July 31, 2017 Shore Blog: Meet the Japanese Wonder Woman

By Leslie Shore

Just as most of the world was reeling from political dark horse and novice Donald Trump’s shocking upset victory to become the 45th President of the United States, a soft but firm voice re-emerged from the international shadows. That voice is Japanese Master Animator Hayao Miyazaki, who announced in November 2016 that he was returning from retirement to make “one last film.”

Miyazaki is the critically acclaimed creator of such animations as: Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, Porco Ross, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and The Wind Rises. Most of all, he is famous for his heroines Nausicaa and Mononoke, as well as Chihiro in Spirited Away, Mei and Satsuki from My Neighbor Totoro, and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle. Overtly, these heroines are strong, smart, adventurous, communal, and compassionate. Covertly, they are soulful, anima-rich figures that integrate shadow and light on a profoundly mythic level, for they signal the emerging consciousness of a post-patriarchal world.

Miyazaki is known for his candid warnings in the press about the dangers of militarism, environmental sustainability, and the realignment of the world with female empowerment. Yet, it is his animated creations that give us the fullest expression of the animator’s worldview. Miyazaki won the 2003 Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away, and in 2014 he was honored by the Motion Picture Academy with an Honorary Oscar for a lifetime of artistic achievement.

Why did Miyazaki decide to return for “one last feature” after his swansong The Wind Rises (2013), amid concerns with failing eyesight? I believe it was motivated by the nationalist fervor we witnessed with Brexit as well as the historic U.S. election. After all, Miyazaki has seen this all before; in Japan during World War II, he witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo as a toddler.

He said back in 2012 that all the pieces were in place for a repeat of World War II: economic depression, natural disasters, struggles with cultural identity, and clashing hostilities—including the nationalist craze that creates fertile ground for fascism.

With a new film, Miyazaki can reintroduce the messages he believes are needed to prevent another world war. Themes of peace and ecological balance will serve as a counterweight to the shadows we must expose if our nation and her people are ever to heal from the divisive, chaotic, and negative election cycle.

Miyazaki built his massive global following with films that honor archetypal aspects of the feminine and model protagonists who aim to unite and heal, not divide and conquer.

Miyazaki’s heroines often confront creatures that are ravenous, greedy, and angry. Our avaricious billionaire president, who is obsessed with military might, won his campaign against an experienced woman by stoking the fires of misogyny: swaggering on TV, joking about sexual assaults against women, and shaming her “voice” that he didn’t like to hear.

The Miyazaki heroine is someone who uses her creative intellect to solve the problems that other heroines, struggling under the patriarchal wound, cannot. These characters are conscious of their evolving roles in their clan or community through encounters with their unconscious, transformations made visual through flashbacks, dreams, and psychological immersion into other realms.

So, yes, we can learn from Miyazaki again: the forward path to egalitarian peace that his heroines exemplify. They are role models but also something deeper. Miyazaki once said in a CNN interview, “What I really want to do is reach people’s subconscious and touch their hearts.”

The Miyazaki heroine is an archetypal figure that suits an emerging global mythology that provides an opportunity to reconnect with unconscious stirrings that, without recognition, unleash hell upon the psyche and, eventually, on earth. Miyazaki knows that for his heroines to succeed in their maturation journey, they must find the treasure hidden in the darker regions of the psyche. This knowledge is what imbues the Miyazaki heroine with such depth: she is created from the inside out.

In-tune with his own unconscious, the content creator does not script his screenplays before creating storyboards. Instead, Miyazaki draws the storyboards first from his imagination, because these images come to him from his own well. The linear storyline isn’t even written until long after the storyboard is illustrated. This makes his work more original, singular, and unfiltered. As a result, we see magical images, including floating castles, flying wizards and witches, and demon boar gods, as well as the strangely wonderful dual deity, the Forest Spirit, who is an elk by day (with a red human face) and a Godzilla-esque Night Walker at dusk, covered with spirals across his blue skin to symbolize life regeneration—morphing between his two personas during the liminal hours, dawn and twilight.

In his two most famous films, Princess Mononoke and Princess Nausicaa, the heroines live in conflicted worlds, where unconscious rage and demons are projected outward, into war, violence, and hate.

As harmonizing agents of change, such heroines use communal solutions to conflict by rejecting militarism, refuting stereotypical gender roles, and reversing environmental destruction. In Princess Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the titular heroine subdues the “demon insects known as the Ohm” using magical charms to calm the rampaging giants rather than hurt them. As a child, she had saved an ohmu baby, only to have her father—the King—chastise her compassion. The King takes the baby out of wee Nausicaa’s arms and scolds her because, according to the King, creatures and humans cannot live together. It is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in any Miyazaki film, and that trauma stays in Nausicaa’s shadow, deeply rooted in her unconscious, so much so that the young woman is determined to stop the killing.

