Spirits show up first as the positive formulation of a negative: The intrusion of dirt or decay on a disused house. We encounter nature, in a sense, in that in which gets in the way of the work we get out of our artifacts. Thinking of soot as spirits does three things: It suggests mysterious powers of motion by giving shape to the invisible, air; it gives the uncanny a physical mark; & it makes the imagination into an instrument of discovery.
In a world where pets are fast replacing children, we get to see both children & pets, to try to understand their nature. For example, the two girls: The older plays at being her mother & is responsible–she makes lunch, accepts her younger sister as a charge even during school, & takes care of her while she sleeps waiting for the bus. It would seem the younger plays at being her father: He tells them about the spirits in nature, she is the first to discover them.
The absence of the sick mother allows the girls to discover these wild spirits, though in an essentially benevolent way that accords with their disposition. The younger discovers Totoro as a warm pillow. The elder as a fellow being needing shelter from the rain, so it makes sense to her to offer him an umbrella, like a boy offered her one.
The trusting need for companionship & independence is, from the beginning, all about discovery. Thus, when the girls plant acorns & see Totoro begging the heavens for rain, that is the same as going up the magical tree & seeing that its great height commands a view of the world to the horizon. Totoro starts out as the animal complement of their humanity. You could say the girls, in missing their mother, miss the animal warmth of the body.
But there is another part of imagination. The girls become enemies in their suffering fear in their mother’s suffering. The elder is old enough to take her sense of powerlessness & guilt out on the younger, in anger, who is young enough to think that what’s good for the body is any kind of answer to suffering, so she wants to take her mother food. Here, Totoro is the artificial complement of their animal reactions, he moves them to the hospital to see their mother.
Adults talk about spirits, but do not see them, because they have some way squared with fear & a sense of providence. Thus, the girls see their parents in the hospital, but are not seen in return. The independence of childhood shows up as a fearful, wonderful adventure because it concerns the possibility that being human is striving, not the peaceful protection of home.
Miyazaki says, Porco Rosso was a silly thing to do: A move for children that cannot be understood by children.
Porco Rosso is a man alone. He was once a flier, with all the manly adventure & romance of flying, especially during the early years, during the war. But he lost a friend & with him, his humanity. He is now a pig. If you think of a pig as yearning for his lost humanity, you will see the romance. But a pig is a comical-looking sort of human being & has some virtues of which he is unaware. For the people who know him, he is a scratched-out face in a photograph with his friends. They are dead, he is still alive.
The story shows the stages of recovery of humanity by coming to agreements with people. First, Porco Rosso makes a deal with some bandits to give up half their loot & the girls they kidnapped. It is not all of justice to allow them to steal, but people need to live on something. Porco Rosso is a bounty hunter now, so he is especially situated to be humane where the laws fail to act.
This brings up the problem of friendship–an American pilot shows up who wants to compete with Porco Rosso, who wants nothing to do with him. This is the structure of the plot: Enmity turns into friendly competition &, finally, cooperation between these two, in stages.
Everything good for Porco Rosso comes from the evil the American does him. Thus does he get the chance to save his life, & thus treasure it, to ask for help, & thus become aware of his need for other people, & therewith of their worth, to make friends, & thus to see the innocence in the striving to fly which he no longer understands, & finally to compete again, in full awareness of the limits of being human, desperate to succeed though he is aware of his mortality. The dogfight finale rehearses all this, giving the key to the structure.
But there are certain surprises. One is that an American, with all his brashness & love of celebrity, turns out to teach Porco Rosso he should take life seriously. Why does it take histrionics? You could say a dashing American is a mirror-caricature of manliness: He looks like what Porco Rosso is, who does not want to show himself. Then there are all the women who do the actual work in technology. Porco Rosso learns to respect their powers, their helpfulness, & their friendship. They, too, mirror his deformation.
These metamorphoses allow Porco Rosso to speak about the beautiful truth about his guilt & his loneliness. He had a vision of the beings beyond heaven, where all the fliers are together, no longer enemies, no longer limited by their bodies. The flier, the motor, & the plane are the soul.
Why is the spectacle of nature a political crisis?
It seems to be the case that the core of the story is an investigation into immortality. Ashitaka may be trying to save his life from his deadly curse–or maybe he just wants to learn what it means to die. His early show of piety & fight suggests he does not know anything about killing. Indeed, he seems to be the mourned last prince of a village that needs none.
