The Magic of Miyazaki’s Literary Imagination
On Studio Ghibli's Rich Literary DNA
“I gave up on making a happy ending in the true sense a long time ago,” the Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki told the novelist Ryu Murakami in 1988. Miyazaki, then 47 and still early in his stunning career with the animation studio, Studio Ghibli, did not mean that his films have dark or unhappy endings. One of his most celebrated films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, indeed, has a fairly optimistic ending. He was referring to the narrative and ethical complexity of his films, in which what it means to be good, bad, male, female, young, or old all become blurred, rather than separated by a binary—but he was also, indirectly, referring to the literary quality of many of his films. This is no coincidence. Studio Ghibli films, as well as pre-Ghibli films by its directors—most notably, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, and The Wind Rises; his son Gorō’s Tales from Earthsea; and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya—have a long history of imaginatively adapting both famous and lesser-known literary works into films that play with the literature they adapt. Ghibli films reinterpret everything from the poems of Paul Valery and Homer to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Japanese stories like “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and “The Lady Who Loved Insects.” Ghibli’s legacy was the subject of a major exhibition in Tokyo that ends this month, commemorating 30 years of Ghibli films; still, relatively few studies of the studio have focused on the literary DNA braided together through their movies.
Adaptation can seem byzantine. The film contains the book, just as the book must, in some sense, contain the seeds of the film, like objects in Borgesian mirrors. Yet the author of the book to be adapted must be treated as if they do not exist. It is the critic-creator, the director, as well as actors, animators, etc. now taking control; the author-God, as Roland Barthes put it, is, in some sense, dead. Ultimately, an adaptation is a new work that reflects, in some way, the old one—and this is not, really, too different from writing itself, as writing is always in some sense collaborative, even if we write alone, surrounded only by our ghosts. To prevent novel adaptations being extraordinarily long, adaptations usually elide or omit much. (The most famous example of this is probably the renowned 1924 film Greed, the little-seen uncut version of which lasted over nine hours.) To adapt, at worst, is to copy, to make a mechanical reproduction that can never completely reproduce; but to adapt, at best, is to reimagine the path a writer took through a garden of many forking paths, and to decide, lantern of a mind’s night in hand, on a new path that somehow resembles yet clearly deviates from the original. And Miyazaki and Takahata are some of the best reimaginers alive today.
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Anime itself—most often simply defined as animation done in Japan—is often said to begin in 1963 with Osamu Tezuka’s groundbreaking series, Astro Boy. Technically, however, Japanese animation dates to the early decades of the twentieth century. Western animation was first broadcast in Japan around 1912, and animation made by Japanese artists, like Junichi Kouichi and Seitarou Kitayama, appeared around the same time. These pieces, which were silent, often had a benshi, a narrator who read screen titles aloud, did voices, and described the action. Both Western comics, like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Japanese woodblock cuts and drawings, had a profound influence on the first forays into Japanese animation. Unfortunately, most of these early works were lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, and animation remained a relatively marginal medium in Japan next to live-action films until Astro Boy rocketed onto the scene with the iconic wide-eyed look—influenced by Bambi and Betty Boop—that would come to define the medium. In 1985, Miyazaki, Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki founded Studio Ghibli, which soon became one of the most renowned animation studios in the world.
Ghibli has a long history of incorporating elements from literature or directly adapting literary works to the screen. Indeed, when Miyazaki first wished to create Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, his pitch, via friend and producer Toshio Suzuki, was rejected on the basis of there being no comic to pair it with, as it was the norm then—and still to a degree now—to have a manga series or light novel to accompany an anime production. (Miyazaki, therefore, created a thousand-page manga version of Nausicaä.) Many Ghibli films contain a sense of magic in which characters may metamorphose into other things, harkening to Ovid, Homer, and Japanese folktales, like the famous scene in Spirited Away where Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs through their greed, not unlike Circe’s magic in The Odyssey. Other Ghibli films contain a sense of the marvelous that recalls the novels of Jose Saramago, Kenji Miyazawa, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, attempted to adapt Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea as his film of the same name, though Gorō’s version, which was widely panned, differs greatly from Le Guin’s.
Many non-Ghibli animes also have ties to literature. Hellsing is a high-octane, WWII-influenced revision of and sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted more than once into a sci-fi-influenced anime. Galaxy Express 999 explicitly harkens to Miyazawa’s striking, dreamlike 1934 novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad. The groundbreaking 1988 film Akira adapts its own far-longer manga by making such dramatic cuts that it is difficult not to consider each a separate text. Like any art form, anime can draw from deep literary, historical, political, and philosophical mines, and, while the final results do not always resemble their predecessors, I often find myself in love with how they differ. The best adaptations, after all, make the originals seem new again.
