The Many Homes of Hayao Miyazaki

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2017

Miyazaki’s films show his audience that the home is not a fixed, single place.

The home has no one single meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its use back to Old English, with the word’s meaning changing and evolving in coordination with the changing world its people inhabit. “Home” has meant a state and/or place of dwelling; a place that evokes feelings of comfort and belonging; a domestic setting; a refuge or sanctuary ‐ “a place or region to which one naturally belongs or where one feels at ease.” And for the Medieval thirteenth century folk, a person’s state after death.

Despite the differing definitions of “home,” however, there is one idea that connects them all, and it’s an idea that is seen throughout the work of Hayao Miyazaki: the home as a place that is physically ever-changing, but internally focused. From 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro and its characters, Satsuki and Mei, moving to a new house to the movement between the world of dreamscapes and reality in 2013’s The Wind Rises, it’s clear Miyazaki’s homes shift between the borders of dreams and reality. These dream and reality borders mirror Miyazaki’s focus on the emotional versus logical, with the homes of the films always concerned with the former; concerned with what a home feels like rather than what a home is.

Miyazaki’s first feature-length animation The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) is one of the only of the director’s films that has a male as a protagonist rather than a young woman or little girl. The film is a continuation of the TV series Lupin III that Miyazaki worked on with one of three Studio Ghibli founders, Isao Takahata (the other two being Miyazaki himself and his long-time producer Toshio Suzuki). Following the cunning thief Arsène Lupin III, The Castle of Cagliostro opens with a robbery, turns into a thrilling chase scene, and ends with the discovery of an ancient city.

While the action and pace of the film differs from Miyazaki’s later Studio Ghibli productions (it’s a lot louder and more fast-paced than late-era Miyazaki fans would be used to), the film foreshadows techniques and motifs that would appear in the director’s later work. There’s the lack of villains and heroes, with the viewer instead given a contradiction of a character that is both a thief and a life-saver. In fact, Lupin’s status as a thief helps him later in the narrative, with him stealing a princess’ (Clarisse) ancestral rings that hold the secret of Cagliostro. Simple binary oppositions are not techniques Miyazaki uses when it comes to his characters. What’s more, Miyazaki’s obsession with flying is seen in Cagliostro, too, with the count’s autogyro being the starting-point for Miyazaki’s animation of aircraft.

In terms of Cagliostro being the beginning of Miyazaki’s theme on homes, the clue is in the title: the castle. With his fellow thief Daisuke Jigen at his side, Lupin’s introduction to the viewer gives the character no sense of home or place. These are people constantly on the move. Yet it’s through the runaway princess Clarisse where the idea of home begins, perhaps now unsurprisingly for the modern viewer when considering characters such as Sophie Hatter and Chihiro Ogino. The function of the castle and the two rings that reveal the secret of Cagliostro can be seen as a representation for what the home is like in Miyazaki’s work. The castle ‐ the new home ‐ of the Count being seen as a place of unwant is much like how Sophie initially rejects the comfort of Howl’s castle, while the revelation of the new, yet ancient, world underneath speaks to the fantastical dreamscapes Miyazaki’s characters often find their homes in.

Cagliostro’s new revelation of the old ancient city also speaks to Miyazaki’s belief that “children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” with these old revelations of historical memories inhabiting new homes in the child. Miyazaki continues by describing how with age comes the loss of these transient memories, stating:

“It’s just that as they [children] grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.”

Homes exist within rather than without, and the 1988 Ghibli production My Neighbor Totoro, now considered a Ghibli classic, actively shows these beliefs through its characters and their changing homes. Where 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind explores the wider idea of humankind destroying their natural home, Totoro places its focus on the much more contained idea of childhood homes.

The film begins in a state of movement as Satsuki, Mei and their father move to a new house in order to be closer to their ill mother. Upon arrival, the two sisters discover the forest that protects the house, meet the creatures (susuwatari, or sootballs) that inhabit it, and as a result find a new world. It’s this new world that comes to represent Satsuki and Mei’s home. A local tells them only children can see the sootballs (which are small creatures that move from light to dark), tying with Murakami’s idea of memories sinking after childhood. The childhood home ‐ the feeling of comfort and belonging that comes from remembrance— lives on through Totoro and the magical world discovered through him. The sootballs come to reflect the impermanence of this home, while the adults’ inability to see Totoro and the Catbus emphasises how Satsuki and Mei are using their internal emotions in order to create an external home, a place where they belong.

