Tag Archives: Hayao Miyazaki

Castle In The Sky

From: Castle in the Sky (1986, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

On a weekend visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, I was in their renowned Asian art gallery when I noticed it: an ancient Chinese painting of paradise. I stared at it for quite a while. It showed a floating landscape with hills and mountains. A spacious cave or hollow space at the center of this landscape contained what appeared to be a palace or city. There were symbolic elements in the picture, as well, but I won’t belabor all of the details. This painting influenced my own concept of paradise for a story I was writing at the time and which I am in the midst of slowly revising. When I went back to the museum on a subsequent visit, the painting was no longer on display. I have been unable to find it since.

Examples of floating cities or islands can be found in religion, art, literature, and animation. The book of Revelation mentions the new Jerusalem descending from heaven.  I doubt that this is what the artist of the following painting had in mind, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of concept. Since it shows a restored Temple of Herod along with the current mosques (not to mention the ruins and human figures in the foreground), this painting raises questions and draws the eye. Click on the image to see it in more detail.

Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox
Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox

The floating island of Laputa appears in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

From: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)
From: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)

 Everything I’ve said so far is background. Castle in the Sky from Studio Ghibli incorporates this idea and even borrows the name, Laputa, for its floating city. Without going into too many details, the story is centered around Sheeta, a descendant of a royal line with supernatural insight, and Pazu, the boy who befriends and helps her when he finds her floating down from the sky, as they try to foil the plans of the sinister Muska, another descendant of the royal line.

Sheeta and Pazu
Sheeta and Muska

The point of contention on which the characters are focused is a stone of mysterious power which is released by an incantation that only Sheeta and Muska know.

Sheeta wearing the Laputa stone

The city of Laputa, the apparent source of the stone,  is a supernaturally wonderful place corrupted in the past by the use of its power to develop destructive technology. Added construction has converted it into a fortress of cataclysmic capability. Their is an interesting scene in which all of the wrong-minded embellishments are stripped away to reveal the righteous and beautiful core of Laputa.

Laputa purified
Laputa purified

The animation is, as usual for a feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, wonderful, and the story is an imaginative blending of mythology, science fiction, and social commentary on war and environmentalism. Also typical for Miyazaki is the refreshing portrayal of self-sacrificing friendship between children of opposite sexes.


If you haven’t seen this one yet, I definitely recommend it.

Anime And Life

I moved to the small town in which I am currently living and working right out of graduate school over 25 years ago. Imagine going from a Big 10 university town to hearing a rooster crow somewhere outside your property in the morning. I could sometimes hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on the street out front. How you regard that says a lot about attitude and expectations, and that brings me to the point of this post.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

During Christmas at our home a few years ago, I was speaking with my son-in-law, Michael Greenholt. He is an animator who has worked for Disney/Toon Studios and is recently employed by Warner Brothers. I told him that I did not care for the general quality of anime, and he informed me that I needed to watch features directed by Hayao Miyazaki. As proof, he showed me My Neighbor Totoro.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

My attitude toward where I was living was, to say the least, under-appreciative. During this charming animation, I was struck by its sense of peace, pastoral simplicity, community, and appreciation of the simple features of relationships and rural life. I remember thinking, “I want that,” and then realizing, “Wait – I already have that.” It was all around me, and I had been disregarding it.


The story is a wonderful application of mythology to the mundane aspects of human life. Some benevolent spirits of various sizes help two sisters whose mother is ill and whose father is a university professor. There were images of the father grading papers in the quiet of their rural home, and I identified with what I was seeing. That might be the sequence which really got the wheels turning in my mind.


I have said before that good fantasy can give us a perspective from which to consider reality. The subject of this week’s offering is but one good example of how this has worked for me. Happily, I can say that I am much better acclimated to my surroundings as I write this some years later. Just this last Christmas, we were at Mike and my daughter’s house out in Los Angeles, and the family watched this movie again. In another conversation during that visit, my daughter zeroed in on a statement I made about the influence of expectations on our enjoyment. If we are expecting something else, we are less likely to enjoy what is in front of us, regardless of its quality. If we can expand our thinking, we can enjoy a wider variety of things in this life.


