Manga and Anime as the Japan Brand

Nature and Asian Pluralism in the Work of Miyazaki Hayao


While the animation of Miyazaki Hayao is regarded by many as quintessentially Japanese, Sugita Shunsuke argues that Miyazaki’s real legacy is a creative idiom that rejects both national insularity and global homogeneity in favor of a complex, pluralistic, and fundamentally Eastern view of nature.

Here in his own country, Miyazaki Hayao is regarded as a kind of national treasure, the beloved creator of animated films that embody Japanese values and extol a Japanese view of nature. This is an interesting perception, given how seldom Miyazaki’s films depict the “beauty of Japan” per se. With the exception of his 1988 feature Tonari no totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), set in a nostalgic farming village, picturesque scenes of rural Japan and traditional Japan are conspicuously absent. In this essay, I attempt to shed light on the true “nature of nature” as portrayed in the animation of Miyazaki Hayao.

The Anti-Disney?

Miyazaki has stated consistently that while he is drawn to the animation of Walt Disney, he is uncomfortable with Disney’s cloyingly artificial, sanitized portrayal of nature. At the same time, he has lamented the “over-expression” and loss of meaningful motivation that have, in his view, robbed mainstream Japanese anime of its vitality.(*1) As this suggests, Miyazaki Hayao and his team at Studio Ghibli have sought to establish a new idiom distinct from both Disney-style and Japanese-style animation.

Miyazaki has also asserted that the most important characteristic distinguishing the animation of Studio Ghibli is its depiction of nature. As he explains, “We don't subordinate the natural setting to the characters. . . . That is because we feel that the world is beautiful. Human relationships are not the only thing that is interesting. We think that weather, time, rays of light, plants, water, and wind—what make up the landscape—are all beautiful. That is why we make efforts to incorporate them as much as possible in our work.”(*2))

How, then, can we characterize nature as portrayed in the work of Miyazaki Hayao? The answer is complicated, precisely because his vision of nature is pluralistic. For purposes of discussion, however, I believe this multifaceted vision can be reduced to three fundamental aspects.

1. Purity and Sanctity

Miyazaki has referred on several occasions to the deep-rooted native religious beliefs that still linger among the Japanese. These include the concept of pristine, sacred places deep in the forest—secluded, tranquil realms where human civilization cannot penetrate.

The image of nature as a pristine, tranquil sanctuary appears frequently in Miyazaki’s films. Think of the underground realm enveloped in blue crystals in the 1984 Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind); the ancient city lying at the bottom of crystalline waters in the 1986 Tenkū no shiro Rapyuta (Laputa: Castle in the Sky), the lovely, tranquil forest of Totoro; the mystically glowing pond in the 1997 hit Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke); or the secluded pond in woods where the hero and heroine meet in the 2013 feature Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises).

2. Terrifying Power

At the same time, Miyazaki’s animation does not hesitate to depict nature’s terrible power. In Nausicaä, nature vents her fury in a catastrophic attack by thousands of giant mutant insects. In the 2008 Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo), ferocious storms cause a seaside town to sink beneath the waves. Princess Mononoke climaxes with a scene in which the beheaded “nightwalker” (a benign forest spirit by day) metamorphoses into a terrifying specter that oozes decay and indiscriminately ravages everything in its wake.

Such scenes of devastation may seem more consistent with the wrathful God of the Old Testament than with the Japanese view of nature described above. But the Japanese know the fury of nature all too well, living as they do on one of the earth’s most volcanically active areas. Nature, in the Japanese worldview, is not subject to human ownership or control. It can rob us of our property, our loved ones, and our lives in the blink of an eye, without rhyme or reason. This is the second side of nature portrayed in the films of Miyazaki Hayao.

3. Heterogeneous, Interacting, Evolving Ecosystems

But there is more. Miyazaki’s animation also depicts nature as something made up of heterogeneous elements that constantly interact, giving rise to unceasing change. Consider the toxic jungle called the Sea of Decay, depicted at length near the beginning of Nausicaä. Here Miyazaki creates a strange and mysterious world populated by plants, insects, and animals that are hostile not only to human life but even to one another—and yet coexist in a remarkable ecological balance. By conventional human standards, the Sea of Decay is neither idyllic nor lovely to behold, yet Princess Nausicaä pronounces it beautiful. In Miyazaki’s view, there is far more to nature’s wonder than pretty flowers and trees. In the Sea of Decay, which continues to thrive and evolve amid discarded metal and ceramic objects and radioactive waste, Princess Nausicaä perceives a higher order of beauty, the sublimity of nature’s ever-changing vitality.

