Hayao Miyazaki: The Transnational Fantasy of Post-WWII Japan

Of all of Japan’s modern international cultural product, perhaps the most prominent is Japanese animation, or animé, and for more than a decade, Hayao Miyazaki has been the preeminent Japananese anime filmmaker.  Wildly popular within Japan, Miyazaki’s influence has gone global, and his art is appreciated by both young and old worldwide.miyadvd

Miyazaki’s films, like all animation, are often mistaken for “children’s movies.”  This is probably due both to persistent attitudes towards the medium of animation itself, as well as the content of his films, which as a rule feature young or child protagonists frequently placed in magical or fantastic situations.  However, to dismiss Miyazaki’s product as simple escapist fantasy intended for children is to miss his intention entirely.  Miyazaki’s films, despite their deceptive style, are rife with some very mature, even adult themes.  And far from being superficial children’s entertainment, Miyazaki’s work is dense with layers of meaning and significance that give his films, despite their international popularity and universal relevance, a distinctly Japanese character.princess_mononoke_033

Miyazaki has been prolific and wildly successful, and his films are a labor of love.  As such, they are full of personal meaning, and provide Miyazaki with a unique medium to communicate his attitudes, his sociopolitical opinions, and his conception of Japanese identity.  In his movies, the audience is granted a direct line of communication into Miyazaki’s hopes, dreams, and fantasies, and through him, we gain an invaluable insight into strains of thought that have animated the spirit of modern Japan and continue to define her culture and her identity today.


The Trauma of War and Miyazaki’s Pacifism

A viewer of any one of Miyazaki’s films cannot help but notice a strong antipathy towards war and violence.  Positive images of warriors and fighting heroes are scarce in Miyazaki’s tales.  His protagonists, usually children, tend to be innocent and idealistic, and their victories are seldom achieved through violently undoing their enemies.  Instead, innocence, pure motives, loyalty and dedication, and above all, selfless love and a respect for all life, are the virtues by which Miyazaki’s protagonists are able to save the day.  Examples of this include Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Satsuke from My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, and Sosuke from Ponyo. Pazu and Sheeta of Castle in the Sky are also consistent with this rule, as their only act of violence is directed at an inanimate object, a great and terrible weapon that the two innocent children heroically decide must be destroyed in order to save the world – even if it may mean the loss of their own lives.  Ashitaka and San of Princess Mononoke are the most violent of these young protagonists.  Significantly, they are older, young adults as opposed to children.  Ashitaka’s violence, however, is entirely in self-defense, and is explicitly caused by an evil curse placed upon him.  That violence-causing curse that manifests itself as dark magic is frequently referred to by the characters as “hate,” and it is clear that it is something that destroys all life without distinction and must be fought.And in the end, their victory is a life-affirming one: they reconcile with their enemies and do good deeds by them for the sake of saving the lives of all.  War and violence are evils in Miyazaki’s films, but they are not evils intrinsically connected to evil people.  The antagonists of his stories almost always have redeeming characteristics, and frequently turn out to be friends and allies.  War and violence are not portrayed as personal evils, but impersonal tragedies, the results of bad situations akin to natural disasters, that afflict all.  In order to save oneself from evil, in Miyazaki’s tales, it is also necessary to save others.  Often, this includes one’s enemies.


In those few protagonists who are chiefly warriors, we see another theme of Miyazaki’s works: anti-statism.  Characters such as Marco/Porco Rosso (Porco Rosso) and Dola’s pirate crew are mercenaries unconnected with the military or the police, and are frequently opposed to them, living outside the law which is portrayed as corrupt, power-hungry, and malevolent.  There are no positive portrayals of the government in Miyazaki’s movies: even Kiki’s Delivery Service shows Kiki escaping from a police officer who was writing her a ticket without in the least implying she is wrong to do so.  The state is always the enemy: in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke the state is a killer who ravages the environment out of ignorance and greed, in Castle in the Sky the government kidnaps, murders and steals in order to attain a powerful weapon, and in Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle, the state is an enslaver, eager to conscript free men to fight, kill and die for them in pointless wars.  Miyazaki’s cynicism towards the government and the military is obvious and intentional.

Howl's Moving Castle Firebombing

Miyazaki’s message is timeless and universal, but his inspiration is clearly based on Japan’s experience in the Second World War.  This is evident in his depiction of war and militarism: invariably, Miyazaki’s wars take place in the sky, and feature aerial bombardment prominently.  This is most obvious in Howl’s Moving Castle, where enormous airships reminiscent of American bombers turn civilian cities into firestorms.  There is no pretense of actual military confrontation between armed forces – the conflict is purely one of terror from the air aimed at civilians and their homes, and is clearly inspired by the Tokyo firebombings.  Other city-destroying apocalyptic wars occur in the opening setting of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and aerial dogfights are a staple of Porco Rosso, a story that is actually set in the years just before WWII, as well as in Castle in the Sky.


However, the most interesting example of this allusion to WWII takes place at the end of Castle in the Sky.  A very white, European military man seizes an ancient weapon on the titular castle in the sky, unleashing it against the ground in a test firing.  The result is almost exactly like a nuclear explosion.

