Experiencing the elsewhere in Hayao Miyazaki’s films

This is a guest article by Emmanuel Trouillard. It is a slightly edited and translated version of the paper “Géographie animée : l’expérience de l’ailleurs dans l’oeuvre de Hayao Miyazaki”, published in Annales de Géographie, 2014/1-2, pp. 626-645.

The following text is a translation of a research article that was published in 2014 in a French peer-reviewed geography journal. While respecting the original content as a whole, I took the opportunity to rework the text at the margins, including a significant lightening of a logically dated (and still very Franco-centric) bibliography, changes to the titles of some of the categories used for further clarity, plus some stylistic improvements.

When I wrote this piece, The Wind Rises hadn’t even been released yet, and Western scholarship on Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t that abundant. Just having seen all of his films and having read Starting Point (his collection of interviews) was not that common in France and was already a small accomplishment in itself. The decade that followed has radically changed the game in all these aspects, as this blog provides ample evidence…

This is a “cultural geography” article, which focuses on the spatial dimension of Miyazaki’s narratives. In my opinion, its angle of approach remains rather original even today compared to what has been proposed (to my knowledge) in Japanese and Film studies. I really want to thank Matteo who kindly accepted to host it and give it a second life, so to speak. Have a good reading!

“The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books. Because it resists us. Man discovers himself when he measures himself against the obstacle.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars”

The status and use of space in Hayao Miyazaki’s cinematography have rarely been the subject of specific and in-depth work. I argue here that space is in his work a privileged partner of the narration, always strongly shaping the course of events that unfold in it, far from being a neutral, or even interchangeable, setting of the narrative. The spatial dimension is in fact placed at the service of a properly geographical discourse, of which the quotation above of “Wind, Sand and Stars” (by aviator Saint-Exupéry, admired by Miyazaki) provides a good summary.

This article, centered on Hayao Miyazaki’s narratives, intends to highlight that his films are strongly structured around the themes of the hero’s uprooting and his opening to the world. Miyazaki’s work can be approached as a systematic exploration of the different modes of relationship to the elsewhere. Animation gives full scope to this analytical dimension of his work: “the ontological unreality of animation” makes it easier to put the problem of “real” reference (of the concrete geographical inspirations of the universes presented) in the background, in favor of the exposition of archetypal situations with a universal scope. What specific content does Miyazaki give to this idea of “elsewhere” and what role does it play in his narratives?  Miyazaki’s spatial patterns translate an imaginary and geographical conceptions, admittedly subjective, but also constructed in dialogue with Japanese society and its evolutions – although it is necessary to keep in mind the major and distinctive facts that are the opening of Miyazaki’s work to Western culture and its strong capacity of diffusion outside its original market.

My object of analysis is the first 10 feature films by Miyazaki, from The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to Ponyo (2008). First, I will discuss the motif of uprooting and the specific meaning given to the elsewhere in Miyazaki’s fiction. Then, I will distinguish and describe precisely two main modes of relation to the elsewhere implemented by Miyazakian heroes, each resulting in a distinct type of narratives with specific spatial implications (“connection” and “integration” movies). Finally, I will relativize this schematic opposition by insisting on the essential ambivalence and the increasing complexity of Miyazaki’s narratives.

The irruption of the elsewhere: the motif of initial uprooting

In the introduction to his book Air and Dreams, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard reminds us that “every poet owes us his invitation to a journey” through his ability to produce, from occasional images from his personal imagination, “a multiplicity of aberrant images, an explosion of images”. Miyazaki respects this poetic specification in the most literal way, his films opening almost invariably on a departure of the hero from their original home. This uprooting is carried out, in his filmography, following very diverse modalities. It can be sudden, even brutal, but also anticipated. For example, the hero of Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka, is forced to leave his village overnight, in search of the source and perhaps the remedy for the curse that has fallen upon him in the first minutes of the film. Conversely, in Ponyo, it is the eponymous heroine who consciously chooses to run away from her father’s stifling cocoon, thus carrying out a preconceived plan.

