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Review of The Moral Narratives of Hayao Miyazaki

By Kevin Cooley

Reinders, Eric. The Moral Narratives of Hayao Miyazaki. McFarland, 2016.

Eric Reinders’ The Moral Narratives of Hayao Miyazaki is almost what it sounds like and not at all what it looks like. Its cover is adorned with a worm’s-eye view of the Divine Tree at Kyoto’s Ujikami-jinja Shrine, its reverse side informing us that the volume’s author is a professor of East Asian religions at Emory University. Surely these visuals prepare us to expect a certain narrative: a rigorous theological parsing of the celebrated filmmaker’s more renowned works. And yet, Reinders offers something entirely different, sometimes by his own admission. What that something different is, however, is difficult to say. What can be definitively said about Reinders’ volume is that it is concerned with morality in Miyazaki’s films, and, without offering much in the way of a loaded thesis, that it hopes to inspire personal reflection on the complex ethics of these films. The closest we get to a clarification of Reinder’s rhetorical position is his claim that “my goal in writing this book is that people who have watched the films will read this book and say, ‘Hmm…’” (12). Enunciations of “hmm,” however, can come packaged with anything from meaningful meditation to exasperated head-scratching, and Reinders’ work offers opportunities for both.

Reinders promises a “religious reading” of most of Miyazaki’s films, but, for him, that term is “not thinking of institutional religions, nor thinking of any gods, but rather of religion as a general term for how we deal with fundamental problems and give our lives meaning,” a claim in which the word “religion” stands in for “how we find ourselves in meaningful stories” (2). How this act of self-discovery and interpretation differs from everyday close reading remains a bit unclear, but the volume is certainly structured as a tool for this kind of personal reflection. It works through each of the ten films that its scope permits it to in ten chapters, each in order of their release. Moral Narratives avoids the thematic or rhetorical arrangement a monograph with a more polemical edge might use to organize a broad corpus of primary texts. The move does not seem to be a consideration of chronological shifts in Miyazaki’s style as a kind of auteur figure (though Moral Narratives certainly does treat Miyazaki as an auteur, especially in its choices to elide works which were not feature length theatrical works or were not exclusively directed and written by Miyazaki.) Comments that track shifts in Miyazaki’s work as an auteur are not particularly common in Moral Narratives. The offhand sequence of the chapters seems to have been chosen simply because a series of moral close readings doesn’t require a particular order to make readers say “hmm.”

These ten examinations of Miyazaki’s better known films are introduced by a short primer titled “What Does a Story Mean?” This introductory essay wavers between peculiar rumination on basic storytelling concepts (one section is called “The Moral of The Story,” and lives up to its tired name) and refreshingly honest analysis disinterested with the trappings of academia. The latter is most evident in Reinders’ reading of Miyzaki’s tendency to write ambiguous, but emotionally affirming narratives, which Reinders brilliantly names “an embrace of the naïve” from “the standpoint of a critical and artistic maturity” which “suspends the jaded and angry qualities of his [Miyazaki’s] personality in order to preserve a fragile moment of emotional purity” (9). Each of the ten chapters picks through some of the given film’s dominant motifs in compartmentalized sections, rarely attempting to build thruways between these sections, it seems, in an effort to promote a meditative experience over a polemical one. Chapters typically conclude with a “Religion in…” section, where the film of the chapter is combed for overt references to religious rites, references, and practices. The ten readings are capped off by a concluding meditation “What Does to Live Mean?,” an interrogation of what one might call Reinders’ understanding of the “moral” of Miyazaki films at large: the imperative “live” in spite of the ethical paradoxes of life and the suffering they generate.

While they may lack a unified direction on the level of the volume as a whole, Reinders’ close readings can certainly sparkle, particularly when he unpacks the films’ complex relationships with specific traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism. His grounded reading of Nausicaa as “miko,” a servant at a Shinto shrine who performs spiritual cleansing rites, prepares us for the gradual and rough complication of moral situations that Reinders seems to track through Miyazaki’s films. When Reinders brings in the Buddhist notion of dependent co-origination, in which “hate and love are effects of some karmic heritage in [a] matrix of relationships, rather than arising from nowhere in our souls,” his musings on Princess Mononoke carry much more weight. Of course a world influenced by this ideology would be the home to the “superbly ambiguous” god-killer and  leprosy activist Lady Eboshi (29), the near-feral environmentalist San, and the pacifistic Ashitaka, whose “moral compass points to peace” but “fails to avoid violence” (112). How could these nuanced characters successfully match up with pure archetypes of hero or villain? We are prepared for Reinders’ conclusion that Princess Mononoke asks us to “step outside of a them/us binary” by this applied Buddhist ideology (110). In spite of his claim early in the book that “I am not looking for a theology in these films,” these applications of theology are the moments which not only seem promised by this title, but where his writing hits the hardest (2).