It’s belonging that is a key theme to the idea of Miyazaki’s homes as its what his characters are often searching for, unknowingly or not. There’s Sheeta from Studio Ghibli’s first animated production Castle in the Sky (1986), who is on the search for a legendary castle that resides in the sky, guided by nothing other than an amulet and her faith. At the end of her adventure, the thing that protects her are the roots of a tree. Ponyo (2008) follows its title character as she wants to experience a world that isn’t home. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Spirited Away (2001) see two characters having to face the acceptance that a home cannot be lived in permanently; they each go into new worlds that, with time, become new homes. Meanwhile, Princess Mononoke (1997) and Porco Rosso (1992) explore a theme that runs throughout all of Miyazaki’s films on a larger scale: civilisation vs. nature; how humanity destroys their home.

Miyazaki turns the idea of a home into a much more complex matter by not just moving between the external and internal worlds of the characters, but tying them with more intricate ideas that speak to both young children and adults. In Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), for example, the home becomes a complex idea that is brought into question through representations of the home in the physical realm. Calcifer represents the literal heart of the home, a facet of Howl’s inner world brought into reality. Sophie’s curse that turns her into an old woman leaves her inner life unable to correspond with her original home. Instead, she has to find a new one, and as she does the home inside of her changes.

Most important is the castle itself, as it represents what the homes Miyazaki creates become to the viewer. Howl’s castle is ever-moving, it’s doors open up to new places and paths, and the people that inhabit it change from grumpy fireplaces to caring protectors, or from wicked witches to flawed human beings. These altering homes and people show that Miyazaki’s work tells its audience it’s okay for homes to physically shift. Moreover, this constant movement is emphasised through the director’s scenes of flight, that mirror the dreamscapes, and therefore true homes, of his films. These flight scenes are present in Nausicaä’s glider, Howl’s (and his castle’s) ability to fly, and the planes of Porco Rosso, but is something that is fully realised in The Wind Rises (2013).

Inspired by the aerospace engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his conflict between the beauty of aircraft against the brutality of war, The Wind Rises opens with the viewer directly placed in the dream-world of Jiro. By introducing the viewer to the character through his dreams, Miyazaki shows how this is the world in which Jiro is most at home in. It’s a world where wars do not have to exist, and therefore Jiro’s conflict can be forgotten. However as the film continues, it’s clear the protagonist has to come to accept the reality of his world ‐ his other home ‐ without giving up the beauty he sees in aircrafts. As Miyazaki says: “we shouldn’t stick too close to everyday reality but give room to the reality of the heart, of the mind, and of the imagination.” Here, the border between dreams and reality limits Jiro and his world once again. This border also represents a problem many of Miyazaki’s characters have to face: the strength to move on from one home in order to gain another.

The Wind Rises’ flight and the movement of homes in Howl’s Moving Castle are each key motifs in all of Miyazaki’s work. “When you look up from above,” Miyazaki says, “so many things reveal themselves to you.” The director teaches his audience the importance of homes. For the young, he teaches through characters such as Spirited Away’s Chihiro that it’s okay for homes to change physically, as the nostalgia felt signals how it has always been inside of the person. Likewise, for his older audience Miyazaki allows them to return to homes of their past through his films; there’s a return to nostalgia. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie’s ring breaks once she reaches Howl’s childhood because she has reached a home. This denouement evokes the sense that the state of childhood ‐ the feeling of a “sanctuary,” to return to the many definitions of “home” ‐ is a home in itself, and one that needs to be moved on from. It’s no coincidence that every one of Miyazaki’s films follows his characters on a journey, often beginning at the (oftentimes unknowing) search for a new home.

It’s not just Miyazaki’s films that explore the ideas of home either, with his co-founder Isao Takahata often exploring the idea of home in his films. For example, in My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) the home is presented in a typical domestic setting through a series of comedic vignettes. Yet still, the home here is not simply the physical world that surrounds the Yamadas, but the company they are with. Similarly, the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies (1988) also sees the home as being inside of another person, and explores what a home, and life, can be when that person has gone.

However, when comparing Takahata’s work to Miyazaki’s, it’s clear their homes work in different spaces. Where Takahata often has a sense of the distinction between the past and the present, Miyazaki’s use of dreams as his characters’ homes blurs the border between past, present and future, with the director often applying all three tenses into his dreamscapes.

Nostalgia, as Miyazaki states, is “difficult to define” because it is a shared emotion of mankind, shared between both old and young. This is why the homes of Miyazaki are so complex ‐ they exist in different worlds, with different people, and in different physicalities. And, ultimately, there is no one single home in Miyazaki’s work, but instead a shared one; one at peace with childhood.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.