A nightmare of capitalist Japan: Spirited Away
by Ayumi Suzuki
Miyazaki’s sophisticated art lies not in creating marketable child-friendly animation, but in presenting social criticism through child characters in his animated films. On this point, Miyazaki shares something with a cultural critic of a previous generation, Walter Benjamin (1936). Both Benjamin and Miyazaki have faith in two things, storytelling and children.
Stories can transmit knowledge by integrating that knowledge in a fantastical tale. In this way, listeners can learn not just through receiving information but also by internalizing knowledge as experience. Benjamin explains that there's a new form of communication made possible by new media, which in his time consisted of radio, photography and cinema. This new kind of communication transmits information, which has timeliness and does not leave room for listeners to expand their imagination or capacity for interpretation, because this transmission of information requires that explanations be given at the same time. In contrast, stories provide informational cues that trigger creative interpretations on the part of their listeners, and each different interpretation, as it's created, becomes a personal experience which lasts in the listener's mind. For that reason, Benjamin distinguished storytelling from information giving, and in this vein, Miyazaki is a storyteller who uses his films to bequeath his social knowledge.
Another common element between the two thinkers is their faith in children, and they admire the quality of youthful minds to be filled with curiosity and stay free from the task-minded business of modern day living. Miyazaki believes in the cunning and the high spirits in children; therefore, he utilizes adolescent characters in his films to explore a "mystical"world, which in fact is a fantasized version of social reality. In this way, his films echo thoughts of Benjamin (1936), who says, “The wisest thing – so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day – is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits” (p.11).
This concept of representing a reality through a veil of fantasy can also be found in a Japanese traditional art, Ukiyo-e. Japanese animators have inherited visual aesthetics from the style of the art of Ukiyo-e (Murakami, 2000; Looser, 2006). Cavallaro (2006) points out that Miyazaki, in particular, has an aesthetic similar to Ukiyo-e in terms of his use of two-dimensional drawing and water color. There may be a further philosophical connection between Miyazaki’s animation and Ukiyo-e. As a term, Ukiyo-e is usually translated as "images of the floating world"; literally [Uki: float]+[Yo: world]+[E: pictures].
Ukiyo refers to the world without Buddhist enlightenment; that is to say, the world filled with consciousness of mortality. Buddhist teachings warn against craving for anything that is ephemeral or not eternal. People suffer when they lose something they crave, and that moment of loss must come because nothing stays the same. Without enlightenment, people will continue to find this ever-changing world the very source of grief. Our world of grief is Ukiyo.
Ukiyo-e artists depict scenes from "pleasure quarters" (the floating world) such as Kabuki stars, beautiful women, or scenes from a play, namely as objects that people crave. As one desires those objects in Ukiyo-e, or as they experience that desire in Ukiyo itself, s/he must know that one day those objects will disappear, causing suffering. Ukiyo-e’s plays on dual senses where “fantasy is pleasure” and “reality is grief”; this is the kind of dual world that Miyazaki always establishes in his films. On the one hand, he elaborates an animated reality based on a contemporary postindustrial culture, complete with the latest technology and products, that eventually transforms into a nightmare. Second, he also establishes a world out of his own fantasy in which a child encounters the vanity of materialism and learns to balance materialism with a need for spirituality there. For him, animation inhabited by children as characters is a radical form that he can use to speak out against the dominant ideology of consumer capitalism — radical because animation is a by-product of modern technology and because children are a special target of capitalist marketing. By using narratives with child characters moving through an animated world, the director aims his vision at a more general audience immersed in a lifestyle of hedonistic consumption.
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