There is no dichotomy between the natural and the artificial in this worldview. In the seven centuries since humanity vanished from the floating fortress of Laputa, robots, animals, plants, and minerals have continued to coexist, interacting and coevolving to create an unimaginably complex ecosystem. In Spirited Away, an abandoned amusement park has become an extension of the Japanese spirit world, with its myriad of nature gods and supernatural creatures. In Totoro, human beings interact freely with the forest and its spirits. Unlike human beings, however, the slow-moving, unflappable Totoro functions within a time frame measured by thousands of years. From the perspective of the ancient forest, little girls like Mei and Satsuki come and go in the blink of an eye.

Miyazaki (center) at a press conference announcing the completion of the 2001 animated film Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), which won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Sustained by the “Broadleaf Evergreen Forest”

In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Miyazaki’s pluralistic view of nature has taken on new meaning. Natural disasters like tsunami figure prominently throughout his work, as do radioactive contamination and other human-made disasters. His films teach us that the destruction embodied in the Sea of Decay is as integral to nature as the idyllic, pastoral landscape of Totoro. They invite us to take a step back and consider the possibility that even wars and nuclear disasters are no more than passing episodes in the earth’s long evolutionary history.
Miyazaki’s works challenge us to ponder the very nature of nature—that is, of life—and reconsider the meaning of our individual lives from that transcendent perspective. Nature is a source of peace and comfort but also of terrifying destruction. Above all, it is a complex, varied, and endlessly changing amalgam of disparate elements. Can we revive the pluralistic animism of our ancestors and live our lives as part of a seamless unity encompassing humans and insects, trees and spirits, gods and robots?

Miyazaki Hayao claims to have been profoundly influenced by the “broadleaf evergreen forest culture hypothesis” of ethnobotanist Nakao Sasuke (1916–93), whose work he read while still in his thirties. The theory is that in prehistoric times, the broadleaf evergreen forests that covered a large expanse of Asia, from the Himalayas to southern China, Taiwan, and southwest Japan, nurtured a common culture. It identifies an “East Asian crescent” centered in China’s Yunnan province as the birthplace of this culture and the common source of a wide range of features that found their way into the Jōmon culture of western Japan, including the preparation of such “typically Japanese” fermented foods as miso and nattō. Miyazaki realized that, before there was a Japan, the Japanese were part of this ancient ecological and cultural sphere. He felt elated at the realization that he was not merely a citizen of Japan, living within the narrow and often vexing confines of Japanese culture and history, but also part of something much larger. This sweeping, integrated regional perspective freed him to give expression to Japanese nature and culture through the medium of animation, as Miyazaki has stressed in connection with his portrayal of rural Japan in Totoro.

The unique role of fermentation in this “broadleaf deciduous forest culture” seems somehow pertinent to the distinctive view of nature embodied in Miyazaki’s animation—a view that affirms the essential role of microorganisms and decay in the cycle of life. The Sea of Decay in Nausicaä is not just a toxic wasteland. It is teeming with life forms, including insects and microbes, that are propelling a new phase of evolution. Decay, which appears to our ordinary human eyes as death and destruction, is actually a highly fertile and creative process at the microscopic level. The Sea of Decay epitomizes these two seemingly opposing but in reality completely intertwined forces of nature. In this complex interaction, Miyazaki highlights one of the basic unifying principles of Asian culture and thought.

Miyazaki’s Underlying Asianism

Miyazaki Hayao would never call himself a Pan-Asianist. But it strikes me as significant that the manga version of Nausicaä describes the ideological conflict between hadō, government by force, and ōdō, government by virtue, embracing the scheme adopted by the Pan-Asianists in their interpretation of world history. In the course of writing his serialized manga, Miyazaki surely must have given some thought to his own place within this historical scheme. Aesthetically speaking, how does one arrive at the anime equivalent of ōdō?