Castle in the Sky Online – Explosion at the 1:46 Mark

Muska’s comment around the 1:49 mark about a “superior being” such as himself having no choice but to burn his enemies may even be seen as a veiled indictment of Western racial attitudes towards the Japanese during the war.  It could also be a rebuke to similar ideas of racial supremacy on the part of the Japanese wartime government, whose image can clearly be detected in images of the state as an organization of conscription and abduction.  Miyazaki’s antiwar, anti-militarism, anti-state and pacifistic messages mark him as one of the most prominent members of the post-war Japanese generation who, growing up in the aftermath of that devastating conflict, rejected war and violence and adopted a new sense of Japanese identity.  Influenced by Japan’s wartime experience under a totalitarian regime as well as the firebombings and nuclear bombings inflicted upon the mainland by the United States military, these Japanese attempted to promote a new sense of Japanese identity that enshrined pacifism not just in the post-war constitution, but throughout Japanese culture.

Miyazaki’s Environmentalism and Japanese Distinctiveness

Complementing his hatred of war, violence, and militarism, Miyazaki’s films are famous for breathtaking settings of wondrous natural beauty, and Miyazaki’s love for all living things is evidenced by the strong pro-nature, pro-environmentalist and conservationist themes in his stories.  Miyazaki is hardly the first to incorporate environmentalist messages into his artwork.  He stands apart, however, in his portrayal of the natural world through the medium of traditional Japanese folklore and mythology.  In Miyazaki’s films, nature is alive and vital, much more so than the artificial habitations of human beings.  Miyazaki takes the overwhelming beauty of the forest or the ocean and supercharges it with spirit creatures, gods and goddesses, dragons, ghosts, witches, and ever-present magical wonders that blend seamlessly into the ecology and make the natural world that much more mysterious, and also that much more intelligible, to human beings.  It is more than just generic fantasy, however: Miyazaki draws heavily on traditional Japanese folklore, especially in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.  In addition to a wide array of mythical supernatural Japanese creatures, Miyazaki frequently alludes to kamikakushi, the traditional Japanese folk belief in being abducted and “spirited away” by supernatural beings.  Although kamikakushi stories fell out of favor in Japan during the period of increased urbanization and the Pacific War, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a classic telling of that genre, and the theme is arguably also present in Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo.  The magical beauty and hospitable natural world populated by Japanese spirits (epitomized in My Neighbor Totoro) is portrayed in sharp contrast to the pollution and environmental devastation accompanying urbanization, industrialization, and civilization.  Man’s mistreatment of his environment is a common theme in Miyazaki’s works, ranging in intensity from the ecological apocalypse of Nausicaä of the Vally of the Wind where the theme is the major point of the plot to the far more mild Ponyo, where it is more of an aside.


Miyazaki’s message of environmental awareness and conservation is chiefly determined by personal opinion and not particularly unique to any aspect of modern Japanese culture.  His method of incorporating his message into the rich mythology of traditional Japanese folklore, however, is unique and distinctly Japanese, although uninitiated outsiders may not recognize it as such.  Much of Miyazaki’s aesthetics are very generic and “odorless,” downplaying “Japaneseness,” and frequently emulating Western and European culture and aesthetics (as seen in Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle).  This may, in part, explain the broad appeal of his works, especially in the West.  It is in his environmental-mythical images, however, that Miyazaki puts a clear Japanese signature on his work that can be read by those who are familiar with the folklore of his homeland.

Childhood, Innocence, and the Heroic Feminine: Fantasy of a New Japan

Miyazaki’s social attitudes are also quite evident from his stories, and the image we get from them is quite interesting.  In every single one of Miyazaki’s films, one of the main protagonists is a young girl.  This goes beyond the Japanese motif of the shojo (young female heroine) who can be used as an icon of kawai (“cute”) culture.  Invariably, the female protagonist is strong, independent, courageous, and brave, and usually a paragon of innocence and virtue.  In this regard, Miyazaki’s heroines diverge slightly from kawai in that they are quintessentially innocent, as opposed to the occasionally flirtatious and sexualized young girls present in other works.  More often than not, it is the little girl or the young woman who saves the day, such as Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, Sheeta from Castle in the Sky, Satsuki from My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, Fio from Porco Rosso, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo from Ponyo.  With the exception of the hunter San from Princess Mononoke, the heroines of Miyazaki’s stories do not succeed through violence.  Instead, their feminine virtues of compassion and love, backed up by courage and an independent spirit, bring about the final victory.  Miyazaki’s heroines do more than just emulate men in the style of tough, Amazonian action warriors who best men at their own games of marital prowess.  Instead, the heroines remain feminine, and do not triumph in spite of their femininity, but because of it – generally, because of their nurturing love for other creatures and their refusal to compromise that ideal.

