DM Haight

Throughout Miyazaki’s works, we see this idealic side of the great director. He is a naturalist, conservationist. In Ponyo we see this side of Miyazaki in the way he employs the wrath of the sea as a creature, in and of itself. It moves and is governed by forces that make it powerful, often taking on the visage of fishes to attack the land the humans have made their own. This is the personification of nature revolting against man. Much the same concept, but with less violence, is presented in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, where the spirits of the forest come to life to defend against the human invasion. In a sense Mononoke’s spirits, and those of Ponyo, can be summed up as follows:


      …Princess Mononoke and Power craft nonhuman deities who insist on the fragility of their role in    narrating cross-species intimacies, amid ongoing wipeouts of cultures and species. What they categorically refuse, however, is any characterization on the human as isolated from, let alone elevated above, the lives of other species. As rhetorical devices developed to intervene in conditions of representational crisis, animal gods enable these narratives to frame questions of historicity in terms of agency, not subjectivity, suggesting that shifting perspectives beyond human identity forms and into shared imaginative spaces may prove the most significant aspect of multi-species narratives in our time. (McHugh 13)


Miyazaki’s desire to produce films that instigate conversations like this is almost systematic. In many of his films audiences can see him tackling these issues of cultural extinctions. It changes the view of the world in those who pay close attention and allow the stories to be told. In Ponyo, it is the sea coming to life, the vast diversity of it deciding that it will no longer survive. The upheaval of the social order by the end of the film, and the tranquility and acceptance of the characters of both worlds is a hopeful message of compromise. Ponyo, for all its faults, has a strong message that resonates with the rest of Miyazaki’s work. The sentiment is obvious: the world is fragile, and destroying what we have will only lead us to ruin. The way Miyazaki portrays the world is as something fighting for its life, while humans seem to be fighting for an easing of their lives, a bit more simplicity. Miyazaki is commenting on how little the majority of the world thinks of its impact on the planet. He sees us as having forgotten our history, and shows us that we can respect the natural world and maybe find a better happiness than we have now. It’s a unique way of getting the message out to the populace, and it’s easy to see that Miyazaki himself is passionate about the issues at hand. He can see that nature, in these works, is not about to lie down and die for humanity.

It’s the continued theme of nature preserving itself against humanity’s attacks against it. This theme is used multiple times throughout Miyazaki’s works, and it is an interesting contrast to such films as My Neighbor TotoroHowl’s Moving Castle, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, where nature is merely an aspect of the film, an aesthetic. But even here Nature seems to play a vital role in the vitality of the characters, as Mei and Satsuki shout at the top of their lungs, after having rocked a rotting support beam back and forth, “It’s collapsing!” They then run in their yard, with a back drop of a forest, and a huge tree popping over the treetops, a fantastic symbol of Nature at it’s most mighty. The house’s state of disrepair is a symbol of the reality in the world. Human structures fade and collapse, but the fantastical, the beautiful, the natural can survive far longer than any pillar of human existence, or human achievement. The rigidity and beauty and wonder of nature stands against Humanity’s frailty, and in fact, Nature often takes back what humanity leaves behind. This is evidenced in the house the girls and their father inhabit. It is literally falling apart, infested with soot gremlins/sprites, who belong to a spiritual world, and not the reality from which the girls are seemingly being forced from.

The girls are taken from their former home and moved to the country. The story is set in the fifties, while the fallout from WWII is still being felt, and the girls are moved to the country because their mother has an illness, possibly one caused by bombings. This illness is never elaborated upon, and nor does it need to be. The story is focused on the girls and their transition from one place to another. Their innocence is being tested, their being allowed to be young, even childish, in a Japan that has had terrible things transpire in its very recent past. The bombings were a stripping of national innocence. “On the one hand, children can experience My Neighbor Totoro as a fairy tale of friendship between the creatures of the forest and the children. On the other hand, the film engages the adults’ attention with its thoughtful examination of the ways children and parents cope with illness and suffering” (Prunes 45). The simplicity of the story is what brings to life the fairy tale aspect: there are creatures, helping the girls with the transplant they have faced. It’s a tale about making friends, and trusting one another in times when we are vulnerable. The unique feature of moving to the country is that the girls are made to do chores, which is considered boring in the way suck tasks are portrayed in other films. But the chores are made into games and looked at as a means of entertainment in the house the girls and their father now inhabit. Their innocence is maintained by the chores society has deemed as a way of losing childhood, as a waste of a child’s time when he or she could be playing. But in the country, the girls find peace and fun in the manual work, and they enjoy the work, using it to further explore their surroundings in their new home. Meanwhile, the father finds the new home a welcome relief, a way to stay close to his children, a way to watch them grow up. The attachment the girls have with their mother is intense, so the father has to double his efforts and encourage his children to play, to simply so they can be children. The film also shows the grief a child faces in the absence of a parent, as the girls must grow to a certain extent to understand that circumstances happen, and cannot be changed, no matter how much they hope. A crucial scene at the beginning of the film’s climax shows Mei crying and Satsuke telling her that their mother might die. Satsuke is harsh, and Mei runs away. Satsuke’s voracity is the breaking point of the family unit, the red mark on their happiness. Mei is struck down for having a desire to see her mother home, and it is Satsuke, who is her sister’s protector, who drops her into a reality that Mei does not yet understand.

While exploring the surroundings of their home, Mei wanders into the forest, and stumbles upon a hole in a tree. She peers down, and falls, much like Lewis Carol’s Alice does, into a wonderful world (although it is the same world Mei already inhabits). It is here that we meet Totoro, a large, cat-like creature who roars and sleeps as Mei sits on his large tummy, butterflies fluttering above her head. She then falls asleep on him. This sense of trust she gives over to Totoro shows just how precious her innocence is, and how much she has to lose. Her father even remarks how Mei is beginning to get heavy, a statement that’s very telling of how quickly she is beginning to grow up. This suggests that soon she will lose the innocence that makes her such a loving character. And there is a very interesting connection with Mei’s growing up, and Satsuki being given an umbrella by Kanta. Kanta forces the issue of giving the umbrella while a downpour is going on across the countryside, and when Satsuki takes it, he runs away. But the way in which he grows a smile, and begins to take large leaps suggests a great elation, an accomplishment on his part. He has a crush on Satsuki, and he was a gentleman. Of course, just to ground his character, we seem him playing with a model airplane only minutes later. Innocence, throughout Totoro, is something worth cherishing, even for the sceondary characters, because it is a valuable commodity in a Japan that has faced devastation. It’s the grasping of an ideal in a time of trauma, a time of uncertainty.

Works Cited

McHugh, Susan. “Being Out of Time: Animal Gods in Contemporary Extinction Fictions.”

              University of Tasmania. 25. 2 (2010). 1-16. Print.

Prunes, Mariano. “Having It Both Ways: Making Children Films an Adult Matter in Miyazaki’s

              My Neighbor Totoro.” Asian Cinema. 14. 1 (2003). 45.55. Print.

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