Even in an economy of meaning whose currency is the amount of times a reader can say “hmm,” Reinders’ theological interrogations of morality have greater value than his dispensing of morality (2). Just as often as he permits these different spiritual traditions to conflate, contrast, and mingle with Miyazaki’s morals, Reinders abandons them altogether to embark on moral tirades that teeter on the border of rumination and preaching. Sentences like “change is inevitable, things don’t look particularly good, but we don’t have any choice, so let’s just make an effort” plague each chapter as comprehensive summations of the definitive “moral” of entire films (104). Some of his least productive moralizing comes in a kind of neo-and-technophobic condemnation of a largely lumped-together youth culture. Taking a sharp left mid-analysis of Princess Mononoke, Reinders devotes some time to eulogizing over what he imagines as a culturally bankrupt youth:

“‘Live’ doesn’t mean fiddle with your electronic device while you’re crossing the road. When I ask college freshmen what they like to do in their free time, many will say ‘listen to music’ or ‘watch movies.’ Now there’s nothing wrong with listening to music or watching movies, but I always feel like they’re saying, “I like to sit around indoors and do nothing” (106).

Reinders then tells us what the message of the film (or perhaps, even more discouraging, all of Miyazaki’s films) is. “So the message is: do something,” he decrees, transitioning into a cherry-picked list of activities featured in the films that sounds like a Dick and Jane picturebook. “Try to make a flying bicycle on a low budget. Build a bird-like airplane out of wood, whether it actually flies or not. Make model airplanes. Make hats. Bake bread. Grow food” (106, italics Reinders’). The list goes on like this for about an inch of page space. With each entry, it veers farther from the steampunkish faith in the possibilities of technology that saturates Miyazaki’s work and toward a sugary and nostalgic technophobia.

With Spirited Away, his narrow view of youth and technology expands its target from real young people alone to include fictionalized onesFor him, Chihiro is a “spoiled brat” (a term he uses multiple times throughout the chapter) who is “so desperate she’s even forgotten to whine” and is “useless and in the way” when she begins her servitude at the bathhouse working in the boiler room (131). Reinders’ grounds his understanding of Chihiro’s character in what he sees as an antisocial shift in a near-global youth culture.

At times, his moralizing over Spirited Away obstructs his own readings of it. Reinders productively reminds us, for instance, that Spirited Away “really is a disgusting movie!” filled with “puke and blood and meat and mud,” all symbolic pieces in a game between nature and humanity (130). He’s perfectly willing to accept the unflinching physicality with which the film explores materials, bodies, and the functions of those bodies, but only as long as it works within his moral readings. Following this thread, he offers the masterful observation that “the bathhouse is a place where people consume people, sometimes literally, but also metaphorically: it’s a place that will chew you up and spit you out. Like working for any big company” (131). And yet, he lumps the common reading that Yubaba’s bathhouse is something of a metaphor for a brothel (which he only addresses in its darkest incarnation as “an elaborate metaphor for pedophilic prostitution”) amongst other fan theories that are “pure bunk, contrived out of selective fragments of evidence and unsubstantiated internet froth, and motivated by a desire to shock and sully” (134).

In a hurry to defend the sacrosanct status of his reading of the film’s morals from “shock and sully,” Reinders overlooks the value that this “froth” might bring to our readings of the film. Any critical conversation that could spring forth from comparing Chihiro’s journey toward adulthood, her negotiation of a changing body, and her grappling with the relationship between money, identity, and objects with prostitution is shut down on principle because it does not fit within Reinders’ moral paradigm. That there is a widely acknowledged basis for “yuna,” hot water women in the Edo period, to perform as sex workers does not factor into his treatment of this common reading. As Scott Clark’s, Japan, A View from the Bath notes, the term initially referred to “women at hot springs who assisted customers as the bath,” like Chihiro and Lin, and Clark elaborates that “these women [yuna] also provided entertainment by playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, and, in some places, providing sexual services” (31). Clark reminds us that “today the term ‘yuna’ generally refers to hot spring prostitutes” and that “the bathhouses’ growing reputation for sexual license and other forms of lax behavior” in the 1650s led to government restrictions on the amount of female attendants allowed at a bathhouse (31-32). Further research on this connection between the tradition of the yuna and Chihiro’s self-commodifying deal with Yubaba would undoubtedly have productive results, but Reinders would have us close down this strain because it does not fit his moral vision of the film. This, in spite of his early claim “I certainly make no claim to any definitive interpretation” (12).

