By: Gisselle Olmedo, Malena Segovia, Maria Vargas, and Azya Feeney
To share the love and experience of Miyazaki films we wanted to target an audience of people that are new to them. Our goal is to link other popular media to a Miyazaki film and encourage people to dive deeper into Miyazaki’s work. Showing them that the films aren’t just “cartoons.”
We used popular TikTok trends and audios to help reach out to a larger audience. One example of this is the Zodiac signs trend. We compared popular Miyazaki Films to Zodiac Signs that we believed to emulate each other. The purpose of the zodiac videos is to get people who are interested in the horoscope to be more invested in Hayao Miyazaki. Our hope is that people will either resonate with what we suggested or argue, either way, it would start a conversation and possible send some people to watch the films and question why is this movie – their zodiac.
We also wanted to reach the Western audience that tends to be afraid of foreign films. To approach this we created a series that compares a popular movie to a Miyazaki Film. Hoping to show them the similarities that they have and create interest in the works of Hayao Miyazaki.
To also have a variety of content on the account we added artwork that was created by one of our fabulous group members. In the video we can see ceramics that were inspired by Miyazaki. Showing that his movies reach to every corner of the world in inpiration.
In these Tiktok posts and videos, we wanted to connect Hayao Miyazaki’s works to recent trends to help accumulate attention to them. We were inspired to use TikTok to spread the love that we have for Miyazaki after visiting the Hayao Miyazaki Exhibition. Within the rooms we were able to create a connection to the films that reached deep into our hearts and childhoods. So in using TikTok, one of the most popular platforms currently, we aimed to spread the memories and connection that we gained through his films and the museum.
In two of the posts, we used the common trend of matching zodiac signs to different Miyazaki movies. The decisions of which sign go to which movie are our opinion and not based on anything from Miyazaki himself. Another video is from ceramics works that were made by one of us based on his movies. The movies included are Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro.
Miyazaki’s work appeals to such a wide range of people for such diverse reasons, and it means something different to all of them. Part of this is because he is capable of telling a wide variety of stories: one of his films is about the disgraced prince of a forgotten people traveling to distant lands to view the world with “eyes unclouded,” another is about two girls who meet a forest spirit after moving to the countryside because of their mother’s illness. In those two movies are a multitude of stories and ideas and most people who have watched these films have experienced them in a specific and powerful way. His work and what it means to not only his audience, but himself is a fun topic to discuss and think about, so I’ll be discussing different connections between his films that I have thought about. For fun!
Miyazaki’s oeuvre is vast, so it can be easy to overlook a lot of his work. I can only promise to discuss what I have seen (which is most of his post-70s work), so to anyone who wants to see Sherlock Hound talked about at length, I’m sorry.
Cagliostro is easy to see as Miyazaki’s strange, initial foray into a foreign franchise before flying off to do bigger and better things, but he had worked on the first Lupin III show (it had been his television directorial debut) and was well into his career when he directed his first film which happened to star the roguish descendant of Arsène Lupin (a now obscure yet influential serialized French thief character). Miyazaki had vastly altered Lupin’s characterization when he came onto the show, moving the character away from the James Bond-esque apathetic cool badass and imbuing him with a subtle depth, depicting him almost as a thief folk hero (an entire book could probably be written about how Miyazaki altered the character and franchise, but that extends too far outside the realm of Miyazaki for right now). In Miyazaki’s mind, Cagliostro was clearly the end of his time on Lupin, so it serves as an epilogue to the canceled first Lupin III series. The first film for any director can be quite an endeavor, with a lot of stumbling blocks, but Miyazaki, hot off of his time on TV, made it look easy, completing it in four months at the expense of his and his co-workers’ sanity. What came out of this furiously creative time in Miyazaki’s life was still a Miyazaki film through and through, but it is also framed as the end of the relationship between Miyazaki and the Lupin III franchise (though he would return to it in small ways later into his career). Even Miyazaki’s first movie can be seen as the end of something.
