It is common knowledge that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films are a gold mine for philosophy. Each of his works contains a thousand and one aesthetic, narrative and allegorical nuances. If the Japanese director sometimes denies having wanted to express ideas that would have been too hastily lent to him, the cinematographic objects that he offered to our experience remain the occasion for strong socio-political and metaphysical reflections. A nostalgic return to some of these prodigious compositions, over the doubts they arouse in us.
Born in the heart of the war, in a Japan bombarded by the United States, Miyazaki grew up in a dichotomous setting: between green countryside and skies suffocated by aerial fire. Comics are his first love, but animation quickly catches up with him. After adapting his saga Nausicaä on the big screen, a worldwide success, he directed several feature films under the direction of his new studio, co-founded with his friend Takahata: Ghibli.
His productions then stand out by their incomparable technical ingenuity and scriptwriting. Rich in meaning, the initiatory journeys of his characters seem to echo our condition indefinitely. Their tour de force? Without ever having needed to give in to Manichaeism, they have always succeeded in effectively emphasizing the faults of man, like all the beauty of our world and of our humanity. Let’s walk through five of Miyazaki’s most iconic works, in light of the overwhelming questions they inspire.
My neighbor Totoro : gaiety, a forgotten power?
My neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, is one of the Japanese favorite Miyazaki. We follow the childhood of Mei, 4, and Satsuki, 10, in the countryside where they had to move to get closer to their seriously ill mother. While joyfully exploring the surrounding forest, the two sisters meet magical creatures, including the Totoro, a huge comforting animal, which does not need to speak to express itself. Yes Totoro is so unique is that Miyazaki dressed him in a rare atmosphere, that of gaiety, a deep and complex gaiety which does not leave us indifferent: would we regret this state of enthusiasm which seems to belong only to children?
Totoro, it’s several long minutes of laughter and as many communicative smiles. As for the music which transcends the expeditions of Mei and Satsuki, it is finely composed by Joe Hisaishi on a crescendo winning rhythm: the refrain of “Tonari no Totoro” alternates the joyful major chords and nostalgic minor chords to conclude with a major take-off: joy ultimately wins. The lyrics whisper it to us too: “If you can meet him, this feeling of happiness | You too will feel it ”. But access to this nirvana is restricted: “Only during childhood, we can come and see you | Mysterious meeting ”. These verses translate a universal drama: we do not know when or how, but, one day, we ceased to be carefree and free. If the lack is real, the memory of this state remains vague and distant. Modern society is bringing us back faster than ever to this state of disenchantment.
But did this quasi-magical period really exist or did we fantasize about it? Childhood also has its torments that we sometimes elude in favor of an ideal: the purity of the youthful gaze. Mei and Satsuki are worried and sad for their mother and Totoro is an escape route … But all the same, they have access to this idle playfulness. For what reasons does it evaporate one day? Should we allow ourselves again, in full adult consciousness, this idleness considered unproductive, this walk without plan, this snub to utilitarianism ? And if we dared to come back to it, would it still be enough for us?
Kiki’s Delivery Service : take the time to learn, an inaccessible ideal?
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is one of the most ordinary Ghiblis. Except that Kiki is an apprentice magician perched on her broomstick, the decor and the meetings are rather conventional. A welcoming baker, naughty children and a loving friend. Everything takes place against the backdrop of a rather lively small coastal town.
But in this way, the light and voluptuous paintings of the animated film offer the opportunity to think about time. There is the suspended time of contemplation thanks to luminescent landscapes with vivid colorimetry. That of boredom and simple occupations like when Kiki watches the counter in the shop. And there is the time of learning which cannot be measured, cannot be compressed.
Kiki, sent away from her family for a year as is the tradition of witches, is called upon to contribute to Osono’s bakery in exchange for food and lodging. Her free time, she occupies it looking for herself. Sometimes mischievous, sometimes compassionate, she oscillates between the different spontaneities of pre-adolescence. But are we still entitled to this time? In a society where we have to know and prepare our future earlier and earlier, even though we barely have time to understand who we are, is there still time to get lost? Fail, stagnate, branch off, turn back, are all necessary steps, subject to the chronometer of our competitive system.
How to overcome the injunction to haste? And if we are successful, how much time should we be allowed? One thing is certain, growing up, the years often seem shorter. Miyazaki reflects this wonderfully by plunging us back into a broad, spacious childish time, which seems more made for digressions than for decisions …
Spirited away : is the consumerist temptation surmountable?
