the wiser, consuming as much as they ever have. Chihiro is no revolutionary, and in most of his works, Miyazaki seems to caution that revolution itself may not even be preferable. But hey, you can get a river dragon boyfriend if you’re willing to reach beyond the consumptive habits of your world, and that sounds like a pretty great deal to me. The film resonated unlike any other outside Japan, and earned an Academy Award at the Oscars, which Miyazaki declined attending in order to protest the Iraq War. This conflict would figure directly into his next work.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a strange film. Frankly pulling together more elements than it actually has the time to manage, it’s an adaptation of a book fairly widely regarded as better all around. In adapting the original work, Miyazaki subbed out a focus on class dynamics for an attention to war, and the compassion needed to fight against it. At the start of the story, a young hat-maker named Sophie meets a wizard named Howl, after which a witch turns her into an old woman. To break this curse, Sophie leaves her town, and ends up in Howl’s titular moving castle, a steam and magic powered monstrosity. They grow closer, and Sophie is sent to the King of her nation, which is making war with a neighboring kingdom through industrialized wizardry, where she tells him that Howl can’t fight. After things take a turn for the worse, Howl arrives to save Sophie and she learns that he’s been transforming into a powerful bird-man to lessen the war’s damage, at the cost of his own body. When Sophie’s town is attacked, Howl leaves to defend it, while Calcifer, the fire demon powering the castle, is doused, breaking the castle apart. Sophie and Howl reunite, with the girl placing Howl’s stolen heart back inside him, breaking her curse. Following this, the war is ended by the King’s mother, the real power in the kingdom, and Sophie and Howl fly off together.
So, the first thing that must be mentioned for this film is that Howl is, let’s see here, the fact that Howl is absurdly hot. No, wait, it’s the Iraq War, sorry. An obvious imperialist conflict, it was far from the only event to inspire the film—Miyazaki surely had not forgotten Japan’s own wars—yet it’s hard to deny America’s influence on it. While the kingdom it’s set in is far more European than American, the drive for war even where it’s irrational certainly seems to apply both to the fictional nation and to the real world’s most powerful empire in history. Yet, perhaps tellingly, the war here is hardly based on material concerns at all, while American ventures are universally conducted for economic and political interests, in the name of preserving the empire’s hegemony. It’s not a stronger enemy that prevents war but compassion, the kindness that Sophie shows to Howl and others, and it’s the lack of that compassion that fuels it. Certainly, the situation itself creates a lack of compassion. Were war not on the table, the wizards who signed up to bomb other countries surely would’ve been more hesitant. Yet, nonetheless, this is ultimately nothing more than a criticism of moral failing on the part of jingoists. This is part of where the film falters—compared to the portrayal of conflict in Mononoke, it’s disappointingly unnuanced.
Yet focusing on war alone is insufficient; the castle itself must be paid attention to. The animation is central here; at all times, the thing seems as if it’s about to fall apart, and yet, literally by magic, it fails to do so. It’s a definitively modern building, or vehicle, depending on how you’d like to refer to it, and yet it’s nevertheless enchanted. Miyazaki is quite fond of these early 20th century settings, and perhaps the reason why is how unfixed they are. It may be too late to steer industrial society in a beneficial direction, or at least far more difficult, but there’s always a chance in the past. The magic of the castle comes from Calcifer, who is after all a fire demon, representing a natural, elemental force, and it’s through interacting with him that’s it’s kept stable. Perhaps, if we maintain our belief in the enchanted, these machines which cause us so much trouble in the here-and-now can be managed. Yet, it’s not so easy to conclude that’s the point of the castle. In its bizarre construction, its strange amalgamation of disparate elements that hardly seem to fit together, there’s a certain satire of real industrial machines, and perhaps even steampunk itself. After all, while the animation is certainly impressive, the layering of the parts gorgeous, who could really claim to find the castle itself beautiful? While not a machine of war—Howl is a pacifist, after all—it’s certainly in line with those combat oriented-vehicles Miyazaki himself is so fond of. The castle gives the film a simultaneously hopeful and satirically cynical view on the possibility of redeeming industrial machinery, perfectly appropriate for this state of Miyazaki’s career.