The film starts with a heist pulled by Lupin and his best friend Jigen, in which they steal a large amount of cash before discovering that they are counterfeit bills produced by the Count of Cagliostro. Thus, Lupin and Jigen venture to the Count’s domain. This seems like some classic Lupin III fare, but the opening credits of Cagliostro are atmospheric and solemn in contrast to the whimsical fun foretold in the preceding scene. The film proceeds, incorporating Lupin III characters like Zenigata, Goemon, and Mine Fujiko to varying degrees of relevance, and story wise, it is very similar to early episodes of the series (not directed by Miyazaki and Takahata) in which Lupin demonstrates his affection for some innocent girl until he has to watch her die or something. The difference with Cagliostro is that Lupin is no longer the young thief pining after the beautiful doomed woman, but an older man desperate to protect a last vestige of humanity. It is not romantic; it is more similar to Porco’s relationship with Fio than Pazu’s relationship with Sheeta. The film ends with Lupin victorious, but his past clings to him. When Clarisse asks to come with him, Lupin refuses her and leaves. Comparisons can also be made between Lupin’s leaving Clarisse and Miyazaki’s leaving television for his film career and the formation of Studio Ghibli (as well as Miyazaki’s neglect for his private life in favor of his work). The film can be seen as a final statement on Lupin III from Miyazaki: he is a young hotshot who will regret his past after realizing the futility of his craft, but will refuse to burn out because being a thief is all he can ever imagine himself doing. Planes fly overhead as Lupin drives off into his future.
Because of the finality of Miyazaki’s feature film debut, it can be interesting to compare it to Kaze Tachinu, his last film (at least until Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka). The film immediately preceding Kaze Tachinu was Ponyo, which Miyazaki had based on his own family. Notably, the father is absent in Ponyo, always away at sea, having to communicate with his wife and son in Morse code from a faraway ship. Here, Miyazaki distances the father from the son, a reality of his own household, which he neglected in favor of his art. Sōsuke’s father is distant from the story of Ponyo, and it is evident that Miyazaki made the film about, and perhaps for, his son. It is only fitting, then, that Miyazaki would make Kaze Tachinu for himself. Kaze Tachinu, or The Wind Rises, is dense with Miyazaki’s feelings of retrospect: he had said numerous times that he was making his final film, but it seemed as though Kaze Tachinu was the apotheosis of all of Miyazaki’s dreams, aspirations, ideas — it takes place in Japan on the cusp of the Pacific War, finally directly depicting the destruction which haunted Miyazaki and his generation.
Miyazaki depicts the brutal effects of the war on Japan through the lens of Horikoshi Jirō, the man responsible for designing the planes employed by the Japanese in the war. Jirō was perfect for Miyazaki to project himself onto; the building of planes in Kaze Tachinu is very similar to Miyazaki’s animation in that the artistry of the process must be backed by technical prowess. Miyazaki has always been a technician, and in Horikoshi, he had discovered a muse. Furthering this comparison between Miyazaki and Horikoshi is the casting of Anno Hideaki as Horikoshi Jirō. Anno is an animator who had worked with Miyazaki in the past, though he is more famous as the creator of the massively popular Evangelion franchise. Anno is known for his distaste for the modern anime culture that played a large part in building (and rebuilding), a sentiment that Miyazaki has echoed in interviews and in his work. The casting of Anno as Horikoshi can be seen as the casting of a regretful and bitter artist (Anno) as a regretful and bitter artist (Horikoshi) by a regretful and bitter artist (Miyazaki). Kaze Tachinu is a portrait of an artist whose ambition and hubris resulted in the most catastrophic outcome imaginable. The film ends with a scene of Jirō traversing a field of broken planes as more fly overhead into the horizon, towards their destruction. Jirō sees a mirage of his late wife before she is blown away by the gale.
Cagliostro seems almost to foreshadow Miyazaki’s career in retrospect. By his last film, he has become Lupin: tired, but incapable of expressing himself in any way outside of his work. Kaze Tachinu serves almost as a mirror to Cagliostro; it is almost as though Miyazaki was afraid of what would happen from the very beginning.
Miyazaki is most well known for his depictions of children and young adults; that is to say he often refrains from depicting characters that are too close to himself in demographic. Lupin and Jirō, on the other hand, clearly represent Miyazaki at different periods of his life. Miyazaki’s films are all reflections of himself, but these two movies (and to a lesser extent Porco Rosso) feel more direct than the rest of his work. This is not to say, however, that his other work is any less personal than these films.
Lupin and Jirō are easy to interpret as reflections of Miyazaki, but they are a minority in Miyazaki’s overall oeuvre. Most of the protagonists in Miyazaki’s films are young women, and it is interesting to consider their evolution over the course of his early career.
The first proper Miyazaki girl put to screen was Lana in Miyazaki’s first show, Mirai Shōnen Conan, and she reads almost as a prototype for the characters that would follow her. Lana serves as both foil and romantic lead for Conan; she is more knowledgeable and socially aware than he is while still respecting and admiring his strength and resourcefulness. She is also endowed with the unique power of telepathy, which she uses to speak to birds as well as Conan. Much of Conan’s early quest is dedicated to rescuing Lana from the clutches of evil because she is all he has left after the death of his grandfather. Both she and Conan feel drawn to one another, and Miyazaki goes to great lengths to ensure that both children are incorruptible in their intentions and actions. Lana in particular is portrayed as a kind of angel, a beacon of hope, who lifts Conan from his hermetic existence on his lone island. Lana’s purity will be echoed and tested in the rest of Miyazaki’s work.
