Spirituality in Miyazaki’s Films: An Interview with Jolyon Thomas

My writing on anime and Christianity is largely reflective and personal.  However, there are a number of individuals in academia who have written extensively on anime and religion.  One such scholar is Jolyon Baraka Thomas, who graciously agreed to an interview with me.  I discovered his writings through an excellent article he wrote about Hayao Miyazaki and religion.  Below is a short bio from his site.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at Princeton University. His research focuses on Japanese religions in the modern period, with particular interest in religion and media and the relationships between religion, law, and the state. Thomas has published articles and book chapters on religious aspects of the culture surrounding manga and anime, and his first book on the subject is forthcoming. His developing doctoral dissertation examines the implementation of the concept of religious freedom in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century.

JBT: First off, thanks very much for your interest in my work. I hope that you and your readers/contributors find my answers helpful. I included some links in my answers; please note that I put the family names of Japanese people other than Miyazaki in small caps just to be clear about the name order.

Q: You challenge the notion that religion is becoming increasingly unimportant in Japan by discussing the differences between religion and spirituality.  Can you explain why the increasing secularization of Japan doesn’t necessarily mean the people are less religious?

JBT: This is a complicated question. I do not think that we should misconstrue declining levels of formal religious affiliation as evidence that religion in Japan is moribund. Certainly, if you ask ten people on the street in Tokyo whether they are religious or are affiliated with a particular religious group, roughly eight or nine times out of ten you will receive a negative reply. These low levels of professed affiliation have a lot to do with social stigma attached to the word “religion” (shūkyō), especially after the notorious 1995 incident in which a religious group called Aum Shinrikyō dispersed a toxic nerve gas on the Tokyo subway. However, if you look at the numbers of adherents that religious institutions annually report to the Japanese government, you can immediately see that the number of claimed adherents regularly surpasses the total population of Japan. (This discrepancy is basically a function of how religious organizations count affiliates—by household or even by geographical proximity rather than by individual membership.) You also get a different sense if you look at statistics of the numbers of people who participate in religious rituals and—especially—festivals. All of this is to say that religion will look endangered in Japan if you look at certain types of evidence such as low levels of professed belief, but if you look at other evidence—how people engage with religious ideas, sites, and activities in daily life, for example—the picture becomes less clear.

So, while it is true that urbanization and similar social forces have attenuated the ties between individuals and traditional religions such as Buddhism, religious institutions have been engaging in all kinds of ways to make themselves relevant to contemporary Japanese people. There is even a temple in Hachiōji called Ryōhōji that commissioned a designer to come up with an anime character to draw a younger crowd—I think I saw something on your site about it (TWWK Note: Jolyon is referencing this post). The temple’s ad is definitely worth viewing on YouTube if you have not seen it.

Anyway, in the article I was trying to argue that if we assume that “religion” and “entertainment” are separate categories, then we potentially miss out on a great deal of important and fascinating religious activity and discourse. I suggest that individuals in contemporary Japan often choose to identify less with specific religious denominations than with the ideas or practices that they find most meaningful. In the cases of some—but certainly not all—Japanese people, those ideas and practices might be found in entertainment media such as anime. In the article I used the word “spirituality” to indicate this sort of attitude, but since then my thinking has changed somewhat. I think it is important to acknowledge that certain interest groups may not think of what they do (e.g., making or watching anime) as religious (or “spiritual,” for that matter). However, as a student of religion I think it is fair—provided that I carefully define my terms and keep my claims reasonable—to describe certain activities and attitudes as “religious” even if that is not the term that people themselves would use. To go into the reasons behind this would take many more paragraphs, so let me just say that I outline my methodology in detail in my forthcoming book.

Q: You’ve coined the term shūkyō asobi to explain the unique relationship between religion and media.  What does shūkyō asobi mean and how does it relate to the Japanese and their viewing of anime and reading of manga?

