Miyazaki’s Medieval World: Japanese Medievalism and the Rise of Anime
By E. L. Risden
The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol. 28 (2013)
Introduction: Hayao Miyazaki’s films always present vibrant worlds full of lush, colorful landscapes, characters, and fantastic, even mythic adventures. His stories suggest, as in Shinto, both strong ties to the past and the ever-present and powerful draw of nature alive with spirits of all sorts, yet they also show a belief in traditional local politics, a fear of larger or external militaristic powers, and an appreciation of Japan’s medieval traditions. They inculcate respect for the power and holiness of nature, valorization of achievement and individuality within the service of one’s people, and appreciation of the courage and sense of duty that contribute to samurai tradition. Miyazaki’s films typically contrast the excitement and mortal danger of technologies with appreciation for physical and spiritual heroism; Princess Mononoke (1997, set in the Muromachi period, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries) stands out as a major achievement of Japanese medievalism that deserves additional scholarly treatment from non-Eastern sources, as the film and the aesthetics on which it draws have achieved enormous success worldwide. Miyazaki built a world as full of potential as anything in Western medievalism, and he did so amidst a burgeoning and influential tradition of medievalism that did and still does penetrate Japanese life and culture. As Richard Utz notes in his essay in this volume, scholars have attended too little to religion in medievalism; similarly we have paid too little attention to the medievalism of Asia.
Because of the unique nature and power of Miyazaki’s cinematic world, audiences may remain vague about how to apply the “lessons” of the films, however clear their themes. The filmmaker resists simple endings or characterizations without muddying his themes, and he resists tropes of standard Western cinema while employing those both of manga and traditional Japanese cinema, broadening his audience and providing his stories with emotional complexity. His stories often stress respect, loyalty, courage, and responsibility without promising any sort of fulfillment: growing up, and then later succeeding in the world, has more to do with calm self-control and respect than with achieving personally fulfilling relationships or achieving social status. Princess Mononoke particularly focuses as well on the character—the courage, skill, and discipline—of mortal combat without foregrounding the combat as an end in itself. It highlights the virtues of bushido but in the midst of a lush and beautiful rather than stark and noirish—though no less dangerous—world.