We live in an unkind world.
Whether it be unkind words or actions from our leaders or fellow citizens, the world we live in is often a harsh place. Especially now, it seems a borderline cruel one. No matter where we go, it seems like we are always surrounded by conflict.
Themes of conflict are ever-present in the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki, as are the ruminations of harmony and peace. By examining the filmography of the Godfather of Japanese animation, one will find a compounded resonance that his films have in the world of today. To find kindness in an otherwise unkind world, to look at conflict and find harmony, to work and discover peace – these are the teachings of Miyazaki’s masterful oeuvre.
“Too much fire gives birth to nothing. Fire can reduce a forest to ashes in a day, while it takes the water and the wind a hundred years to grow a new one.” (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)
In one form or another, there is a struggle present in every one of Miyazaki’s films. Whether it’s the frenetic and Saturday morning cartoon clashes of the Castle of Cagliostro, shocking decapitations in Princess Mononoke, or the parental inner struggles seen in Ponyo, conflict is everywhere in many forms.
Most Miyazaki films directly tie conflict to the environment. It does not take long to see that he views violence (emotional or physical) as connected closely to the health of the world around us. Films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke explicitly show violence against nature resulting in violence among humans. The latter is Miyazaki’s most bracingly and shockingly violent work; soldiers are decapitated and dismembered by arrows and swords while animals suffer at the hands of hunters. In the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, extreme violence tends to only create more destruction and suffering.
However, there are also films of his where conflict is ever-present but not necessarily violent. In the (extremely underrated) Porco Rosso, the titular pig pilot is constantly engaging in aerial combat with other dogfighters. Their planes’ machine guns frequently fill the sky with bullets, and they often find their targets. However, in Porco’s world, these fighters aim for the plane instead of the pilot. These men are not interested in killing one another, merely asserting their mastery of dogfighting.
Emotional conflict is even present in the kindest films that Miyazaki has to offer. In Ponyo, the sea wizard Fujimoto struggles and contradicts himself over the idea of Ponyo’s freedom from the ocean. He wants his child to stay with him while also wanting her to be happy. It’s a classic conundrum, but it’s rendered with weight and care even in what is, ostensibly, a children’s film.
Harmony & Companionship
“Trees and people used to be good friends.” (My Neighbor Totoro)
There is much we can learn about conflict from depictions of it, but we can arguably learn even more through displays of kindness—a lesson that many of Miyazaki’s films thoroughly understand.
Few films, in any medium or from any director, highlight the importance of companionship and kindness quite like My Neighbor Totoro. Slice-of-life in the purest and most magical sense, this is a children’s film with no plot, no antagonist, and no tangible conflict. However, even adults can stand to learn something from this tale of friendship and family. In My Neighbor Totoro, a kind relationship with nature is necessary for happiness, after all, Satsuki only finds Mei with the help of Totoro and the other spirits of the forest.
In many ways, Ponyo is Miyazaki’s spiritual successor to My Neighbor Totoro. It does feature more outright conflict, as well as a quasi-antagonist, but it never loses sight of another one of Miyazaki’s key themes: adults learning from young people. The children in Miyazaki’s films have gentle hearts, full of love and wonder. Their innocence is not something to be destroyed, it should be cherished. It’s only through Sosuke and Ponyo’s love that the bridge between nature and humanity is restored, their love is pure and genuine, as childhood love often is. It calms the seas and softens the hearts of all the adults in their lives. It brings harmony to the world, if only for a moment.
Of course, these lessons are important to impress upon children, but they are no less relevant to those of us who have outgrown our overalls and water pails. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity and anger that has engulfed our world that you can often forget what our greatest gift is: each other.
Peace & Solitude
“We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.” (Kiki’s Delivery Service)
In most media, harmony and peace go hand-in-hand. They often mean the same thing. However, they feel unique from one another in the worlds that Miyazaki creates. Peace is not always a resolution; sometimes, it’s only momentary.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, in many ways, is a film about solitude. Kiki’s mission to set off on her own for a year perfectly taps into the anxiety and sense of loneliness that comes with striking out on your own for the first time, in this film, however, those feelings are embraced instead of rejected. Kiki’s Delivery Service accepts self-discovery as the messy process that it is, as opposed to running from it. Kiki learns to find comfort in moments spent on her own through the wisdom and company of others; like so many of us, she discovers more about herself through her interactions with others and lets those moments inform her time spent alone.
Solitude is also captured, in a more isolating manner, in one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces, Spirited Away. Chihiro often finds herself alone in the spirit world, lost and afraid. Only through rising above the isolation she faces and working with others does she free herself from the world of spirits and return home.
However, the duality of peace and isolation is best captured in Miyazaki’s greatest work, The Wind Rises. In the story of Jiro and his quest to build the perfect airplane, peace and solitude are both present but rarely intersect. He is at peace when he dreams of airplanes, but he is isolated when at work actually creating them.
The Wind Rises understands that too much work can isolate us from one another, while dreams offer us a respite from reality. Quiet moments by yourself can be peaceful and kind, but too much solitude can be sorrowful.
“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.” (Princess Mononoke)
The three sets of themes I’ve discussed do not each exist on their own. In the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, they are deeply intertwined, connected at their very core. There is no harmony without conflict. There is no peace without harmony. And there is only conflict in the absence of harmony and peace.
In life, there will always be conflict. There are plenty of films, television shows, and books that depict this simple truth. But Miyazaki’s films go their own way. Instead of asking why the world is the way it is, they ask what it can be.
What if we treated each other with respect and grace? What if we restored humanity’s relationship with nature? What if we were all just a little kinder to one another?
We’ll never truly find the answers to those questions unless we try them for ourselves. But I believe in the power of art, the potency of cinema. No filmmaker has made me question the unkind world we live in quite how Hayao Miyazaki has. Maybe, just maybe, we could all learn something and grow by viewing these films with open hearts and minds.
Who knows, we might even be able to rediscover kindness in a world that often forgets it.