DM Haight

There is a substantial focus on science in the animated works coming from Japan. Films like Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo) and Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii) show the cyber-punk side of anime. The trend is a significant one, as there is a prevalent market for futuristic anime, because the imaginative possibilities of animation is only bound by what the hand can draw, and not by the limits of the human body. So why is it that Miyazaki seems to diverge from this trend? He does not follow the trend of cyber-punk. He has, instead, chosen to make films that have a different technological edge, one that is more magical, and yet at the same time altogether as aesthetically pleasing as any cyber-punk anime. Miyazaki seems to be partial to the steampunk style. His contraptions, such as the moving castle in Howl, or the airships in Castle in the Sky, or the submarine in Ponyo; all bolster his partiality toward non-standard modes of creating machines in animation. He doesn’t show the endless of wires, or the bounds of the internet (like in Mamoru Hosada’s Summer Wars). The plot devices of pirates, old-fashion automobiles, and airships are staples of the steampunk genre. These motifs foreground the idea of society and industrialism. Steampunk is very much a style and a genre based in an alternate history, mostly in the Victorian era, also known as the industrial revolution. And while Ponyo is most certainly exempt from this generic classification (although its source material most certainly is not, and is even one of the texts that have inspired the steampunk genre), it can easily be observed that Howl and Castle are both very much in that classification of an alternate history, one where we are dropped into a narrative that is propelled by steam and imagination. But there is a critique about the way this technology is used. In Howl, much of the technology is used for war, and it is the same for Castle in the Sky. The industrialization of the worlds of the films have made them lose sight of what they are as a people. Howl’s castle is used to preserve Howl, himself, and his friends. It serves a performative function in Howl’s dual identity enterprise. The same can be for Spirited Away, where the bathhouse is very much an industrialized institution.


In the spirit world, it is an iconoclastic presence that appears less fantastic and more surreal. It expresses anxiety with aspects of technology that are dehumanizing, yet still desired for their opportunities and conveniences; on the train itself, the passengers are faceless shadows without identity Rin, Chihiro’s friend and an employee of the bathhouse, however, also reveals to Chihiro early in the film her wish to someday “get on that train and get out of here.” The railroad, in that instant, becomes not a symbol of commodification but an opportunity for escape. While, in the first Japan, the father’s trust in technology and manufactured goods is a submission to pedagogy, technology can also function as a performative expression against “spiritual” institutions that are oppressive in their own way. From this perspective, even objects in the first Japan, such as the Oginos’ car, are not mere status symbols but legitimate enablers of movement. More than any other object in “Spirited Away,” the railroad demonstrates the ambiguous role of technology and manufactured items in Japan; they are neither wholly beneficial or detrimental, but a mixture of both. (Yang 449)


The role of technology is ambiguous. It’s a tool of escape and imprisonment in a world where everything we do is based on some form of technology. We rely on trucks to ship our goods, and we rely on computers to send the orders for those goods. But those trucks spew fumes into our atmosphere, and those computers suck up our lives. Miyazaki is showing us the awesome power of technology and its suppressive attributes over our lives. Many of his films show nature as just as beautiful as the technology he creates in his films. But it is often the technology, or the humans behind it, that destroys Nature. Some technology is on the verge of falling apart, while others are a means of war. The beauty of the machines that appear in disrepair comes from the fact that they serve a peaceful purpose, while the machines of war destroy everything in their path. It is a play on the morality of industrialization. Is it right to destroy nature for the improvement of humanity, or do we just use the limited technology we have until it crumbles into cogs and springs? These questions of morality are just what we come to expect from the work of Miyazaki.