However, all of these uprootings share a common point that directly influences the nature of the elsewhere that the heroes will later experience: in Miyazaki’s narratives, a departure, even if scheduled in advance, never leads to a proper anticipation, a well-planned contact with places outside the original living space. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, the eponymous character’s departure is planned long in advance, as it perpetuates an ancestral tradition of young witches leaving their families at the age of 13 to complete their apprenticeship under other skies. Yet, the absence of planning is at the very heart of this initiatory journey as the young witches do not know at the beginning of their trip their destination and therefore their future place of rooting. It gives rise, in the first third of the film, to a sequence of wandering in search of a city to settle in. And, as a result of this improvised quest, Kiki – although initially enthusiastic about changing her environment – finds herself on the verge of giving up when she finally becomes aware of the practical difficulties raised by such a project.

Surprise and sudden discovery seem to be at the heart of Miyazaki’s poetic journeys, even within the most apparently mundane environments. For Miyazaki, the elsewhere is defined above all as an unknown, much more than as a source of exoticism. This unknown that the heroes have to face is both a source of unpredictable dangers and a spring of resources for their existential project. We come back here to the intuition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: the discovery of the elsewhere – that is to say the confrontation with the various obstacles which arise from the unknown, but also, more fundamentally, the awareness of the resistance that space offers to any movement – is always the occasion, in the same time, for a self-discovery and self-fulfillment.

This existential dimension is, for example, very present in Castle in the Sky where Sheeta literally falls from the sky and causes the hasty departure of Pazu from his home. But this unexpected uprooting, far from being experienced as a hardship by the latter, happens on the contrary to fulfill a deep aspiration, since he confesses to his traveling companion to have always dreamed of living a great adventure far from his village. In Miyazaki’s imagination, the unknown elsewhere must ideally be approached with a new and open mind, devoid of any prejudice. His young heroes embody this ideal, which is particularly obvious in the way they approach alterity: the inhabitants of this elsewhere they discover will be systematically approached by them, not exoticized, but as subjects with their own motivations, with whom to establish and maintain the best possible relations. This rule transcends the barriers of physical appearance and extends to nature itself (always turned into a subject of its own in Miyazaki’s universes) and its representatives. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the heroine empathizes with the Ômus and manages to communicate with them. She will eventually discover, at the peril of her own life, the work of purification of the planet that is secretly being carried out in the depths of this post-apocalyptic forest.

On the other hand, Miyazaki’s films that feature adult heroes (The Castle of Cagliostro, Porco Rosso) seem at first glance to deviate from this pattern of initial uprooting. However, a quick analysis reveals the presence of the same motif. First, these heroes (respectively Lupin and Marco Pagot, alias Porco Rosso), because of events largely prior to those presented in the film, have been uprooted for a long time. Their independence is exacerbated since they chose to live without any real and lasting ties. Furthermore, the motif of uprooting is assumed in these films by secondary characters. Uprooting is considered but eventually aborted in The Castle of Cagliostro, when Lupin opposes the idea of Princess Clarisse accompanying him on his adventures, in order to prevent her from “becoming like him”. On the other hand, uprooting is successful in Porco Rosso, where the young Fio decides, about halfway through the film, to leave the family business to help Porco in his adventures, despite the latter’s disagreement. These secondary uprootings echo the original uprooting of the hero and are then the occasion for Miyazaki to develop a reflection, full of nostalgia and melancholy, on the consequences of a (too) prolonged uprooting.

Why is the motif of uprooting so prominent in Miyazaki’s work? This question can first be addressed by referring to the director’s conceptions of the role of fictional universes. He considers them above all as parentheses, temporary escapes from the constraints of daily life, whose creation and consumption constitute responses to a universally shared “nostalgia for a lost world” (Miyazaki, 1996 ; Trouillard, 2019). Among the younger generations, this dream of emancipation is expressed primarily by a desire for autonomy from previous generations and the traditions they carry. The initial uprooting in Miyazaki’s movies can thus be seen as the most direct concretization of this desire for independence (a desire that is all the more likely to be exacerbated in a Japanese society characterized by a strong social framework). Nevertheless, such an explanation centered on the expectations of a target audience must not hide the biographical nature, and more broadly the generational nature of these themes for many Japanese who lived through the post-war period.