Readers who might understandably expect Reinders to engage with the English-language scholarship on Miyazaki by scholars such as Dani Cavallaro, Jeff Lenburg, or Oscar Garza, will be surprised to hear only occasional whispers from these voices. Reinders’ archive is in many ways as odd as the book’s argumentative goals. Admitting that he has “found the English-language literature on Miyazaki rather frustrating,” Reinders claims that these scholars “leave little room for discussion on the films themselves” in their concerns with production procedures and technical processes (10). Reinders populates the absences of other scholars writing on Miyazaki with a bit of an oddball alternative: persistently resurfacing references to the Christian fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien. At times, the somewhat unanticipated comparison pays off. Reinders records that Miyazaki once derided American films for promoting the ideology that “as long as it’s an enemy you can kill as many people as you want” and Reinders extends the critique to Tolkien’s work, noting quite plainly “that’s true of Lord of the Rings too” (8). The quote and Reinder’s subsequent analysis of it stake Tolkien’s rigid and simplistic moral systems out as a counterpoint to Miyazaki’s, and readers might use this counterpoint to understand what Miyazaki is not. Here, the move pays off. The dismantling of this “us/them” binary Tolkien weaves his world around is crucial to Reinders’ readings of the majority of these films. In his reading of Ponyo, for example, Reinders calls Miyazaki’s resistance to the kind of moral logic Tolkien’s work relies on “a refusal to demonize” which makes the film “typical of Miyazaki” (157).

While a handful of tie-ins to Tolkien might help exemplify the opposite of Miyazaki’s fluid ethics, Tolkien’s omnipresence throughout the volume never quite justifies itself. Reinders treats connection after connection to Tolkien as self-evident, with the frequency and authority that Tolkien could only be attributed here if he were a scholar writing on Miyazaki. In an effort to contextualize his analysis of My Neighbor Totoro, Reinders references the Chinese fable “The Peach Blossom Spring,” and takes care to reflexively comment on this maneuver to his readers, asking “why did I bring up Peach Blossom Spring?” before he moves on to tell us (51). His much less orthodox and much more frequent incorporations of Tolkien are never prefaced this way: they are treated as if they justify themselves; as if the English high-fantasy writer working in the early twentieth century were the natural choice to comment on the Japanese animator working in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Reinders’ analysis of steampunk in Castle in the Sky must work through thickets of references to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Raymond Chandler’s prose, and a block of musings about Tolkien’s distrust of technology before it lets itself comment on how steampunk operates in this particular Miyazaki film (32-34)But by the time the section finally seems as if it’s going to make this analysisthe section takes a sharp and inexplicable left toward Dr. Who. The book references what it feels like referencing, from Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti to Pirates of the Caribbean and the BBC Three television series Being Human. Perhaps there is a hidden potential that this diverse and surprising archive might somehow offer to weigh in on how we think about Miyazaki’s films in the vein of Roland Barthes’ reflections on domestic objects in Mythologies, or, to pick an example a bit closer to home for Miyazaki’s visual work, Bart Beaty’s innovative formal approach to analyzing Archie comics in 12-Cent Archie. But the potential function of Reinders’ archival choices is largely obscured by a lack of reflection on their own unorthodoxy.

That is not to say by any means that the book does not offer opportunities for reflection. Moral Narratives may find a loving home on the bookshelf of a Miyazaki lover looking to relive the spiritual magic of his lively and meditative work. Those seeking a more rigorous engagement with the relationship between Miyazaki’s films and the theological, though, may find that Moral Narratives comes up short. Or, perhaps more appropriately, those seeking out a typical scholarly monograph may find that this kind of work is not the work that Moral Narratives wants to perform.

Works Cited

Clark, Scott. Japan, a View From the Bath. University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

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