The morality of Miyazaki’s works is based in the old realm of the fairy tale, of which morality is not the only element apparent. The fairy tale elements in Castle in the Sky are exceptionally blatant, with generic contrivances including princess’ being captured, a boy from the outskirts befriending her, pirates, magical jewelry, villains bent on kidnapping princes and taking jewelry. These are the staples of most Disney fare (e.g. CinderellaTangledAladdinAtlantis, etc.), as well as staples for most fairy tales, from Little Red Ridding Hood to The Little Mermaid. And very much unlike most of Miyazaki’s works, Castle in the Sky shows a particularly high number of deaths. As seen in films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, violence and death are mostly things to be dreaded. They are thoughts and ideas we don’t want to think over. But in Princess Mononoke, and Castle in the Sky we see the deaths and even the grotesque uses of death in the betrayals of one sect of authority by another. When Colonel Muska betrays the General, the General and a plethora of soldiers fall to their doom from a hole that opens up in the floor. When neither forces can come to terms in Mononoke, a battle breaks out, many animal spirits are slaughtered, and many men and women lose their lives. This violence is brutal, and often unwarranted, caused by selfish individuals who are out for personal gain. The violence solves nothing,

This is obvious in Howl, when war breaks out over the loss of a prince, who happens to be wandering the countryside with Sophie, as a scarecrow with a  turnip for a head (he was cursed until he found his true love). So the war over the lost prince results in nothing but useless death and destruction. The King relishes in the war, to the point of gleefully walking in on his advisor, who is talking to Sophie and a disguised Howl, saying that he has new strategies that will ensure his victory. Nothing is said of the prince, only the war. The King’s boastful nature is contrasted with that of Howl, who, if caught by Solomon, will have to fight in the war. The king doesn’t have to fight; to him the war is a game. But Howl’s life is at stake, and the country as a whole is falling into flames. Violence is represented in a stranger way in Ponyo, where, at the base of a cliff, Sosuke finds a fish in a bottle/jar. As he tries to release it, the waves come in, with glaring eyes watching Sosuke. The fish is Ponyo. She’s taken from the sea much like the prince is taken from his kingdom in Howl. The sea can do nothing, and when Sosuke runs up the hill, the sea tries to climb with him to take back Ponyo. While not overt violence, the way in which the eyes  of the sea are depicted make it seem malevolent, plotting. It wants to stop Sosuke at all costs.

The opening of Ponyo is a stark contrast to all this violence. It conveys a theme Miyazaki expressed in Mononoke–Life. Plain and simple. Our descent into the ocean shows a multitude of life, ever evolving, ever expanding. It is the visual articulation of what the planet, through the eyes of a Miyazaki narrative, has to offer. The vibrancy, the variety of life we all experience is created, in Ponyo, in part, through the use of magic. And the commentary here is amusing, since it is because of a passionate, overbearing father that all of this is possible. Unintentionally god-like, this father is more closely related in film to an obsessed scientist, perhaps an homage to Captain Nemo. He sits in the depths of the ocean, in his bubble, and obserPonyo: a defiance against what is expected of us as we grow older. Miyazaki seems to be telling his audience that we need not become bitter, just believe that there is good in the world, and exercise that belief through ourselves and help create and preserve these creatures he so diligently looks after and commands. It is easy to see the blending of the Captain Nemo character with that of Ponyo’s father: they both hate dry land, only surfacing in case of necessity, and they both despise the humans and what they do to the sea. The obvious commentary is that Miyazaki has taken a decidedly pro-eco stance, especially when we can observe birds and fish washing up on shore with trash surrounding them. The film’s not-so-hidden message is about pollution control, and the way in which we see the contrasted characters of Ponyo and her father is perhaps the greatest tool the film has to offer. It depicts the extremists: the one who has to use a technology simply walk on land, the one who is detached from society, spiteful of his own race. And then it shows the one who is willing to grow and evolve and find the good in people, the one who wants to be a part of the society, of a family. Ponyo’s father is the one we like to make fun of, the one we like to ignore, the one who shouts the loudest, the one who is willing to go to any lengths to be heard. Ponyo is kind, sweet, cute, small, childish, and pure, but still stands for the same ideology. It seems that the overarching trope for most of Miyazaki’s films–kindness–is what will ultimately win out over harsh feelings and angered voices. The simplicity of the concept is just like

 Works Cited

Yang, Andrew. “The Two Japans of Spirited Away.” International Journal of Comic Art. 12. 1

              (2010). 435-52. Print.

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