As any casual fan of animation should know, Hayao Miyazaki, the mastermind behind such moving films as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and of course, “Spirited Away,” announced his retirement following the release of his final film, the animated war drama “The Wind Rises.” While I haven’t seen that film yet, and in fact haven’t seen the entirety of the Miyazaki film canon (“Kiki’s,” one day), it’s a real loss to the animation community that Miyazaki’s leaving, but instead of dwelling on the future of Studio Ghibli, which, let’s be real, is gonna do fine (different, but fine) after Miyazaki’s departure, let’s take a moment to reflect on Miyazaki’s work, and specifically how he treats “other” worlds in relation to our own.
Something that generally isn’t present in American culture is a reverence for the natural world. But wait!, you say, people love the national parks and being outside. We care about our beaches, our forests, our mountaintops, our waterways and our secret, sacred spaces. Not to burst your bubble, but yeah, no. There is an element of nature appreciation in our culture, sure, but it’s done in a very systematic way, and there is very little spirituality associated with the earth itself, and no, going out into Joshua Tree and doing “magic” (this is an official school publication) that one time doesn’t count.
While that lack of spirituality is definitely something that’s endemic to the modern world as a whole, there are few big-name filmmakers who actively tap into this sort of “old world” sentiment as fully as Miyazaki. Most films, even ones that are not made up of superhero shenanigans or kooky, quirky singles falling in love or vaguely-futuristic tech blowing apart or Liam Neeson looking angry and holding a gun, focus on people within the story (which is not inherently a bad thing!), but the background rarely becomes a force in and of itself.
That is clearly not the case with Miyazaki’s films. His work is ripe to bursting with unfettered naturalistic spirit, and even though it might seem heavy-handed at times (“Nausicaa,” am I right?), it’s only because in general his work stands quite apart from most cinematic depictions of the environment. Think of “Catching Fire”: great story, great natural visuals, but they serve as visual frames meant to cue you in on certain terms: — exotic, cold, barren, lush, dark. Yet the arena, for all of its natural features, is a man-made construct that matters to the characters not because of what it is, but because of how it’s being controlled.
But that’s just the surface-level interaction that Miyazaki takes with nature. His concern for it and about it goes much deeper — he, like many members of non-mainstream cultures then and now, sees nature as comprised of spirits beyond just the human realm. Think of the kodoma in “Mononoke,” the soot balls from “Totoro” and “Spirited Away,” the entire spirit world of “Spirited Away.” And unlike many people who may believe in such spiritualities, he has the means to bring those other worlds, within our natural world, to life in visually complex and meaningful ways. His nature is as much of a living, breathing thing as its inhabitants, but it is a fantastic nature, one whose identity fades away as humanity sprints toward a more technology-fueled modernity.
But technology as a field is the search for new iterations of nature, taken to extremes because we have developed the means to do so. It’s important to see the natural world as not just the raw fuel for progress, but instead as the continued foundation upon which progress may be built, so long as it doesn’t destroy said foundation in the process. The things we take from this earth do not exist just for us. There is beauty in simplicity, just as there is beauty in human complexity. These things can co-exist, so long as we remember not to destroy that at which we marvel, to hold sacred those spirits which exist and take form in imagination, to look at the world around us and realize that we have only just began to understand what is, what came before, and what, perhaps, will follow…