JBT: Shūkyō is the Japanese word for religion; asobi means “play.” At the time I wrote the article I had not yet come up with a suitable term in English, but in my forthcoming book I often refer to the same general idea as “recreating religion” (in the dual sense of “reconfiguring” and “playing,” or “playing with” and “being entertained”). However, there is an important aspect of the Japanese etymology that I think is really fascinating—apparently the semantically fecund verb asobu (to play) included a sense of performing religious ritual in classical Japanese. Sort of riffing on this idea, I write at some length in both the article and the forthcoming book about how we can look at religion as a form of play, and how some entertainment modifies religious content while also inviting greater audience familiarity with it. Although I only used the Japanese terminology in the article, I do not think that this idea of “recreating religion” is limited to Japan. In fact, S. Brent Plate, a scholar of religion and film, has also highlighted this connection between recreation and religion in one of his recent books on Hollywood films.

At any rate, by juxtaposing religion and recreation I wanted to show that the production and consumption of manga and anime might occur in ways that we can reasonably describe as religious. For example, a director might feel inspired or compelled to transmit a certain message in order to edify her audience, or she may decide to deploy an unambiguously religious image like a crucifix or a torii shrine gate in order to elicit a specific affective response. Meanwhile, an audience member might watch a film in terms of its messages for how he should live an examined life. By no means do all audience members react this way—in most cases I think that people watch a film for a little diversion from their daily routines, but do not use the film as an impetus for self-reflection or conversion. In some very interesting cases, though, they do.

Q: Can you explain how shukyo asobi relates to Hayao Miyazaki’s films?

JBT: First off, Miyazaki has suggested in several interviews that he dislikes and distrusts religion, but that he feels compelled to depict idealized worlds in which the connections between kami, humans, and nature are stronger than they are in contemporary Japan. It took me a while to hit upon Miyazaki’s method for portraying religious content and images, but once I realized what he was up to, it was astonishingly simple. It seems to me that for the most part, Miyazaki prefers to draw deities and spirits (many of which are figments of his imagination) rather than to draw religious institutions and priests. When he does portray clerics (e.g., the avaricious monk in Princess Mononoke), they are fallible and often not to be trusted.

Likewise, I think that Miyazaki’s portrayals of deities in Totoro are revealing. For example, in one scene Mei and Satsuki take shelter under the benign gaze of the roadside Jizō statue in a rainstorm, and in another Mei is alarmed by the fox statues at the small Inari shrine at the base of a tree. In both cases, though, the deities (represented by statues) are inert compared to the magical, cuddly, wish-granting Totoro. If we translate shūkyō asobi as “recreating religion,” I think we can say that Miyazaki frequently re-creates deities to look and act the way he thinks deities should.

Anyway, Miyazaki can claim to dislike religion all he wants to, but many audience members are going to insist that there is some religious aspect to his work, precisely because so many of his stories involve human protagonists interacting with deities. I confirmed this by observing fan message boards on the Japanese social networking site, MIXI. There were enough posts that speculated about the religious messages of Miyazaki’s films that it made me feel as if my hunch was tenable. One interesting thing I witnessed, for example, was that several people seemed to seek out the sites that were the alleged inspirations for places in the films. In the article I mention a discussion between several people about the tiny island of Yakushima, south of Kyūshū, as a potential inspiration for the forest of the Shishigami in Princess Mononoke. Not only do the fans talk about wanting to visit the Shishigami’s forest, but one fan claims that his friend had a kodama (a kind of tree spirit that features in the film) appear in a photograph.

Q: I found the connection between Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and spirituality fascinating, especially the manga and anime’s comparison to religious text, with one writer saying the story’s structure was similar to that of a bible.  Could you outline this comparison?

JBT: There are probably a few similarities, but I think the commentators in question read the closing scene of Nausicaä (the anime, not the manga) as an allegory for the Christian story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one interview Miyazaki describes his shock when he recognized that the conclusion to Nausicaä had inadvertently become “a fine old [rippa na] religious scene.” I think this is important because it shows that no matter what a director’s or author’s intentions may be, they may accidentally portray events in ways that seem religious. Meanwhile, audiences can and do interpret particular scenes as having religious import.

On that note, I think it is important to mention that if you approach any film or text expecting to find connections to a religion, you will probably find them. I think this is the case with a Japanese scholar of religion named Masaki Akira who has written a few introductions to Religious Studies that use Miyazaki’s films as instructional material. One of his books is about Nausicaä, and in it Masaki finds not only Christian themes, but also themes related to Daoism, Shinto, and a host of other religious traditions and ideas. This can be a little dangerous when it comes to describing authorial or directorial intent, and it can be equally dangerous when describing audience reception. Dangerous, that is, unless one uses ethnographic methods to determine how audiences actually interpret manga and anime content. In my article I relied exclusively on fan message boards, but in the fourth chapter of my forthcoming book I supplement the message board discussion with the results of some fascinating interviews I had with people who treat Nausicaä as a religious text in their lives.

