Miyazaki, demiurge filmmaker

- through Sophie Solere

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Japanese Hayao Miyazaki's filmography is steeped in spirituality. A spirituality “at the crossroads of Buddhism and Shintoism”, analyzes Gaël Berton. This Japan specialist, author of The work of Hayao Miyazaki. The Master of Japanese Animation, explores for Buddhist News the spiritual dimension of this demiurge.

Spirituality, mainly Buddhism and Shintoism, permeates Hayao Miyazaki's films. How does he introduce himself?

Like all his Japanese fellow citizens, Hayao Miyazaki maintains a special relationship with spirituality. Even if, in the interviews he gave, he does not define himself by any cult and he rarely addresses the question of religion.

How is the relationship to spirituality special in Japan?

Unlike the French, who call themselves, for example, Christians or Muslims, the Japanese are not monotheists: they are mostly Shintoists and Buddhists. These two religions cohabit serenely; they are not exclusive. The Japanese gather in a Buddhist temple as well as in a Shinto shrine. Beyond this religious syncretism, there is another difference. While in France religion is a private matter, in Japan the practice of spirituality is integrated into society and daily life. Altars and statues are, for example, ubiquitous and the Japanese pray on many occasions: Day of the Dead, New Year, transition to adulthood, on the eve of an exam or to ensure health and prosperity. .

How does this spirituality influence Miyazaki's filmography?

I want to make it clear that Miyazaki is an eminently free man. Throughout his professional life, he contributed to breaking down the shackles, in his mangas and then in his animated films. That being said, like any creative process, Miyazaki's is influenced by different sources. Among which, the Japanese collective unconscious which is, as I have just underlined, strongly impregnated with Shintoism and Buddhism. Just look My neighbor Totoro. In this film, released in 1988, Miyazaki incorporates many religious symbols. For example, a sacred rope, made of rice straw, encircles the trunk of a camphor tree. Among Shintoists, this “shimenawa” gives the tree the ability to attract spirits, the “kamis”. Another symbol, this time Buddhist: while waiting for their father, the two sisters take shelter under a small temple opposite the statue of Ojiso-sama, considered the god of children among the Buddhists. Likewise, near the end of the film, when Mei is lost, the little girl sits in front of a line of this statue. Beyond this collective unconscious, I will refer to Miyazaki's childhood.

How did her childhood mark her work?

Born in 1941, Miyazaki was deeply marked by the suffering inherent in war. To the point of becoming a convinced pacifist, he, whose father had been a factory manager of spare parts for fighter planes, which were used against American soldiers. In Princess Mononoke (1997) to the question of Dame Éboshi who asks Ashitaka: “What are his intentions? “, he retorts:” Take on the world a look without hatred. Another message of peace, like an echo of the “dark side of the force” when Ashitaka denounces the fact that “anger and fear multiply the force of evil tenfold. » Last example: in the film Porco Rosso (1992), the main character is none other than an anti-militarist airplane pilot who opposes fascism. As for Miyazaki's mother, she suffered from a form of tuberculosis. War and disease thus awakened him, at a very young age, to the fragility of human beings. And therefore to impermanence.

As Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse writes in Is not a Buddhist who wants "It is because everything is interdependent that everything is subject to change". These Buddhist principles of impermanence and interdependence leave an imprint in Miyazaki's filmography. What do you think ?

Indeed, for example in Princess Mononoke, the stag-god is presented as a “whole”. San (Princess Mononoke) says to Ashitaka: “The Deer God is dead”. This one gives this answer: “The God-deer cannot die, he is life itself. He is as much life as death.” Death is here an opening towards a new cycle. This new cycle is also symbolized by the young shoots that cover the devastated forest.

According to Philippe Cornu, ethnologist and Tibetologist, the first teaching of the Buddha is what is called the Four Noble Truths, namely: suffering, its origin, its possible cessation and the means to achieve it (via the spiritual path) . As you have noted, suffering marked Miyazaki's childhood. How does it influence his work?

Moral suffering is omnipresent there. Miyazaki constantly depicts the decay of human beings once they have reached adulthood. Witness, in particular, Spirited away (2001): the filmmaker shows the little girl's parents transforming themselves – literally – into pigs. Only children escape this psychological suffering. Because their heart is pure. So much so that nothing is impossible for them. Besides, in My neighbor Totoro, the grandmother, who watches over the two young sisters, notices that the children are the only ones who can see the spirits of the forest. And like children, these kami are full of candor and altruism. Another example of the significance of this theme of suffering: in Princess Mononoke, evil affects not only human beings, but also the gods. This pain overall comes from the fact that they are unable to live together.

" In Princess Mononoke Miyazaki, a convinced feminist, shows a Lady Eboshi who deforests to produce iron but, in doing so, she allows women to escape their condition as prostitutes. Unlike Christian monotheism, there is no opposition between the notions of good and evil, nor between the state of nature and technical progress. »

This Buddhist quest for harmony between all sentient beings – humans, plants and animals – is also a recurring theme in Miyazaki's filmography. How do you interpret it?

This theme is present from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which dates from 1984. The heroine, Nausicaä, seeks to restore harmony between human beings and nature. The imbalance is symbolized there by the forest which has developed a form of toxic protection to deal with polluting human activities. Likewise, in Spirited away, the spirits of nature come to the house of the baths to clean themselves of the stains inflicted on them by men. Finally, in Princess Mononoke, which in my opinion is the acme of his filmography, Miyazaki shows that this lack of harmony is the source of all evil. Human beings have not respected the order of nature and even the gods of the forest end up killing each other. However, in this particularly dense film, Miyazaki never falls into Manichaeism.

Could it be like the religious syncretism, so particular to Japan, that you mentioned at the start of the interview?

Exactly. There is no duality in Princess Mononoke. Each protagonist has his reasons for acting which are not fallacious. Everyone is aware of the consequences of their actions. Miyazaki, a convinced feminist, shows for example a Lady Eboshi who deforests to produce iron but, in doing so, she allows women to escape their condition as prostitutes. Unlike Christian monotheism, there is no opposition between the notions of good and evil, nor between the state of nature and technical progress. There is only one quest, that of harmony between sentient beings.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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