So sitting next to me at my computer is my Miyazaki collection I got for Christmas. It doesn’t have all of his movies, just the big seven. And I recently learned that my theatre will be one of the few locations to get Miyazaki’s next film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea
if Disney doesn’t decide to do a mass release. Which would be foolish, but hey, what do I know?
And then, after listening to the recent LEOG
and hearing about how they just don’t know anything about anime, I’ve decided to speed up something I’ve been working on. Not really with the intent to educate people, but to share with those who read it the knowledge I gained about Miyazaki’s films from contemporary Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami.
See, a while back, I did some research on Murakami in line with an art history paper about contemporary art and where I felt it needed to go. Murakami’s work, much like Andy Warhol, offered what I call “a foot in the door” for those who just don’t get the art scene. They can appreciate both these artist’s work on an aesthetic level. And then I discovered how Murakami did this. He was inspired by the deep symbolism of Japan’s entertainment since the first Godzilla film was released. He even went to far as to curate a show in New York and publish a book explaining his and other Japanese artist’s artistic intent.
So where’s the link between Murakami and Miyazaki? Both offer a “foot in the door” for their particular entertainment media. According to the aforementioned book, Murakami interviewed an otaku friend of his who stated that anime was not really as big as it is now. The exact moment when anime became popular was when Miyazaki’s Spirited Away
won the Best Animated Picture award. But the film itself—and the other films in my collection—is more than just entertainment. They all represent a major Japanese historical event that has caused (if I remember what Murakami said) a cultural reboot: WWII and the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
is probably the most blatant example of this symbolism Miyazaki has produced that I’ve seen. It takes place in a time where the world has been reduced to pockets of livable land. The majority of it has been destroyed by WMDs the likes of which are found in fantasy RPGs and have started to grow toxic jungles. The poison resulted in a mutation in the insect population which created new breeds that are as large as a skyscraper and move as fast as a semi-truck. And it is here where we as the viewer are just dropped in on Nausicaa and her peaceful culture in some isolated part of the world. She and her people are able to survive in the harsh condition and know nothing about war or suffering until the neighboring kingdoms shoot down a prisoner plane over their land. When they come to investigate the crash, they essentially take over Nausicaa’s culture by force.
Do I even need to point out the real-life similarities here?
Murakami believes that Howl’s Moving Castle
is the best example to date, because it deals with a personal conflict that mirrors the Japanese culture as a whole. If you ignore the main plot and focus on Howl’s subplot, you can see an interesting take on WWII that may have actually happened culturally. Murakami points out time and time again in his writings about this film that as Howl continues to fight a war between two rival kingdoms over a missing prince, he slowly becomes more and more a monster. Towards the end of the film, he loses any hint that he was once human and might as well be considered dead. The US has seen similar psychological events with Vietnam and Gulf War vets, who have fought so hard for so long that they’ve gone crazy. The only thing that makes them human again is by connecting with something only humans can experience, which in the film’s case is love.
From what I remember researching, this loss of culture is a great concern, though a silent one, in Japan. A friend of mine told me a story they heard about Miyazaki’s comments on this generation of animators while working on Spirited Away
. He was trying to describe how a dog will sometimes fight their master when forced to swallow medication, and he wanted that kind of struggle for the scene where Chihiro gives Haku the healing cake. Unfortunately, because of urbanization and lack of exposure to nature outside of going to the zoo, none of the young animators knew what he was talking about. None of them owned a dog before because they all live in urban Japan where pets are not allowed. Miyazaki is rumored to have said something along the lines of “This generation is doomed.” The only way to preserve the culture, if I remember Murakami correctly, is to preserve the past as best as possible.
It should as no surprise then that Miyazaki is known for his strong environmental views as well, especially when you realize that his most beloved film My Neighbor Totoro
was in an attempt to save a real forest that is thought to be the inspiration behind the film. Miyazaki himself started Totoro Forest Project
in order to preserve the 8,750 acres of forest where Totoro and his friends live. And a lot of his films in my collection make nature and natural beauty look so epic in its color and scale that you want to go out and see these things in person. The monstrous bugs and the toxic jungle in Nausicaa
are just as beautiful as the epic forest settings in Princess Mononoke
. Hell, the garden in Laputa
alone is so stunning by design that I wish it was as real as the robot that guards it.
And that’s Miyazaki’s foot in our door. The films that he’s produced and the stories associated with them are easy for anyone to access. Yes, they are anime films, but there’s nothing anime about them. We don’t have many giant robots fighting other giant robots. We don’t have big breasted women jumping around to entertain our own perverted thoughts. And we don’t have the super-deformed cute creatures that could easily be mistaken for Pokemon. While those elements may be present, Miyazaki’s films do it in a way that isn’t a turn off to those that don’t know anything about anime. His giant robot isn’t a WMD so much as it is a gentle guardian. His big-breasted women are actually a design choice to accent their comic nature. And Chibi Totoro is too cute to be associated with something as over exposed as Pikachu. They are all appropriations of the familiar.
Which is what Murakami does. He takes a familiar aesthetic and turns it into conceptual art that comments on social issues such as sex, war, and consumerism. But he does it in a way that doesn’t rely on having this elite and pretentious knowledge that the art gallery socialites have. It helps, but you can still appreciate his art on an aesthetic level, which as far as I’m concern is the direction art needs to go in.