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Hayao Miyazaki’s Viral Stories

What my daughter and I learned from watching the legendary animator’s movies during the pandemic

Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest

I may not have written my King Lear during the pandemic, but I certainly have told a lot of stories. This is because I spend my days minding a six-year-old. Since we have nothing else to do but entertain each other, I tell her stories as I fix her lunch or as we walk around the neighborhood. Perhaps it is less that we tell ourselves stories in order to live than to pass the time, like the character-narrators in The Decameron who regale each other with tales every night while Florence is being ravaged by the Black Plague. But unlike them, I don’t have the imaginative wherewithal to invent stories of my own, so when the plea for a yarn is made, I fall back on the tried and true: “Once upon a time there was a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins.…”

Lucky for me that I am decently familiar with the lore of The Lord of the Rings, since children have so many questions about the various other worlds that the people in our world have conjured up. “Where do orcs come from?” she might ask. “Well, they were once elves who were tortured and corrupted by the Dark Lord,” I say. Every movie we watch, every book we read, spawns a whole galaxy of little stories that are told and retold as we cycle through the days that all feel like one interminable day, a strange pocket outside time that, in my house anyway, swims like a fish tank with legends and fantasies. I’m not sure what I expected fatherhood to be like, but somehow it did not involve delineating, for the umpteenth time, the familial relationship between Draco Malfoy and Bellatrix LeStrange.

The way women are depicted in stories has emerged as something of a roadblock to our pure enjoyment of them. When we went through a phase of Greek myths, for example, we had to abort an attempt to read an abridged version of The Iliad because it was just too complicated to explain that Agamemnon and Achilles were fighting over a concubine slave. The Norse myth phase went better, since she found a favorite character in Hel, the half-corpse, half-beauty who rules the underworld. She is now crazy for stories from the Bible, though she doesn’t understand why it is Eve, and not Adam, who eats the forbidden fruit and condemns humankind to exile from paradise, or why it is Lot’s wife, and not Lot himself, who is turned into a pillar of salt. “Why is it always the woman?” she pouts, and I have no answer for her except to underscore that this is just one of many, many reasons we are not religious.

I have discovered, now that I am both a part-time homeschooler and a dispenser of stories, that I possess a pedagogic bent, as I imagine most writers do—that I take great pleasure in explaining, elucidating, driving the point home. (As William Gass once wrote, “I realized that when I woke in the morning, I rose from bed only to ask the world if it had any questions.”) One recent Saturday evening, when I had downed a couple glasses of wine and was really feeling the significance of the Western storytelling tradition, I explained to her that, misogyny aside, the stories of the Bible were vital to understanding those queer creatures known as human beings, who are just as enigmatic as elves or orcs; that these ancient stories reveal to us, in all their obdurate mystery, who we are. It was admittedly a bit high-flown for a six-year-old, whose attention seemed wholly absorbed by the marshmallows bobbing in her cup of hot chocolate, but it was one of the many seeds that parents strew about, germinating away somewhere in the fertile brains of their children.

Thankfully we have other traditions to draw on, too, ones where the creatures are not so fallen. Her first love was Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated films are blessedly full of girls who are both extraordinarily heroic and thoroughly ordinary. Unlike their sensually curved Hollywood counterparts, they look like actual girls, ranging from plump toddlers (May from My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo from Ponyo) to the kind of beanpole kid (Satsuki from My Neighbor Totoro, Chihiro from Spirited Away) that my daughter is rapidly becoming. The heroines of her pandemic-era infatuations—Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—are more adolescent, though they are still boyish and doing what older generations would have called boyish things: i.e., saving the world.