There is another major woman in Conan: Monsley. Monsley begins the show as a loyal servant of Industria, a city run on machinery and slave labor. She is rude, disagreeable, and hard headed partly because she was orphaned by the apocalypse when she was young. She learns not to underestimate the strength and resourcefulness of children early on, and is redeemed by the end of the series. Monsley is much more complicated than Lana, and her complexity can be attributed to Miyazaki’s complicated relationship with his mother. Miyazaki spent a lot of time with his mother, who was often bedridden due to tuberculosis. She was also intensely disagreeable. Notably, she was heavily right wing, which led to arguments between herself and her famously leftist son; the director is said to have been brought to tears at the dinner table due to arguments with his mother. Miyazaki’s complicated relationship with his mother ripples out across all of his work, and likely heavily informed Monsley’s characterization.
Lupin III: Cagliostro no Shiro’s Clarisse can be compared to Lana: a kind, pure-hearted girl whom the main character must save, though Clarisse is not depicted as a romantic counterpart to Lupin in the way that Lana is to Conan — rather, Lupin feels as though he owes a debt to her, as she had saved his life a long time ago. Clarisse trades Lana’s telepathy for a royal bloodline, as she is the princess of Cagliostro, and this is presented as more of a burden than a blessing, as her status is the reason she is being targeted by the Count of Cagliostro. Clarisse, like Lana, represents hope, but it is a different hope: whereas Lana represents the hope for Conan to explore past the bounds of his island, Clarisse represents the hope that Lupin has not forsaken his humanity in his pursuit of thievery.
Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä was an important step for Miyazaki: though he had debuted with Cagliostro, Nausicaä was his first original film. Many will point to the Nausicaa manga as the definitive telling of this story, but I feel as though the film simply presents viewers with a different experience. Whereas the manga ran for more than a decade and encompassed years of Miyazaki’s evolution as an artist and draftsman, the film represents a particular time in Miyazaki’s life: he was untethered from television and angry (about a lot of things) and wanted to put all of his ideas into his first original film. The result is that Nausicaä feels almost religious in its grandiosity. The Nausicaä manga offers a much more complex and arguably deeper story than the film, but the film stands alongside the AKIRA film as a spiritual apocalyptic statement from an artist ready to let loose. Nausicaä the film has far less time than the manga to flesh out its world and characters, so Miyazaki doesn’t necessarily try to do that. Nausicaä the manga feels like a chronicle of war, while the movie feels like an epic story torn out of an ancient text.
Nausicaä could be said to have been a much better explored and developed character in the manga, but I feel as though her place in the film as a motherly messianic figure differs heavily from her manga counterpart’s more morally complex portrayal. Nausicaä in the film is depicted with a reverence that is uncommon for Miyazaki. She is morally virtuous and selfless, both mentally and physically formidable — unlike Lana or Clarisse, Nausicaä is an active participant, though that does not stop her from being a beacon of hope. In fact, Miyazaki goes even further with the association in this film, as Nausicaä could be interpreted almost as a religious figure whom followers could flock to; numerous moments in the film outline Nausicaä’s incorruptible and otherworldly demeanor, such as when she allows Teto to bite her in order to endear herself to him, or when she removes her mask in the Sea of Decay. Her walk through the golden tentacles of the Ohm at the end of the film fulfills a prophecy, as the wise blind lady of the Valley of the Wind compares her to the blue-clad figure in the golden field foretold to be the savior of the world. Like Clarisse, Nausicaä is a princess, but she is a different kind of princess: whereas Clarisse’s royal lineage served only to chain her, Nausicaä regards her royalty with a sense of responsibility.
Princess Kushana of Tolmekia is Nausicaä’s foil: Nausicaä is the princess of a secluded village while Kushana is the princess of an imperialist kingdom of war mongers. Nausicaa is all loving and peaceful, Kushana is harsh and cunning. Everything about Kushana’s initial design projects strength, with her metallic golden armor looming heavily over every other figure in the room. Kushana is soon revealed to have lost an arm to an Ohm, similarly to Monsley having lost her family to the destruction wrought by the apocalypse. If Nausicaä is a descendant of Lana, Kushana is most definitely a reincarnation of Monsley; their tragic histories make them sympathetic even as they remain morally dubious. A big difference between Kushana and Monsley is that Kushana is not necessarily redeemed: she continues to act of her own accord even after being rescued by Nausicaä, even summoning an incomplete God Warrior to fend off an Ohm attack. Kushana leaves the Valley of the Wind at the end of the film physically unscathed, but she is changed by her experience with Nausicaä.