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Even before Ghibli began, Miyazaki was adapting texts into motion pictures. His first movie, The Castle of Cagliostro, was based off the famous—and notorious—manga Lupin III, which itself reimagines the genealogy of a fictional thief, Arsène Lupin, the writer Maurice Leblanc had created sixty-two years earlier partly as a counterpart to Sherlock Holmes. Miyazaki decided to infuse the kindness and nuance of character that pervades his later movies into the Lupin universe, and this resulted in a much more sympathetic portrayal of the normally crass, amoral Arsène Lupin III of the manga. Both Lupins are cocky master thieves; however, the manga’s Lupin is often ruthless and violent, even raping women who deny his advances, while Miyazaki’s version is practically a soft-hearted gentleman, who desires to save a woman being forced into a political marriage. Miyazaki’s alterations divided fans of the manga. While Cagliostro is the closest Miyazaki film to creating sharp demarcations between good and evil and between stereotypes of gender norms, even his heroes and villains, as well as his male and female characters, end up containing a bit of everything: good, bad, strength, weakness. The caricatures—that one gender is “strong,” the other needing to be rescued, and that one character is all heroic while another is all evil—are subtly subverted in the film, infusing new life into the text it reinterprets. Miyazaki’s film begs the question: is his Lupin the same as the original creator’s Lupin? Is any adapted character the same as the original? The answer must be both yes and no. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The original remains the original—and, once in a while, unoriginality may be better.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s first major film and last before Ghibli’s founding, idiosyncratically draws from a variety of literature. It is an epic tale following the princess Nausicaä through a world where warfare has decimated the planet and, in its aftermath, vast poisonous forests and giant insects have taken root, with human civilizations few and far between. In an afterword to his Nausicaä manga, Miyazaki explicitly states that the main character, the eponymous Nausicaä, is a blend of the figure of the same name from Homer’s Odyssey and of an eccentric princess from a twelfth-century Japanese tale, “The Lady Who Loved Insects.” However, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is not particularly Homeric; indeed, he reveals that he first read about her in Bernard Evslin’s Handbook of Greek Mythology, where she was defined somewhat peculiarly as a “lover of nature,” and it was this modified version of Nausicaä the director fell in love with. Later, when Miyazaki read The Odyssey, he was disappointed to find that Homer’s version was little like Evslin’s, and he decided that Evslin’s character was the true Nausicaä—both of poem and film. In the movie, she is certainly a nature-lover, and she is also clearly a lover of insects, as in the Japanese tale. However, Miyazaki’s version of this princess is a beloved, strong, kind-hearted woman, whereas the twelfth-century story’s titular character is shunned by almost everyone for her defying cultural norms: she does not blacken her teeth, as was the custom, for instance, and has closer friendships with the insects she collects than with the traditionalistic people around her. Here is a reimagined character based partly on reimagined characters. Nausicaä begs the question of to what extent any character has a fixed existence within a text.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Ghibli’s first feature film and one of the focal points of the 2016 exhibition in Tokyo, is an incredible reimagining of Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, where the eponymous narrator, a travel-obsessed man named Gulliver, ventures to a mysterious floating island known as Laputa. Perhaps fittingly, this section of Swift’s text is entitled “A Voyage to Laputa…and to Japan”; just as Gulliver ends up, briefly, in Japan, the Japanese director ends up, in a sense, on Laputa. This was not coincidental. The film’s floating island, Miyazaki said in an interview from 1997, is “the island floating in the sky in the third section of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.” Castle in the Sky was actually Miyazaki’s second foray into reimagining Gulliver’s Travels, as he had worked as an in-betweener on a futuristic reworking from 1965 called Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, with a fair degree of creative input, particularly on its ending.
Swift’s floating island, and the technology that powers it, forms the core of Castle in the Sky. The film is only loosely connected to Swift’s novel in terms of plot; it’s as if we’re seeing the world of Laputa centuries after Gulliver did. Gulliver spies Laputa after his ship, flung off-course by a storm, is boarded by pirates, and he is forced to canoe to an abandoned rock from where he sees the floating world; in Castle in the Sky, Pazu’s father first sees Laputa in an airship also tossed off-course by a storm. The Sinbadian hero of Swift’s narrative is faintly echoed in the adventurous young boy Pazu—and the brave heroine Sheeta—who are the movie’s protagonists; both seek their identities through their adventures, like Gulliver, and both encounter Laputa only after, as in Swift’s novel, encounters with pirates—sea-pirates in one, air-pirates in the other. Miyazaki’s films are known for their strong female figures, and whereas Swift’s tale has an unsympathetic Dutchman lead the pirates that ambush Gulliver, Castle in the Sky instead makes the captain an alternatively antagonistic and maternal woman, Dola. Both Laputas are layered: Swift’s has “several gradations of stairs and galleries,” and Miyazaki’s version, which echoes the art of Fritz Lang or Bruegel the Elder, seems utopian on its surface, yet contains dark secrets on its inside. And Gulliver’s Travels and Castle in the Sky each have obvious political dimensions. Indeed, Swift’s Laputa sections were famously abridged when Swift decided to include a section that appeared to be a metaphorical appeal to the colonized Irish to rise up against the British, which came in the form of the floating island descending upon Lindalino, a city on a sea-island, like the colonists descending upon the Irish—and in Lindalino’s inhabitants ingeniously using their own technology to repel the Laputans. Likewise, Miyazaki’s film contains, as do many of his pieces, attacks on avarice and industrialized warfare.