The two most famous scenes from Chihiro when we talk about the criticism of overconsumption are the metamorphosis of parents into pigs and the insistent material proposals of the Faceless. But another aspect of the film could awaken in us a sudden awareness of our widespread consumerist obsession…
Spirited away, released in 2001, is an extremely rich object, both symbolically and visually as well as in terms of script. Chihiro is a child who falls into the ghostly universe of an old abandoned amusement park. Characters as elaborate as each other, including the giant baby Bô and the old twins Yubaba and Zeniba, precipitate the little girl in a series of adventures culminating in an ultimate mission: deliver the dragon boy Haku, a river spirit. An act of altruism that will allow him to find his parents and in reality.
Indeed, in this spectral universe, we forget our name, our identity, that’s what links us to our daily reality. Man consumes products, products consume products and products consume Man: quickly, addiction sets in. Are we buying to forget ourselves? And remembering who we are, is that enough to refuse temptation? Is our metamorphosis into a nameless consumer still reversible? Finally, are we even fit to want it to be?
Princess Mononoke : nature or progress?
Nature is a mother to the Japanese, so why destroy it? Here is a particularly tenacious paradox, directly visible in contemporary Japanese society, suspended between industrial zones and countryside preserved from everything except pesticides. The islanders respond to it with a certain logic: if Man comes from nature, then everything he creates, including modernization, is also the result. Since today such reasoning is no longer sufficient to justify the abuses of progress, that nature is suffering to the point of causing a chain reaction that risks eliminating us, how to overcome this syllogism?
Princess Mononoke, or San, is the figure of an indomitable and proud nature. She is on the side of the forest gods and the wolves who raised her. But Mononoke means “Vengeful spirit” in Japanese: and it does not intend to spare humans! Lady Eboshi, at the head of the industrial city within a community of women, wants to kill the deer-god. She is the embodiment of the conquest of power at the sacrifice of nature : hunting, deforestation, pollution. But it is also in solidarity with human misery, coming to the aid of lepers. In the midst of the conflict between these two symbols: stands the warrior Ashitaka. Wounded in the arm by a demonic boar, he wants to understand what transformed the animal: on the back of his faithful Yakuru, he advocates peace, temperance, and a desire to reconnect with nature.
The trio gives food for thought without ever setting a definitive answer. Would nature not be right to decimate the Men who have bruised it? But is not our humanity also legitimate in favoring its fellows, in the urgency of immediate suffering? Although: what does “similar” mean? Who fixes our differences? And how far is progress which allows the preservation of the human species necessary? Is nature necessarily its enemy? Is there still time to reconcile? And if so, are our societies even ready to assume the demands of such harmony, with all the necessary radicalism?
Ponyo on the cliff, Is Man a fish like the others?
One day, in an exceptional marine setting born from a color chart of hypnotizing blues and an absorbing fluidity of pictorial movements, Brunehilde, a playful little fish girl invites herself into the life of the young and adorable Sosuke who decides to name her Ponyo. The two friends are busy forging sincere bonds, while the gods of the seas panic and make roar on the cliff and the retirement home of the Sunflowers real sea storms to prevent this supernatural rapprochement.
Indeed, the spirits of the sea are furious with humans destroying their habitat, by dumping their waste there. Sosuke, far from these problems, is still amazed by the aquatic horizon with infinite moods. He welcomes Ponyo with a lot of love and tries to share his passion for her with other humans who are sometimes not very compassionate. Whatever, the little guy continues to cultivate strong bonds with his friend who has since transformed into a little girl, then became a semi-anthropomorphic fish again. He comes to declare that he will still love his companion, whatever her form.
Is friendship possible between two different species? When did we rise above the animals that we are? Is it the form – our bodily envelope – that prevents us from thinking of similarity? Does their capacity for attachment or love make less sense than ours? Their existence too? How much are they like us? And how ready are we to think they aren’t, because unlike Ponyo, they don’t have our face or our language?
Without a doubt, the strength of Hayaho Miyazaki’s works and his teams is probably to ask more questions than to answer them, often leaving the viewer to face himself. As with any cultural work, everyone is free to penetrate the intellectual labyrinths that lead to both singular responses and a collective outcome. Because behind his films, there is a desire to transform reality, by planting discrete seeds of benevolence in millions of minds.
As the beloved designer and director himself said: “Making a film is changing the world. Even if nothing changes! “
To go further: Philosophy with Miyazaki, 4 Chemins de la Philosophie podcasts on France Culture.
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