Tenkū no Shiro Laputa, known in English as Castle in the Sky, is Miyazaki treading old ground. It was the first film made by Miyazaki after the proper formation of Studio Ghibli, and the first film for the studio overall. Laputa feels thoroughly exciting and yet familiar, as Miyazaki incorporates elements of his past work (the child leads and industrial antagonists of Conan, the thieving adventurous tone of Lupin, the vast backstory and world of Nausicaä) with an astonishing level of technical prowess. Sheeta and Pazu greatly resemble Lana and Conan to the extent that one could almost call Laputa a condensed remake of Conan (doves are even associated with Sheeta’s arrival, just as with Lana). Sheeta is once again a princess, but a meeker, less active one than Nausicaä. She also has special powers akin to Lana’s telepathy, manifested through her stone which responds to danger.
The red-haired successor to Monsley and Kushana is the sky pirate Captain Dola. Dola is much older than Monsley and Kushana, and is only really tangentially comparable to the two, but it seems to be a noteworthy comparison nonetheless, as Dola also recalls Miyazaki’s mother as a rowdy and sometimes disagreeable yet maternal figure in the film. Laputa is the end of this more linear, traceable evolution, as Miyazaki shifted from epic coming of age adventure stories to slice of life films with Tonari no Totoro.
After having watched all of Miyazaki’s movies, I realized that his filmography from Conan onward could be organized into a rough series of 4 trilogies. I don’t mean to imply any intent on the part of Miyazaki; this is just a fun way I found to contextualize his work:
Miyazaki’s first trilogy is the adventure trilogy, which is composed of Mirai Shōnen Conan, Lupin III: Cagliostro no Shiro, and Tenkū no Shiro Laputa. These three works are all coming of age adventures that feel romantic and nostalgic; they also have similar antagonists, with Laputa’s Muska feeling almost like a combination between Conan’s Industrian dictator Lepka and Cagliostro’s despicable Count of Cagliostro. All three are heavily nostalgic for a lost past: the world before the apocalypse in Conan, the beautiful destroyed Roman city beneath the lake of Cagliostro, the now overrun technopolitan metropolis of Laputa. These works gaze longingly at the past, while also being wary of its destructive nature. They are also heavily influenced by older stories such as the work of Jules Verne, so in that way, Miyazaki himself is looking back at old work that evokes nostalgia for both him and us. Lana, Clarisse and Sheeta feel almost identical; perhaps this particular Miyazaki girl is another aspect which ties these works together.
Following the adventure trilogy is the slice-of-life trilogy, and it includes Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), Majo no Takkyūbin (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and Kurenai no Buta (Porco Rosso). These films are largely told in what feels like a series of vignettes which culminate in a larger final segment. Totoro is Miyazaki’s first film in this style, and it was definitely a departure from his (then) recent work, but his work on slice of life TV anime like Alps no Shōjo Heidi and Akage no Anne shows that he is no stranger to it. It is notable that he was making these films while he was also writing the latter portion of the Nausicaä manga; perhaps he was letting out his more fantastic and apocalyptic imagery in that manga while making calmer, more relaxing movies.
Interestingly, the leads of these films seem to increase in age demographic as they progress, from Mei (4) and Satsuki (10) to the teenaged Kiki to the much older Porco. These films all feel like depictions of everyday life, so it is interesting to view the wide assortment of perspectives. Totoro depicts a transitional period in the lives of Satsuki and Mei when they move out to the countryside with their father to be closer to the hospital housing their sick mother (tuberculosis?). The film takes place in the 1950s, evoking a kind of nostalgia. Kiki also captures a transitional period: Kiki must set off from her home village at the age of 13 and live alone. Porco Rosso, the climax of this trilogy, serves as an interesting midpoint between Cagliostro and Kaze Tachinu, as it is the only Miyazaki film other than those two to star an olderman. Miyazaki is able to directly communicate through Porco in a way that he was incapable of with characters that he had to view at a distance like Kiki and Satsuki. In a way, Porco Rosso also feels like a transitional state in that it feels like a goodbye to this era of Miyazaki; he was only two years from completing his Nausicaä manga, and he was about ready to make another angry, feral film. Porco Rosso takes place at the cusp of a huge transition: the start of World War II. Perhaps Miyazaki ended this era in this way to foreshadow the carnage that he would let loose in Mononoke-hime.