For example, I had a fascinating conversation with an informant who was raised as a Christian in Japan (that in itself is very rare—less than two percent of the population identifies as Christian). She said that although she was not allowed to read manga or watch anime as a child, her parents let her watch Nausicaä, and evidently the film profoundly influenced her moral development. She told me that the character of Nausicaä has served as a role model throughout her life, and I got the sense that at some level, the feelings of transcendence or connection that she felt watching the film were, in her mind, somehow equated with the feelings she associated with her Christian faith. Of course, she admitted that Nausicaä’s status as a messianic figure may play a role in all of that.

Q: Your article mentions the idea of audience ritual response as evidence of the spirituality in Miyazaki’s films.  Are his films viewed (and acted upon) in a similar manner in the west?

JBT: That is an excellent question, and I really do not know the answer. Susan J. Napier offers some insights in an article that she published in the first volume of Mechademia, but her conclusions are (reasonably, I think) tentative. Now that my book is in its final stages of preparation I am moving on to other research projects, but I really hope that people pick up on these ideas and do some research on the question of religious reception outside of Japan. In the past year I have been contacted a couple of times by undergraduates and graduate students who are working on research projects related to religion, manga, and anime, so I am really hopeful that a new body of research on the subject will emerge as these people begin to publish their work. There is so much to be done, and at this stage the field is wide open. One of my main hopes for the forthcoming book is that it will provide helpful background for people who are interested in pursuing exactly these sorts of questions.

Please visit Jolyon Thomas’ site for more information about his research and publications.  Also, keep in upcoming work in mind when it becomes available for purchase.  Below is a list of recommended reading that Jolyon assembled.

Recommended Reading:

Lunning, Frenchy, ed. Mechademia (an annual journal published by University of Minnesota Press).

MacWilliams, Mark W. “Japanese Comic Books and Religion: Osamu Tezuka’s Story of the Buddha,” Timothy J. Craig, ed. Japan Pop! (Armonk, N.Y.:  M.E. Sharpe, 2000).

_______, ed. Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2008).

_______. “Revisioning Japanese Religiosity: Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no tori (The Phoenix),” Timothy J. Craig and Richard King, eds. Global Goes Local (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002).

Masaki Akira. Hajimete no shūkyōgaku: “Kaze no tani no Naushika” o yomi toku (Tokyo: Shunjusha, 2001).

Napier, Susan J. “The World of Anime Fandom in America,” Frenchy Lunning, ed. Mechademia 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).


Husband. Dad. Occasionally Korean. Enjoys Star Wars, ASOIAF, and Meg Ryan movies. Tweets before proofreading. Ghibli. Oregairuuuuu. Jesus is King.

5 thoughts on “Spirituality in Miyazaki’s Films: An Interview with Jolyon Thomas

  1. I find this interview interesting because of a course I took (at Princeton, actually!) that argued in defense of Shakespeare’s works as allegorical.

    The professor claimed that religion was so prominent in the daily lives of 16th century that the Bard’s audience saw its imagery everywhere and Shakespeare himself wrote his plays well aware of that fact. As a result, all the allegory was intentional AND picked up on.

    JBT’s research seems to imply that these kinds of mental connections can occur in an apparently areligious society, INDICATING that there might be more spirituality than appears on the surface. HOW FASCINATING!

    1. I think he definitely makes the implication. In his writing, Jolyon mentions that even though Miyazaki states his dislike toward organized religion, spirituality still pervades his work. You can’t escape religion. Very interesting, indeed.

  2. That… is an interesting ad. Especially for a temple. I think that image is going to pop into my mind every time I consider the concept of “shūkyō asobi.” :O

  3. Is Hayao Miyazaki a spiritual person?

    > JBT: First off, Miyazaki has suggested in several interviews that he dislikes and distrusts religion, but that he feels compelled to depict idealized worlds in which the connections between kami, humans, and nature are stronger than they are in conte…

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