It is not insignificant that Miyazaki’s first truly original film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is part of the post-apocalyptic genre (Miyazaki had already distinguished himself in the genre in 1978 with the series Future Boy Conan, his first major directing work). The post-apocalyptic genre is by definition a generator of potential uprootings, with its survivors struggling to survive in a devastated universe. But Miyazaki’s originality has also been in his later ability to disconnect his fictional uprootings from the post-apocalyptic framework. The recurrent use of the uprooting motif also finds a justification on the diegetic level: in Miyazaki’s narratives, these initial uprootings, never completely planned and therefore mastered, constitute powerful narrative driving forces. The heroes are always, so to speak, overtaken by events, and so the twists and turns will follow from their improvised reactions to the situations in which they find themselves. Through the actions undertaken by Miyazaki’s heroes, space then plays the role of an objective and indisputable revelator of their personality and real abilities. Miyazaki’s cinema does not value subjectivity and introspection very much, and even less when they threaten to lead to paralysis. Miyazaki differs in this regard from other great animated film directors (starting with his partner in Ghibli Isao Takahata) who use space more as a malleable medium for externalization and exploration of the psychological state of the characters.

The two relations to the elsewhere in Miyazaki’s fiction

As Bachelard said: “imaginary journeys […] have precisely much more regular pathways than one might think” (Bachelard, 1943). Following this intuition and beyond the apparent diversity of Miyazaki’s universes and narratives, the departure from the original home can lead to two main types of narratives, each of them referring to a distinct way to interact with the elsewhere and also to a distinct spatial framework. On the one hand, in what I will call “connection films”, the heroes set up a strategy of intermediation, of syncretism, of incessant back and forth between large territorial domains and their representatives. On the other hand, in “integration films”, the main characters opt for a strategy of acculturation, of gradual construction of a network of acquaintances and a new living environment. It happens through a series of projections from a central place to secondary ones.

Connection films: the hero as a mediator

From his early days as an animator, Miyazaki stood out for his ability to represent movement in space. Consequently, his work initially focused on the realization of action scenes, and by extension on the elaboration of the spatial frameworks destined to host them. The adventure film genre, with its sustained rhythm and action, is his starting point. It will be the occasion for the hero to travel, and most of the time to discover and explore their universe through a quest that they will have to accomplish according to a classic sequence of goals and successive achievements. The spatial narrative is then articulated around the repeated moves of the main character(s) between different stopover locations, which are above all places to be reached, where the heroes are not meant to stay long. This elementary scheme (not original at all in itself) encompasses The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, as well as the second part of Ponyo (from the sequence where Sôsuke leaves with Ponyo to look for his mother who disappeared during the night).

Miyazaki’s adventure films are also deeply focused on the ability of the heroes to mend a universe in a state of imbalance. This last expression must be taken in a most general sense: from the global nature vs. society conflict of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the thunderous irruption of a “Yank” in the serene sky of the Italian Adriatic who comes to disrupt the farniente daily life of Porco Rosso. Most of all, under Miyazaki’s direction, adventure films are turned into “connection films” that tell stories of conciliation and intermediation (and this is what makes them original). Their spatial structures also tend to become more complex as his career progresses. Globally reluctant to any simple linear progression, Miyazaki’s narratives favor repeated back and forth movements between large territorial ensembles, always well-defined territorially. The heroes then assume the role of connectors between qualitatively heterogeneous domains whose representatives usually ignore each other, or worse, fight each other. The secondary characters, in addition to the material help they can provide (in particular means of transport: flying machines, trains…) play a crucial role in the establishment of these connections by helping to spread the hero’s conciliatory ideals in their respective territories.

Princess Mononoke, of all the connection films, presents this structure in the most obvious way. The hero Ashitaka goes back and forth between the forges of Lady Eboshi, the domain of human society, and the sacred forest, the domain of the Gods and Nature. San allows Ashitaka to convey his conciliatory ideas within the natural domain. Far from a thoughtless headlong rush or, conversely, a crusade to make Good triumph, these back-and-forth movements, connections and intermediations allow Miyazaki to orchestrate, around an intricate problem, a confrontation between extreme and hardly reconcilable points of view. Miyazaki’s heroes do not have a ready-made answer to the issues raised, and hence carry out their back-and-forth movements in the perspective of the emergence, in the long term, of a balanced (i.e., non-manichean) solution, which can not happen, no matter what, without a re-establishment of a dialogue between the parties involved. Thus, through his territorial treatment of the ecological problem in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki intends to express the contradiction between the defense of nature and the consideration of growing human needs, in his eyes now inherent to all human existence. But this situation threatens to become dramatic only insofar as it does not admit of a simple answer:

It’s not bad people who are destroying forests […] If Ashitaka says “I’ll become a deep ecologist”, things are easier, but it doesn’t work like that. […] at the same time, he can not turn a blind eye to people dying from starvation. Ashitaka has no choice but to suffer and live, while being torn between such conflicts. That’s the only path human beings can take from now on.” (An Interview with Hayao Miyazaki, Mononoke-hime Theater Program, July 1997)

Not without dangers, the comings and goings of the heroes of the connection films are above all made possible by the extraordinary capacities (physical, mental, in terms of talent) they display. These capacities culminate in an eminently cinematographic quality: a super-mobility without common measure with that of the majority of the other characters of the fictional universe. The plot twists often revolve around the momentary limitation of the hero’s super-mobility (and therefore of their ability to affect his environment) and the efforts he will have to make to regain it. This super‑mobility is made particularly clear by the three-dimensionality inherent to Miyazakian space. For example, in Castle in the Sky, the apparent linearity of the heroes’ movements on the horizontal level is coupled with incessant back and forth on the vertical level: Pazu and Sheeta travel through their world constantly changing altitude. Sequences in the depths of mines alternate with the most aerial ones. In doing so, they establish a connection between the depths of the Earth (the domain of the miners) and the aerial domains of the ancient civilization of Laputa, of which the flying island they end up on is a last vestige. This three-dimensionality is also found in Ponyo and Porco Rosso, films that multiply the changes of levels of the same order, whether they are aerial or aquatic. Moreover, this property crosses the filmography as a whole and is not the prerogative of connection films alone. This three-dimensional super-mobility of Miyazaki’s heroes proves all the more decisive, even vital, as it is inscribed in fragmented universes that are far from being endowed with any particular fluidity. On the contrary, they offer significant resistance to the displacements and attempts at connection made by Miyazaki’s uprooted heroes who are always foreigners in essence (Trouillard, 2013). And this resistance will also extend to their eventual attempts at integration, a central motif of the integration films I will discuss below.

This general pattern of Miyazaki’s connection films can, however, accommodate two very dissimilar types of heroes. When their uprooting occurs by a twist of fate, the young heroes of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, as well as Sôsuke, the little boy of Ponyo, are already strong individuals, heroes in the making. They were already, in their original environment, aware of their singularity, which predisposed them to face forthcoming events. Confronted with global threats (generalized wars between nature and civilization, reactivations of apocalyptic weapons, permanent return to the Precambrian…), they decide without any ulterior motive to use all their syncretic capacities of connection and dialogue to take on an interventionist role of mediation and pacification between the different domains in conflict. They are even ready, in extreme cases, to donate their bodies as martyrs (see the character of Nausicaä, an unintended Christ figure, or to a lesser extent, Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke). To accomplish their task, these heroes have to overcome inter‑territorial social prejudices, as well as the distrust generated by their appearance and their status as foreigners. With their simple and stable psychology, they are extremely proactive and want to belong to all domains simultaneously, combining only their beneficial aspects. They also have no difficulty in establishing strong interpersonal relationships, including sentimental ones.

In contrast to these young, enthusiastic and willing characters, the gentleman thief Lupin III and the hydraviator Porco Rosso are in many ways very similar characters: strong individualities, rebels in open conflict with the dominant social order, independent and ready to do anything to remain so. In addition to being Miyazaki’s oldest heroes (apart of course from the very special case of Sophie transformed into a grandmother in Howl’s Moving Castle), they are also, not unrelatedly, the most psychologically complex. Stricken with existential inertia, disenchanted, even downright misanthropic in the case of Porco Rosso, their exacerbated autonomy comes at the price of a certain isolation: they suffer from difficulties, if not an impossibility, to establish strong relationships with the characters that gravitate around them, particularly on a sentimental level (with Princess Clarisse for Lupin, with Gina or Fio for Porco Rosso), which limits their ability to take root in one single place. They are characters of systematic ambivalence, of unstable compromise: Lupin is certainly a villain in the eyes of the law, but a villain with a big heart, who does not hesitate to take all the risks to defend an innocent person (especially if the person in question is pretty). On the other hand, Porco Rosso describes himself as a “bounty hunter, not a war pilot” and uses his fighter plane for “peaceful” purposes, keeping order in his corner of the Adriatic while refusing to kill. This singular in-between makes these heroes perpetual outsiders, but also allows them to move easily between the different territories that constitute their fictional universe, by mobilizing connections inherited from former adventures. Not belonging to any camp and no longer wishing to get involved in the current global conflicts beyond what their well-weighed interests dictate, they become, somewhat despite themselves, focal points. Porco Rosso becomes the target of two opposing political extremes, struggling to appropriate (and thus destroy) his uniqueness. During his stay in Milan, he is tracked down by the Fascist political police following his refusal to adhere to the mass militarism advocated by the new Italian rulers. But he also finds himself confronted, on his territory, with the “Yank” Curtis, a mercenary hired by the sky pirates, a character guided mainly by his impulses and a paragon of an individualistic society, obsessed with appearance, money and glory.