Additionally, I can say that slowing down and taking more time to enjoy less has the effect of expanding our sense of time. I believe that we live more fully and more deeply when we can achieve this relaxed state of mind. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to turn down the cultural noise, slow down, and get about the business of real living.


Graphic Mythology: Comparing Feminist Superheroes


It occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare feminist superheroes who also have some kind of connection to mythology. In saying this, I would like to emphasize that qualitative comparison need not equate to a ranking system. We are free to choose different favorites, and I think I have betrayed some of my preferences already. This post , then, is a kind of summary.

I made a lot of negative noise about Wonder Woman, and I really did little to nuance my statements. This was a deliberate attempt to stimulate discussion. What I must say now is that the validity of promoting or denouncing Wonder Woman as a feminist icon depends on which Wonder Woman you are talking about. My complaints centered mostly on certain aspects of her Golden Age portrayal by William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter.


Others have criticized her apparent domestication (i.e. adherence to more traditional female roles) in the Silver Age.



More recent portrayals have often shown her as angrier and darker and have given her a more unreasonable body image.



It should be noted that most of these representations are neither purely good nor purely bad. Critics can’t even reach a consensus on what good and bad actually are. Certain aspects of overall emphasis are what have drawn fire from different camps in different periods. In terms of her feminist record, this is a character with a checkered past. She even did a stint for a few years under the influence of Gloria Steinem. Like her or not, she is one of the most iconic images in comics.

Then, of course, there is her portrayal by Alex Ross and Mark Waid in Kingdom Come. I found nothing personally objectionable in this version, and I will write more about this next week. Of course, what satisfies me, might not satisfy someone else.


I have already intimated that Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson strike me as more reasonable feminist characters, and I appreciate the balance and maturity of their portrayals.



Two weeks ago, I cited Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki as another good example. Although she has her weaknesses, she is compassionate and gentle, and she has a spiritual connection to nature and the supernatural. She is also a capable warrior as well as an expert pilot.

nausicaa n


nausicaa p

So now that you’ve seen four of them side by side, so to speak, do you have a favorite?

Graphic Mythology: Creative Responsibility


What I have to say this week applies not only to comics but to writing in general. A couple of weeks ago, I lamented negative portrayals of women and children in graphic novels and used early issues of Wonder Woman to exemplify my arguments. While it might seem irrelevant to get upset about something that is obviously dated and silly in retrospect, I deliberately used images that would seem tame or even harmless. To be honest, some of the more current  images are so graphic that I felt it would have been in bad taste to include them in my post. I contend that the points I made are valid, and using seemingly inoffensive examples might actually encourage readers to take a more careful look at how they and the rest of society think. Fantasy isn’t real, but it has real consequences, good and bad. Keep in mind that Wonder Woman is often uncritically regarded as a feminist icon because she is a superhero and because she is a woman. It is good to read thoughtfully and to choose one’s heroes carefully.

Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.
Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.

Our modern mythology in western society is embodied primarily in movies, comics, and popular fiction. The key here is writing. For something to be seen, it first must be written. Our culture in general and fantasy entertainment in particular are saturated with damaging portrayals of women. Those of us who write have the opportunity and the responsibility to help reverse this trend. Compelling characters and stories can have tremendous influence on the attitudes of many people. I am not suggesting we write propaganda at the expense of story quality. This takes too low a view of our respective readerships. These are people who can and will think for themselves, but they will choose from available options. Let’s offer them something better.

Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J. J. Abrams.
Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J. J. Abrams.

It isn’t enough just to have lead characters who are female. This can lead us into an insipid numbers game which actually defeats our purpose and continues to feed the beast. We need to take a more qualitative look at what we are doing and why. The following comments are based on my own limited experience, so I would appreciate any additional insights you might care to contribute.


I have noticed some trends which have been lauded as steps in the right direction in fantasy writing. Most with which I am familiar simply involve the raising of awareness by describing unsettling societal issues and incorporating them into plot and character development. It is fairly easy to describe the mistreatment of women, somewhat harder to shed light on the internal suffering this causes them, and much more difficult to create solutions which can show us a way forward. For example, a plethora of female superheroes have been written with backstories of abuse and discrimination. If I can say anything about them as a group, it is that they are portrayed as damaged and often angry. Internal conflict is the base from which they combat evil, and they have a tendency to remain hurt, angry, and conflicted as they unsuccessfully try to exorcise their personal demons. In other words, they don’t often get better.