The Lady, who is named for her military headgear, on the other hand, came to people who needed her to do their work as miners safe from nature. She in turn seems to hold out a twofold promise to people: A science of medicine that will cure lepers &, implicitly, remove all ugliness & shame from human life; & a new science of nature, essentially atheistic, the core of which is the silence of being. She seems to believe that if you destroy all piety concerning nature, then you can get the kinds of powers to save life that people really need.
The story of the Lady, as well as her dress, suggests she turned to savagery in imitation of human savagery. Like San, the princess of the angry spirits, she has no family. San turned savage in imitation of animal savagery. They’re both good fighters, but only society can teach you guile & planning. What seems to be true of nature is that natural beings do not live with a tension between what’s good for them & that at which they’re good. Another way of saying that is, natural beings cannot really be individuals. San does not belong in the forest–she cannot embody the wolf whose fur she wears.
Ashitaka’s name is some combination of pious & confidence. Three times he goes through the sacred grove. First, he is roused to anger & curiosity by the uncanny buck. Then, he’s taken there, unconscious, to heal. Finally, he goes there to see, powerless to act, the desecration humans & monsters perpetrate. This is supposed to show what combination of strength & weakness or activity & passivity is required to see nature.
The buck is uncanny, but its look conceals something, is opaque. The Godzilla monster into which it turns, however, is transparently full of stars. Its look reveals the look of the universe. That’s morality & metaphysics turning into one another.
Now, I can offer an answer to the question, why does this story have to happen, or what does it mean for Ashitaka to be a prince or be confident? He had no right, so to speak, to kill the demon-boar. He had never suffered alike. He is mostly the privileged spectator of the actions to which the women drive each other. This is his education about love.
In what ways are Mononoke & Ashitaka the same? They ride wild beasts; they are trained warriors; they’re doomed because they want to protect something ancient from change. They are also not Japanese. He is an Emishi prince, a remnant of centuries past, of a race of horse-archers that was conquered by the Japanese Empire. This is a consequence of the dominant mode of the story, which we will summarize: Being is striving.
Then there is the forest spirit. By day, he looks like a buck. By night, he’s Godzilla. Nature thus appears in two guises, only one of which can be killed. It is not a surprise that destroying the natural order in order to make use of the resources it contains would release nightmares. The discovery of iron makes men crazy. They immediately take to killing each other & deforesting on a shocking scale.
Conceiving of this addition to warfare, by way of mining, as a war on nature shows the spiritedness of our modern project. It is an adventure most daringly summarized as god-killing by the lady who runs this new mining town. This strange woman has created an alliance of the rejects of society–the discarded, the unloved–to fulfill the deepest longings of society. Lepers are here gunsmiths, & prostitutes fan the flames of this industry.
What shall we say of the imagery, which comes before our understanding that these people are innocents? An unstoppable desire leads people into iron-work, to do with their fearful ugliness in disease, that is, in face of death. In a shocking way, we see the prostitutes restored to dignity as workers; the lepers, too, are now useful in this strange community. A faith in their leader animates all of them to create a new power none of them understand. They avoid the outside world where the war is fought.
The attempt to turn the outcasts into heroic laborers shows an awareness of what prompts the crisis. To speak only of the Emperor, the new power of modern science would make his empire unbeatable, but its immortality is not his own. That at which he is good, keeping the empire together, whatever that is, is not good for him personally. The madness of the man who believes that the beautiful title of emperor could be embodied in an actual emperor as immortality is the moral core of the metaphysical change that leads to total war against nature.
The politics of the three classes–artisans, women workers, & guardians–would be interesting to discuss, but it suffices here to notice that fanatical devotion to their Lady–who literally hates the world because she obeys bad masters–replaces what we learn of Japanese politics: Treachery & intrigue.
Ashitaka is the prince of a tribe who has hidden away from Japan’s unification politics. One day, a monster attacks his village. Ashitaka is cursed for killing him. Modernity has come to his people another way, by the gun which made the boar into a demon. By iron, man is turning nature into a nightmare. Ashitaka has to abandon his aristocratic hairdo & try to save his life.