Ironically, after turning from the supposed anthropocentrism of Marxism during the writing of Nausicaa, his films only became more humanist, for good and for ill. Howl’s falters with almost everything it tries to say, in spite of how ultimately simple each of its messages are. For a director so talented at conveying nuance, it’s a disappointing work, though it has a hot boy so who can really say whether it’s good or bad. His next film would be more nuanced, though in turn it’d also be far simpler.
Ponyo released in 2008, and was the first Miyazaki film I remember seeing trailers for—thanks for that one, Disney Channel. At its heart, it might be the simplest of Miyazaki’s films, even moreso than Totoro. A small fish girl escapes from her wizard father and is saved by a young boy named Sosuke, who promptly names her Ponyo. They spend some time together before the father, Fujimoto, retrieves her, though by then she’s been altered by human affection, unwilling to be called by her birth name, and when he’s gone she escapes again, using magic to make herself human. Unfortunately, this magic causes a global catastrophe as tsunamis wreak havoc, but Sosuke and Ponyo reunite. With nature imbalanced, the two young lovebirds leave to find Sosuke’s mom. When they find her, Ponyo’s goddess mother, verifying their love, allows Ponyo to permanently become a human, returning the balance of nature to the world.
While ecology and childhood return as focal points in this film, I must be honest with you: this movie has the least to say of anything the man’s directed. That doesn’t mean that it communicates nothing, it certainly does, but so many of the themes are repackaged versions of ideas he’s already displayed in a more complex form, that going through every major point would just be a retread, primarily of the Totoro section. This isn’t a criticism of the film per se, as a heady discussion simply isn’t one of its priorities, but it does make it challenging to analyze after already talking above 10 other films. So, to avoid that, I’ll just pick out those elements of the movie I found the most interesting in regards to politics.
Ponyo is, of course, about children, and childish love. In the context of Howl’s as his previous work, both films speak to the importance of compassion, and frame the showcasing of it as something affected by age. Both children and the elderly are, perhaps, more likely to be compassionate than those who’ve become jaded to the world, but haven’t yet reached the final stage of their lives. Given Kiki’s, adolescence may be the point at which compassion can level off in our societies, though it would, of course, be silly to imply that teenagers and adults can never be kind. The need to fulfill the role given to normal adults, of constant labor until you’re too old to continue, seems not to make the kindest people.
Yet, while Sosuke and Ponyo are inarguably the protagonists, and certainly gain from their literally enchanted lives as children, parenthood figures into this film to a far greater degree than it did in Totoro. Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, is a regular presence throughout the film, successfully taking care of her son as her husband sails the seas, granting Sosuke enough freedom to grow into his own, healthy person, while still providing enough guidance to help him survive. It’s this that Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, doesn’t do, boxing Ponyo in and attempting to control her. While this is a simple enough message on its own, “give your children some freedom but not too much, mmkay,” it says far more once connected to ecology. Much of Fujimoto’s justification for keeping Ponyo under his watch is the environmental impact that’ll occur if she escapes and becomes a human; on one level, he’s right, given the disaster. Yet, ultimately, when her mother, Gran Mamare, allows her to transform, nature becomes balanced again. In Fujimoto’s concern for the environment, he becomes too controlling of it, and with that move, definitively sets the world on the actual path for disaster. Much as there’s no way to avoid parenting a child, nothing can be done to avoid influencing the environment we inhabit, yet if we try and micromanage it, to play God, then we might end up ruining what we were trying to save in the first place.
