Legendary animator, Hayao Miyazaki, has long been teased for his habit of retiring and then returning to work shortly thereafter. But last September, when he again announced his retirement, the buzz felt a little different. The then 72-year-old admitted that his hands, the critical tools of an animator, could no longer function like they once did. Further, his most recent film, the historically-tinged The Wind Rises, seemed like a fitting epilogue to the filmmaker’s illustrious career.
Miyazaki’s films, mostly produced through his Studio Ghibli animation company, have garnered extensive honors, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Film (for 2002’s Spirited Away). The Wind Rises is currently up for that same award this year (and opens widely in the U.S. tomorrow). But while his movies have generated massive box office returns in Miyazaki’s home country (The Wind Rises was Japan’s top grossing film in 2013), Studio Ghibli films have made only modest inroads in the U.S. market.
Why have his movies, acclaimed by filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and John Lasseter, and serving as inspiration for Disney animators, failed to gain traction in the U.S.? The answer may lie in the unfamiliar cultural references in Miyazaki’s films. Japanese animation (aka anime) embraces that country’s religious practices, and as such, many of Miyazaki’s films feature a heavy dose of Shinto spirituality.
But even in a movie like Princess Mononoke, set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animal gods, familiar themes emerge. Taking place in the ancient past, Princess Mononoke features the young prince Ashitaka, who is searching for a cure to a curse placed upon him by a dying god. His travels lead him to an iron-smelting town established by the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, whose wood-burning venture has angered the many Shinto gods of the forest, including vengeful boars, spooky primates, and the regal wolves who are family to the titular princess. Abandoned as a baby and reared in the forest, the princess (also known as San) has made it her mission to assassinate Eboshi. Soon, a war breaks out between humans and gods.
Ashitaka finds himself in the midst of this conflict as he seeks out the Forest Spirit, a deer-like creature who may be able to heal him. Ashitaka is honest, patient, and kind, but the forest and its denizens reject him at every turn. San and the wolves openly revile Ashitaka, while the Forest Spirit itself only heals a bullet wound the prince acquired, instead of also curing his terminal sickness.
Though he hides it well, Ashitaka is full of anger at the catastrophic turn in his life. He has struggled with his curse, both physically and emotionally, and has even maimed and killed others while on his quest (the movie is not for the faint of heart). The Forest Spirit, on the other hand, places life as its utmost concern. Ashitaka is the Forest Spirit’s enemy.
The young prince’s situation mirrors that of all mankind—those who once did and those who still live in sinful rebellion as enemies of God (Romans 5:10). Just as converts agree to lay down their lives to God when coming to faith, Ashitaka decides to set aside his own personal mission, seeking instead a way to bring peace to both sides of the struggle between gods and men. In the process of doing so, he is himself miraculously cured. Ashitaka has found peace with the spirits of the forest and may now live, just as our struggle with God concludes when we surrender before the cross, finding that by Christ’s wounds, we are healed.
While Princess Mononoke revolves almost entirely around adult characters, most of Miyazaki’s films instead feature children, particularly girls, in the lead roles. The director’s most famous work, Spirited Away, follows Chihiro, a middle school-aged girl who finds herself in a world reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but with a Shinto flavor. As the film begins, Chihiro, ever the moody adolescent, sits unhappily in the backseat of her parents’ car as her family travels to their new home. After the parents unwisely pause at a carnival in the middle of a forest, Chihiro finds herself spirited to another world, where the villainous Yubaba magically steals her identity and leads her into servitude at a bathhouse for spirits.
Though Chihiro has every reason to focus on her own desire to escape from this peculiar realm (the fantastic spirits of Miyazaki’s imagination resemble a cross between the characters of Carroll’s books and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies), she instead looks to the needs of those around her, even though most of the adults and spirits she encounters act how children at their worst might—with cruelty, selfishness, and greed. Even her own parents fall prey to sin, gorging themselves on food and literally turning into pigs!
But Chihiro is possessed foremost by a concern for others, even toward those whose deeds are contemptible. She befriends Haku, a cursed apprentice magician who has stolen an artifact from a powerful witch. Chihiro resolves to return the item and beg forgiveness on Haku’s behalf. Her kind acts toward Haku unwittingly free him from his curse.
Chihiro’s journey also brings freedom to another character, the frightening No-Face, a masked spirit who had seduced the bathhouse workers with piles of gold that burst at will from his fingertips, before turning on the employees and swallowing many of them whole. Chihiro is the only bathhouse worker who refused No-Face’s offerings – the gold holds no value for her. Perhaps sensing something genuine about the girl, No-Face follows Chihiro, and at the sojourn’s end, this once-malevolent spirit finds peace and a place to call home.
Eventually, Chihiro recovers her parents and is allowed to return to her world. She leaves behind a bathhouse whose culture is entirely transformed for the better, all because she loved the undeserving. This theme of children understanding and demonstrating love better than the adults surrounding them is frequent in Miyazaki’s works. Perhaps he sees in them that which Christ knew when he commanded, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).
The ability to move audiences with stories of innocence and love against the beautiful and creative canvas he animates is precisely why Miyazaki’s films strike a chord in viewers’ hearts. He taps into truths that cross the lines of culture, and conveys them with the signature lines of his proverbial brush. The world will miss the uncommon grace that fills each new film he crafts – but that time hasn’t arrived, not quite yet. In January, Miyazaki announced that he was again coming out of retirement. Some people simply just don’t know when to quit—and for a few, we’re blessed that they just simply won’t.