Notes on Takahata & Miyazaki

The previous article on this blog, dedicated to Anne of Green Gables, contains a detailed discussion of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki’s respective artistic evolutions between 1976 and 1979. I originally planned to extend it with a digression on the wider differences between two men’s styles. But this would have gone slightly off-topic and made the article far too long (as if it weren’t already), so I decided to include it in a separate piece – this one. It contains some more remarks about Anne of Green Gables, but also about Takahata and Miyazaki’s work in Ghibli. It may be a bit messy, as I’ve taken the opportunity to write this in a more spontaneous way; I hope you don’t mind and still appreciate this piece.

If we take a step back from Anne and get a more general look at their respective careers, it becomes apparent that the transition from Marco to Anne is the point where Takahata and Miyazaki start to really diverge. As we will see, it is already possible to analyze Marco in two completely different ways, but then Conan and Anne are the first real expression of each man’s individual “auteur” style – in the sense that they lay the groundwork for their future work to a degree that Hols, Panda Kopanda and even Heidi don’t. Basically, what both works set up are very different understandings of storytelling, and notably of the concepts of “space” and “place”.

To introduce this discussion, I’d like to start with a certain Japanese term: furusato. Defined by Lindsay Morrison as “the home of the heart”, the word has a long and complex history since the late 19th century, and is today often considered to be a core element of Japanese national and individual identity. Quickly put, the furusato is one’s homeland – that is a place of origin or birth, or where one belongs and must come back to. In cultural representation, it is often associated with an idealized rural countryside. But the furusato isn’t just a place: it’s also associated to a certain temporality and affect – what Jennifer Robertson calls “nostalgia for nostalgia”. Furusato expresses a longing for the past as a repository of traditional values and identity. But as it also constitutes a place to come back to, it also entails an aspiration for the future – to come back to it one day.

This is a very brief and oversimplifying presentation, but I hope it will be enough for the point that I’d like to make here, which is that Takahata’s and Miyazaki’s difference starting from 1976-1979 can be seen as a difference in the way of integrating furusato into their narratives.

For Takahata, the “place” in which the narrative is situated is fundamentally a certain “land” with geographical and social characteristics. This was already visible in Hols, as the area in which the action takes place is thoroughly characterized by its material dimension: the village is next to a river, but when its stream is blocked or when a predator lives upstream, all the villagers suffer from it; the forest surrounds it and is populated by wolves; even the mythical beings that inhabit Hols’ land are part of this, as they create layers of history and legend that permeate the entire world. Marco is of course another relevant example, as the representation of Genoa is regulated according to geographical and social criteria: up and down, horizontal and vertical.

Except in Marco (as we will see later), for Takahata this land and the community associated with it are not given: they have to be found, eventually fought for. Hols, Heidi and Anne do not originate from either the village, the Alps or Avonlea; they are brought there from the outside and have to integrate. Such is also, with some notable variations, the narrative of The Tale of Princess Kaguya: that of an outsider who is never allowed to fit in, or refuses to because that would entail losing what she believes to be her own identity.

Anne remains the best example of this dynamic, and perhaps the one where the concept of furusato makes its first, unambiguous appearance. In one of the late episodes, Matthew says to Anne: “This [Green Gables] is your home now” – or rather, “this is your furusato now”. This line is essential, because it explains why Anne was such a good fit for Takahata, and perhaps why it was so successful in Japan: the entire novel is about finding one’s furusato. Anne’s final decision of remaining in Avonlea to care for Marilla is not simply an act of kindness or a gesture through which Anne embraces “feminine” virtues of sacrifice and care for others. It is also the symbolic rejection of the outside world and of the “city” in favor of the furusato – Anne remains in Avonlea because that is where she fundamentally belongs. The fact that, following Muraoka’s translation, the Japanese title is Red-Haired Anne tends to erase the spatial dimension that is already present in the title of Montgomery’s novel; but the anime constantly reminds us of it, with one of the most recurring insert songs calls Anne out under the name of “Anne of Green Gables”.