The third trilogy is the fairy tale trilogy, and it is composed of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) and Gake no Ue no Ponyo. These films are all loosely tied to a fairy tale, and they all feel like fables. Spirited Away is easy to compare to Alice in Wonderland, as they are stories about ordinary girls being sucked into fantastic worlds with a number of specific rules and customs to obey; Yubaba in particular is comparable to the Queen of Hearts, especially when she basically forces Chihiro into a trial at the end of the film. Howl is Beauty and the Beast with a twist: Sophie is insecure about her appearance, and is cursed with old age, while the seemingly beautiful Howl hides his true monstrous raven form. Maybe this was Miyazaki’s way of evening the playing field. Ponyo is based on The Little Mermaid, and this is probably the most direct of the trilogy in its inspiration, as the film refers back to the fairy tale with mentions of Ponyo being turned to seafoam if Sōsuke does not love her. This trilogy feels as though Miyazaki is experimenting; Spirited Away represents a further foray into the world of computer technology after Mononoke-hime, and Howl blends computer and traditional animation even further with the design and movement of the titular castle. Ponyo, however, completely eschewed computer animation and experimented with a style resembling children’s books, with thick linework and light shading. Interestingly, Miyazaki actually wanted his next film to be a sequel to Ponyo, but he would make Kaze Tachinu instead.
The fourth and final Miyazaki trilogy is his apocalypse trilogy; though most if not all of Miyazaki’s work contains apocalyptic themes, I believe these three to be the most directly apocalyptic in scope and subject matter. The three films are Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä, Mononoke-hime, and Kaze Tachinu, all of which contain some catastrophe: in Nausicaä, it is the Ohm attack and awakening of the God Warrior; in Mononoke it is the severing of the Deer God’s head and the subsequent destruction of Irontown; and in Kaze Tachinu, it is the completion of Jirō’s fighter plane and the desolation that his planes would bestow upon the world. This trilogy differs in that the films are staggered across Miyazaki’s filmography and thus represent different periods in his life. Nausicaä and Mononoke both begin with text detailing the background of the world to signal the grand nature of the story. Kaze Tachinu begins with a quote. “The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!” feels as though it encompasses Miyazaki’s entire filmography; echoes of it can be found in all of his films. In Nausicaä and Mononoke specifically, the quote is especially relevant, particularly in Mononoke-hime, whose ending (in which Ashitaka remarks “Together, we’ll live.”) seems to almost foreshadow the quote’s presence in Miyazaki’s final film.
His final film, that is, until his next one.
Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka is the title of Miyazaki’s next film, (translated in English as How Do You Live?) based on the 1937 novel by Yoshino Genzaburo, and it will represent Miyazaki at the tail end of his career. This film will recontextualize the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography (particularly Kaze Tachinu) and I am so excited to see what Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka will be. I have read a bit of the book, and it focuses on the idea that lives are not separate; our own personal journeys are affected by other people to the extent that everybody is a part of someone else.
Video by: Ben Lee Text by: Noah Kang
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale University Press, 2018.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Starting Point: 1979-1996. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, VIZ Media, 2018.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Turning Point: 1997-2008. Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, VIZ Media, 2021.
Experiencing Studio Ghibli films from my youth has almost been a fever dream. While revisiting those I have seen and those I have not seen before, to relish in a childhood wonder has somewhat remained. The sounds of trees brushing against the wind and the sight of blue skies filled with white clouds. One can think of poetry in a form of animated art. To enter these films for the first time or by revisiting, the immersion to simply being in the film will always be the same. By seeing any of these films, you enter the world Miyazaki created.
After visiting the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the amazement of seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s concept art in the exhibit was quite surreal and an emotional experience. In some sense, one may seem to be entering his own mind. Entering the mind of Hayao Miyazaki is both a blessing and an undeserving privilege through the concept art, images of maps, miniature models, and projections of the films. Everything in the exhibit was something new as most of these creations I have not seen before. This exhibit offered so much more, yet I wanted more. For the man himself, his complexity would only want me to wonder more about Miyazaki himself. Yet again, I wouldn’t want to be that person to intrude on such a mind.
As someone who is just a student of poetry, I don’t consider myself a professional. Merely, it is the willingness to create art from the art that inspires. I have chosen to write haikus for all his films: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and The Wind Rises.
For Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, I especially focused on these haikus to be allegories for Hayao Miyazaki.
Lastly, I leave this poem as a tribute to the man himself:
“It is not hard to imagine…the inner turmoil as a fifty-one-year-old man looking back at his life and forward to what will come” (Napier 153).
Susan Napier describing Miyazaki in Porco Rosso
Feel free to comment and share your thoughts on your favorite poem and your experience of any Miyazaki film.