Japanese Pan-Asianism started out as a movement to unite the cultures of Asia in resistance to Western imperialist aggression and domination by Western civilization and culture. But it also signified a shift from a narrow, inward-looking nationalism to a more outward-looking, regional perspective. When Okakura Kakuzō (1862–1913), the great international champion of traditional Japanese culture, declared that “Asia is one,” he was trying to highlight a shared set of spiritual values, centered on peace and mutual tolerance, that might stand up to and ultimately triumph over modern Western values. His basic aim was to promote peace by advancing the aesthetic and spiritual wisdom of the East.

Of course, we know from history that neither the overthrow of bad government nor the defeat of aggression guarantees the reign of peace and tolerance. Japanese Pan-Asianism later metamorphosed into a campaign of aggression against the very peoples it originally sought to liberate. Miyazaki seems acutely aware of this paradox of human history. In Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, peace and coexistence are tender shoots that somehow manage to spring anew from the muck and mire and ashes of violent conflict.

In the same way, despite episodes of aggression and hegemony, the ideal of peaceful evolution through the interaction of heterogeneous elements—as in Miyazaki’s complex, ever-changing ecosystems—has persisted as a unifying principle transcending the cultural diversity of East Asia. This is the underlying current of strength that he discovered in his “Pan-Asian” view of nature.

Through his imagination and creativity, Miyazaki has managed to forge a new aesthetic path that stands in opposition both to narrow nationalism (as embodied in the typical, teen-oriented brand of Japanese anime) and to the cultural homogeneity of globalization (as embodied in the Disney style of animation). At the root of this distinctive idiom is a Pan-Asian vision of nature. Thanks to Miyazaki’s consummate skill in the art and craft of animation, this rich, pluralistic view of nature has found expression in films that have astonished and enchanted audiences the world over.

The Coming Age of Asian Anime

In September 2013, Miyazaki Hayao announced that The Wind Rises would be his last feature-length film. Kaguya hime monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), also released in 2013, was widely regarded as the swan song of Miyazaki’s partner at Studio Ghibli, director Takahata Isao. Another longtime collaborator, Suzuki Toshio, stepped down from his position as producer and subsequently announced that, in the wake of Miyazaki’s retirement, Studio Ghibli was halting production while it considered its next steps. Miyazaki’s pioneering studio, which played such a pivotal role in the growth of Japan’s animation industry, stands at a major crossroads.

In a recent blog, Suzuki writes that, in today’s domestic and global economic environment, the Japanese animation industry is facing the same sort of challenges that the nation’s manufacturing industry has struggled with since the 1980s. Noting that other countries in East Asia are rapidly acquiring the technology to produce high-quality animation, he predicts that Japanese animation studios will outsource more and more of their production processes to countries like Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam in response to the forces of globalization.

But Suzuki’s attitude is not one of passive resignation to the “hollowing” of the Japanese animation industry. Rather, he envisions a new international division of labor in which animation professionals all around Asia collaborate in the creative process. 

Such a future seems consistent with Miyazaki’s Pan-Asian vision of nature. His animation was never focused on the beauty of Japanese nature per se. Instead, it sought to portray nature as a dynamic, ever-evolving amalgam of constantly interacting heterogeneous elements—much like Asia itself.

Seen in this light, the regionalization of the Japanese animation industry can be seen as an opportunity to expand our own horizons and rediscover Asian culture. Perhaps the industry’s evolving international division of labor will give birth to new and exciting styles of animation never seen before. And perhaps these new cultural idioms will help the Japanese people open their eyes, master their tendency toward cultural insularity, and develop a richer, more mature, more outward-looking worldview.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on February 25, 2015. Banner photo: Director and animator Miyazaki Hayao announces his retirement from feature film making at a press conference in September 2013. Photos © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Miyazaki Hayao, Starting Point 1979–1996. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt. (San Francisco: Viz Media, 2014), 90. Originally published as Shuppatsuten: 1979–1996 (Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 1996).

(*2) ^ Miyazaki Hayao, Turning Point: 1997–2008. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt. (San Francisco: Viz Media, 2014). Originally published as Orikaeshiten: 1997–2008 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2008

anime entertainment Spirited Away Miyazaki Hayao Studio Ghibli animation Takahata Isao Disney Academy Award films Totoro Nausicaa Princess Mononoke Ponyo