Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

As often happens, I read an excellent comment from one of the readers and become inspired. Toongirl commented on my Omohide Poro Poro essay review here, and once I started scribbling a short response, my brain took over. Since environmental themes are paramount to Studio Ghibli, and since Ponyo is opening today, I think you'll be inspired by her insights:

The two things I appreciate most about both Miyazaki & Takahata are
their (almost?) religiously inspired earth-centered themes and strong, sensitive
portrayals of female characters.

Since Takahata [in Omohide Poro Poro] infuses the spiritual singing of Bulgarian women's dainas with Toshio's rural world and the scene you mention where the farmers pray at sunrise makes me think that Ghibli's "environmental" stance goes beyond the merely political. To them, it is a religious necessity & survival issue for humanity to "go back to the land."

I couldn't agree more.

...and we got to get ourselves back to the garden...
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Toongirl, you rock. And a shout-out to Joni Mitchell, too, for her classic Woodstock song.

The relation between man and nature has a long and rich history in Japan, and this is one of the benefits of having a culture that stretches back 2,000 years. For Americans like us, 1969 was ancient history - Woodstock, Janis and Jimi, Apollo 11.

Much of Takahata and Miyazaki's work addresses the vast transformation of Japanese society after the Second World War. The nation, completely destroyed, rebuilt itself as a Western industrialized nation. With that came unparalled peace and prosperity. But look at what was lost. The history was sacrificed. The mythology was denied, thrown away. The environment was left to ruin and devestation.

You're very right; getting back to the garden isn't simply a political issue. It's a matter of defining a people and embracing that long, lost past. And thanks to the consequences of pollution and insatiable consumption, it's becoming a matter of life and death.

In The Story of Yanagawa Waterways, the 1987 live-action documentary directed by Takahata and produced by Miyazaki, the theme of environmental apocalypse is played out in shocking detail. We are shown wondrously vivid footage of Yanagawa's vast network of canals, rivers, gates, and images of people living their daily lives in the river - drinking, fishing, swimming. Then we are shown what happened to these canals during Japan's economic boom of the 1960s - and the images are appalling. Where water once stood, now lay trash, garbage, sewage. People had turned the lifeblood of their community into a dumping ground.

If you see these shots of Yanagawa's destruction, you are immediately reminded of that great scene from Spirited Away, where a bulbous stink spirit is revealed to be the spirit of the polluted river. When freed, the trash explodes out of his body in an avalanche. Bicycles, tires, everyday garbage, food waste, everything you can think of, splattered across the floor of the bath house.

Everyone around the world got the message, I'm sure, but I don't think Westerners realize that Miyazaki isn't displaying flights of fancy. He is depicting real life in all its ugliness.

This conflict, between the modern industrialized Japan and its deep past, with its union of man and nature and spirit, is the central theme to the Studio Ghibli movies. Above all else, this is the topic on Takahata and Miyazaki's minds. And as they grow older, you can sense the worry they feel towards future generations. What does it mean for a child to grow up in this place? How will a five-year-old adapt to such a world? And will the people realize their true value and turn back?

In Omohide Poro Poro, Takahata uses the collapse of the economic bubble - the film was released in 1991, just as Japan slid into a decade-long period of stagnation - to ask the audience to reconsider, to stand back, to reconnect with the lost world. It's very clear that his vision for Japan is a return to the agricultural past, of a balance between humanity and nature. What's refreshing is that he does not sugarcoat this rural life. This is not an idyllic paradise; getting back to this garden means struggle, hard work, and sacrifice. But within that struggle lies the joys of life. There's a certain triumph of the spirit that only emerges from hard work, a deeper satisfaction that you will never find from a life of ease and comfort. The challenge lies in reconciling these two worlds.

Hayao Miyazaki's visions, of course, are often more passionate an spirited. He is the prophet of doom, the storyteller of the apocalypse. He shares Takahata's belief in the strength of Japan's past, of the balance with nature, of the religions and folklore and mythology that the modern world has discarded. We don't believe in such things in our so-called, "modern, enlighted" world. That lost realm, the realm of the imagination, has given way to cold science, materialism and greed. What's in it for me. What you see is what you get. He who dies with the most toys wind. And on and on and on.

When we look at our modern culture through these eyes, is it any wonder that Miyazaki wishes to see it smashed to pieces? His dream of the giant tsunami that sweeps away the modern do we make our peace with this? How do we reconcile such belief?

Miyazaki has become the prophet of rage, the humanist who prays for destruction, and it's astonishing to see his apocalyptic revenge fantasies play out in children's movies. The mood from one film to the next changes, and that's probably due to its intended audience. Princess Mononoke's devestation is far bleaker than the tidal waves in Ponyo. Same with the war in Howl's Moving Castle, or the raging Ohmu stampedes in Nausicaa. I have no idea how he does it, but it works. His diverse and conflicting themes always manage to gel together in a big, beautiful mess, like that giant, lurching castle, stalking the countryside on enormous chicken legs.

This is why I believe it is so crucial to study and absorb all of Miyazaki and Takahata's films. Their visions compliment one another, like one giant, ongoing conversation between the two. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock discussing the fate of the universe and the wisdom of Joni Mitchell folk songs. Tickets on sale now.


Anonymous said...

does anyone know of screenings of the japanese language version in the new york city area?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

I'm afraid I don't know yet, but I will look into it for you. Have you tried calling? I know that's going to take a while, but it's the best way to go.

Good question, though: are there any Ponyo screenings in Japanese?

Anonymous said...

Well put. Miyazaki's strong visions have pulled me in too and made me a lifelong fan, but I must say that for me there is an element of the thinking of a bygone time in them. Miyazaki isn't from my generation, and it shows. Not that it in any way takes away from his message, but his bleak outlook on the clash between the modern man-made world and the old, natural world are quite obviously from a person who is more at home in a bygone era than today. I wouldn't accuse Miyazaki of being lost in nostalgia, but I think he himself has expressed his sometimes pessimistic view of humanity and our future that exist alongside his more positive sides.

I'm thinking specifically about Miyazaki's aversion to all things virtual and his comments about how environmental destruction and human progress will make the world come crashing down. I think that the feeling of alienation from the virtual world we've created and the pessimistic outlook on our future clearly comes from an older man who's been through war, the awakening of the enivironmental movement and the transformation of traditional society to modern Japan. Miyazaki's messages are still very touching and relevant, but they're messages from the past in many ways for me.

For example, the ending of Nausicaa has always been hard for me to accept. The total rejection of everything modern and advanced, in favor of quite a romantic and fatalistic trust in nature, seems like an overly pessmistic view of human progress and ability to exist in a world with both old and new, man-made and natural. There are strong tones of this in Laputa as well. Maybe it's just me, but I think later generations are generally a bit more accepting of the modern world, and don't have the same problematic view of it.

But then again, Mononoke Hime finds a more nuanced and complex balance between man and nature in the end. Maybe Miyazaki has mellowed out a bit with age.

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