The Word for Forest is Silence
もののけ姫 | Princess Mononoke
Listen to each section read by the author. Music and production by Michaela Vieser.
ON THE ISLAND OF YAKUSHIMA in southern Japan lies a forest whose wellspring of awe arises from silence. The Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine is a mossy-covered primary-growth nature reserve populated with thousand-year-old yakusugi, or endemic Japanese cedars. Bright blooms and quick movements have no place in this primeval space—green and evergreen is all the eye can discern. Even the ear may strain for signals, for sound does not come often or travel far under the dense canopy. As absence becomes presence, the woods cultivate their own ambience, seeming to convey a core tenet of the Japanese concept of Shinto, which holds that the world is suffused with kami, sacred essences that embody things both living and inorganic. Rock and root. Moss and leaf. Earth and wind-whispered river water. As one of Japan’s oldest forests, the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine serves as a grand cathedral and sanctuary for the more-than-human world. It is the space that inspired filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in the crafting of Princess Mononoke, his 1997 environmental epic in which humanity wages war against the Great Forest and the divine gods of nature.
Princess Mononoke is a tale of survival. Nature’s struggle against the inexorable march of progress is given faces, voices, forms: demon boars and giant wolves, shadowy apes and chimeric deer gods, each wrathful and despondent to human encroachment. In his project pitch for the film, Miyazaki explains how a conflict that pits humanity against nature cannot have a happy ending: any form of victory is by definition Pyrrhic.
Set during the late Muromachi period (1392–1573), the film documents a time of great social and technological upheaval in Japan. As vast tracts of forest were felled for charcoal to feed iron smelters, the once venerated animalistic deities were driven from their lands. Princess Mononoke is a tale of diminishment: A prince from the last of the Indigenous Emishi tribe is forced to wander the world. A girl raised by wolves knows only revenge against those plundering her forest home. A leader of a new and just society razes the countryside to fuel her vision. The guardians of the Great Forest resign themselves to making last stands. There is no going back for any of them.
And yet the film creates space for the old ways to survive. The exiled prince stands at the mouth of the Great Forest and asks permission for entry from a kodama, a doll-like tree spirit. Soon he is accompanied by many kodamas, one for every tree, all clack-clattering in chorus, leading him to a safe clearing. As he kneels to draw water from a pool, the camera holds still on a gap in the distance between two trees. The space slowly brightens with a golden light. A herd of deer passes. One stops. Its silhouette is that of a creature with antlers that resemble a coral crown. Its masked face is vaguely human. The great spirit of the forest turns, gazes through, moves on. The light fades. The forest dims. The silence endures, as always.
A Tree and Troll to Watch Over Me
となりのトトロ | My Neighbor Totoro
TWENTY MILES NORTHWEST OF TOKYO lies Sayama Hills, an oasis of greenery amid one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Here farmland and managed forests merge with grasslands and rice paddies, forming a mosaic of habitats that have long nourished humans and wildlife alike. This cultivated landscape is called the satoyama, a traditional Japanese agricultural system that dates back at least three thousand years. At the system’s heart lies a philosophy of coexisting in harmony with the natural world, along with the belief that active care and respect for nature can lead to one’s own physical and spiritual fulfillment. This reverence runs deep through the scenes and idyllic setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s arguably most iconic film, the 1988 My Neighbor Totoro.
A tale for children and of childhood, My Neighbor Totoro contains little in the way of plot. There are no villains or enemies to strive against. A decade after World War II, two young sisters move into an old farmhouse with their father to be closer to their hospitalized mother. Along the way, they explore their new environment and befriend furry forest spirits called “totoros”—a child’s mispronunciation of the Japanese word for troll.
At the forefront of Miyazaki’s mind is the concern about children succumbing to modern trappings of consumer culture and virtual worlds, alienating them from nature and reality. Drawing upon his time living near Sayama Hills in the 1960s, Miyazaki renders the yesteryear setting of Totoro as both antidote and alternative to this ever-present anxiety. Here is a place free of digital distractions. Here is a world to be unlocked through play. Here is Mei, younger of the two sisters, left alone in the backyard while her father tends to some paperwork. The locked shot has her coming in and out of frame; there is some hopscotching, some digging, some flower picking. Tadpole watching is followed by halfhearted attempts at tadpole catching. A rusted-through bucket is fashioned into a telescope for scouting acorns, which are then collected and stashed away as prized treasures. Ahead, a pair of ghostly bunny ears spotted wading through the grass. Thrill gives way to delight and to a chase that goes from underneath the house to the nearby woods. A discovered trail leads inside the hollow of a massive camphor tree. A giant Totoro, part raccoon, part cat, and part owl, slumbers within.
Miyazaki lavishes the same level of care animating each act of play as he does with Mei’s interactions with magical forest creatures—ordinary moments in nature, after all, can be as memorable as fantastical ones. Tired from her adventures, Mei curls up on Totoro’s belly to take a nap. Her father later says that meeting such a King of the Forest is a sign of good luck. The next day he takes the two sisters back before the camphor tree to thank the spirits for keeping Mei safe. He tells them that people and trees were once the best of friends, that it was because of this tree he decided to make this place their new home.
