I wrote this for a history of Japanese art class in 2012. I’ve been meaning to revisit it for several years now, even when I wrote it I knew it was short and I structured it to just meet the word count requirement in a class that I knew I would probably not be graded very harshly. But since then its spent some years on academia.edu and is easily my most popular papers and I’ve gotten one or two messages from students saying they want to use it as a source for their own research projects about Miyazaki or anime. Maybe the fact that its considerably shorter than everything else I wrote in college has made it more accessible. So here is the original text, if a longer version gets made in the future I’ll be sure to post it here.
Hayao Miyazaki has been no stranger to the world of Japanese animation, and has been a giant in the field for the last thirty or so years. His work is admired not only for its masterful artwork and storytelling, but also for the powerful and compelling themes and ideas that are present in his work. They contain messages about women, the environment, spirituality, history, morality, and politics. In this paper I will attempt to identify and analyze the themes of political ideology present in his films. I will do so by paying particular attention to the films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke and their relationship to Miyazaki’s own shifting ideological positions. It will be my assertion that Miyazaki’s films shift from being optimistic and ideological at their core to become commentaries on ideology its self.
Nausicaä was released in 1984 and was Miyazaki’s second venture as a director. Nausicaa, the titular character is introduced to the audience as an inquisitive and courageous young woman whose most striking personality trait is her serenity and patience in the face of those who are aggressive towards her or others. She is first depicted encouraging a large rampaging insect to return to its home, and shortly after calms an aggressive fox-squirrel by simply allowing the animal to bite her without any repercussions. This soothes the animal who befriends her and is seen around her shoulder throughout the rest of the film.
Nausicaa is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, one of the few habitable places left on the planet one thousand years after the fall of civilization in the seven days of fire. The Valley of the Wind is a relatively small region filled with happy people living an agrarian lifestyle. There does not seem to be a standing army, although every citizen defends it from outside forces and the poisonous spores at some point in the film. Nausicaa is a princess and her father is a king but neither she nor her father are depicted as being corrupt, extremely wealthy, or at odds with their people. Instead the men and women of the Valley of the Wind show a genuine interest and love for Nausicaa and her father. The details of how political power is distributed and what property and class distinctions exist in the Valley of the Wind are not available to us, however from this example we can learn that in the moral universe of Nausicaä there is a virtuous way to live in a community. The main virtue depicted in the Valley of the Wind is simplicity; there are no extravagant mansions or industrialized shopping centers. There are no large scale military or weapons being produced.
The Valley of the Wind is foiled by another nation depicted in Nausicaä, the Tolmekian Empire. They are a large, somewhat industrial, warlike society that is also led by a woman, Lady Kushana. She is a bold woman who seeks to free the world from the poisonous forest that covers most of the earth, and is willing to conquer other nations to make this vision a reality. Kushana and the Tolmekian Empire are the antithesis to Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, they are not only on opposing sides of the film’s central conflict but they differ in their understanding of how the world works, and as a result how best to create a better life. Nausicaa is enabled by her patience with nature to learn the counter intuitive truth behind why the forest is toxic to humans; that the plants are participating in the detoxification of the polluted soil and the ohmu have evolved to guard this centuries long process.
For all of Lady Kushana’s vast wealth and complicated political and military organizations at her disposal she is hindered from the truth. Nausicaa’s patience and humility granted her greater wisdom, this allows her within the film to be morally right and offer the best solution to the unspoken question of the film which is; how should we live in a world that is hostile to humanity?
While the film Nausicaä has deep ties to ecological political ideology, its most significant statement is its affirmation that wise leaders with the correct ideas can and do exist if they are of the right character to gain insight into the true nature of how the world works and is interrelated. This notion is central to both the ancient political philosophy of the Eastern Confucian tradition and the Western Platonic tradition.
In the Western example Nausicaa would closely fit the template of the Philosopher-Queen, a ruler who has the right to rule and rules justly because of his or her ability to deepest and truest facts of how the world works. Plato is one of the very few ancient Western thinkers who would have agreed with Miyazaki’s portrayal of women and their ability to be confident leaders. A similar idea exists in the Confucian tradition in which the proper set of social relationships exist and its wise implementation would lead to a good society, particularly if governed by a leader who had the education and wisdom to pass a civil service test. Given that Miyazaki lived and worked in the post-war period of Japanese history he likely encountered both ideas from traditional Japanese thought in the Confucian tradition and through a westernized education.
This template of insightful ideology is characteristic of a younger Hayao Miyazaki who up until the late1980’s had been a Marxist and was the chairman of the animators union at Toei. Marxism, in the broadest sense, is founded on the idea that the history of the world unfolds dialectally, meaning that it is the result of two opposing forces with the victor absorbing the important traits of the loser. To understand the historical dialectic is the understand the hidden engine that drives history and progress forward. Marxist and socialist leaders claim to be good leaders because they rule according to an ideology that understands the true systems that make the world what it is. While Nausicaa is not a socialist heroine, the fact that her heroism comes from her ability to perceive the hidden truth of the poisonous forest’s relationship to the world does make her and ideological heroine. Nausicaä is certainly the creation of a man who believes that a better world can be achieved with the proper knowledge and ideology.
