Listening: A Retrospective on Miyazaki’s Philosophy and the Academy Museum Exhibit

by Philip Carrigan

Displayed on the top floor of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in L.A. were the collected notes, sketches, and models of Hayao Miyazaki. The very veins of his beloved movies had been laid out across the walls or beneath the glass of the display cases. Select snippets from his movies played in loops on the walls, filling empty spaces with bright and shifting colors. The decorations all served to elevate the presence of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic, with the gentle theme from My Neighbor Totoro following the audience through the entrance. The design and content were, overall, well executed, but I have to say that the most provocative aspect of the exhibit for me was what I call Grass Under Sky.

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Visitors were silently invited to go and lay in the artificial turf and gaze up at the clouds drifting across the screen. To be clear, there was no sign stating the purpose of the display, but even the most uncertain attendees could follow the lead of the children, who read the invitation on the lack of rope barriers and joyously plunked themselves down on the fake grass. Children are great at understanding rules, try as they might to convince you otherwise. As for the display itself, it’s a pretty cheap effect, and the cynical-at-heart may have muttered words like “unconvincing” and “ow, my back.” Children, on the other hand, don’t need very much convincing to have fun interacting with their environment (and they don’t usually have to spend the next few minutes walking funny due to sudden lower back pain). I’ve found that kids just kind of get it, but what is “it” and how come I didn’t get it as quickly? Why did this display haunt my mind in the weeks following the visit?

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The Grass Under Sky display got me thinking about the idea of nature as it exists in the real world and the ways in which we interact with it. Take Mt. Everest and its seeming ability to draw people up its heights year after year. What is it about this great mountain that gets us so excited? Could it be that Mt. Everest has character, or personality, and that it speaks to us in some way? No, probably not. Any “character” of this kind that exudes from Everest is little more than a projection. We want an adversary to dominate, so the tallest climbable mountain in the world serves as one of our greatest challenges. 

Mt. Everest is to the modern human what a lion was to the Romans. At least, that’s the subtle connection I know I make in my own mind whenever I’m reminded of the mountain’s existence. I’ll blame this on my being human, which is to say that I’m prone to slipping into patterns of thought that are only shaken when confronted with a new idea, or a different perspective. Over the course of a semester studying Hayao Miyazaki’s work, I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest perspective shift that a person could hope to access is the complete removal of the human—of the self—from the frame. 

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In order to talk about character as it exists within the scenic elements of nature, I needed to rethink the ways I understand communication. And it helped to focus on the notion of an unasked question. In regards to creative writing, Roland Barthes identifies an element he calls the hermeneutic code (link). It refers to the parts of a story that are unexplained and therefore raise questions among the audience that had not been asked directly by the narrative. In other words, when you read something, you start to wonder about it, and through this a deeper engagement with that subject can begin. With this concept in mind, perhaps images like the one above and the one below can be better understood as unasked questions.

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So I ask again: could it be that this small portion of the nonhuman world has character, is speaking, and is asking questions simply by existing? In her essay (link), “Animated Nature: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Empathy in Miyazaki Hayao’s Ecophilosophy,” Pamela Gossin explores Miyazaki’s seemingly anti-anthropocentric attitude toward nature. Gossin highlights a provocative element of the director’s philosophy: 

“[Miyazaki’s] films teach us that to create humane, ethical action within the natural realm, humankind must… acknowledge the value of the unknown and unknowable as real and active variables in the vast cosmological, ecological, and existential equations in which we find ourselves, including an allowance of the possibility that what we do not and cannot know may be more significant than the sum total of everything we think we can and do consciously know.” (217)

Vague as it may be, this idea of the “unknown and unknowable” is this phenomenon that hints at the presence of character in nature; it is the unasked question, and it’s obviously not exclusive to Mt. Everest. The question persists everywhere at once and is asked in chorus; it persists like a ghost, or a spirit, or perhaps even an inquisitive little kodama as depicted in Princess Mononoke. The point being that nature represents itself in our world, even if it can’t communicate with us in a direct manner. 

As to what exactly is being asked, well, I’d guess that it has something to do with the recognition of natural agency that Gossin mentioned: a need to understand that our knowledge of the world may be far more limited than we otherwise presume, and that we shouldn’t limit our damage to the environment simply because it would be good for us. If this planet’s natural environment has a character agency of its own, then coexistence between humans and the inhuman world may simply be the ethical—if not polite—outcome to strive toward. 

tenor.com – Viengchanh

Now that I’ve explained the agency of nature as it testifies to a level of character (at least in that it can communicate with us), I’ll explain what I’m talking about when I refer to “nature,” and what this all has to do with the Grass Under Sky display. 

First, the former: what I’m talking about isn’t this intensely broad presence of the natural world that ever-crowds the edges of our civilized human world. I’m talking instead about nature’s mouth—or else, its voice-box, or whatever you want to call this space where the unasked question arises from. Nature’s voice can be heard in specific moments—which can be everyday moments as well— and the pillow shots that pop up all throughout Miyazaki’s filmography are a representation of that voice. In other words, Miyazaki’s pillow shots are nature’s mouth.

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In his article (link), “The enigmatic ‘pillow shots’ of Yasujiro Ozu,” Leigh Singer describes a pillow shot as “carefully composed scenes [of] seemingly random shots, held for several seconds, of everyday life.” Singer shows multiple examples of what an Ozu pillow shot looks like, just as I’ve provided some examples of Miyazaki’s, such as the images directly above and below from My Neighbor Totoro. These images make use of the hermeneutic code by making the audience take a moment to question the shot’s placement within the narrative. The pillow shots don’t propel the story forward or reveal something new about any of the characters. They simply make us stop and appreciate the things that are going on within the world apart from the anthropocentric plot of the movies. Miyazaki’s pillow shots represent pocket moments where we are taken out of ourselves and beholden to a small, wonderful something taking place around us, like a snail climbing up a stem, or the breeze pushing the soft clouds above the grass. When we stop hurtling forward through our own lives, we can start to wonder about our world, to ask questions about it, or even hear the questions that are being asked of us.

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Which finally brings us to that haunting display, Grass Under Sky, waiting at the center of the third room of the exhibit. The display was clearly meant to give museum-goers a chance to feel what Kiki felt on that hill in Kiki’s Delivery Service. It is a replica of a pillow shot, which, as Singer points out, is already an imitation of life. It is the shadow’s shadow, unconvincing artificial turf beneath a dim projection of clouds in the sky. Almost a joke. Was I really trying to convince myself that I could feel the passing breeze while I lay there, knowing fully well that the museum’s AC was functioning exactly as it should?

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But maybe that was the point: it never mattered whether or not I felt the breeze or managed to convince myself that the display was a satisfactory representation of nature. The display simply existed, an astral projection of a reality simultaneously distant (from an L.A. museum interior) and incredibly close (in the recollection of some faded memory that it had sparked). The display was quietly communicating an experience that was as real as any of the animator’s artifacts sitting behind the glass, and like the pillow shots from Miyazaki’s movies, I didn’t need to see it in order to feel like it had seen me. I would even posit that, if real-life pillow shots are nature’s mouth, then the display might be better understood as a tour guide, or a docent. Someone—something—that shares a fascinating bit of information about the subject of the exhibit. 

And that was my favorite part of the exhibit. There is something endearing about the attempt, something surprisingly connected, in spite of the levels of disconnect the display has from the initial glimpse of nature that Miyazaki captured in his movies. Even if the display seemed a small thing, pillow shots are equally small, and yet those, too, are capable of leaving lasting, perspective-shifting impressions on impressionable young audiences. Impressions that can be carried into adulthood, informing ecocritical opinions regarding their world.