Through these two main types of characters, Miyazaki presents two very different moments of a common type of relationship with the elsewhere and otherness. For his young adventure heroes, integration into a new environment will not be possible as long as some of the problems and contradictions posed by their fictional universe are not being resolved. But the deterritorialized autonomy of the uprooted hero, if too prolonged, presents the risk of becoming an end in itself, rather than a connection tool available to solve a complex conflict. The adult adventure hero, much more jaded, tends to lose interest in the conflicts of his fictional universe, at the risk of cutting himself off from any possibility of re-rooting.

Integration films: building up your place in a new environment

Integration films deal with the problem of the main character’s assimilation into a new environment following their initial uprooting. The new places where the character settles then take the ascendancy over his movements, the latter serving above all to favor their new territorial anchoring. The underlying spatial model is that of a star network that is progressively structured around a central place of integration, thanks to the hero’s successive projections towards secondary places that generate discoveries and socialization (meetings, various tasks, work…). This pattern covers My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s delivery service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and the first part of Ponyo. Kiki’s delivery service can be considered the best instance of this kind of narration. Kiki has finally been welcomed into a family-run bakery (her central place of integration). She decides to launch herself in the home delivery business. During her trips, she makes many discoveries of secondary places, synonymous with encounters and new friendships. The film ends with the reading of a letter in which Kiki announces to her parents the success of her integration. A similar spatial structure can easily be found in the other integration films, which also all end with a similar sequence (more or less developed) of exposition of the successful integration of the main character(s).

The integration films feature only heroines. Miyazaki describes his works as antitheses to the (phantasmatic) “superhero” films, made primarily by and for men, which indulge “an unconscious orientation toward all things powerful and strong […] (which) merely reveals an infantile mentality.” (Miyazaki, 1996) In stark contrast to this manly culture, it is telling that Miyazaki presents Kiki’s Delivery Service (his first major popular success in 1989, which he owes to the influx of a female audience) as a reflection of an era marked by a women’s growing desire for independence (Miyazaki, 1989). The Miyazakian heroines of the integration films assert themselves, if not in direct opposition, at least by ignoring the traditional model of the Japanese family unit which confines women to the sole tasks of the marital home. The issues of marriage and childbirth are very rarely mentioned and always in the background. They are even less presented as ends in themselves.

The experience of autonomy, even if it is ultimately liberating, is always presented as fundamentally uncertain and distressing. Far from showing us a process that would be self-evident, integration films seek to “explore this issue of independence more thoroughly” (Miyazaki, 1989), by insisting on the obstacles and difficulties encountered by the heroines during their integration. A first narrative resource lies in the exploitation of the weaknesses they present when confronted with a new, more or less extraordinary environment. Whether this is due to their simple ordinariness, their inexperience, or their fragility, the emphasis is placed on the efforts they will have to make to overcome this initial unsuitability. If they do not initially have abilities as developed and complete as their adventurous counterparts, these heroines are endowed, in return, with a more complex and evolving psychology. The heroine of Spirited Away, for example, undergoes a strong evolution during the film: at first a shy little girl, disoriented by the events that befall her, she gradually gains self-confidence and finally succeeds in integrating and asserting herself within the society of the baths. On several occasions, Miyazaki consciously emphasizes the clumsiness of Chihiro, an ordinary little girl armed only with her will. As for Kiki, the little witch, she seems to leave this framework only to return to it later: if she is endowed at the beginning of the film with a magical power (being able to fly), she masters it only very awkwardly and intuitively. She even ends up losing it completely in the course of the story as an external manifestation of an internal, psychological crisis that the character is going through. She will only regain it definitively when she has succeeded in mastering it with a conscious effort.