The challenge for fantasy writers, as I see it, is to begin with characters who are damaged and then make them believably whole. In doing this, care must be exercised to prevent the story from devolving into a predictable morality play. Some would argue that healthy characters aren’t as interesting, but I respectfully disagree. Would you rather have a conversation with a disturbed stranger or with one who is more balanced? Healthy characters can have as many, if not more, interesting facets to their personalities as those who are damaged. The trick, and it is not trivial, is to make them interesting in their damaged condition and then to make them even more interesting when they are whole. Then, of course, there is the type of female character who starts out from a good place and ends up in an even better one. These are relatively under-utilized roles in current fiction, and they represent considerable literary potential.


Folks (and especially guys), we don’t have to keep our female characters in chains. They can also be more fully clothed. Superheroines are good for more than ogling, DTR talks, catfights (and other girl-on-girl drama), sexual abuse, and even social statements. They and other female leads are deep wells with many unexplored possibilities. As in relationships with real women, we have only scratched the surface.


Graphic Mythology: A Good Example

So after all my carping, can I point to any positive examples of the portrayal of women in graphic novels? I hope I don’t sound too much  like Mr. Rogers, but sure I can. In fact, I already did (Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series). So let’s do another this week.


Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (written and illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki) is a manga comic that offers a very imaginative blend of environmentalism, militarism, sociology, political intrigue, and religion. Some reviewers have claimed that it mixes Christianity with Japanese animism. I personally enjoyed this series even more than I did Watchmen. It took me a lot further into a story which is relevant, sometimes gritty and fatalistic, but still inclusive of ideals.


The title character is one of the best female leads I have ever seen in a graphic novel. She is honorable, heroic, physically capable, intelligent, compassionate, and spiritually sensitive. And … she is dressed. This is not an over-sexualized character. Women in general are treated well in this series.


Let me state emphatically that this is more than just a comic. In terms of plot, theme, character development, and setting, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is truly a graphic novel. At over twice the length of Watchmen, it provides an engaging read. The view from the high road is indeed a good one.


Animated Mythology (Part 3)

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

So I might as well get my confession over with. I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, and he is one of the sources I go to when I need to recharge my creative battery. I could go overboard writing about his body of work. Instead, I will mention one more of his animated features before moving on to the works of two other animators in upcoming posts.

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

I found Princess Mononoke to be an interesting and sometimes visually  disturbing story. Aside from depicted decapitations and dismemberments, this illustrious director once again combined spiritual and ecological themes. In support of this, Miyazaki (as usual) really gets sky, wind, motion, and landscape right, and they seem to become subtle characters in his story. Combined with excellent sound (another consistent trait), these features helped to achieve an atmospheric feel conducive to the aforementioned themes. Throw in some complicated and nuanced characters, and you have some of the essential elements of good storytelling.

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

What stayed with me most, however, was the great forest spirit (or nightwalker). This was, for me, a truly interesting visual conception, and I liked the redemptive and restorative aspects of this character. It truly elevated the plot. Getting back to the idea of recharging my own creative battery, this is the kind of artistic product I like to view (or read) because it stimulates my imagination for the kinds of stories I myself want to write.

Animated Mythology (Part 2)

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.

Hayao Miyazaki is not only a brilliant animator but also an ingenius creator of new mythologies. Many of his animated features exhibit wonderful imagination and originality in this regard. A common device which he uses very effectively is anachronism, the combining of elements from different periods of history and prehistory.

Take, for example, Ponyo from 2008. It superimposes images of Devonian fishes and invertebrates on those of a more modern Japan. These serve as effective symbols of his ecological theme. Of course there is the mythological element as well. The title character is the daughter of a sea goddess (Granmamere) and a scientist/wizard (Fujimoto), and the ecological and spiritual themes are interwoven.

This story is a wonderful and beautifully drawn reinvention of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It is made more endearing by the truly touching portrayal of friendship between Ponyo and a little boy (Sosuke) to whom she becomes devoted. The supernatural love story aspect of the movie employs an element from many ancient mythologies: relationships between divine and mortal characters.