Perhaps the most straightforward Ghibli adaptation comes from Isao Takahata, whose brilliant and painful movie, The Princess Kaguya, is an explicit reworking of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” the oldest surviving Japanese monogatari or fictional prose narrative, which follows a bamboo-cutter, his wife, and a supernaturally fast-growing princess they find magically born out of a bamboo one day. Both text and film contain virtually the same plot and characters. But whereas the prose tale—the age of which is uncertain, but which critics believe dates to at least the tenth century—is relatively spare and brief, Takahata’s film echoes the austerity of the prose in extraordinarily beautiful, simple, timeless, watercolour-style animation, while adding characters and filling in gaps with a deep sense of realism. Takahata spends far more time than the original on Kaguya’s blossoming into a young adult, transforming the story into a fleshed-out bildungsroman. Kaguya is one of those films that, like Benjamin Button or Angela Carter’s revised fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber, adapts a shorter text and fills in so much of the pain and violence that is beneath the surface of the original text; it is difficult for me to rewatch Kaguya, even as I can reread the text, because the movie is so heartbreaking.
Howl’s Moving Castle may be the most recognizable literary adaptation by Ghibli after Kaguya, reimagining Diana Wynne Jones’ novel from 1986 by the same name. The movie was almost never made. Initially announced by Ghibli in 2001 as a feature to be directed by Mamoru Hosada, the studio shelved the project for six months after Mamoru and Ghibli decided their visions were too dissimilar. Miyazaki, who, according to rumour, was the first to suggest making the film after a visit to the Strasbourg Christmas market, took over as director. Jones was unsurprised Miyazaki wanted to adapt her novel. The prose of her novel is gorgeous, fey and realistic all at once, calling to mind the work of Angela Carter and the C. S. Lewis of Narnia; it is the most literal kind of magical realism, a style that, though I dislike the term, obviously describes much of Miyazaki’s work. Indeed, after learning of Miyazaki’s wishes to put her book to screen, Jones said, “I imagine that Miyazaki might, almost at once, have set about thinking how to draw and animate a fire demon.” The film is much simpler than Jones’ novel plot-wise. And, as with Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki softens the harsher aspects of virtually every character, making, for instance, one of the most iconic figures, the fire-demon Calcifer, a more sympathetic, less judgmental being than in Jones’ book. Howl, too, is a bit gentler. In both book and film, the townsfolk imagine Howl monstrous and womanizing—in the novel, he is compared by gossipers to Bluebeard and accused of capturing girls to “suck out their souls”—yet the first time Howl appears in the movie, unlike in the novel, he saves Sophie from the true womanizers: lecherous soldiers. One of the soldiers predatorily calls Sophie a “mouse”; in the book, it is Howl himself, disguised, who calls Sophie this the first time he appears. Overall, the film’s atmosphere is lighter and less wry than the novel, even as the movie spends more time critiquing war (hence the first soldiers who interact with Sophie being predatory). While it’s easy to recognize Jones’ original in the film, Miyazaki’s movie revises enough that it must stand, like its own moving castle, separately.
Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, can be read as a loose Japanese WII adaptation of Paul Valery’s 1922 poem, “Graveyard by the Sea,” which the movie took its title from, and also The Wind Has Risen, a novel from 1937 by Hori Tatsuo (which also takes its title from Valery). Although obviously partly a biopic of the real-life Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the famous Zero fighter plane, The Wind Rises is also a meditation on the poem’s themes. The narrator of Valery’s poem, musing in a cemetery, initially imagines, sadly, that death is inevitable; but later, he decides to choose life, symbolized by the rising wind’s motion, rather than meditating on motionless death. This is the film’s core message, with Jiro fighting against failure after failure to produce a viable warplane. Indeed, the final line of Jiro’s love interest, Naoko, is taken almost directly from Valery: she tells Jiro that he must choose to try to live, just as the poem’s speaker says, immediately after the half-line that gave the movie its title, that “we must try to live!”
Yet the pilots of Jiro’s planes live themselves, by the end, in a graveyard, as do his extraordinary machines. And, just as Tatsuo’s novel is a love story set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, Naoko seeks love while suffering from the illness. Miyazaki’s final film asks us to choose life—but it does so while surrounded, itself, with death.
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“The concept,” Miyazaki said in 2005, “of portraying evil and then destroying it—I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it’s rotten.” Perhaps this best sums up the literary intrigue into examining the films of Ghibli’s directors: their work is intricate and unconventional, often like the literature they adapt.
And all this reflects a broader truth: art forms are always connected. A film is not just a film, nor a book merely a book; they are intricate tapestries, if often torn ones, of multilayered pasts. Ghibli films and the texts they adapted filled my world as a tween and an adult—and I love them dearly, like old friends who live far off, yet who seem like they never left the moment we meet again.