This emphasis on the need for psychological adaptation to a new environment is intended to reflect, in the director’s view, a profound change in the stakes associated with the experience of uprooting in contemporary societies. In a society such as Japan, where leaving the parental home has become a commonplace event, the greatest danger is no longer financial, as in classic stories, but spiritual:

“(About Kiki’s Delivery Service) the first image that occurred to me was a small girl flying across the city at night. A sea of lights – but not a single one offers her a warm welcome. There is a profound loneliness high above the city. In flying, one may no longer be confined to land, but this freedom also implies insecurity and loneliness. […] Later on (at the end of the film), as she flies above the city, Kiki feels a strong connection to the people below, but her sense of self is much stronger than it was at the beginning.” (Miyazaki, 1989)

If uprooting and the experience of the elsewhere are an opportunity to break away from inherited ties, self-realization and full integration also necessarily involve for Miyazaki the voluntary recreation of strong ties with the host society. In an ideal world, isolation and loneliness should be only temporary experiences of “negative individualism”. This point, as we have seen previously, is also at the heart of connection films featuring adult heroes.

The rooting of these heroines in a new environment, and in particular the constitution of their central place of integration, is only made possible thanks to the decisive intervention of benevolent locals, very often endowed with important material capacities in the same way as the heroes of the connection films (the Kami Totoro, Haku in Spirited Away, the magician Howl and his moving castle,…). In Spirited Away, without the initial intervention of Haku, the heroine’s chances of survival would have been almost null in this new fantasy world where she ends up despite herself. He allows her to enter the baths of the witch Yubâba and puts her in contact with Kamaji, the supervisor of the boiler of the establishment. Kamaji will provide Chihiro with her first job in the basement of the bathhouse, at what seems to be the lowest level of the bathhouse’s social hierarchy. Later, when Chihiro reaches the upper floors (and thus moves up in her “career” within the baths), she will receive help from a baths employee, Lin, who will take a liking to her. In addition to the support they provide to the heroines in various hardships, these secondary characters play an essential role in teaching them the main rules of the territory in which they seek to integrate. Indeed, paradoxically enough, the heroines’ self‑affirmation stems from their ability to integrate codes that are alien to them (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo), or even to establish a place for themselves in their host social structure by taking on valued functions (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). This ability to fit into a new daily routine, which distinguishes these heroines from most other individuals in their fictional universe, could be referred to as super-normality, in contrast to the super-mobility of connection heroes.

Integration films are therefore an opportunity for their heroines to undertake an initiatory journey from which they will emerge grown and changed. But beyond this global model, the concrete modalities of this evolution will vary substantially according to the initial profile of the heroine. The integration films, like the connection films, present two clearly distinct heroine types. Chihiro, as well as Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, are, at least at the beginning of the film, the Miyazakian heroines with the least assertive individualities and the most limited material capacities. Very reserved, even timorous for Chihiro, they are at first only banal and anonymous representatives of the society from which they come: respectively the modern consumer society for Chihiro and a military-industrial society for Sophie. But if the weakness of these heroines is posed as an initial fact, internalized and accepted from the start by the heroines themselves, it is however only to be better questioned thereafter. Indeed, the inner strength they finally show in their unexpected confrontation with the outside world, and against the forced acculturation that ensues, leads to their self-affirmation and individualization. For Chihiro, in a situation where she ends up on her own, this individualization is achieved through her ability to distance herself from the parental model, a caricatural (and bulimic) representation of an unbridled consumer society. As for Sophie, she is a modest hat designer, seemingly unfulfilled in her situation. Paradoxically, the curse that transforms her into an elderly person seems to free her from the social constraints that seemed to crush her until then. To survive, both heroines accept acculturation, symbolized by the loss of identity that the two of them undergo. But the heroines’ acculturation is not one-sided, as they play a positive role as purifiers and stabilizers for their new environment, in which they truly integrate and emphasize only the positive aspects.