However, through this view, is the film not incredibly optimistic? After all, nature ultimately rights itself; in Spirited Away, on the other hand, Haku’s river remained dried up. Indeed, the entire island on which it’s set is very communal, and the world experienced during the disaster is hardly an awful one. Everyone seems to get along, and it’s presented in a somewhat strangely pleasant tone. One might say that through struggle, greater connections can be built, but I’m not quite sure that’s right. After all, the connections existed prior. Instead, I view it as a very apathetic perspective. The world might end, it might not, and we can and should try and steer it away from doing so. But, well, if we’re good people, we can build a fine society even if it ultimately does. Still, the faith shown in Ponyo and Sosuke provides great hope for future generations, to a far greater extent than one might expect from Miyazaki’s curmudgeonly image—this is, after all, a man who made Spirited Away because he thought his friend’s daughter was a brat. Next, in his latest film to date, Miyazaki would once again return to the ideas that preoccupied his early career, while finally engaging with the conflict that’s fueled so much of his politics.
In 2013’s The Wind Rises, Jiro Horikoshi, a real historical figure, has a dream in which he encounters a famous Italian plane designer which spurs him to pursue engineering. He leaves for university, helps a girl after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and makes his way into Mitsubishi’s airplane company. While Jiro has no interest in war, the fact of the plane’s eventual purpose hardly bothers him at this stage. After growing frustrated with Japan’s seeming backwardness, exemplified by the country’s planes being pulled to the airstrips by oxen, he’s sent to Germany for research, where he witnesses scenes that precurse the rise of the Nazi Party. Eventually, Jiro is promoted to chief designer, but his plane is ultimately rejected after failure, and he travels to a resort for vacation. There, he meets the girl he saved again and falls in love, while also meeting a German guest at the resort, who warns that the path both Japan and Germany are on will only lead to disaster, before he’s forced to leave in order to avoid the secret police. While Jiro hides due to his connection to the man, he and the girl, Naoko, get married, after she sneaks out of the sanatorium in which she was being treated for tuberculosis. As Jiro watches the test flight for his newest design, Naoko returns to the sanatorium and passes away. The film ends at the war’s conclusion, as every one of Jiro’s planes, the infamous Zero fighter, is shown to be dead, Jiro himself telling his fantastic mentor figure that not a single one returned from the war. At the last moment, a vision of Naoko demands that he continue to live.
Miyazaki’s father owned an airplane factory during the Second World War. While I generally find that autobiographical details can clog a critique such as this, it’s important here. Miyazaki has always, even going back as far as Conan, been deeply concerned with the war. It was a travesty, where a failing effort at imperial domination was erected on the bones and blood of millions. For a long time, it made him hate his own country. After all, how could Japan mean anything positive when its power derived from the oppression of the Chinese and Koreans? Many leftists of the 60s and 70s came to similar opinions, and while Miyazaki was far from those who proposed that the Japanese people as a whole must be exterminated, his anti-nationalism certainly derived, at its core, from World War II. A general opposition to war runs through all his works, from Nausicaa to Mononoke to Howl’s. Yet, this entire time, he’s sought to love Japan, and to love those very weapons which lead to the loss of life, those very tools of modernity with no value other than their ability to snuff out the existence of autonomous beings on an industrial scale.
With a turn to animism and the idea of a past, ecologically harmonious Japan, Miyazaki was able to find some form of national culture worth believing in, even if the condition of the country as it exists is far from what he’d want. Small gestures, like cleaning up a local river, became central to his real life politics as a result of that change; sure, it might not change the world, but it’ll make life around you a bit better, and it’s actually achievable, whereas the promises of Marxism, while quite seductive, were difficult to imagine as realistic once the world’s foremost socialist state fell. Yes, it would be strange to call Miyazaki a nationalist, especially when he’s so against Japan’s actions during the war, but is that really correct? As I said in regards to Totoro, it’s not a jingoist nationalism, but there’s still a Japan that Miyazaki both supports and reveres. Whether it’s worth calling nationalist or not is up to you, but in my view, it is.