Nausicaä, in particular, has become a fascination for us both, seemingly tailor-made for an audience in the grips of an airborne pandemic. It is set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war that destroyed the industrialized world and gave rise to the Toxic Jungle, where the air is poisonous. First released in Japan in 1984, it is one of Miyazaki’s oldest films—the movie that led to the founding of his Studio Ghibli—and it holds up not just as a feat of animation in its own right but also as a precursor containing all the themes that will flourish in his later, more famous movies: a reverence for the natural world amid humanity’s heedless and ultimately self-defeating destruction of the environment; the value of courage and resilience in the face of both existential terrors and the petty disagreements of adults; the light that creativity and ingenuity can provide in a time of darkness. I find it both touching and entirely true to life that Miyazaki locates so many of these noble qualities in the persons of young girls.

The first time we see Princess Nausicaä, she is soaring through the air on a broad white glider, as if she is riding on the back of a great bird. She is wearing a blue jumpsuit and a brown mask that covers the lower half of her face, with a meshed snout over the mouth and nose, and air bags that hang on either side like a floppy pair of bunny ears. She enters the Toxic Jungle, a phantasmagoria of fuzzy-headed plants and enormous insects that circle lazily overhead and slink through the flora. The plants release clouds of poisonous white spores into the atmosphere, which settle about Nausicaä as if she is at the center of a snow globe that has been shaken. “It’s so beautiful,” she muses. “It’s hard to believe these spores could kill me. Five minutes without a mask and I’d be dead.”

Each time I watch or hear this opening sequence (“hear” because the iPad goes on whenever I need to do work without too much distraction), I am struck by its odd sense of peacefulness, the tranquility of the falling spore-snow. The point is to establish that she is unafraid of the Toxic Jungle, and indeed we will eventually learn that the jungle is not the destructive force the world’s other surviving humans believe it to be. But it also suggests the possibility of attaining quiet moments of happiness even in a world where the air is foul and the earth is blasted and barren.

From this almost bucolic beginning, the movie gallops into action. There are rampaging Ohms, mountainous bugs that stampede across the desert like the sandworms in Dune. There are battles between the surviving humans, who naturally fight among each other even as their species is threatened by extinction. There are many instances of Nausicaä riding to the rescue on her glider and other aeronautical vehicles, showcasing Miyazaki’s abiding fascination, in movies ranging from Porco Rosso to The Wind Rises, with human flight and the machines that make it possible. (Miyazaki’s machines are some of the most potent symbols in his animated universe, expressions both of our limitless creativity and our limitless capacity for destruction, the suggestion being that these two forces are hopelessly intertwined.) And there are dramatic moments when Nausicaä’s mask falls off in the Toxic Jungle, which lead my daughter and me, newly sensitive to the dangers of being maskless, to recoil in heartfelt horror.

Throughout it all is the steady, anchoring presence of Nausicaä, a small flame that withstands the buffeting winds of a world that is in the midst of coming to its end. She has all the qualities of a classic Miyazaki heroine—decency, resourcefulness, an ineffable spark—but what is most remarkable is her perseverance. It’s a trait that can have a grim, grinding connotation—“that’s what’s so terrible about” people, Faulkner once wrote: they “can bear anything”—but in her, it works as a kind of grace, like the miraculous flowering of a rose in winter.

Afterward, as my daughter and I ramble across the park or duck out to the outdoor café for coffee and cake, there is the usual battery of questions and the subsequent retelling of the story. She is at an age when the boundary between reality and imagination is porous, allowing her to slip effortlessly from one to the other. “Look!” she cried on a recent Sunday, pointing to a shaggy, mop-haired tree in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “It’s the Toxic Jungle!” Later, as we crossed a stone bridge spanning a murmuring stream, she announced that, upon further reflection, it was The Shire.

All these different universes overlap in her mind, not simply at the level of allegory or metaphor but as cloth cut from the fabric of her consciousness. She has claimed our apartment, which is on the ground floor of a townhouse, slightly below street level, to be our Hobbit hole, tucked into a city block the way Bag End is tucked into its hill. In this hole in the ground, she pretends to be Nausicaä or Princess Mononoke, traipsing around with a blanket tied around her neck to resemble a cape, and for a moment it is as if these heroines are really here, radiating the spirit that will get us through the long winter ahead.