On the other hand, Kiki the little witch, the heroines of My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo experience otherness with more difficulty. More assured at the beginning of the film, they have already begun a process of individualization that manifests itself through a voluntary and accepted uprooting. But, unlike Chihiro and Sophie, who were immediately aware of the difficulties and dangers to which they were exposed, they appear at first to be quite naïve and overly optimistic in their approach to the elsewhere. This initial downplaying of the difficulties to be overcome in the course of their integration will have the consequence of generating upheavals in the social construction of their super-normality. Through adventures that they had neither imagined nor anticipated, these heroines see their weaknesses revealed and it is only by understanding and accepting them that these heroines will mature. These flaws are fortunately offset (before being overcome) by a social environment that is mostly favorable, or at worst indifferent, to the character’s integration: no genuine hostility or rejection of these strangers in My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. As for Ponyo (in its fish-form), only a jealous little girl and one of the residents of the old people’s home where Sôsuke’s mother works will present a true hostile attitude towards her. In his different integration films, Miyazaki does not play on the same variables: in one case, unfavorable external conditions in the face of surprising internal resources (Sophie, Chihiro) and, in another, relatively favorable external conditions but unforeseen internal difficulties (Kiki, the Chihiro girls, Ponyo).

The hybridity and complexity of Miyazaki’s narratives

The previous analyses can be summarized in a table (see below) that crosses, on the one hand, the type of film (connection/integration) and, on the other hand, the consequences, put forward by Miyazaki, of the confrontation with the elsewhere for the different heroes (globally positive/problematic). The first dichotomy refers, as we have seen, to a strategy set up by the Miyazakian hero in their relationship to the elsewhere. The second allows us to recapture the different classes of characters defined earlier, distinguishing between those for whom the confrontation with the elsewhere is equivalent to a self-realization and those for whom it is (even if only temporarily) a source of discomfort, questioning or disenchantment.

*Regarding the choice to split Ponyo, see below

However, if the opposition between connection films and integration films seems quite relevant to analyze Miyazaki’s works, it remains schematic and needs to be nuanced. Moreover, such an analytical framework tends to blur the chronological dimension (and therefore the evolutionary aspect) of Miyazaki’s work, starting with the striking fact that the narratives and spatial structures proposed by the director have become progressively more complex over the course of his career.

On the ambivalence of Miyazaki’s fiction

While they can be legitimately distinguished by analysis, the characteristic elements of connection and integration films nonetheless constitute two complementary, and thus always intertwined, dimensions of Miyazaki’s fictional universes. Between two action sequences, the connection films are thus systematically punctuated by pause sequences, sort of parentheses of daily life that lay the foundations of a potential future integrative approach by strengthening the links between the characters. In Castle in the Sky, for example, at the moment when the two young heroes finally take the direction of Laputa aboard the sky pirates’ flying ship, Miyazaki takes the time to expose the daily life of this genuine flying house: the two young heroes are assigned to various domestic tasks, like a first step towards integration into this unusual environment. Similarly, in Princess Mononoke, he provides us a realistic glimpse into the daily life of the various communities that make up the social fabric of Lady Eboshi’s forges.

On the other hand, Miyazaki puts into his integration films more typical motifs of connection films, starting with the classic action sequences: the sequences of Ponyo riding the waves and the car race against the waves in the first part of Ponyo, a hint to the famous chase that already opened The Castle of Cagliostro, the rescue of Tombo after an airship accident at the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and so on. In a more subtle way, some secondary characters of integration films could have been, in another film dedicated to them, full-fledged connection heroes, and seem to live incredible adventures in the background of the main plot. This is notably the case of Haku in Spirited Away (the spirit of a river that can take on the appearance of a majestic white dragon) and the eponymous magician in Howl’s Moving Castle. But these adventures remain only implied as if denied to the viewer. This tends to create a sense of frustration that underscores the anxiety felt about these characters by the main heroines, but also (and more importantly) helps to generate the poetic feeling of autonomous universes in the background, whose existence would go beyond the events depicted on the screen alone and which could potentially accommodate very diverse narrative threads.

But beyond a simple co-presence of their characteristic elements, connection films and integration films could be interpreted, in a dynamic perspective, as two alternative existential moments of the relationship to the elsewhere, only taking true meaning in relation to each other. Following uprooting, any adventurous phase of connection would ideally only be a preparation for a next phase of integration, just as a phase of integration would only truly bear fruit following an adventurous phase (even if short). The constructed and fragile character of everyday life would only really appear in the light of the experience of uprooting and adventure, just as adventure would only find its true motor in the nostalgia of a lost everyday life.