sophiecalciferMiyazaki’s heroines are more than just an affirmation of his attitudes towards the appropriate role of “liberated” women in a modernized society.  They are in part, an answer to the images of apocalypse, of military destruction and ecological catastrophe, that haunt the films of Miyazaki as well as those of other prominent anime producers.  In the words of one scholar of anime, films such as Princess Mononoke offer a “violent, indeed apocalyptic, elegy for a lost Japan at the same time that it offers an alternative, heterogeneous, and female-centered vision of Japanese identity for the future.”  Again we see the powerful and far-reaching influence in modern day Japanese culture of the Pacific War.  It is no accident that anime films such as Miyazaki’s are frequently set in an indeterminate time and place – often in an “odorless” culture that is not explicitly Japanese – a timeless setting where magic still exists and the weight of the past does not burden the characters or the society.  Youthful protagonists full of childhood innocence and virtue, structured around strong, nurturing, and independent women, can be seen as a reaction to and a rejection of the pre-war Japanese society dominated by homogeneous cliques of militant adult males.  Miyazaki plays the role of a creator – his fantasies and imaginations resonate internationally in their universal ideals of peace and harmony, beauty and innocence, and also among many Japanese who look to the creation of a new Japanese national and cultural identity in response to the old, seen as irredeemably discredited by the still-lingering horror of war.  His female protagonists, liberated from the constraints of the past culture to fulfill their full potential, can be seen as the ideal inhabitants and founding daughters of the imagined “New Japan.”

Discussion Questions

What makes a story or a movie “for children” or “for adults?”  Do we see a similar ambiguity in other Japanese cultural products, or in cultural products outside of Japan?

How do Miyazaki’s films contrast with more “Western” products?  Is Miyazaki defining his work against the West, either through “occidentalism” or self-orientalism?”  Or is there more commonality than dissimilarity?

What other explanations might help us understand the phenomenon of cultural “odorlessness” in Japanese cultural products?  Are concerns of commercial appeal overseas more important in shaping output than the artist’s creative vision?  What factors might influence an artist to eschew or include traditional cultural influences, in Japan and elsewhere?

How are Miyazaki’s depictions of childhood innocence and feminine protagonists similar to other Japanese cultural products?  How are they different?

Do we see rival visions that challenge Miyazaki’s conception of Japanese post-war identity?  Do artists help to create a new social reality, or only reflect what was already present?

Related Links

Miyazaki at IMDB

Studio Ghibli

NPR review of Ponyo

Miyazaki Biography on a fansite


Freiberg, Freda.  “Miyazaki’s Heroines.” Senses of Cinema Online Journal. 2006. 5 April 2010. <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/40/miyazaki-heroines.html>.

Miyake, Lynn.  “Review: Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation By Susan J. Napier.” Monumental Nipponica,  Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer 2002): 260-262. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3096725?seq=1>.

Schnell, Scott, and Hiroyuki Hashimoto.  “Revitalizing Japanese Folklore.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2003): 185-194.


Staemmler, Brigit.  “Virtual Kamikakushi: An Element of Folk Belief in Changing Times and Media.”  Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (March 2005): 341-352.


Entry contributed by Chris Barnewolt



  1. ilheiberg says:

    In looking at Miyazaki films and anime films in general, there seems to be a distinct difference in viewership of animated films. Would you say that the majority of Japanese viewers of anime films are adults? In reading about kawaii culture, I think there could be an important difference in the way child heroes are viewed in American versus Japanese culture. At least in my own experience, child heroes are generally only featured in films/ TV series/ etc. for which the predominant viewership will be children in American media. The children, as viewers, are able to identify with the child hero and thus enjoy the story. If in fact much of the Japanese adult population enjoys Miyazaki films (in which child heroes are prevalent), the relationship between the viewer and the hero changes. In reading about shojo culture, I have come across the idea that kawaii refers not only cute, gentle, and loveable things/ characters/ animals, but also evokes an element of sexualization. Child heroines that identify with shojo culture would fit into the mold of kawaii, including the sexualization of these characters. Of course, I am not suggesting that Miyazaki films feature sexualized or pornographic young female characters, but I think there could be a sense in which the sexualization of female youth differs between the American and Japanese viewership. I feel that the typical American viewer would consiously avoid viewing child heroines as sexualized, for fear of being perceived as a consumer of child pornography or the like, which is very taboo in American society. It seems, in contrast to American views of sexuality, that kawaii culture does maintain that cute, young, and feminine is also sexualized, and this difference might explain the difference in ages of anime viewership. Do you think this sexualized kawaii is at play in Miyazaki films?

  2. eahannon says:

    While I definitely think you’re on the mark about Miyazaki’s work reflecting the impact of WWII (specifically the USA side of it, atomic bombs, etc) — you don’t really mention anything specifically about, say, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere–maybe a part of Miyazka’s commentary is directed toward the era of Japanese occupation of other Asian countries? Even though the evil character in Castle in the Sky is European-looking, his statement about being a “superior being” could still be a comment on Japan’s “big brother”-era, when they assumed themselves to be the superior Asian country. Just a thought–it might be interesting to bring in the idea that perhaps Miyazaki is critiquing Japan, too, and not just Western countries/the War in the Pacific.