Studio Ghibli and Modernity

This is the first article of the series, Painted Dreams which examines Japan’s experience of modernity through the feature films of Studio Ghibli and other notable Japanese animation films. The overview of Japan’s modernisation is given by a separate article from Daedalus' Flight (another series of Magic and Loss), and thus I highly recommend you to read it first to get a general idea of the historical context within which the works I discuss here should be situated. This is a necessary process in order for us to fully grasp the motivations (be they conscious or unconscious), aims, and the scope of these films, for their authors’ struggle with current Japan is the continuation of their predecessors' trials which are to be portrayed in Daedalus' Flight, as well as By Fire. In this article, I wish to discuss what modernity means for the artists of Studio Ghibli, and how each of them respond to it. More detailed analysis of each Ghibli feature will be provided by the rest of this series, complemented by articles on other notable animation films of post WWII Japan.

Whilst ‘modernity’ is a concept with fairly common usage, it is a notoriously loaded term whose exact meaning is not easy to be agreed upon. Despite that most of us have some vague sense of what this term generally designates, once we try to define its exact meaning, we must soon realise that it is problematic to describe it as a general concept. This is due to the diversity of our experience with modernity. For some, it is a part of one’s own Geist, or a defining feature of one’s form of life. For others, it might be a destructive influence for one reason or another. Thus, it is quite presumptuous for one to speak of this concept in general terms. Therefore I shall focus on clarifying what this concept specifically means to the artists of Studio Ghibli to begin the investigation.

Studio Ghibli was founded by two legendary filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, The Tale of Princess Kaguya,link), and the producer Toshio Suzuki. These three were born before the start of WWII, and lived through Japan’s darkest time in history as children (One can argue that the history of Japan is extremely violent since the 13th century when the first Shogunate was established after bloody struggles first between two powerful clans, and then within a victorious clan. Whilst it certainly is the case, I consider the war crimes committed by the Japanese military during WWII on par or worse than what Nazis did, thus consider this particular period as the darkest of the dark). As a result, both directors hold very strong anti-war sentiments. This is evident in their respective work, and in Miyazaki’s case, in his public statements. They also grew up witnessing the transformation of Japanese society first as under the American rule, and later under a new democratic government with a parliament, preserving the imperial family’s place in post WWII Japan. Whilst the generation of Miyazaki and Takahata are critical of the Americanisation of Japan with its singular focus on economic development and the accumulation of capital, they did not share the resentment of their earlier generation, whose most heinous expression is the staged suicide of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima whose fetish of Japanese samurai was fashioned as a failed military coup. The generation of Miyazaki and Takahata experienced the war as children, who were powerless and starving, and thus they embraced the introduction of democracy in Japan. What they question is the destruction, be they environmental, cultural, and/or spiritual, brought on by American style capitalism whose singular aim is the senseless accumulation of capital. This is the aspect of modernity in Japan which inspired both Miyazaki and Takahata to resist through their respective work. As for the directors from a younger generation, this Americanised Japan is the given, and thus, they lack the historic perspective of its development. Whilst this does not mean the lack of a critical perspective on their part, their critique certainly lacks the depth and scope of their predecessors. Unlike their seniors, they are unable to imagine existence outside of this form of life.

Thus, modernity for the directors of Studio Ghibli means a few things. Firstly, it signifies life in post-WWII Japan. As some of them view it critically, some merely see it as the given, or even embrace it. This disparity is due to the difference of their historic experience of modern Japan; some lived through WWII and its aftermath, and observed the rebuilding of the nation into one of the most successful industrial nations, whilst others are born after the war, and thus the modern, capitalist, Americanised Japan is the only world they know. Such a generational difference greatly influences both their personal attitudes toward modernity, and their respective work for Studio Ghibli. Generally speaking, the older generation’s work tends to be highly critical of modern Japan, and the younger generation reacts less critically toward it. That being acknowledged, there are degrees of differences within a generation, and, due to the history of the studio, the influence of the older generation is certainly decisive. Secondly, ‘modernity’ for the older generation, especially Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, also means the civilisation which exploits the advancement of science and industrialisation. Whilst Isao Takahata of Ghibli expresses his denouncement against it, Miyazaki’s attitude, though critical, is ambivalent. Whilst he takes a very strong stand against liberal capitalism (or, commodity capitalism, and/or predatory capitalism) and the destruction of the environment, he is also fascinated by modern technology as he often expresses his fetish of flying machines. Thus, while Takahata’s attitude toward modernity is generally political and historic in its nature, Miyazaki tends to be more philosophical.

