This Video Explores the Shinto Spirituality of Hayao Miyazaki's Films

From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
Image: Toei Company

Like any prolific director, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has a few preoccupations in his writing. Particularly, he’s fascinated by the natural world, and the conflict between man’s desires and nature’s power.


In a new video, the thinkers over at Wisecrack (who, channel name notwithstanding, put out some pretty clever videos on philosophy) consider the philosophy behind Miyazaki’s famed reverence for nature, taking viewers on an introductory tour of the Japanese religion Shinto as it provides a framework for understanding Miyazaki’s films.

The video is a good little education in fifteen minutes, running through a large portion of Miyazaki’s library in brisk detail. Whether you’re an expert or a newcomer to Miyazaki’s films, it’s well worth a watch.

io9 Weekend Editor. Videogame writer at other places. Queer nerd girl.

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I did like this explanatory video, but speaking as a Japanese kid raised in the Shinto tradition (albeit as an adult Catholic convert), I do think the video slightly misses the mark.

In Japan, most households participate in both Buddhist and Shinto religious rites, seeing them as mutually compatible (often referenced as “Shinto-Buddhism”). I would argue that the “balance” elements of Japanese spirituality come actually more from its Buddhist traditions, while Shinto emphasizes that nature is something to behold and be awed by.

While balance is a theme that’s present in Shinto and Miyazaki films, I think an even greater, more important point is awe. That is, being awed by the awesomeness of nature—whether by it’s beauty, it’s power, it’s tranquility, or even it’s ugliness.

Take, for example, Spirited Away, arguably the most overtly Shinto film Miyazaki made. Unlike in Princess Mononoke or Ponyo, there’s no overt theme of conflict between Technology and nature—rather it seeks to cultivate a sense of wonder and awe regarding the world in which Sen resides.

The sensation that by looking, just looking a bit harder, one can see a greater world beneath the “normal” surface of the world, to come in contact with powers and spirits beyond comprehension that shape and create nature is Shinto.

Taking such concepts and merging them with Buddhist concepts of equilibrium, tranquility, and enlightenment is the “Shinto-buddhist” tradition.

As a secondary aside, I don’t think the video’s characterization of Christianity as a religion that by necessity encourages the ruthless exploitation of nature is hardly fair either—while the Bible does say nature is the domain of man, it also makes clear that man are “stewards” of Earth, that is they are caretakers of Earth, which is ultimately God’s like with all things. Even a cursory reading of the nature of stewardship reveals that allowing greed to destroy that which you were given stewardship by God over is the very epitome of the concept of mortal sin.