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale University Press, 2018.
When walking into the Academy Museum’s entrance for its Hayao Miyazaki exhibit, we are taken through a green passageway, much like the one young Satsuki and Mei take to cross into the forest spirit’s world in the film My Neighbor Totoro. As we walk through this tunnel, it becomes a sensory journey of sorts that is enhanced by Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for the film, vivid storyboard art, as well as projected scenes of Miyazaki’s many animated films. We are immediately immersed into the animated universe the director has constructed throughout his career. Each visitor is taken on their own unique journey based on their personal background and experiences as well as their familiarity with Miyazaki’s work. It was both my visit to this exhibit and rewatching the film My Neighbor Totoro that urged me to look inwards, taking me on an emotional journey from which I was able to examine the losses I (as well as so many others) have recently undergone.
I’ve always found myself intrigued by the dystopian genre and how it touches on global catastrophe, but it is one thing to read about and another to witness firsthand. It is bizarre (for lack of a better word) to think that we have—and we continue to be in the midst of what could be referred to as a pandemic apocalypse. The last two years feel like they have taken an eternity. And somehow, when I look back, the last two years also feel like they have flown by. During this time, I have experienced both victories and losses, which have ultimately been transformative experiences. However, I have a hard time finding a balance between what I can celebrate and what I can mourn. In Joe Pinsker’s The Atlantic article “All the Things We Have to Mourn Now”, he attributes this to “the turmoil of the pandemic [as] altering and interrupting the normal course of mourning.”
In these last two years, I transferred to CSUN (after years of starting over at a community college because I’d been academically disqualified from another state university). I dealt with the sudden full-time shift into virtual learning. I qualified for financial aid for the first time in my life. My paternal grandmother developed sudden hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo. I found myself dealing with our convoluted healthcare system in trying to advocate for her health. I was on the Dean’s List for three semesters in a row. I was part of a pilot peer mentor program at my university. I wasn’t able to see my close friends. I wasn’t able to see my boyfriend. Because I live with my paternal grandparents, I thought it best to stay at home and avoid physical contact with anyone outside of my household. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders because I believed I was responsible for the health of my family to such an extent that it took a great toll on my mental health. One of the hardest losses, however, was the passing of my maternal grandmother, Genoveva Capcha, and seeing how it affected my mother. Yet despite that, it is during these last two years that I have cultivated a stronger relationship with my mother and gotten to know her better.
When I rewatched My Neighbor Totoro, I was stunned at the connections I observed between the film and my own personal life. The film resonated with me in a way it never had before.
My Neighbor Totoro takes place in a Japan previous to massive industrialization. The film’s premise is pretty straightforward: sisters Satsuki and Mei move into the countryside with their father as the mother remains in a sanatorium close by due to an illness that is never quite disclosed. The little girls make the best of their situation by finding the wonder in their natural surroundings. They befriend Totoro, a forest spirit, and cross into an imaginary world that soothes them from harsh realities we wouldn’t wish on any child. According to Susan Napier’s book Miyazakiworld, the film “reconstructs [Miyazaki’s] boyhood, processing youthful dreams, and nightmares to offer a magical world of protection, nurturing, and resilience” (107). The film explores what it means to undergo personal and universal losses. When we consider our current reality, many of us feel responsible for the consequences of massive economic and industrial expansion. We feel it because we have been the ones to pay the price. During this pandemic, we have witnessed governments prioritize business over human lives. We have witnessed the politicization of a public health crisis that has led to further division. We have lost more than six million lives worldwide due to COVID-19 complications.
And yet, we have found ways to cope with these years of uncertainty in a way that is comparable to the sisters in My Neighbor Totoro. Some of us have worked from home. Some of us have been unemployed. Some of us have found refuge in our natural surroundings whether it’s been by going on a walk or taking a trip beyond our urban landscape.
In Kosuke Fujiki’sessay, “My Neighbor Totoro: The Healing of Nature, the Nature of Healing”, he discusses the significance of the pastoral landscape and its influence over the film’s characters. He asserts, “the film’s portrayal of 1950s village life in harmony with nature [is] nostalgic or even utopian for [those] who [are] no longer in contact with natural landscapes in everyday life” (Kosuke 156). Nature has long been associated with the power to soothe and heal us. It is my belief that nature did just that for my abuelita in the last two years of her life. As a result of the pandemic, her children and grandchildren came to stay with her in the countryside. She was able to enjoy the innocent liveliness of her grandchildren. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to spend time with your family especially when one’s sons and daughters have grown up and moved on to form their own families. In a sense, it was the pandemic that brought my abuelita’s family back to her. I’m very thankful for that.
