Director Hayao Miyazaki, celebrated across the globe for his works in Japanese animation, explores the themes and inner workings of the spirit world throughout many of his films. The spirit world is presented in his work as a veiled plane of existence alongside reality that encompasses the moral, emotional, and even political ‘spirit’ of individuals with respect to the more traditional Shinto beliefs in Japan regarding Kami. The spirit world is related through varying avenues in each of his films; My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away display a more innocent, uninfluenced perspective of the spirits and their relationship with reality, while Princess Mononoke offers a more serious, political take on the veil. Miyazaki draws attention to the importance of resolving underlying conflict using spirit characters as conduits and catalysts for the protagonist to learn and grow.
My Neighbor Totoro uses framing tools to shape the story from the perspective of a child, its own case being Mei and Satsuki; Mei and Satsuki are able to perceive the spirits throughout the film as they are children, however, although their father believes them (which leads us to understand he has seen them in the past), he is unable to see the spirits’ physical manifestations. Though one can liken the loss of innocence to the case for how he is unable to perceive the spirits, I would argue the veil is hidden by resolution of conflict. The duality in the themes of conflict resolution and loss of innocence obscures the reason for the veil in this film, however, the fog begins to clear when later examining Princess Mononoke. As the film continues, the two young girls are comforted by the spirits they find in the forest; their mother’s health is indeterminate at the time for them and they are pressured because they lack the experience and understanding to handle the emotional impact of her sickness. Totoro takes on the caretaker role for Mei and Satsuki as they come to terms with her mother’s illness by watching over them and guiding them when they are at a loss of what to do. Totoro fulfills a vacant position in the children’s lives, manifesting as a conduit for their grief and longing over missing their mother.
Miyazaki brings close attention to the personal relationship between individuals and spirits; this technique causes his stories to feel much more personable and effectively frames them in the moment. “Miyazaki is no evangelist: the gods and spirits in his movies don’t follow or abide by the rituals of religion. But the relationship between humans and gods remains paramount.” (Gilkeson). Reflecting the modern model of Shinto practice in Japan, Miyazaki displays spirits as a part of everyday life for the characters of his films. He achieves this interpersonal relationship between humans and spirits by intertwining supernatural and spiritual elements throughout his character’s lives as if they were there all along. In My Neighbor Totoro, this is accomplished by exploring Totoro’s identity in a very shallow manner. The girls simply accept that Totoro is a new part of their lives and reality, there is very little doubt or questioning as to why or what Totoro is. The relationship of the physical and metaphysical worlds becomes even more extreme in Princess Mononoke where an all-out war between the spirits of the forest and a human town is being waged. Not only is the veil lifted in this film, but the spirits take on more humanistic traits and roles as they fight to protect the forest, rather than existing in tandem with the people of iron town. Placed in the spirit world rather than in reality, Spirited Away approaches this theme from an entirely different angle. Chihiro travels to the spirit realm, and similarly to the spirits in the real world, maintains a loose control over the veil by holding her breath; other than this, however, spirits and humans are almost one in the same throughout this film.
Princess Mononoke takes a turn for the more serious and political as the humans and spirits clash over ideals; the film continues to keep the themes of good and evil wonderfully ambiguous as the spirits fight for the natural order to be restored and to destroy Irontown, while the people of Irontown fight for their place in the world as they have been rejected from everywhere else. “While the film has been praised for presenting a fairly grey-vs-grey view of the otherwise-polarizing conflict between man and nature, it’s still obvious in many places that the story represents an authorial viewpoint and is occasionally willing to glorify or vilify one side or another to get its point across.” (Shea). Although neither side is necessarily villainized, the conflict in Princess Mononoke shifts throughout the film, causing viewers to change their perspective in each passing scene. Although Irontown was the perpetrator from the beginning by cursing the boar-god with their bullets, their perspective of the situation is further explored and can be seen as a just cause for action. This is an interesting shift in the tone of the relationship between humans and spirits in Miyazaki’s films. Rather than presenting the spirits as mystical beings of innocence and wonder living alongside people, the spirits take on much more humanistic political traits as they are able to speak with, understand the actions of, and ultimately fight back against the people of Irontown.
