Hayao Miyazaki and his collaborators dealt with pessimism in a way that still resonates today
It’s not just the magic that moves me, but the honesty and displays of self-fortification. There is no tragedy or cosmic dilemma without some uncommon sweetness, some anchoring strength, that the characters must provide for themselves. It’s in the way Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro packs bento boxes for her young sister, Mei, when their mother is hospitalized, or when Mei later throws a tantrum, crying for her mom, the thick mucus of heartbreak distorting and dampening her face. It’s Sheeta and Pazu from Laputa, on their way to the “castle in the sky,” snacking on toast “and, for dessert, a green apple and candy!” that Pazu packed, because he already loves his new friend.
I live in Florida, and during the recent election, I watched the faces of my friends who’d rallied for Andrew Gillum turn sallow as the night grew harrowingly long. The following day, we ate together, frustrated at a world whose sharp cruelty has, for us, always existed. I thought of Chihiro, the 10-year-old protagonist of the majestic Spirited Away, crying into a rice ball. Ensnared in a bathhouse for spirits, the film’s protagonist is miserable: A witch stole her name and cursed food has transformed her parents into pigs. Still, Haku, a trapped spirit himself, makes time to feed her, and she to nurture him. Ghibli films rarely depict a base reality unlike our own. There are no superheroes, only complex characters whose bravery contends with self-doubt, and whose doubt gives way to love, all the time. Every screening teaches me something about how to live in the cold, punitive real world with trust and compassion, which is hard to do.
In the Still Processing podcast episode “We’re Maxed Out, You’re Maxed Out, Everybody is Maxed Out,” New York Times critic Wesley Morris describes the “enlightening tonic” of “culture that speaks to living with all this craziness […] and trying to make your way through it, in it, without losing your mind.” There’s media out there, co-host Jenna Wortham adds, “offering us coping mechanisms. They’re not easy outs, but they’re more possibilities for moving ahead.”
Ghibli’s interstitial scenes of ritualistic mundanity — innocuous conversations, cooking, cuddling — offer no escape from the disasters rotating round them. When Satsuki and Mei pick vegetables with Granny, their neighbor, or fly to the treetops on Totoro’s soft belly, nobody has forgotten the underlying tension, the potentially imminent loss. In Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata’s adaptation of an Akiyuki Nosaka short story, which wrestles with the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a young boy named Seita ties his baby sister Setsuko to his back in preparation for an air raid, devoid of panic. Viewers already know their fate. But these displays of real kindness, the sort that envelopes another body in a hug, warm and vulnerable, are coping mechanisms. It is self-preservation in the face of despair.
The word “solastalgia,” dreamt up by philosopher Glenn Albrecht and his wife Jill to describe the grief associated with the slow loss of the climate as we know it, has created a lonely contour around my recent viewings of the films. As we beat it back, we slowly acclimate to the pain; Ghibli movies are full of possibilities for moving ahead, or for still moving at all. Seita and Setsuko, their homes and parents lost, build swings and catch fireflies. Setsuko pricks her finger on a needle and licks it. Seita, for her, often sacrifices his own body, stealing or forgoing food. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki’s 2004 film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name, the world at war seems on the verge of ending in flames. But it’s preservation of the heart — Howl the wizard’s literal heart, heroine Sophie’s metaphorical one — that matters; in an unusually happy ending, their love ends the battle.
In the aforementioned Still Processing episode, Morris admits he’s “close to getting maxed out” — that there is simply too much life to take in — and he’s right. Laputa’s villain, Muska, is sadistic, uncomfortably salacious (at least in the film’s American translation) and eager for destruction. He wants to find Laputa, unlock its secrets and unleash something punishing. Laputa, as it turns out, once dominated the world, then was subsequently abandoned. It’s presumed that the city’s population relied too heavily on their advanced technology and lost their sense of connection with the natural ecosystem.
Here on planet Earth, I don’t think the oligarchic systems in power are theoretically more awful than they’ve been before — it’s just that this particular incarnation of the nightmare feels atemporal, not unlike Laputa’s monarchy, which has left traces of its history everywhere and seems destined to reign again in the future. The death of our planet’s resources feels as tireless as politicians’ umbrage, and the folks in power are perhaps excited to erase history and the earth along with it, replacing it with — what? Through Miyazaki’s lens, war and environmental destruction turns men into pigs (the protagonist of Porco Rosso), pigs into embittered spirits (the wild boars of Princess Mononoke) and spirits into filthy morasses of pollution (Spirited Away’s river spirit).
In The Kingdom of Madness and Dreams, Mami Sumada’s 2013 documentary on Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki recalls Jiro Horikoshi, upon whom his film The Wind Risesis based. Horikoshi designed the Zero fighter planes used in World War II; in The Wind Rises, he is an artist dreaming of flight, or maybe of freedom, his hopes innocent and dashed by war. “They’re cursed dreams,” Miyazaki repines. “Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams.”
Miyazaki has been candid and adamant about his pessimism and, equally, not allowing the emotional toxin to slowly depreciate the desire to live. Being cursed — being alive when things are awful, which is mostly always — can be tiring. Care is a crucial luxury. In Howl’s Moving Castle, understood now as Miyazaki’s protest against the Iraq War, Sophie, a young girl transformed into an old woman by a witch, moves through horrors with newfound confidence and love for the people she’s found. Underneath battleships, belonging to a side of the war that’s never defined (“What difference does it make?” Howl, the wizard asks), she cradles Markl, the child-wizard, cracks eggs into a pan one by one, nestles by the warmth of a fire demon named Calcifer, and embraces Howl in a field of glimmering, yellow-pink flowers. There is plenty of necessary quiet.
Midway through the devastation of Grave of the Fireflies, Seita takes from Setsuko her empty fruit drop tin — much later, he’ll use it to house her ashes — and fills it with water. Setsuko gives it a shake: a flavored drink, infused with the dregs of candy! It’s so delicious that she laughs. In a review of Grave of the Fireflies for Japanamerica, Roland Kelts wrote this avowal: “Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough. Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That’s how one survives.”
Early this year, a beloved friend of mine suggested that Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” is a good theme song for the Anthropocene— we don’t need heroes, Turner says, just a way out, together: “Love and compassion, their day is coming/All else are castles built in the air.” (The castle might as well be Laputa.) Love and humility are survival, even if they don’t “trump hate.”
Before an air raid, Seita brings Setsuko to the sea, where the saltwater laps at a rash she’s developed from malnutrition. The memory of their mother lingers over them, like a silken cloud. Seita promises to teach Setsuko to swim. “We’ll swim, and that will make us hungry,” she says, but she still seems eager. Her brother’s care has created a kind of fortress from which to move, and move forward. It’s only sad because it’s brief.