Thus, whilst the contrast between generations at Ghibli is notable, there is a greater difference within the same generation, that is, the creative difference between Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata based on their respective philosophy and life experience. Takahata survived a major air raid on Okayama City as a child in 1945 (it is the raid my father survived as a young child as well). His experience of the sheer horror of destruction and the starvation in the aftermath of the bombing, according to Miyazaki, is decisive for his ‘dysfunctional’ personality (as Miyazaki puts it) as well as his view on modernity. According to Miyazaki, Takahata, as a child, had to wander the rubble for weeks without an offer of shelter, food, or water. Whilst I cannot speak about Takahata’s personality, it is clear that his life experience is deeply reflected on one of the most poignant masterpieces on children as forgotten victims of war, Grave of the Fireflies. After the war, he majored in French Literature at Tokyo University, and was influenced by French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neo-Realism. Takahata is known to be a ‘realist’, and widely credited for his successful effort to direct animation films which are capable of dealing with everyday reality and the important issues of the past and the present. His understanding of animation film was such that he developed specific methods and techniques in place of live-action films so that the animated scenes and sequences feel natural. He is also known for his painstaking naturalism. Takahata pioneered a rigorous attitude toward every detail of the scenes, thereby enabling animated films to tackle serious issues in everyday life, as opposed to mere entertainment for children. As a person who had to face the harsh reality of wartime Japan, he may believe that children should not be sheltered from the important truths. Whether his motivation to improve Japanese animation films originates from his personal experience is unclear; yet there is no doubt that he singlehandedly raised the bar of animation films.

Takahata’s contribution is not limited to technical and aesthetic aspects of animation films. He aims to direct films that are not for mere entertainment, and this philosophy was groundbreaking at the time when he started directing films for Ghibli. The subject matters of his work are serious and critical (e.g., children at war, the destruction of rural community, the loss of habitat for wild animals in Japan, etc.) and he focuses on a specific social problem and advocates for a certain strategy or a possible resolution in order to overcome it. For Takahata, the source of ills in modern Japan is identified as the consumerism and monetarism resulting from Japan’s cold-blooded drive to rebuild the nation by its pursuit of capitalism which gutted everything hollow. The prime example of this symptom would be found in the comfortable yet empty life in a metropolitan city such as Tokyo in the 1990s. In order to reclaim the lost magic in the mundane realities of life, one must seek out a place in a diminishing rural community where life could be still wholesome; in such a community, one must feel the interconnectedness of human activities and the natural environment. In short, Takahata wants his work to show the way in which we fundamentally rethink our civilisation as a whole and move away from one of the most dominant modern ideologies, that is, liberal capitalism. Thus, Takahata shuns creating fantasy dramas and insists on dealing with important issues of life in contemporary Japan. Yet, despite his philosophy, his films offer moments of unexpected flights of imaginations; they express the inner state of his protagonists with an intense, childlike exultation. Whilst Takahata’s conscientious critique of the current state of Japanese society is pointed and cuts deep, these precious moments show that he is a poet at heart; he continues to find a new way to discover magic in the mundane details of everyday life. That being acknowledged, Takahata is rightly remembered as an undisputed champion of realism in animation films, and he relentlessly interrogates what we have lost through the modernisation of Japan. In the end, what emerges from his work is a portrait of a humanitarian pacifist/socialist with a sensibility of a haiku poet.

It is plain to see that Takahata’s ethos and method is at odds with those of his internationally celebrated colleague, Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is rightly known as a wizard of fantasy films. Whilst he shares a critical stance of contemporary Japan with Takahata, Miyazaki prefers to express his point through fantastic stories with stunning visuals. Unlike Takahata, Miyazaki is not interested in shedding light on a specific social problem in Japan or offering a possible solution, and in this sense his films are neither realist nor political in and of themselves. What Miyazaki does is to lift the audience to a philosophical level in order to make them think about the paradox and dilemma of the modern human condition in general terms, rather than focusing on specific problems. Miyazaki achieves his aim chiefly by his genius in creating the protagonists whom the audience either identify with, or deeply care about. Combined with his gift in storytelling and his legendary visual creativity, the viewers are ‘lifted’ to his philosophical point of view on the modern human condition. We don’t get there through lengthy dialectics; we arrive there through the subjective experiences of the protagonists whom we quickly come to love. Thus, Miyazaki’s films always offer strong emotional experience which lifts and strengthens our spirit. This is due to Miyazaki’s love for children; unlike Takahata, Miyazaki wants children to enjoy his films, and he hopes his films perform pedagogical functions for them. For the adult audience, Miyazaki prefers to give them a clear yet broad-stroke view of the crisis we are facing. 