This is confirmed in one of The Wind Rises’s most important lines, when the German character says that, “Japan will blow up. Germany will blow up too.” It’s made clear that the biggest issues with this national chauvinism that fuels fascist ambition, this drive for power at all costs, including at the peril of marginalized groups, is ultimately that the nations themselves will suffer. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean the film isn’t aware that the wars also hurt those they aren’t fought in the names of. Anti-semitism, portrayed in the German segment, is clearly bad, and Miyazaki isn’t one to defend the actions committed for the sake of the Japanese Empire. Yet, ultimately, the problem with this jingoism is that it’s suicidal, not that it’s homicidal. The Zeros never returned not because they were all shot down by the valiant enemy, but because the state of the war eventually plunged them into tools for kamikaze attacks. In The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s strange sort of nationalism reaches its apex, even moreso than in his most animist films. He loves Japan, and because of that, he must criticize it for its faults. This is notably different from one who believes it’s corrupt to the core, as I do towards America.
And what of airplanes, the machine on which this all hinges? In Conan, planes were tools of control, maintaining the harmful structures that came from before the collapse, even as they needed to die. In Nausicaa, they represented both freedom and conflict, but ultimately signalled our ability to, as I’ve said so many times by this point, fly with the wind. In Porco Rosso, they became a tool for remembering the Romantic past, even as fascists threatened to use their power for ill. Here, they’re all of these things and more, representing everything flight has ever meant to Miyazaki. It’s pure beauty, a freeing phenomenon which brings wind-swept vistas and the exhilaration of high-speed travel beyond the clouds. It’s absolute destruction, the bombing of millions, the massacre of populations, and the ultimate conclusion of self-destruction for the sake of a State which cares nothing for you. Just like Imperial Japan and the Zeros, modernity cannot be saved. Only two years before the film, the flaws of modern society resulted in the Fukushima disaster, something which has clearly caused him some great despair. Yet, as he continues to portray loving renditions of the very machines that characterize our time’s worst excesses, it’s impossible to believe that Miyazaki has truly abandoned the modern. Instead, he’s simply incorporated it into a new form.
Following the logic of Naoko, we must live, as surely as when Nausicaa declared it herself. We may worry ourselves about the situations we live within, and it’s certainly noble to fight for what’s righteous, but those of us in modernity must simply accept that and continue. There’s no use appealing too strongly to some idyllic past, when we’re never to live in it. Interacting with our environments, paying attention to the value of happy, healthy labor, these are all important, but they must be achieved in the here and now. For a director who pictures such fantastic worlds, Miyazaki’s beliefs are quite plain. The messianic tendencies in his early works are gone. Redemption is impossible. Jiro ultimately finds that his engineering led to nothing positive at all. The Romanticism of his dreams translates to death in reality. Yet, Naoko arrives, quick to remind him that there’s nothing to do but live in those partly Romantic, partly Modern dreams. Leaving Marxism, Miyazaki has lost the ability to imagine a truly radical rupture, a moment where the masses become messiah and redeem history itself, at last bringing victory to the oppressed. In short, he has lost a way out, an actual plan for anything beyond the most local of causes, and the utter ambiguity of The Wind Rises is perhaps the best show of that.
These are the contradictions of a man who despises what modern technology has led to, yet whose profession relies fundamentally on that modern technology. How could he feel anything but ambiguous? Perhaps, in his upcoming final film—probably for real this time—a plan of action, a definitive conclusion on the topic of Modernity will be discovered and presented. Ever since leaving Marxism and joining the ranks of the capitalist class himself with the ownership of Ghibli, he’s been unable to present a clear alternative aside from the most small-scale of actions, and it would be interesting to see if his local-focused post-Marxism has a real plan beyond cleaning rivers. But if not, that’s fine. Miyazaki’s works contain an unparalleled richness when it comes to the critique of our age, particularly as the medium of animation is concerned. The presence of Joe Hisaishi’s music in his films gives a Modernist Japanese aesthetic to all the many time periods he touches. His occupation with rich vistas and freedom of movement in animation sets him apart from any other anime director. Many are on his level, and claims that he’s the only man worth looking to in Japan’s animation industry are myopic but none do what he does with the skill he does it with. If it’s up to us to take his anxieties and build a new society with them, then I’d say he’s done an excellent job at preparing us, cementing himself as one of film’s greatest directors along the way.
Now come on. Let’s fly with the wind.