Carrying on Through a Wayward World
千と千尋の神隠し | Spirited Away
IN HIS COFFEE TABLE BOOK Roadside Japan, journalist and photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki compiled dozens of out-of-the-way attractions not found in any tourist guide. Kitschy shrines where deities grant luck of any kind for the right amount of yen. Collections dedicated to mountains of donated ceramic cats and cattle nose rings. Graveyards filled with discarded pachinko pinball machines and assorted technotrash. Derelict seaside palaces since reclaimed by nearby weeds. Through his back-road travels, Tsuzuki captured a Japan far removed from its restrained and manicured facade, shining a light instead on one that is tacky, gauche, and profoundly wasteful. By honing his lens on these overlooked sights—many of which were abandoned during the post-bubble economy of the 1990s—his photographs tap into an aesthetic known as haikyo, where ruined manufactured landscapes, once released from their burdens of function, embark on a return journey back to nature, take on new meanings, and are inhabited by new stories.
Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away takes place in one such in-between space. While moving to their new house, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn and end up at an abandoned theme park that has since become a portal into the world of spirits. When her parents succumb to the temptations of this mirror realm and are transformed into literal gluttonous pigs, Chihiro must take a job at the nearby bathhouse to find a way to change them back.
Modeled after historical and contemporary onsen (hot springs) hotels, the bathhouse setting in Spirited Away is a visual feast of details, projecting an air of decadent excess. The storeroom reveals caches of monstrous-size meats and seafood consumed by the hotel’s patrons. The boiler room that supplies hot water for the entire bathhouse is maintained by an old man with six arms and a troupe of disgruntled soot sprites. Guest spirits are pampered on the main floors, eager to soak away the grime and pollution from their time toiling in the human world. Workers cram into tight quarters while lavish upper rooms lie vacant awaiting wealthy clients. The top floor, adorned with gold filigree and porcelain floor vases, is home to the owner of the establishment, a witch who spends her days counting her gold and spoiling her child.
Bound by magical contract to work in such a place, Chihiro proves her mettle by confronting No Face, a rogue masked spirit offering unlimited riches to anyone who can satisfy its hunger. Their showdown is framed by upended bowls of half-devoured foods in the foreground and paintings of crazed demonic figures in the back. Chihiro’s diminutive form on the left is juxtaposed against No Face’s giant distended body on the right. No Face tries to curry the girl’s favor with foods and riches, but Chihiro reminds that it can’t help with what she wants. Her choice to eschew wealth and material goods later compels No Face to leave the corrosive influences of the bathhouse behind. Such powers of persuasion are rooted in a self-forged sense of purpose; through her trials Chihiro has learned to walk her own path. At its core, Spirited Away is a tale of how a child, having gained the strength and maturity to chart her own course, can come to sway even a world gone awry.
Reading the Wind, Mending the Earth
風の谷のナウシカ | Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
IMAGINE AN ECOSYSTEM where colossal fungi unfurl to tower as tall as redwoods. Imagine a world swathed in jungles that spew forth toxic spores where giant mutant insects have evolved to dominate every niche. This is the setting of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s postapocalyptic tale where life teems and threatens human survival.
Inspired by the industrial methylmercury poisonings of Minamata Bay, Miyazaki created a version of nature that not only endures humanity’s polluting ways, but actively fights back against it. Faced with the challenges of living with such hostile forces, humanity teeters on the brink of extinction. Yet one small kingdom still clings to life and hope, holding fast to a prophecy where a savior will one day “join bonds with the great earth and guide the people to the pure land.” Their chieftain’s daughter’s name: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
As a mediator between the human and more-than-human world, the titular heroine is bound by duty to her kingdom’s subjects and also by kinship with the Ohmu, a race of gargantuan and empathic larval insects that periodically rampage across human settlements. As a pilot who reads the wind and an ecologist who searches for connections, Nausicaä employs sense and science in equal measure to unlock the mysteries of a world that both offers her solace and threatens her kingdom. Working in her underground study and secret garden, she cultivates samples of fluorescent molds and luminous flora from the toxic jungle with unpolluted soil and water drawn from deep wells. In so doing, she discovers that the life-forms are not poisonous, but rather the land they grew from. Over the course of her journey, Nausicaä learns that the toxic jungle is nature’s attempt to purify the landscape, absorbing the contaminated fallout from the collapse of industrialized civilization a thousand years ago, transmuting it over centuries into inert crystal sand.
The 1984 film version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind ends abruptly, on a happy note of coexistence between the kingdom and the toxic jungle. But there exists another version of Nausicaä, a graphic novel Miyazaki began before the film and finished more than a decade later, that reflects a more complicated and nuanced philosophy. After a thousand-plus pages, Miyazaki ends his eco-saga with the statement, “No matter how difficult it is, we must live.”
Earlier on in this version, at the start of the third act, warring factions have just wielded the toxic jungle as a form of biological warfare against one another. Nausicaä is missing, and much of the human-habitable world has been lost. An airship full of refugees from another kingdom has crashed near the Valley of the Wind, and the villagers debate whether to render aid to those who do not share their language or customs. One wonders what their leader would do. Another answers she would already be in the thick of things, helping with open heart and arms. The Valley people decide to send a messenger ahead, carrying a ring of bread in one hand, an unsheathed sword in the other. A choice. In another exercise of authorial voice, Miyazaki interjects himself into the moment: “In spite of the hard times that followed, the meeting of the Valley people and the Narei Clan was a happy exception in those days of mistrust and conflict.” O