That Anne is fundamentally about furusato-zukuri – the act of finding and creating one’s furusato – also explains its temporal dimension. As I explained above, furusato is a temporal concept: where one comes from (in the past) and where one will come back to (in the future). For the anime to follow Anne’s growth throughout the years is a way to match this temporal dimension, as the process of adopting the land and its people and being adopted by them is one that takes time.

Of course, when discussing Takahata and furusato, the most obvious example is then Only Yesterday. Only Yesterday is particularly fascinating in that it multiplies temporal and spatial layers in order to multiply the possible instances of furusato, before folding them back not in a specific “land” but instead in subjectivity – that of the protagonist Taeko. Indeed, the movie seems to share the common, conservative, view of furusato as a site of longing, the lost origin that the Japanese urban population has lost. And while it ends up submitting to that view in its ending, it complexifies it in two ways.

One is its focus on subjectivity; while it is marked by longing and frustration, Taeko’s past is also a prime place of affects, which appear far more powerful to the viewer than the rest of the movie – until the film’s finale, when the past’s affective power joins the present and brings Taeko back to the furusato where she really belongs, not the city but the countryside. On the other hand, the movie consistently refuses to consider the countryside as a general, abstract place – it remains a specific, historically and socially determined “land”. In that, Only Yesterday stands against a common tenet of furusato ideology and its evolution, as it derives from an essentially aesthetic conception of the countryside as a beautiful landscape to be gazed at from an outsider’s perspective. Just as Taeko’s past is fraught with affect, the land is full of its own past and history – this is the meaning of Toshio’s famous line that the countryside is no “virgin land”, but the result of centuries of mutual work between man’s activities and nature.

What, then, of Miyazaki? Although, as we will see, he also elaborated the concept of furusato, his perspective is completely different from Takahata’s. With perhaps the exception of the Nausicaä manga, for Miyazaki, there is no “land” but only “place”: spatial situations and configurations that are tied together by a wider continuum, but ultimately remain abstract and symbolic. I will take two very different examples for this: Conan and Totoro.

Simply put, Conan’s narrative structure is just a series of back-and-forths between different places: in a Tolkien-inspired fashion, its story could be summed up as “there and back again”. First Remnant Island, then Industria; then from Industria to the desert and back; we leave Industria again for High Harbor and, after a series of back-and-forths within High Harbor, we go back for a trip from there to Industria and back. Finally, in the last episode, we leave High Harbor and find Remnant Island again. These back-and-forths are essential to Miyazaki’s storytelling, because they ensure that the viewer never forgets that these places exist in relation within a wider geographical continuum, and therefore establish the solidity and depth of the fictional world. It is especially interesting that space plays a completely different role for Miyazaki and Takahata: for the former, it is essentially structural and intervenes at the level of storytelling and worldbuilding, while for the latter, it is just brought up during direction in order to create a “realistic” stage in which the action can be set. For Takahata, the structural element is not space, but rather time.

Coming back to Conan, the thing that ties together all the places in the wider spatial continuum of the fictional world is a specific dynamism: what I’ll call adventure. Unlike Takahata, Miyazaki likes to tell adventure stories that are carried (especially in Conan’s case) by the characters’ own energy. In that sense, the furusato or homeland plays a completely different function: it is not the place one must find to create one’s identity, as it is for Takahata. It is rather the place one must leave in order to develop one’s identity – and it is only when one has gone through adventure and grown as a person that they can come back to their original home. That is why, at the end of Conan, we only see Remnant Island from afar – Conan, Lana and all the others are already guaranteed to fit there and their homeland opposes no resistance whatsoever. On the contrary, in Conan’s ending, it may even become the ground for more adventure – but this time, that of repopulating and rebuilding the Earth.

After that, Totoro is a completely different beast – indeed, it is no coming-of-age narrative, or at least the way in which it is is very different. But Totoro is also one of the most obvious furusato narratives that I know of – even more than Only Yesterday. That is because it does not try to give shape to furusato as an individual aspiration of concrete Japanese people who have lost their origin, but immediately presents us with this origin without ever questioning its subjective, social or historical implications. Totoro’s countryside is as idealized and undetermined as its chronological setting: probably somewhere in the 50s or 60s, that is a time far enough to evoke nostalgia, but still not too distant from the viewer. As there is no subjective mediation between the viewer and furusato, Totoro ends up being pure furusato ideology: we do not enter the countryside through the eyes of an adult tired of city life, but through those of a child discovering the wonders of the world. As in Only Yesterday, the adult viewer (although Totoro fundamentally remains a children’s movie) is meant to reunite with their “inner child”; but in Totoro, this inner child is not a complex identity chronologically distant and subjectively reconstructed: it is a given essence, a children that already exists and is presented to us and whom we have no choice but to accept as a fact.

