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.
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.