Although the mother’s illness in My Neighbor Totoro is never explained, there has been a lot of speculation that it is tuberculosis. Miyazaki’s own mother had it too. The film “incorporates an absent mother, the gloom of her possible death, and even the dramatic move from town to countryside” (Napier 111). The uncertainty of one’s health creates a state of limbo because of how it alters our ability to mourn. Although everyone has their own grieving process, “human beings need to see the body of our loved one, to have remains, in order to know that our loved one has been transformed…So even many clear-cut losses have become ambiguous—unclear and lacking resolution” (Pinsker). In the case of my abuelita, she developed pulmonary fibrosis and it was further complicated because of her tuberculosis. It is our belief that she got tuberculosis from visiting a sick family friend at the hospital. She went from having healthy lungs to needing a portable oxygen concentrator to eventually needing oxygen 24/7.
Throughout the film, the mother makes few on-screen appearances, but she is a driving force for her husband as well as her daughters. The mother, Yasuko, is depicted as a warm and perceptive figure. We see her comb her daughter’s hair and listen intently to the stories her family has for her. She demonstrates a silent strength despite her illness so to not worry her family who has already sacrificed so much for her. In contrast, my abuelita Genoveva was a strong and hard-working woman who was rarely sick. Her strength was not silent. She was one of those tough grandmothers who never wanted to be fretted over. If anything, she was the one to fret over us getting up early or if we’d fed the animals on her farm. She had a different way of expressing her love and concern for us.
Because of the strength we all knew and admired her for, it was extremely difficult for me and my family to see her state of health suddenly deteriorate. She fought against it to the very end. I remember how she’d wait for us to turn away so she could walk down her farm and go see her grandchildren. I remember how she scolded my mother and I because she thought we were hovering over her too much. I remember how our conversations got shorter with each visit I made, but the smile on her face when we’d first arrive remained the same. I was thankfully able to visit three times in the last six months of her life.
In sickness, my abuelita became a driving force that brought all her family together. COVID-19 cases went down in California. In the last year of my abuelita’s life, my mother was able to make several visits whether it was with us or on her own. She was able to spend time alongside her mother and siblings, creating memories for the many years she had missed out on.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she made the difficult decision of leaving her family behind for more opportunities in the U.S. She wouldn’t be able to return to her birth country for more than twenty-two years. She maintained contact through telephone and written letters with pictures of her new family. It is a tremendous sacrifice that I do not romanticize.
And somehow, it was my abuelita that gave back to her family by physically uniting everyone once more. She had always considered family to be sacred. The same effort she put into raising her children—she received from them. As her illness progressed more and more, her family remained by her side. In My Neighbor Totoro, Satsuki and Mei are only children and yet they put on a strong face to cope with the uncertain fate of their mother. Although my mother and her siblings are no longer children, they demonstrated a similar strength as the six of them created a schedule to make sure their mother Genoveva would always be taken care of. We were determined to never have her stay overnight in a hospital. She hated doctors. She loved her countryside and the dozens of avocado trees that were the fruit of her lifetime of labor. My family made sure to work the land for her when she no longer could.
There’s a moment in the film in which Satsuki and Mei discover that their mother’s condition has worsened and she can no longer visit them in their new countryside home. Mei has faith in the restorative powers of nature and she becomes determined to take an ear of corn so that her mother will get better (Fujiki 153). Satsuki, the older sister, becomes flustered by the uncertainty of her mother’s condition and she can no longer maintain the charade. When Satsuki demonstrates the vulnerability that is natural for a child coping with the ongoing loss of a parental figure, it terrifies Mei. Satsuki “opens the floodgates to her own awareness of adult mortality, something that she had previously blocked by busily taking on the chores and persona of the adult child” (Napier 124). It is my belief that loss—particularly the loss of a parental figure—brings out the child in all of us. We can hold a strong face if we sense that our loved ones need it, but it is natural to be overwhelmed by the realization that loss is inevitable.
During the first year of the pandemic, I remember the crippling sensation from the uncertainty that loomed over the world. It was daunting to know that my own parents were just as uncertain as I was. I remember a late night in which I could see the concern on their face. They did not have the answers to this global pandemic and they were frustrated by the growing division in our country. My only way of coping was throwing myself into my studies, fiercely determined to get my bachelor’s degree if it was the last thing I did.
I was able to find refuge in literature and film. It would transport me to a different reality that I had control over. I had the freedom of being a distant observer and being distracted from my own reality. According to the Artwork Archive, “art reminds us that we are not alone and that we share a universal human experience. Through art, we feel deep emotions together and are able to process experiences, find connections, and create impact.” That is precisely what happened when I rewatched My Neighbor Totoro and visited the Hayao Miyazaki exhibit in the Academy Museum.