Ashitaka’s first encounter with people: In Japan, the samurai are murdering & ravaging the land. Freed from his earlier constraints, he kills them. He learns he is losing control of himself. The people he meets are too immiserated to recognize gold. He meets a man who points him in the right direction & tells him the political story: The emperor is trying to acquire immortality at any price. Ashitaka has no interest in this, nor any idea what it means. We learn that to know what is happening in Japan you have to be evil: It is to know & submit to the knowledge that the land is cursed.
That evil man is the objective form of the emperor’s desire for immortality. That is the plot of the story–it would not work without him: It seems all antagonists need him to point them to their fate. His image, corrupt holiness, is worth contemplating. Further, it is very important to notice that this story is one of the many treatments in Studio Ghibli pictures of the question of modernity, is it a corruption?
You see being being gradually reduced to strife. I want to insist on two aspects, one metaphysical, the other moral. First, you see that as resolves strengthen, reasoning loses its purpose. When once all the antagonists have learned all they can learn, it’s useless to talk. Secondly, strife does not show up, whatever you might think, as injustice first. It shows up objectively as ugliness. It is fear seen.
So now let us see how we come to our conflict. Ashitaka finds some broken men in a river, the wolf-demons of the forest, & he learns that the men are more animated by fear than by self-preservation when they see small skeletal forest spirits. He sees the girl for whom the movie is titled, the Princess of anger, drinking blood. This is the effect of something we see, not him: The wolf-demons attack a supply caravan & are rebuffed by iron & fire.
Trying to save the men, he takes them through the sacred groves of the ancient forest. Ashitaka moves from urgent, humane help for painful need–through calm, spontaneous, ancient beauty to–ugly, but orderly modern art & science. This sequence must be the structure of the plot. But why is he blind to it?
The boy Jiro wants to design planes. He dreams of flying. He cannot become a flier himself, because of his eyes, but he takes his hopes with him into engineering school. It’s important to notice early on that there is a kind of blindness in what he’s doing: It’s always going to be another man actually facing death in the plane. The beauty of flight is divorced from the experience of danger.
This transforms into Jiro’s eventual fate: He designed the Zero, which gave Japan such pride & power in the early years of WWII. This is another kind of blindness: He put power in the hands of monsters. Technological science is a blind giant & it is astonishing to witness what innocence & what ignorance of the world are tied up in the love of beauty that inspires people to do the hard, uncertain calculating & imagining how man might build a flying contraption.
Planes had already been used for war in The Great War. Politics almost everywhere in the world afterward degenerated. Civilization was collapsing. Violence replaced law; political assassinations became facts of life; & the organization of hatred became the test of loyalties. This is the world in which the dream of flight was pursued.
It is therefore especially important that Jiro takes counsel in his dreams. His adviser is an Italian aircraft designer–his was the first passenger plane to kill more than a dozen people in a crash. His advice is perfectly irresponsible, which fits with his image, which is not that of an industrialist who worked for the Fascists in Italy. Instead, he is a dashing gentleman-inventor. It is remarkable, but not surprising, that Miyazaki, a pacifist who mourns the catastrophes created by technological science should take the perspective of the young idealist. Beauty & story-telling, after all, favor the long view.
Jiro also takes the advice of one other man, Hans Castorp, named for the protagonist whose soul is in question in Thomas Mann’s Magic mountain. An apolitical view of the beautiful emerges; the man’s a victim or at least target of the Japanese security police.
This goes together with Jiro’s love for the doomed Naoko, who will die of TB. Does the spectacle of noble daring against terrible events make sense, except in the crisis before WWII & when death is imminent? Is there any insight in this act of braving tragedy or suffering beyond tragedy, an insight that might matter even in peaceful, tranquil times? Few things last–but we do tend to remember tragic beauty. & the origins of the comforts & powers we enjoy in peaceful prosperity are seldom similarly originated. & maybe Japan has little else to rescue from its catastrophic century except such beauty…
Also Oscar nominated, this last movie by Miyazaki is an attempt to give Japan a way to confront its past without succumbing to self-loathing–& therefore to attempt to find a decent future.
Now we can go back to the tabloids. We’re told, the antics of the raccoons–the unexplained, the shocking, the thrilling–were abandoned in favor of the scandals of the politicians & celebrities. Anger at injustice & the unleashed eroticism of democracy blind the people to the stories Isao Takahato wants to tell. These passions are too immediate in their effect, one could say. Who can keep up with them! Keeping up with them is at any rate a matter of staying current–but Takahata wants to turn us a generation back to the time when post-war Japan first enjoyed American prosperity.
