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Review of Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences

By Michael Hale

Ogihara-Schuck, Eriko. Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences. McFarland, 2014. Print.

Eriko Ogihara-Schuck’s Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences is a chimera made up of one part cultural analysis, one part film study, and one part visual rhetoric analysis. While there are aspects of Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad that will appeal to both casual and academic audiences with an interest in learning more about Miyazaki’s films and their animistic content, the overall nature of the text itself is dominantly academic due to the mixture of complex language usage and the references to obscure textual evidence and research. As she states in the Preface, Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad began for Ogihara-Schuck “out of my PhD dissertation” (ix).

Considering the very broad appeal which surrounds Miyazaki’s films, it is a fact that Animism Abroad is an academic book first and foremost. McFarland Books, the publisher that released Animism Abroad, is well renowned for their works on anime scholarship, works such as Anime and the Art of Adaptation by Dani Cavallaro, among others. Animism Abroad deserves its place alongside these authoritative texts; the text primarily has scholars in mind as a primary audience, although there is still a wealth of content within the pages for even casual fans of animation and anime. Plenty of works exist that discuss anime, but few deal with spirituality and Japanese animation in detail, let alone focus on a single creator as famous as Miyazaki. It is a credit to Ogihara-Schuck’s scholarship and writing quality that, even amidst what is obviously a re-purposed dissertation, there are sections from almost every part of the book that are deeply engaging and genuinely thought provoking.

Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad consists of three chapters that tackle topics ranging from an analysis of animism and Japanese religious and spiritual history to analytical sections that focus more specifically on various Miyazaki films. The book’s Introduction fleshes out the core premise of the text: there are misunderstandings about animism in the West and Miyazaki’s films present a good way to explore not only these elements, but also how the West interacts with them through film culture. The Introduction moves swiftly into exploring the definition of animism as a term that references the spiritual capacity for the Japanese to see a divine essence within the animate and inanimate alike. The Introduction also addresses the fact that early Western scholars such as Edward B. Taylor posited that such views were distinctly “primitive” and that animism was merely a foundational phase of divine comprehension rather than a unique mode of comprehension in itself. Ogihara-Schuck’s inclusion of Taylor in her exploration of how animism has been understood in the West helps establish one of the fundamental issues at the heart of the text. Ogihara-Schuck problematizes Taylor’s understanding of animism as being primitive, thus allowing her to expand on and illuminate animism, how the Japanese understand animism in terms of their own spiritual traditions, and how animism fits into dialogue with animation scholarship.

Scholars will certainly benefit the most from the Introduction since it is here that Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad defines the various concepts Ogihara-Schuck uses to foreground her ideas, particularly that of “Openness,” “Foreignization,” and “Domestication.” For Ogihara-Schuck, openness is directly linked to the idea that “both anime and animism can be characterized as flexible, dynamic, and inclusive, having evolved while interacting with a variety of cultural traditions” (15). The book also quickly establishes that Miyazaki’s books, Starting Point and Turning Point, are foundational sources for Miyazaki’s ideas concerning openness, animism, environmentalism, spirituality, and politics. Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad, then, is an impactful companion to Miyazaki’s books, mainly because Ogihara-Schuck expertly weaves Miyazaki’s words into a contextual narrative alongside other Japanese scholars and public figures. While those seeking an in-depth guide about Shinto and Kami should turn to A New History of Shinto by John Breen, Ogihara-Schuck does well with her engagement on the subject of Japan’s religious and spiritual traditions considering how many things her book is already juggling.

The nature of Ogihara-Schuck’s work changes drastically as soon as Chapter One begins. Entitled “Animism Challenges Monotheism: Disasters and Japanese Reception of Hayao Miyazaki’s Films,” Chapter One comprises three sub-sections that help space out the reading and allow Ogihara-Schuck to talk about different aspects like Japanese religious traditions in detail without completely seeming to stray from Miyazaki or his films. Ogihara-Schuck uses the first of the Chapter One sub-sections, “Hayao Miyazaki and Animism Discourse,” to help readers learn where Miyazaki’s view of animism, a view first established in his book Starting Point, fits into a larger spiritual and intellectual tradition among Japanese thinkers, particularly through addressing philosopher Takeshi Umehara’s influence on Miyazaki. The second sub-section, “Spirited Away and the Terrorist Attacks of September 11th, 2011,” proves Ogihara-Schuck’s strength in selecting effective examples of Japanese media sources and spiritual figures who provided analysis on Miyazaki’s films, monotheistic culture, and various world disasters that occurred at the time. This kind of information is the best material that the work lends to the conversation about Miyazaki, something missing from other works which tend to re-explore Studio Ghibli history or simply provide summaries of his films.

