The Philosophy of Hayao Miyazaki: A Video Essay on How the Traditional Japanese Religion Shinto Suffuses Miyazaki’s Films

Even if you’ve nev­er watched it before, you always know a Stu­dio Ghi­b­li movie when you see one, and even more so in the case of a Stu­dio Ghi­b­li movie direct­ed by Hayao Miyaza­ki. That goes for his work’s com­mon aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties as well as its com­mon the­mat­ic ones, the lat­ter of which run deep, all the way down to the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese reli­gion of Shin­to. Or so, any­way, argues “The Phi­los­o­phy of Miyaza­ki,” the Wise­crack video essay above that finds in Shin­to, a belief sys­tem premised on the notion that “we share our world with a vari­ety of gods and spir­its called kami,” the qual­i­ties that give “the films of Miyaza­ki and his team of badass­es at Stu­dio Ghi­b­li that extra Miyaza­ki feel.”

Even view­ers with no knowl­edge of Shin­to and its role in Japan­ese soci­ety — where 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion pro­fess­es to prac­tice its tra­di­tions — can sense that “a recur­rent theme run­ning through­out all of Miyaza­k­i’s films is a love for nature.” Going back at least as far as 1984’s World Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion-approved Nau­si­caä of the Val­ley of the Wind, whose hero­ine takes up the fight on behalf of a race of large bugs, Miyaza­k­i’s work has depict­ed the exploita­tion of nature by the many and the defense of nature by the few.

None of his films have ren­dered kami quite so vivid­ly as My Neigh­bor Totoro, the tit­u­lar crea­ture being just one of the wood­land spir­its that sur­round and even inhab­it a human fam­i­ly’s house. In the world­views of both Shin­to teach­ing and Miyaza­k­i’s cin­e­ma, nature isn’t just nature but “part of the divine fab­ric of real­i­ty, and as such deserves our respect.”

This con­trasts sharply with Aris­totle’s claim that “nature has made all things specif­i­cal­ly for the sake of man,” and indeed to Amer­i­ca’s idea of Man­i­fest Des­tiny and the con­se­quent sub­ju­ga­tion of all things to human use. Any­one who’s only seen one or two of Miyaza­k­i’s movies would be for­giv­en for assum­ing that he con­sid­ers all tech­nol­o­gy evil, but a clos­er view­ing (espe­cial­ly of his “final” film The Wind Ris­es about the design­er of the Zero fight­er plane, which depicts the inven­tion itself as a thing of beau­ty despite its use in war) reveals a sub­tler mes­sage: “Because we’re focused on nature only through the lens of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, we’re blind­ed to the true essence of things.” We’ll learn to live in a prop­er bal­ance with nature only when we learn to see that essence, and Miyaza­ki has spent his career doing his part to reveal it to us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

500,000 Years of Humans Degrad­ing Nature Cap­tured in a Bit­ing Three Minute Ani­ma­tion by Steve Cutts

The Essence of Hayao Miyaza­ki Films: A Short Doc­u­men­tary About the Human­i­ty at the Heart of His Ani­ma­tion

Watch Hayao Miyaza­ki Ani­mate the Final Shot of His Final Fea­ture Film, The Wind Ris­es

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

Watch Moe­bius and Miyaza­ki, Two of the Most Imag­i­na­tive Artists, in Con­ver­sa­tion (2004)

Hayao Miyaza­ki Tells Video Game Mak­ers What He Thinks of Their Char­ac­ters Made with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: “I’m Utter­ly Dis­gust­ed. This Is an Insult to Life Itself”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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