Miyazaki Themes and Motifs

Environmentalism is a key theme in Hayao Miyazaki’s films.  Miyazaki (1997) has “come to the point where I just can’t make a movie without addressing the problem of humanity as part of an ecosystem”; there is a need to acknowledge nature, because it is a powerful and autonomous force (Cavallaro, 2006). He laments the fact that children are disconnected from nature (Talbot, 2005). Children today spend their time playing video games, watching TV, or on the internet that they rarely spend time outside. As such many of Miyazaki’s films hold “nostalgia for a time when humans lived more in harmony with nature” (Wright, 2005).

Hayao Miyazaki’s films also “call for mindful awareness to the lived environment and vanishing wilderness” (West, 2009, p. 267). In Miyazaki’s films the vanishing wilderness and the Earths suffering is the result of human ignorance (Odell & LeBlanc, 2009). Human ignorance is what is causing the wilderness to vanish in Japan and worldwide, and is something which frustrates and sadness Miyazaki. Because of his love for nature all of Miyazaki’s films have a “sense of wonder and awe in the natural world” (Wright, 2005), main characters often have respect for nature or curious about it.

In his films Miyazaki often depicts the ways in which mankind interacts with nature. Miyazaki’s film illustrate how man and nature have conflicting needs but humans need to learn to how to cohabitate with nature (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009; Cavallaro, 2006). If all of the trees are destroyed there would no longer be shade or oxygen. Without clean water there would be no water to drink, and wildlife and human life would start dying of thirst. Miyazaki’s films remind the audience that “the natural world is capable of remembering what’s been done to it” (Talbot, 2005).  Animals and spirits attack humans if they destroyed nature or abuse its resources. But if a person shows respect for nature or curiosity towards it animals and spirits help when the person is in need. In a lot of Miyazaki’s films it is nature versus technology (Cavallaro, 2006). Insects take on airships, wolves assault iron works, river spirits become dirty and turn into stink gods. Though nature is important to Miyazaki and his films, his films are also pro technology; there are windmills, trains, sustainable energy and flight (West, 2009).

Flying and flying machines are one of the most common motifs in Miyazaki’s films, according to Cavallaro (2006) “flying machines are never left out of Miyazaki’s visual repertoire” (p. 104). Sometimes characters get around by way of airplane, other times they transform into flying creatures, and sometimes they even float or walk on air. Flight is also sometimes ties into the theme. Flight, in most of Miyazaki’s films, embodies the “possibility of freedom, change, and redemption” (Napier, 2005, p. 154).  Flight in Miyazaki’s films also shows the world from a different perspective; symbolizes freedom or growing up; it also shows that sometimes freedom comes with a price (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). According to Napier (2005) in Miyazaki films flight shows that escape possible, is a symbol of empowerment, allows characters to transcend reality, and adds a festival element or a level of excitement.

Strong female characters are common in Miyazaki films. Miyazaki tries to “avoid representing attractive girls as mere play toys” (Cavallaro, 2006, p. 11) but rather as “fully fleshed out characters [with] clear hopes and goals” (Miyazaki, 1996, p. 34). In Miyazaki’s films females are complex, they are; important, independent, self-possessed, sweet and cute (Napier, 2005). According to Cavallaro (2006) Miyazaki’s females are courageous, inquisitive, adventurous, risk taking, compassionate and gentle. According to Napier (2005) Miyazaki’s female characters grow, change, have compassionate empowerment and are often conduits of magic. While Miyazaki’s females are independent and active, confront obstacles in masculine ways and act alone; they are also nurturing, compassionate, and innocent (Napier, 2005). Napier (2005) believes that Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are subtle female empowerment. Though it could be argued that most of his films are female empowerment, for most of the main characters in Miyazaki’s films are young females, who exhibit tremendous power and ability.

Anthropomorphism, Zoomorphism, and Metamorphosis are common in Miyazaki’s films, as are “animal human hybrids” (Cavallaro, 2006, p. 173). Anthropomorphism is when animals adopt human characteristics (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). A common example of anthropomorphism in Miyazaki films would be animals that can talk or walk on two legs instead of four. Zoomorphism is when characters have an animal form (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009).  Anthropomorphism is a choice or ability whereas zoomorphism is thrust on them generally by magic or curses (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Like people turning into pigs, dragons or birds, because a witch cast a spell. Pigs turn up in many of Miyazaki’s films because Miyazaki found them easy to draw and because he believes humans are similar to pigs (Talbot, 2005; Miyazaki, 2002). Metamorphosis is caused by magic or is an effect of human society and generally represents a change in emotion, state of mind or well-being (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009).  An example of metamorphosis could be a young woman turning into an old lady because of a curse, or a fish turning into little girl because she likes a human boy.

Many of Miyazaki’s films refer to Japanese beliefs, myths and practices (Wright and Clode, 2005).  According to Japanese religious practices gods and spirits are in everything, human should live in harmony with environment, shrines and statues everywhere and people should pay their respects and leave offerings, and spirits can transform or metamorphose (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Miyazaki’s films contain Japanese customs, practices, foods, and etiquette (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). According to Wright (2005) Miyazaki “infused his richly detailed worlds with an animistic ontology that references ancient Japanese beliefs, practices and myths”.  Wright (2005) says that the “earthy spirituality” in Miyazaki’s films is “particularly drawn from the Shinto tradition” and that Shinto believed in the “possibility of a mystical connection between humans and the natural world”.  Wright (2005) also says that Miyazaki draws on “the cultural myth of an idealized, paradisal existence in ancient Japan” for some of his films. Miyazaki’s characters can be described as “performing Japaneseness” and “exemplifying foreign cultural traits” (Wright 2005). According to Wright (2005) “Representations of kami and the natural world in Miyazaki’s films express an underlying belief of the early Shinto worldview, that is, continuity between humanity and nature”.  Wright (2005) also believes that Nausicaa “values all life” which is an attitude that parallels Shinto.

According to Wright (2005) Miyazaki’s films encourage the assimilation and appreciation of foreign cultural elements. One way this is done is by setting the films primarily in western towns. Miyazaki traveled to Europe a number of times to get first hand impressions and draw landscapes (Cavallaro, 2006). His first trip to Europe was in 1971 in Sweden, in 1973 he went to Switzerland, and in 1975 he took trips to Italy and Argentina (McCarthy, 1999). During each trip Miyazaki drew locations and backgrounds in order to prepare for movies. In 1985 he went to England and Whales (Miyazaki, 1996). According to Talbot (2005) Miyazaki’s image of Japan was so shaken by his memories of “the country’s postwar devastation that his imagination turned reflexively to Europe.” Miyazaki’s “Europe looks like a harmonious amalgam of Scandinavia, Alsace, and the Amalfi coast, with a bit of Dalmatia tossed in” (Talbot, 2005).


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