On the growing complexity of Miyazaki’s narratives

This narrative hybridity is combined with a gradual increase in the complexity of the plots, which tend more and more, as the director’s career progresses, to defy any easy attempt at classification (Trouillard, 2019). In a prosaic but nonetheless decisive way, this can be explained first of all by an evolution in the conditions of film production. In this respect, the importance of Miyazaki’s gradual conquest of his economic, and therefore aesthetic, independence cannot be underestimated (of which the creation of Studio Ghibli in 1985 remains the emblematic symbol). But this evolution is also the result of the director’s own attraction towards narrative complexity, which may have been stifled at certain times. Thus, Princess Mononoke clearly appears, more than 10 years later, as a more ambitious rewriting of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This tendency is concretized, on the narrative level, through a process that is both ludic and combinatory: indeed, if the fundamental components of Miyazaki’s narrative and spatial “toolbox” remain remarkably stable throughout his filmography, ever more sophisticated variations in the interplay of their associations remove, for the viewer, any feeling of repetition.

His last two films (at the time of writing this article), Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo have taken this a step further with their surrealist dimension. In Ponyo, Miyazaki, under the guise of a work for young children, develops a dual narrative, which shifts in the middle from an integration film to a connection film. The first narrative arc revolves around the figure of the fish-girl Ponyo: the character begins her integration into the household formed by Sôsuke and his mother Lisa. But a second narrative arc, this time dominated by Sôsuke’s character, begins when he and Ponyo go in search of Lisa, who is absent from the house when they wake up. This duality is coupled with a reversal by Miyazaki of his own recurrent narrative codes related to the profile of his heroes. Ponyo is not the fragile heroine of an integration film. She has a simple psychology, all voluntarism and optimism, and possesses strong powers that would tend to make her more of a connection film heroine: a capacity for (genetic) hybridization with humans and evolutionary metamorphosis, magical powers, and above all a super-mobility that she demonstrates in the impressive sequence where she rides the evil waves of a raging sea. But Miyazaki defies the viewer’s expectations by choosing not to exploit the adventurous potential of his heroine and instead offering, in the first part of the film, warm scenes of everyday life. The emphasis is on the social awkwardness of Ponyo, who is naturally ignorant of the codes of the places where humans live. Miyazaki plays on the motif, already touched upon in several previous works (Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle…), of the connection film’s hero unsuited to the space-time of everyday life. But when the second part begins, one might expect that Ponyo’s superhuman abilities would finally be called upon, especially since the heroine actually starts by enlarging Sôsuke’s model boat in order to provide them with a means of transportation. However, she is gradually overcome by a deep sleep, which establishes Sôsuke, an ordinary little boy, as the real adventurer mediator of this narrative segment, with the task, no less, of saving Japan from an ecological cataclysm.

Conclusion: Animation as a tool for exploration

The different universes of his animated geography provide the spectator with as many opportunities to question his own relationship to the elsewhere, his experience of uprooting and autonomy, and to question his capacity to act concretely on his world and its stakes (connection films) and finally to build a daily life in which he will be able to realize himself (integration films). His next film, The Wind Rises (2013), about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a famous Japanese airplane designer, then took him down narrative paths, if not new to him, at least less explored, but that’s another story (Trouillard, 2019). 


Gaston Bachelard (1943), Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement

Hayao Miyazaki (1989), The art of Kiki’s delivery service, VIZ media

Hayao Miyazaki (1996), Starting Point (1979-1996), VIZ Media  

Hayao Miyazaki (2008), Turning Point (1997-2008), VIZ Media

Stéphane Le Roux (2009), Hayao Miyazaki, Cinéaste en animation: Poésie de l’insolite, L’Harmattan

Emmanuel Trouillard (2013), « Le Poids de l’espace dans l’œuvre de Hayao Miyazaki », Géographie et cultures, 88/2013, p. 233-247 : https://journals.openedition.org/gc/3126

Emmanuel Trouillard (2019), Hayao Miyazaki et l’acte créateur, L’Harmattan : see here.

One thought on “Experiencing the elsewhere in Hayao Miyazaki’s films

  1. As a huge fan of Studio Ghibli films, I wholeheartedly agree with your perspective on the magical and immersive worlds they create. In my own experience, films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” have not only captivated my imagination but also taught me valuable life lessons about love, friendship, and the environment. These movies hold a special place in my heart and continue to inspire me.


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