Why do the tabloids matter? They are a debased form of folklore. They are also the self-defense of the passions in face of the new capitalist society that’s all about saying knowledge is scientific knowledge, that the known is the made, the artificial, as opposed to the spontaneous or natural. Somehow, the made dislodges the made up–people no longer pay attention to stories.
What’s the revenge of the poet? Well, science may rule by day, but by night people give themselves over to fantasy–we see nightmares walking the streets, taking over the town. This recalls the public-private distinction: Publicly, we’re all for science & facts, but how about our insistence that private life is more important, where we give ourselves over to our passions? The old problem of the sacred returns–for a place to be habitable to human beings, the sacred & the political have to be put together & separated in the right way.
The sociological sign of the problem comes up as construction work. The workers are treated as crazy or criminal by their boss &, respectively, the police, when accidents happen. The imposition of order cannot show any respect for or allow any discretion to the people actually doing the work of making the ordered, artificial world in which we live. Their experience cannot be allowed to matter. There is apparently a certain moralism embedded in the conquest of chance…
This is how we get to the new Japan–the movie’s title includes a reference to the new era measured by the new emperor, starting in the Nineties–the son of Hirohito, who was emperor during WWII, & the first Japanese heir-apparent to be kept out of military school. Now, the forest-dream of the Japanese people shows up as conservationism. Somehow, the land of Japan recalls to them their pre-modern dwelling & ancestors.
Strife shows up in the imagination as a sense of loss that accompanies the achievement of peaceful prosperity. The imagination does not really seem to be forward-looking, but backward-looking, guided or at least driven by a longing for another, less ugly way of living.
Human beings began in the Sixties to cut down the forests around Tokyo to accommodate population growth & their newfound prosperity. The raccoons therefore have to fight against the creatures to whose leftovers they are drawn. Raccoons are human-like in their ability to shapeshift & their irresponsible pleasure in parties. Like all beings, crowding leads them to destroy each other. So they have recourse to their humanity to make up an alliance against humans.
They come up with two plans. One, to investigate humans–they turn to television, & they are stupefied by the spectacle. That’s one worthwhile lesson about being human. The other, to regain their ancient shape-shifting powers, in order to trick humans. They put two together: Let’s drive away humans with sacred fears!–They have some success with superstition, but the ensuing hysteria ends up in the tabloids. Meanwhile, the work of capitalism, striving against nature, continues apace.
It’s worth noting, the production of images & fears replaces reproduction among the crowded, harassed raccoons. When the raccoons do reproduce, crowding leads them to die in traps or end up as roadkill. That is a radical incongruity. The raccoons also kill humans by provoking accidents. When the raccoons have their little fascism & kamikaze scene, it all falls flat. Nature is presented as naturally free of strife.
This requires presenting strife as essentially a human fact. This is where stories are introduced. For example, the emergence of raccoon-hunting is storified as an answer to the raccoons’ habit of conspicuously displaying their powers. What could this mean? There is a moral answer, which is obvious, but also obviously false; & a metaphysical answer, which is obscure, but obviously true. Metaphysically, it means that man answers to wonders with vengeance–with war. Morally, it means that modern man experiences the world economically, in fearful ways that concentrate on acquiring whatever can be acquired, whatever attracts attention, with no care for its being, only for the powers it can confer on man.
This prepares the way for the introduction of the shape-shifting raccoon elders of Shikoku–the Northern, savage island of Japan. They revert to the past: Terrifying man into fearing nature: Turning man’s imagination against him. They want to create a carnival to humble man’s scientific pretensions–face people with the perplexing–make being opaque. It turns out, this is useless. Human beings naturally anthropomorphize: What matters is that someone human-shaped can take credit for mystery. Human beings worship human-shaped gods, ultimately, & therefore bow to no one else.
This prepares the way for the emergence of shape-shifting foxes: The fox naturally proposes to turn the raccoons into a circus: Instead of dying in a useless battle of dreams against iron. The only thing left, the forest-dream.
An Oscar-nominated, Ghibli-studio movie by Isao Takahata
Some notes on character How helplessness causes the plot
Sophie’s absent mother thinks beauty is something you use to get good things from other people. She’s husband-hunting. This beauty turns out to hide callousness & more than a little evil. This comes from a sense of entitlement: If you’re beautiful, people treat you as though you were special. You’re therefore owed happiness by way of devotion.