In that sense, we can once again understand why Anne is fundamentally not a Miyazaki work – whereas Heidi clearly was. For Miyazaki, children are a given, a sort of separate entity that is already complete on its own. Even if we frame some of Miyazaki’s stories as coming-of-age (typically, Conan and Laputa), the essential character and psychology of the child protagonists doesn’t really change. And Anne is all about negating that – it opens a new stage in Takahata’s career in that it introduces time and development as structural forces within the narrative.

Finally, I’d like to go back to the point where the break between Takahata and Miyazaki happened: that is, Marco. I’ve just done it by comparing Only Yesterday and Totoro, but I feel that the differences between the two styles will become even more apparent if we confront two interpretations of a single work that follow from the above remarks. Fundamentally, Marco is a story about trauma – the departure of the mother – and how to  live with it. In my opinion, Takahata and Miyazakki’s answers would be very different.

I believe Takahata’s framework would actually be focused on the mother rather than Marco. By leaving Italy in order to go work in Argentina, she leaves her place of origin and symbolically relinquishes her furusato; the fact that she does not come back is not just the danger that she may have died, but also that she may have forsaken her origin. Her absence then leaves a hole in the world – not just in Marco’s heart and that of his family. Indeed, she is not where she should be, and this is a fundamental disorder that needs to be repaired. Marco’s individual search is therefore a more general quest to restore order where it has been troubled: the mother needs to be brought back to her furusato or things will go wrong and remain wrong forevermore.

A Miyazaki-inspired interpretation would be completely different, in that it would center on Marco and take his adventures as a coming-of-age narrative. The departure of his mother is the original breaking point that starts off his longing and sense of adventure, and if he must bring her back, it is only to complete the back-and-forth structure I’ve already highlighted for Conan. In this framework, finding the mother is a far more abstract goal – what matters is not what needs to be searched for, but simply the fact that there is something to search for in the first place.

If Marco is indeed a story about trauma, it is possible to reformulate these two interpretations in a psychoanalytical framework. It may perhaps help make the difference clearer. The Takahata interpretation is one in which Marco has lost and is longing for his mother’s womb, and therefore goes to look for it even when it’s geographically distant. But in this case, the womb is not just the mother – it is also everything she carries with her, that is Italy and Genoa as the general atmosphere in which Marco’s childhood takes its roots. On the other hand, the Miyazaki interpretation takes the form of a classical Oedipian narrative in the sense that it insists on conflict (that between Marco and his father) and the mother as an object that needs to be found and, in a way, conquered.

All the above remarks are rather general, abstract and rough. They do not mean to express any kind of definitive interpretation on either Takahata’s or Miyazaki’s works, especially because they each evolved at their own pace, according to their own internal necessities, in many places and directions – more than this piece can account for (for example, Kiki might be read as both a coming-of-age and furusato-zukuri movie). This isn’t either about who between the two is the best or most interesting director – to each his own taste and opinion. These are really just random notes and thoughts that came to me as I was thinking about Anne and the relationship between both men’s art. They are no more and no less, and my only hope is that they may spark some more reflection and discussion on their work.

Further reading on furusato

Creighton, Millie. 1997. “Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry.” Ethnology 36 (3): 239–54.

Morrison, Lindsay R. 2013. “Home of the Heart: The Modern Origins of Furusato“. ICU Comparative Culture 45: 1-27

Rea, Michael H. 2000. “A Furusato Away from Home.” Annals of Tourism Research 27 (3): 638–60.

Robertson, Jennifer. 1988. “Furusato Japan: The Culture and Politics of Nostalgia.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1 (4): 494–518.

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