Miyazaki’s resonating theme of resolving conflict through interaction with spirits or supernatural entities reaches its climax in his most renown film, Spirited Away. Rather than exploring this relationship in reality, Spirited Away puts a whole new twist on the Miyazaki formula; Chihiro takes on the traditional role of the spirit as she travels into their realm and throughout her efforts to return home, resolves conflicts that arise and tutors the spirits, an inverse version of the relationship displayed throughout other Miyazaki films. “The gods seem more vulnerable to the whims of humans than the other way around. No wonder Lin and the other bathhouse workers are so terrified of Chihiro when they discover she’s human.” (Gilkeson). While Miyazaki usually portrays spirits individually existing throughout the human world alongside people, Chihiro’s position in Spirited Away reflects this as she is portrayed as an individual human in the spirit world. Totoro’s innocence, as well as his relationship with Satsuki and Mei are mirrored through Chihiro’s personality and relationship with Haku. One imbalance remains apparent throughout the film, however, as spirits residing in the human world are seemingly weaker and non-humanized, while humans maintain their full ability and person when in the spirit world. However small this dynamic may seem, it inherently sets spirits to be at the mercy of humans, and thus explains the innocent and veiled relationship between the two.
Throughout Miyazaki’s films, three separate approaches to the spirit world can be examined. Firstly, one may react negatively, whether through rejecting the existence of the spirits, or attempting to take advantage of their ability. The second approach being a neutral one, individuals make effort to neither deny nor confirm the existence of spirits, they may perceive spirits, but the individual’s perspective has framed them as irrelevant. The third approach to the spirit world is the positive approach. Individuals interact with, take use of (in a symbiotic manner), and live alongside spirits in the real world that are acknowledged by this person to be just as living as any other person. Each approach is directly linked to the level of conflict that the character undergoes through each film. In Princess Mononoke, Lady Eboshi takes the negative approach with the spirits of the forest and through her actions, a large-scale conflict ensues between the spirits and the people of Irontown. In My Neighbor Totoro, Tatsuo takes a neutral approach to the spirit world as although he cannot perceive the spirits, he believes his daughters that they exist; the level of conflict for this character is almost non-existent, just as the spirits are to him. Mei and Satsuki, however, take a positive approach when faced with the spirits of the forest as they meet, befriend, and form a bond with Totoro. There is much conflict for the girls as they are coming to terms with their mother’s absence and illness, however, because a positive approach is taken with the neighboring spirits, they help to heal the conflict rather than add to it.
When a negative approach is taken, conflict seems to worsen or arise. The neutral approach causes life to continue uninfluenced by the spirits. While finally the positive approach resolves conflict in the individual.
Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has greatly influenced and shaped the animated film industry through his direct focus on emotion, moral ambiguity, and conflict resolution throughout his films; taking use of spirit characters similar to the Japanese Shinto Kami, Miyazaki enlightens and endows the viewers of his stories with a lesson, forged each time through the resolution of underlying conflict. My Neighbor Totoro deals with the issues of loss and death with a lighthearted, memorable spirit who guides the girls to acceptance. Spirited Away explores the importance of words and individuality in a fantastical journey through the spirit world featuring countless unique spirits that each have their own character, meaning, and conflict. Princess Mononoke brings heavy attention to environmental and social-political issues facing the real world by clashing the wills of the spirits and the people of Irontown. It is only through the resolution of conflict that something more may grow; Miyazaki has mastered this through the use of spirits as catalysts and conduits for conflict and change.
Gilkeson, Austin. “Gods and Spirits (….and Whatever Totoro Is): Exploring Miyazaki’s Fantasy
World.” Tor.com, 27 Sept. 2017, www.tor.com/2017/09/27/gods-and-spirits-and-whatever-totoro-is-exploring-miyazakis-fantasy-world/.
Shea, J. “Analysis: Princess Mononoke.” Exploring Believability, 1 Jan. 1970,