Sophie’s sister, herself a beauty, is not looking to get money out of it, like their mother, but to give people pleasure–she sells cookies & seems to be much in demand. This also is about getting good things, but it’s not exploitative. She tells Sophie to beware wizards, because they’re heartbreakers. Her mother is reckless–she is cautious. All she can tell Sophie is to abandon her father’s shop–there’s nothing there for her.
I will offer you a suggestion: Sophie, who is no beauty, makes beautiful hats. But even plain or ugly hats are good for you, whether in sun or rain. Of course, it is not merely beautifying the good: hats for Sophie are tied up with shame, too, with concealing herself. She thinks she’s unlovable. Her characteristic observation is that her clothes finally suit her, once she is cursed. Her characteristic reaction to disorder is to clean up the place. Sophie’s lesson, if you’re looking to be taught something: Goodness is tied up with making use of the discarded. Sophie restores the worth of artifacts.
Now, the word around town is, Howl’s a heartbreaker. There seems to be some truth to this–he is at any rate shockingly vain about his own beauty, although there seems to be no connection between it & his magical powers. He seems to have been attracted to beautiful women immoderately, until he learned that beauty can conceal evil. While it is true that he is dismissive & inconsiderate of Sophie, it is also true that he is protective & in certain ways accommodating.
What’s at stake in all these cases is our perennial moral-metaphysical problem: That at which we are good is seldom all that good for us. Our being & our powers are in shocking ways divorced, or at least pulling in different directions. We think that being good at something is being good, but that really tends toward the acquisition of powers at prices we are bound to misunderstand. Whereas beauty does point the way to being, including our being, but our orientation by making use of things deludes about what possession really means.
Thus, with Howl it’s hard to say why he’s got all the stuff he’s got, because it seems like he’s imitating a world where he doesn’t really fit. But Sophie doesn’t understand why beings follow after her because they need her help & love.
The most important thing about this story, the plot makes no sense. I’ll write later about the characters–for now let’s try to figure out why this is so. Two stories have Howl at the center. Two women chase after him, the king’s witch & another witch. The one starts a war; the other steals Sophie’s youth. The youth-stealing witch is bewitched by young men, is herself an old woman. Probably, something similar can be said of the other one.
Both can tell: Sophie has fallen in love with Howl: That’s knowledge born of jealous love. Both drive Howl to his demonic madness, which might consume him, & which he thinks of as freedom or at any rate a fate preferable to the possessive wiles of the women. Howl at some point suggests the king’s witch protects his castle while the citizens are bombed. That magical defense resemble his own situation.
Howl is a pacifist. He hates the meaningless war–which combines the lack of claims to justice of WWI & the new destructive horrors wiping out cities of WWII–& knows that the witches who join the war completely lose their humanity. He himself is losing his humanity as he sabotages & eludes the flying war machines & weaponized witches.
Howl thinks freedom means escaping, not being trapped in a city. For a vain boy, he has learned about inconspicuousness. But the correlative to his making himself invisible or getting people to do what he tells them is a remarkable inclination to imitate domesticity while sowing disorder. His castle seems to be an image of soul. There is a boy who minds his business, likes to eat, & falls in love with Sophie; there is the fire-demon-heart that gets everything moving; then there is Howl, who seems to be in control, making decisions, giving orders, but hardly ever there, who apparently never eats, collects endless junk, & is gradually turning into a monster.
There’s no reason why the war’s infringing on Howl’s freedom & his falling in love with Sophie should coincide. Howl seems as irresponsible as the king, but his freedom leaves him unmoved to do evil deeds. Why is war affecting him? The story is dominated by people whose desires run away with them, which seems to be why nothing is properly planned & no trap well executed. There’s no reasoning in chaos: There’s impatient desire & a willful sense of entitlement.
What’s even stranger, concerning plot, is that Sophie’s selfish & unselfish unwillingness to make claims on Howl’s attention or powers drags him further into chaos. He also learns something about her: By night, her cursed old age disappears: She’s apparently ok living cursed. She’s too good to be true, in a sense, the mother he never had.
The weakest plot & possibly the best characterization of youthful inability to pull oneself together in a Ghibli picture