Over the next fifteen years Hayao Miyazaki had changed his political orientation. While no longer a Marxist he has not embraced any other broad ideology like liberalism or conservatism to fill that void. As he said in a 2008 interview on the topic of socialism and global capitalism “However, exploitation is not only found in communism, capitalism is a system just like that. I believe a company is common property of the people that work there. But that is a socialistic idea…. How can we go in peace without any dictators? The biggest bet of humankind to that question was socialism. It was grown in Europe during the 19th century and tested during the 20th century. As a result, it failed. We got to know there is no paradise on the earth. I believe paradise only exists in the memories of our childhood. Because of that, many social movements that aim to make a paradise always end up failing. So we must accept that our world isn’t a paradise. That is something which is too bitter for us though. That is why mankind created some ways to comfort themselves with several virtual ways.”(Ghibli World 2008)
This anti-utopian sentiment and disillusionment with ideology is expressed beautifully in Princess Mononoke. This film, just as in Nausicaä introduces the hero in a great chase scene with a rampaging beast enraged by the sins of humanity. The hero is Ashitaka, a young man of the dwindling Emishi tribe in Northern Honshu. Ashitaka selflessly defends his village from the boar God Nago who has become hateful demon. In the process of slaying Nago, Ashitaka was touched by his hateful curse, condemning him to eventual death. Ashitaka cuts his hair and leaves his home as a man with no identity in search of the source of Nago’s curse.
While introduced similarly to Nausicaa, Ashitaka’s role in the story of Princess Mononoke could not be more different. Ashitaka has been removed form society and proceeds through the story as an observer of the main conflict between the old Gods of the forest and the proto industrial Iron Town, while Nausicaa had a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict and her final triumph a validation of her ideology. Ashitaka’s only stated goal is to “See with eyes unclouded.” Or to see the world for what it really is, and to show the world that hatred is vice that all sides of a conflict share.
The two opposing sides in Princess Mononoke show a very clear resemblance to modern political ideologies, and neither of which are depicted by Miyazaki to have any claim to a moral superiority, as opposed to fundamentally flawed Tolmekians and the Philosopher-Queen Nausicaa in his earlier film. The human world of Iron Town is responsible shooting the God Nago with their modern firearms, inflicting the wound that drove him to become a demon. It is led by Lady Eboshi, who is an ambitious woman attempting to create a new society that it more open and accepting, and exists outside the world of feudal samurai or the Gods of the forest. Lady Eboshi does not fear the laws of Gods or men, and uses new technology to create a more open society. Lady Eboshi and Iron Town is very much like modern liberal capitalist society and come to represent the ideology of liberalism; it offers a better life for many marginalized people but at the cost of abandoning traditional values and authority (like the Emperor and his samurai) and must consume and destroy the natural world inhabited by the Gods of the forest.
The tribes of animals and Gods in the forest are similarly depicted as both good and bad in some respects. The forest is being destroyed to mine ore for the economy of Iron Town, and for many viewers they are entitled to righteous retaliation. However they respond with a single minded viciousness and lust for revenge that has turned some of the most powerful Gods into hateful demons, attacking innocent villages like the Emishi. If the Gods had their way and Iron Town ceased to mine ore Lady Eboshi would not be able to defend it from the samurai and all the women would return to an oppressive society, many of them as prostitutes, and the lepers would have no place to live at all. The animals represent a conservative ideology, and in many ways an extreme “deep green” environmentalism such as the land ethic of the 20th century political philosopher Aldo Leopold and the militant groups such as the Earth Liberation Front/Animal Liberation Front. None of these characters more so than San, a human girl raised by the wolf tribe. The Gods of the forest are not just conservative in ideology, they are reactionary because their only response is to turn back the clock of history and seek no compromise with Iron Town.
Ultimately Iron Town and the Gods of the forest have fundamentally opposed interests, their positions are irreconcilable. Ashitaka is able to maintain his objectivity and not engage in the deeply ideological thinking of Lady Eboshi and San because he has been marked for death. Whatever vision for the future wins, either the liberal iron town or the conservative forest Gods Ashitaka will not be alive to enjoy it. In the ending, unlike Nausicaa, there is no clear victor. Neither of the ideologies is shown to have the moral superiority that Miyazaki once gave to Marxism. Princess Mononoke displays Miyazaki’s political shift away from easy solutions and embraces anti-dogmatism. The truth is out there, but it is illusive and no authority can offer it to us.
Post Script: The fact that I hit my word count at the end there is really obvious to me now but I kinda surprised myself when read the last sentence “The truth is out there, but it is illusive and no authority can offer it to us.” Miyazaki is one of those artists who I liked a lot when I was younger but as time goes on my appreciation for his work and his ideas deepen, and that final sentence says almost everything about what I believe is true about ideas. Cultural relativism, nihilism, emotivism are just as unacceptable to me as religious dogmatism, totalizing political systems, and naive moral dualism. You want to know the truth, you want to do the right thing? Good luck figuring it out, because the answers exist but there is no guarantee you will ever hear them, recognize it as true, and then have the courage to do it because the universe isn’t a nice Cartesian coordinate grid that linear thinking can elucidate the answer. Its more like a Gordian knot, but cutting the knot in half doesn’t solve the challenge anymore than passive resignation to the task. Its our responsibility to figure this shit out together. Miyazaki gets it, and as I get older I want to be like him more and more. Not just artistically, but personally. Miyazaki doesn’t give any shit about what people think of him, he isn’t making movies to win awards or make friends, he grew up in a society that hammers down any crooked nails but he was still himself and says what he wants almost to a fault. Be like Hayao, make cool stuff that you would want to see and don’t let the bastards grind you down.