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The primeval woods of Miyazaki's animation are "forbidden forests"

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

The primeval woods of Miyazaki's animation are

By now most of the world's movie-goers have heard of director Hayao Miyazaki's animations. It is well known that forests play an important role in several of his works. These forests are not mere parks. They are forests of awe, abundant with meaning.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

It's the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when warlords were carving Japan into their own spheres of influence.
The young Ashitaka is caught between forces who are destroying the forests and the spirits of the forest (mononoke).
The story revolves around his relationship with Princess Mononoke. DVD, 133 min-utes, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (C)1997 Nibariki-GND

Photography by Hakushi Maeda (Q Photo International)
text by Hiroshi Aoi

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Hiroshi Aoi
writer

Born in 1963 in Wakayama prefecture, Aoi graduated from the Law Department of Waseda University and now writes extensively about ethnology, psychopathology, history, science fiction, mystery, and fantasy fiction. In his recent publication Deci-phering Miyazaki's Anime, he gives an exhaustive explanation of Miyazaki's world view.

In the opening scene of Miyazaki's 1997 Princess Mononoke, set in medieval Japan, range after range of mountains appears. Below them are the following words: "In ancient times the land lay covered in forests where from ages long past dwelt the spirits of the gods."

In the sacred woods that are threatened by encroaching development in Miyazaki's film, there dwells not only the many-horned Shishigami (Deer God), but also the spirits of trees, and animals that understand human speech. The feeling of this mysterious forest is expressed simply in the words of 20th-century writer Georges Bataille, describing France's prehistoric cave paintings: "The animals of Lascaux are at the level of gods or kings." Indeed, in the forest of the Shishigami, animals discover their divinity.

In Miyazaki's 1988 My Neighbor Totoro the hills, where the young girl Mei and the forest spirit Totoro meet, are called Tsukamori (Tumulus Woods). The kanji for tumulus can mean an ancient tomb or grave, so the name suggests a quiet, sacred place. It's not difficult for our imaginations to leap from this name to the idea of forbidden woods. Even today throughout Japan there are shrines with forbidden woods within their grounds. The woods came first, followed by the building of a shrine. That is, our sense of awe came first, and afterwards we developed techniques and trappings of religion to appease the gods. We put up a torii gate and hang sacred ropes in the forbidden forest, but in the end this is nothing but the cleverness of adults. In proof of this, the young heroine Mei, ignorant of the meaning of an entrance path, manages to find her way through a brambly maze to discover the inner mystery of the forest, namely Totoro.

In Princess Mononoke the forests are similarly forbidden territory. The deep woods are a maze that keeps people away. The feeling that something lurks in the deep, dark recesses of the forest stops people from wanting to walk inside. Places that were once divine or sacred are uncomfortable for adult human beings, and only shamans or those who have not learned fear, like children, dare enter. Thus only the young hero Ashitaka, descendant of the Emishi people "with unclouded eyes," or the wolf-girl San are able to see the Shishigami.

When we think about it, the forest of the Sea of Corruption in Miyazaki's 1984 Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, is a kind of forbidden wood filled with savage insects and poisonous spores. What is hidden in the heart of this forest is neither god nor ghost, but truth. It is young Princess Nausica egoless and without fear of the forest, who is able to penetrate to the truth: that the Sea of Corruption is simply a means of purifying the polluted world.

For us, lost in our modern lives, no longer remembering the childhood belief that "something" lurks in the deepest woods, the forests in Miyazaki's animations are nostalgic and terrifying at the same time. Indeed, a ticket to a Miyazaki anime is the passport to enter a forbidden forest.




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