The biggest flaw with Chapter One in particular is that there is no direct discussion of film or animation and the politics and analysis again distracts from the elements which were previewed for discussion in the Introduction, specifically how anime contained a “medial quality” that was based on a “unique combination of verbal, visual, and audio texts” (18). Thankfully, all chapters in Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad do yield a return on time investment, but Chapter Two more effectively delivers on the author’s proposed investigation of medial elements with ties to spiritual animism in Miyazaki’s films and how these distinct elements play for Western audiences with a different comprehension of what that spiritual tradition entails.

Chapter Two, “Does Monotheism Challenge Animism?: Transitions of American and German Adapter’s Approaches,” provides not only the best material in the book, but also a genuinely amazing insight into film translation. While she handles several of Miyazaki’s films, Ogihara-Schuck puts the most important work into discussing the history of how Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was originally released in the U.S. as Warriors of the Wind, a 1985 version of Miyazaki’s film with serious revisions, edits, and changes that perfectly illustrate the differences in American and Japanese cultural approaches to film and animation. Ogihara-Schuck provides extreme due diligence in her exploration of textual line changes, musical translation, and even theatrical poster content. Chapter Two is not only a goldmine of analysis about Miyazaki’s films on a level that other, more casual works might not have the patience to investigate, it helps show that the academic set-up is effective. The “behind the scenes” style exploration of Miyazaki’s films and how they were adapted/translated, coupled with scholarly analysis of animistic and spiritual elements, resonates powerfully in this chapter. Ogihara-Schuck tells about how Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind‘s transformation into the U.S. Warriors of the Wind resulted in Miyazaki’s animism-focused elements, such as the Ohmu insect from the Japanese poster (“an important animistic motif in the Japanese film”), being edited out of the U.S. posters (63). Chapter Two proves to be one of the most fascinating chapters of the text since it is here that Ogihara-Schuck explores the medial elements within Miyazaki’s films, specifically the visual and audio qualities. Ogihara-Schuck’s maneuvering between so many visual and audio elements throughout Chapter Two with approachable and dynamic language makes it an enjoyable read for all audiences.

Chapter Three, “Animism and Visuals: Religious and Non-Religious Reviewer’s Responses,” serves as a bit of a decline for the book as a whole, though this is of limited fault of Ogihara-Schuck. After the success of Chapter Two and the nature of the author’s broad film exploration, an examination of how critics viewed various Miyazaki films at the time of their release simply cannot compare, although Ogihara-Schuck continues to apply her razor-focused analysis of translation. She mainly discusses translation in regards to how Western media outlets translated certain Japanese words with specific spiritual connotations into words without the same impact in English and German. This chapter also helps to clarify elements which Ogihara-Schuck established as points of interest from the Introduction, particularly “Foreignization” and “Domestication.” Both terms are drawn from the work of Lawrence Venuti, with foreignization meaning how attempts are made to “restrain the ethnocentric violence of translation” (29). Ogihara-Schuck’s use of domestication details how efforts can be made to “assimilate a foreign text into the target audience’s culture” (27). Chapter Three provides examples of how Westerners connect to Miyazaki’s films. The author uses examples that focus on how Miyazaki’s animism-centric elements, such as Kami in Princess Mononoke or magic in Spirited Away, might be retained in U.S. editions of Miyazaki’s films to emphasize themes that promote foreignization. Likewise, Chapter Three also shows where these same elements from Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are changed in German translations of Miyazaki’s films to promote domestication.

Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad is certainly directed towards an academic audience, with direct citations of scholars and the use of academic jargon. Academics with an interest in the difference between Japanese and Western spiritual traditions who need easy-to-absorb examples, as well as any scholar studying Miyazaki, Japanese film, or even the Fukushima 3/11 disaster and its impact on Japanese society, will find Ogihara-Schuck’s work of great interest. While the book itself has very few footnotes, the Bibliography section provides a lavish map of scholarship for those who do wish to use the text as an academic source. While non-academic audiences will find Miyazaki’s books Starting Point and Turning Point, or even the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness by Mami Sunada, more accessible, Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad tackles the nature of animism within Miyazaki’s films with great passion and research, enough that fans of Miyazaki from all circles should give the work a chance.

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