Next week, I will take a look at one more animated feature from this celebrated director.

Literary Legislation (Part 3)

In contradiction to how I ended my last post, I had an easier time then expected in finding a commendable female character from ancient mythology. Though she did not do anything particularly heroic, Nausicaa is described favorably in The Odyssey for helping Odysseus after he washes up on the shore of her father’s kingdom. Still, she was relegated to a role which was typical of the times. At least her mother, Queen Arete, was alleged to have been wiser even than King Alcinous, her father.

Nausicaa by Frederic Leighton, c. 1878
Nausicaa by Frederic Leighton, c. 1878

The compassion and nurturing nature of Princess Nausicaa in this tale by Homer evidently inspired the title characterfrom Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the manga comic series (and subsequent feature animation) by Hayao Miyazaki.

Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.
Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.

This character lives in a post-apocalyptic world of monsters, deities, and warring nations. Her mixture of humility, heroism, innocence, and femininity is a refreshing departure from an overworked device of more recent manufactured mythologies.

The device to which I alluded is a type of template for female heroes: sexual attractiveness (within narrow cultural stereotypes) combined with attributes more traditionally associated with men. The latter include anger, aggression, and violent capability. The right measure of tomboyishness adds nuance. Too much tends toward boring predictability and limitation, and I appreciate Miyazaki for avoiding this. As a general observation, he gets women and girls right, and he does so with insight, variety, and respect.

An example of a writer who did something similar (especially with younger characters) is  C. S. Lewis. Lucy Pevensie, Polly Plummer, and Jill Pole from various installments of The Chronicles of Narnia series are a few of the endearing and interesting personalities he invented. In The Silver Chair,  he used Jill in a subtle but clever plot development to demnostrate the ways in which adults demean younger girls. His social statement  was tangential to the main story line and not at all heavy-handed. Such critiques are often more effective when they are not emphasized.

1998 watercolor update of her 1953 original black and white rendering from The Silver Chair, Chapter 2
1998 watercolor update by Pauline Baynes of her 1953 original black and white rendering from The Silver Chair, Chapter 2
Jill is given a Task by Alice Raterree, from The Silver Chair, The Chronicles of Narnia
Jill is given a Task by Alice Raterree, from The Silver Chair, The Chronicles of Narnia

Finally, I must mention Meg Murry, a central character in the Time Quintet of Madeline L’Engle. Given the fantastic nature of these stories, she and her mother are still put across as intelligent and believable. It is good to read a constructed myth written from a female perspective in which the heroine is neither sexy nor violent. In fact, I wish there were more male figures like this as well.

Literary Legislation (Part 1)

A writer is something of an absolute monarch. In the domain of the author, literary legislation may be unilaterally enacted to improve the lives of women in created myth. This is not necessarily novel if the female character is divine or otherwise supernatural. Homer wrote reverently of “clear-eyed Athena” (the goddess of wisdom) in The Odyssey, and her assistance to both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, was instrumental in driving the plot forward.

Pallas Athena by Jan Styka
Pallas Athena by Jan Styka
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athen inspires Odysseus to take vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Fast forward, and switch media to Ponyo, the animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki. The sea goddess, Granmamere, is wise, kind, benevolent, and powerful. She has an uplifting and restorative effect on other characters in the story.

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008

In another beautifully made animation, The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore, there is the wood sprite, Aisling. She is a loyal friend who aids a boy in the completion of a righteous task despite dangerous opposition. She is also an interesting and well-conceived character.

Still shot from The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009
Still shot from The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009

By now, someone reading this has probably cried foul. I became aware in the 1960s that many feminists objected to the so-called “goddess image” as being a restrictive presentation of female identity which carries with it the burden of meeting unrealistic expectations. Their complaints did and do have merit, but it is important also to keep in mind that fiction is fiction. Such devices can be good for a story as long as they are handled responsibly. There is a literary spectrum in the presentation of women. If positive portrayals are limited to goddesses, excuses might be made for denying this respect to feminine characters who do not possess divine powers and who therefore more closely resemble women encountered in real life. Moving across the spectrum, I will address additional categories of female characters in my next two posts.