Nausicaa sacrifices herself to save an ohmu who has been exploited by warring factions. This selfless act stops an angry ohm rampage, and instead the ohm use their golden tentacles to resurrect Nausicaa. It is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that predicted a savior would come, “a man clad in blue,” to restore health to their dystopian world. It is, of course, Nausicaa who is the “man” and the “redeemer,” unrecognized until the film’s end because no one expected a woman in that role.

Princess Mononoke is an epic story depicting the clash between the balanced natural world and the imbalance created by human industrialization. Mononoke is wildness personified, resembling the Greek goddess Artemis in her primordial connection to nature. Mononoke does not hide from her instincts, nor does she apologize for them; she is a member of the wolf pack and fiercely protects the forest beings—predominantly the Spirit of the Forest, who embodies the miracle of life itself. Miyazaki explained that his inspiration for the princess came from the prehistoric Neolithic pottery figures from the Jomon period, which spanned thousands of years.

Miyazaki’s understanding that Mononoke’s heart—her anima soul is known only to the sacred kami—prompts the conception of Mononoke as an agent of earth’s unconscious. Mononoke is the beating, primal heart of the natural world. The wolf princess is the walking human incarnation of the earth’s fathomless soul: her soul is the earth and the earth is her soul.

In the film, Ashitaka is a Samurai plagued with a raging infection on his arm that will consume him because he killed a demon boar to protect girls in his village. Hate is a screen that prevents true psychic vision.

If we consider Mononoke as unconsciousness and Ashitaka as consciousness, we see how their relationship becomes instrumental to the earth’s soul. Mononoke’s fierce protectiveness—her rage and abysmal wounds—metaphorically depict her ability to reach down into her own core, where she is desperately trying to tend to the soul of the world, for it is her soul, too.

Miyazaki heroines do not reject males as much as they exist whole without them. Sometimes their growth coincides romantically, but mostly their maturation arc maps a journey concerned with the development of self. Although Princess Mononoke becomes close to the film’s male protagonist, Ashitaka, Mononoke remains in the forest to live within her own community and does not commit to him.

The most profound separation that the Miyazaki anima-rich heroine strives to bridge is that integration between the conscious and unconscious that separates our shadow from our light. Projecting darkness on others causes violence against others. We ask: Who is the dark “other”? Russians? Mexicans? Muslims?

In the film arts, archetypes are references for the psyche that inspire artistic expression on the part of the creator, while also drawing in the audience through recognition, engagement, and psychic relationship. As such, archetypes are especially useful in animation, and because these characters are drawn or generated by their creator, emotions and responses within their worlds are ensured and dependable. Miyazaki uses archetypal recognition to build more layered responses from the heroines and, as in real life and with real human beings, it is our archetypal fields that inform our soul, spark our anima, and relieve the ego.

The Miyazaki sensibility is not to divide aspects of the self into the adolescent dichotomy of good versus evil that Americans seem unable to relinquish in the fight for political control that permeates our culture. His heroines are so complex they seem really human; they are happy and angry, sad and glad, blissful and burdened, hopeful and hopeless, selfish and selfless, as well as gentle and violent.

Miyazaki wrote in his semi-autobiographical book Turning Point that “Both good and evil are inside human beings.” He has found a way to knit duality into a richness of character that has truly changed the way animators across the globe create content.

The anima-rich film heroines in Miyazaki stories represent an emerging model of humaneness that people—regardless of gender, nationality, or culture—may find redeeming in these times of chaos, superpower saber rattling, and unprecedented change.

The anima in animation draws psyche and soul together as a convergence of character that inspires us all to tend to the soul of the world—and in so doing, the world heals us, as well.

Leslie Shore is a former broadcast and print journalist who published her own independent newspaper for five years in Washington State. She lectures on issues that relate to cross-cultural communications at the university level, focusing on Japanese and Chinese traditions. Leslie also lectures on Hayao Miyazaki films, and has presented several of them at area festivals. Previously, she was a legislative lobbyist on clean water issues and salmon habitat protections for a prominent Washington State Indian tribe. Leslie earned her Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute and wrote her dissertation on Miyazaki’s uniquely progressive female protagonists. She has been a certified hospice volunteer for 17 years, and will be completing her End of Life Doula training this year in order to assist patients on their soulful, challenging journeys.