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Hayao Miyazaki's complicated relationship with technology and humanity

Contributed by
Nov 8, 2017

Steampunk airships that look like zeppelins, gliders that are reminiscent of seagulls, airborne islands and planes designed in the most minute detail, wobbly "castles" that have legs and propellers: anime filmmaker extraordinaire and co-founder of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki certainly loved to conceptualize and design elaborate mechanical artifacts, especially if they involved the possibility of flying.

If you are one of the lucky few who managed to watch his 2002 short Imaginary Flying Machines, which was screened at the Ghibli museum and aboard the JAL aircrafts, you certainly remember the six-minute sequence featuring fish-shaped and Pirate-ship-shaped airships.

And yet, even though bizarre, retro-futuristic technological artifacts are a trademark of Miyazaki's film productions alongside quietly courageous heroines, sweeping vistas and a stark defense of nature, this does not translate into a one-sided portrayal of technology which, to be frank, goes way beyond his Da Vinci-like flying machines.

On the contrary, technology and its implication in human nature are oftentimes at the core of the central conflict of his movies.

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In his early directorial works Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), both set in a distant future, the fraught relationship between humans and technology, with nature thrown in the mix, is palpable.

Nausicaa, which was distributed in the pre-Studio Ghibli era, is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by poisonous insects and a toxic jungle, known as Sea of Decay, with human settlements scattered in the non-tainted areas. Turns out, it was humanoid bioweapons known as "God Warriors," created by humans, that caused the apocalypse (known as "Seven Days of Fire") in the first place. The monsters and toxic plants that are crawling in the Sea of Waste are actually trying to purify the soil that human civilization tainted.

And yet, he is far from painting a black-and-white picture: princess Kushana, who would appear as the antagonist to the more pacifist princess Nausicaa, wants to a God-Warrior hatchling to burn down the toxic jungle and and reunite all human settlements, reclaiming the earth from the toxic waste and the monstrous life forms that generated from it.

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The legendary kingdom of Laputa

Laputa, released two years later, is set in an alternate-history Steampunk era and revolves around the namesake mythical kingdom located floating island. It's teeming with robot soldiers and left uninhabited after being abandoned by its settlers. And yet, what we see when the characters end up finding a way to the skyward kingdom is a utopian portrayal of the peaceful coexistence between nature and progress: the only surviving robot (which is quite reminiscent of Nausicaa's bio-engineered God Warriors), which we were led to think of as gargantuan, beam-shooting killing machine, is actually gently pruning the lush and verdant garden surrounding what we can safely call a "tree of life."

In its bowels, Laputa conceals a technological core, a weapon of great power that destroyed many cities throughout the centuries (including, per the film's lore, Sodom and Gomorrah). It is hinted that the royal family eventually decided to abandon Laputa so that the technology that governed the island would no longer be used for evil purposes, and that it was human hybris that turned the robots into weapons. When, at the end of the movie, the protagonists determine that it's best to destroy Laputa, it's only the technological bottom that detaches itself from the island, while the rest of it floats higher up into the sky: it will only be found again when humans are able to use technology with no intent to harm.

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Another nuanced portrayal of the relationship between humanity, progress and nature is presented in Princess Mononoke (1997) where, in order to make Iron Town a thriving economic settlement, Lady Eboshi cut down many trees which enraged the forest gods.

As easy as it could be to dismiss Eboshi's deed straight-up evil, Miyazaki does not do so: in fact, by forming that settlement that character rescued lepers and sex workers from the fringes of society, and was actually able to give them work in Iron Town.

In a less overt way, in Howl's Moving Castle (2004), technology causes a disconnect from nature, and the battleships destined for the war gleam with modernity, whereas Howl's castle looks like an artifact from another era.

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Even when he is not directly concerned with misuse of technology at the hands of humans, Miyazaki still views humankind with a critical eye. In fact, beside technological hubris, we can agree that, as film critic A. O. Scott wrote in 2005, "political ambition and greed are the true roots of evil" in Miyazaki's movies. In Porco Rosso (1992), the pig-faced airplane pilot once known as Marco Pagot chose to give up on his human nature altogether after witnessing the horrors of World War I and the rise of totalitarian regimes. "I'd much rather be a pig than a fascist," he tells a former acquaintance who had pledged loyalty to Mussolini.

As for Spirited Away (2001), unless you believe in the theory that it's an allegory of prostitution, it's a coming of age tale, even though the protagonist Chihiro/Sen helps a particularly stinky client, which is revealed to be nothing but a polluted river that she restores to health. Yu Baba, the owner of the bath house, just rules her establishment like a greedy capitalists, and greed is also characteristic of her own parents, who think it's fine to eat the food of the spirit city because they have cash and card to pay for them. As a punishment, they are turned into pigs.

In Ponyo on the Cliff by The Sea (2008), Ponyo's father, the underwater sorcerer Fujimoto reveals that "he used to be human" but had given up on his nature. "They treat their home like their empty black souls," he says on the way humans behave towards the planet. He is mostly concerned with the balance of nature, and when his fish-like daughter Brunhilde decides she wants to be human (and adopts the name Ponyo as a consequence), that decision causes a tsunami of epic proportions.

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All these aspects of Miyazaki's movies come together in a pivotal scene of The Wind Rises (2013), the fictionalized biopic of Mitsubishi designer Jiro Horikoshi which, up until a couple of weeks ago, was known as his last work: in a dream sequence, plane engineer count Caproni chaperones Jiro Horikoshi, who would eventually be the chief engineer of many World War II Japanese fighter planes, around his latest invention, and asks him a cryptical question. "Which would you choose, a world with pyramids or a world without?" he asks in an oracle-like tone. Horikoshi wavers. "Humanity has always dreamt of flying, but the dream is cursed."

Caproni then continues "My aircrafts are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction." Still, though Caproni chooses "a world with pyramids in it." The answer of Horikoshi, as naive as it might sound, is as Miyazaki-ish as it can get: "I just want to draw beautiful airplanes."