Bittersweet Sympathies

For a Japanese Animator, Grown-up Messages Are Kid Stuff

Potent words for someone who has never hidden his distaste for organized religion. For Miyazaki, "Dogma inevitably will find corruption, and I've certainly never made religion a basis for my films. My own religion, if you can call it that, has no practice, no Bible, no saints, only a desire to keep certain places and my own self as pure and holy as possible. That kind of spirituality is very important to me. Obviously it's an essential value that cannot help but manifest itself in my films." More than in any of his movies since Nausicaä, an animist spirituality imbues Princess Mononoke, from the forest's spirits to the Deer God who can lord over both life and death.

But animated gods and spirits are not the only way spirituality surfaces in Miyazaki's movies. His characters grapple with issues social, political, and even metaphysical. In Princess Mononoke, young San identifies with the wolves who raised her rather than with her fellow humans, while in Porco Rosso, the title character is a pig who used to be a man. While Miyazaki acknowledges that "the urge to abandon being human is a part of our collective human heart," he also points out that there are many ways to express one's humanity: "Even Porco Rosso does not give it all up, and he's actually much more humane than many human characters." For Miyazaki, the challenge then is to instill in children—his preferred audience—a sense of self-worth and the value of community. He explains that "in Mononoke, I presented myself with an unsolvable problem, which is that we have too many humans on the face of the earth. The tremendous contradiction is that civilization, which was created to protect human life, is now bringing us to the brink of extinction and disaster. If a child is raised in a village of only 100, then they can see that they have a value of one one-hundredth of this village. But when you get to a figure of 100 million, what's one one-hundredth million? How do these children find value for their own existence? I felt that I needed to speak to them, and address that concern as an adult."

Miyazaki's movies have staying power because they never shy away from the sadness, loss, and alienation—from oneself and others—endured throughout childhood. Growing up also means confronting the evil men do: "How easy it would have been to complete the story of Princess Mononoke if I could have made the steel workers evil and ill-intentioned. In terms of what we know about entertainment, there should have been a villain that the hero conquers at the end. But that kind of euphoria is only momentary, and it's like a drug. The fact that without a happy ending I was able to achieve such a fantastic audience remains a constant surprise."

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