That being acknowledged, Miyazaki is far from apolitical. He majored Economics and Political Science at Gakusyūin University, and he once represented a union at Tōei Animation Company before becoming independent. Miyazaki is known as a staunch pacifist, and he went so far as to publish his opposition against Japan’s recent effort to ‘reinterpret’ the non-aggression clause of its constitution. (Sadly an action like this is still a very risky effort in Japan. For example, Kenzaburo Ōe, a Nobel winner for his contribution in literature, has been under police protection due to threats against his life from nationalists who are against his vocal denouncement of Japan’s war crimes and Japanese denial of them. And, despite public unease both in Japan and neighbouring countries such as China and Korea, who suffered greatly by the brutality of Japanese war crimes, the Japanese government has recently passed a provision which enables the government to ‘reinterpret’ the non-aggression clause.) He never refrains from publicly expressing his views on the current state, and he repeatedly described Japan’s aggression during WWII as ‘arrogant and immoral’. Miyazaki is also known as an environmentalist with a feminist bent. His two epic films, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, are focused on environmental issues and the disruptive role of human kind to the natural order. Especially in the early works, Miyazaki urges his audience to rethink our role and place in the world, and calls for a fundamental philosophical change in order to create a massive paradigm shift from the ethos of modern industrial materialism.

Despite all the criticisms, Miyazaki remains ambivalent toward modernity. Whilst Miyazaki himself is a pacifist, his father, Katsuji Miyazaki, was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, which produced the supplies for Mitsubishi A6M, AKA ‘Zero’, during WWII. The director admitted that he confronted his father about his ‘collaboration’ with Fascist Japan later. Yet, his fascination for flying machines is prevalent in his work, from his first original work, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to his controversial swan song, The Wind Rises. Unlike his counterpart, Takahata, who shuns modernity as the chief reason why we have lost touch with the enchantment of Being, Miyazaki sees it as a double edged sword; he cannot help but be fascinated by its magical possibility full of excitement and beauty, yet he also recognises the damning destructions brought by it. Whilst Takahata maintains his radical critique of modernity, Miyazaki holds on to this ambivalence which enables him to contemplate on humanity and its destiny while seeking a possible synthesis between human kind and the natural order.

It is interesting to note a certain poignancy in Miyazaki’s pursuit of reconciliation. The balance and harmony between humankind and Nature, the marvel of human creativity and human dignity, and the value of healthy individualism and a supportive community…these are all things that have been lost along the way through the modernisation of Japanese life. Yet, Miyazaki is clearly aware that this ‘loss’ is fictional; the past may have been better, but it was never perfect. This explains why Miyazaki needs to set his story in a fantasy setting; in order to overcome the soul-crushing reality of modern Japanese life, he needed to show how this ideal state should look. However, this ideal cannot be found either in the past or in the present. Thus, Miyazaki must resort to a fantasy to transcend the limitation imposed by the reality of contemporary Japanese life. This approach has another benefit for Miyazaki. Since he does not focus on specific issues of the post WWII Japanese society, a fantasy setting allows him to explore his problem with modern Japan at a philosophical level, rather than a political level. This approach makes his work universally appealing.

Still, the sense of loss is real enough for Miyazaki, and it is something which Takahata shares with him. For Takahata, it is the loss of enchantment in ordinary life. For Miyazaki, it is the loss of childhood where life was full of magic as in My Neighbour Totoro, and the tainted wonder of human inventions. Whilst modernity was meant to be the force of good by Early Modern philosophers, both Miyazaki and Takahata witnessed the destructive power of modern technology and industry as children during WWII. Thus, despite the difference in their respective approach, magic and loss is a common theme which runs through both directors’ cinema. In the following articles, I wish to discuss how this theme permeates each production of Ghibli films.