It is only fitting that the green passageway in the exhibit’s entrance links to the “Mother Tree” installation near the end. The installation reflects the interconnectedness between humans and nature that Miyazaki’s films urge us to reconsider.
In the end credits for My Neighbor Totoro, it is suggested that the mother recovers enough to visit her family’s countryside home. The film ends on an encouraging note. Whether our own sick loved ones come back to us or not, our memories with them will last a whole lifetime. Napier refers to this as “Totoro’s final magic…it allows us to recover what we have forgotten and to luxuriate in innocence, beauty, and joy if only for a few transitory moments” (124-125).
On the second visit, the night I was taking a flight back home, I went with my brother to say goodbye to my abuelita. It was the last time that I got to see her awake and conscious. I remember telling her that I’d try to come back one more time to see her and she nodded at me. By this point, she was bedridden. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and wished I didn’t have to go back home. I wished my brother and I didn’t have to return to classes. My abuelita held onto her strength for as long as she could. When my father took a flight back home, my abuelita went into a deep sleep. It was as if she felt she didn’t have to pretend anymore.
And yet, my abuelita waited for us to fly back a third time. My mother had stayed behind and she called to let us know the nurse had said it was only a matter of days. We took a same-day flight and were hopeful that we’d be able to see her once more. Although my abuelita spent her last days in a deep slumber, I believe that she felt our presence. I remember holding her hand and talking to her, thanking her for everything she’d done for us. Even at the very end of her life, she remained fierce. The nurse had confidently told us it’d be a matter of hours and that she knew this because of her many years of experience. My abuelita had always been a proud woman and wanted things her way. True to her character, she defied the nurse’s words many hours later, passing at 5AM on a Sunday morning.
Grief is a strange thing in that it is a different experience for everyone. The wake and funeral service we held made it easier to both commemorate and mourn the loss of my abuelita Genoveva. However, providing end of life care for a loved one is hard because it feels like a loss that is ongoing. It is somewhat easier to let go at the end because you don’t want your loved one to suffer anymore. But for the same reason, you are trapped in a limbo state of mourning for as long as you see them suffer. I resonated with My Neighbor Totoro to the point of tears because I felt seen. The film felt like a warm blanket because it allowed me to feel like a child again, providing me the outlet I needed.
Although Miyazaki’s film takes place in 1950s Japan, its underlying theme of personal and universal loss continues to resonate today. By reflecting on my own connections to My Neighbor Totoro, it is my hope that it encourages others to visit the Academy Museum’s Hayao Miyazaki exhibit and form connections of their own. The exhibit’s last day will be on June 5, 2022 and tickets can be purchased in advance here.
As a final dedicatory note to my abuelita Genoveva, I’ve attached a song from Peru’s Banda Show Internacional Sunicancha that makes me think of her called “Madre” (mother).
[Feel Free To Skip The Poetics Statement If You Want to Get Straight To The Poetry]
I was inspired by my trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and a love of Miyazaki’s films to try and write poetry inspired by his films, which are known both for their vivid imagery and complex themes interplaying between concepts of ecology, family, commercialism, and technology.
As an additional challenge, I attempted to write all my poetry in the form of haiku, a traditional Japanese form of poetry that I have very little experience in, in an attempt to get a more sheer and honest interpretation of Miyazaki’s work and in turn seek a better appreciation for his films.
I attempted to capture some of the themes present in Miyzaki’s films in the haikus, with each individual poem being accompanied by a background still of the specific film that inspired it and an emphasis on some of the themes of the same work. I challenge potential readers to see if they can guess the film from the poem and the corresponding frame, and undoubtedly some will be a lot easier to identify than others. I took a single still from most of Miyazaki’s directed films, all of them being: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Feel free to comment down below which poems you like, or alternatively, feel free to disagree with some of my thematic interpretations or share what your thoughts are on Miyazaki’s art.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This video essay explores how different expressions of loss manifest in Miyazaki’s films, and why it’s critical to acknowledge how animation tackles grim themes, despite it commonly being trivialized as a light-hearted medium for children.
The essay content is inspired by Susan Napier’s observations in her book, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2018), and the Hayao Miyazaki exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
“Miyazaki’s decision to go for a magical resolution to real-life trauma underlines one of [his] key messages: that belief in the powers of nature and the imagination will give us the strength to go beyond ourselves and transcend the traumas of daily life” (Napier 118).
Essay content written by: Jeremiah Raz, Elizabeth Bugtai, and Brandon James.