(Today’s guest contributor is The Metaplex film critic Brendan Hodges, who has provided a deeply insightful and exceptionally fitting analysis of Japanese anime’s influence on the latter-day Star Wars series of pictures.)
Brendan Hodges (from the Roger Ebert Website)
April 15, 2020
A small, masked scavenger glides through the ruined wasteland, dwarfed by the towering wreckage of old wars. Beneath the mask is the hidden, protected face of a beautiful young woman, flying through a labyrinth of ruin above the sand below. She’s searching for salvage to survive, and rescues someone, or rather something from mortal peril.
Who am I describing: Hayao Miyazaki’s heroine Nausicaä or Rey in the opening of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens? The answer, of course, is both. The openings of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and The Force Awakens aren’t identical, but their similarity is unmistakable and opens a dialogue between not just Nausicaä and The Force Awakens, but Miyazaki and Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy in general.
The legacy of Japanese cinema influencing the most prolific franchise in the history of film is a strong one. George Lucas famously transposed key elements from Kurosawa’s jidaigeki (get it, “Jedi”) samurai movies for the original Star Wars, especially borrowing from The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. Yet, if there’s a filmmaker whose work is felt with similar presence in Disney’s own Star Wars trilogy, it isn’t the works of Kurosawa, but the internationally beloved Japanese animation writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes called the Steven Spielberg of Japan. J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson haven’t connected Miyazaki’s filmography as closely to Star Wars as Lucas had Kurosawa, but the similarities between Miyazaki and the sequel trilogy run deep, whether you’re talking about how the films look, feel or what they’re really about.
Look at the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a fresh aesthetic identity. While fairly maligned for indulging in a victory lap of the X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers of a Galaxy not that long ago, it’s wrong to think the sequel trilogy is a completely derivative visual copy. In the new era of Star Wars, J.J. Abrams and production designer Rick Carter endeavored to make literal what the series always has been in spirit: a fairy tale.
The Force Awakens took the classic stormtrooper design and made a knight in shining armor in Captain Phasma. Kylo Ren’s costume evokes the ‘long skirt’ and chainmail scarf worn by templar knights in The Crusades. His lightsaber, co-created by Apple design genius Jony Ive, is a cross-guarded (laser) sword. In the commentary track for The Force Awakens, Abrams calls Kylo Ren a prince and Rey a princess. This leads, inevitably, to the need for a fairy-tale castle, represented in Maz’s castle, perched in a classically European landscape. There’s even a Sword in the Stone moment when Rey and Kylo Ren fight for custody of Luke Skywalker’s former lightsaber. Rey, the princess, wins.
What does this combination of the medieval with the modern sound like if not the fantastical worlds of Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle? Miyazaki’s love of mixing old and new has defined his sense of cinematic style from his earliest works; Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s first feature film, introduces a princess locked inside a classic fairytale castle fit for Cinderella. Only, a castle with lasers and security cameras. The constant blending of the mythical with the technological is key to understanding what gives his worlds their sense of possibility and wonder, limited only by the imagination of its author, a sensibility I call anachronistic foiling.
Planes and castles to Miyazaki are like lens flares to J.J. Abrams, and nearly every Miyazaki movie with castles (a lot of them) feature great aerial battles in the periphery above, below or to the sides of them. Recall Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, where Edwardian semi-steampunk airships, never explained with science or logic, loom over castles and classic European cities alike, sometimes obliterating the structures below. Think of the world of Nausicaä, a post-apocalyptic society who live in castles, wear leotards and plated armor, use swords, yet wage wars with techno-magic planes and city-sized airships. These images are iconic and definitive in the brand of Miyazaki, too specific not to recall during the attack on Maz Kanata’s Castle on Takadona, as TIE Fighters blast it into the ground, a Miyazaki-like image brought to life with live-action.
Rian Johnson and production designer Richard Heinrichs continue this anachronistic foiling in The Last Jedi, albeit in a much different direction than invoking the medieval era. In the same way Miyazaki recreated his favorite plane designs from WWI and WWII into magical (but often deadly) machines (he also dedicated an entire film, The Wind Rises, just to celebrating the art and beauty of World War II aircraft), Johnson extends that sensibility to his new slate of Star Wars-like fighter craft. There are his Resistance bombers (reminiscent of B-17 or B-29 bombers), the ski-speeders (rickety old fighter craft) and The Supremacy (a “flying wing” like the Northrop YB-35, similar to the faked plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark), a collection of WWII inspired starships fit for the armies in Howl’s Moving Castle and might remind you Lucas based his dogfights in A New Hope off WWII documentary footage.
Another key anachronistic foil in The Last Jedi isn’t in The Last Jedi at all: It’s a deleted scene. Johnson depicts Captain Phasma armed with the blaster equivalent of a handgun, held close to her chest. This instantly recalls Princess Kushana from Nausicaä, a warrior adorned in golden armor who carries an ornamented handgun in the same position. They are the two greatest movies to ever depict handgun wielding knights.
In the same way Ozu is famous for his use of “pillow shots,” non-narrative shots of nature or an empty room bridging one moment to the next (something Lucas tapped into in his trilogies), Miyazaki is famous for transitional shots of his own for a different effect. He frequently employs brief, humanist interludes where he gives his characters permission to simply be. Few filmmakers have the courage to pause the plot just to watch a character engage in the beauty of the everyday or the charm of the mundane. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki stops on a busy street to gaze through a storefront window at dazzling red shoes. She’s amazed by them. Howl’s Moving Castle has a sequence where we watch Sophie, the protagonist, slowly cook and eat bacon. These moments reveal the humanist inside Miyazaki, gestures of the familiar to ground the otherworldly and fantastic through simple acts of human behavior.
Miyazaki explained [to Roger Ebert in 2002] why these quiet beats are so vital: “We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally … If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”
Directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson recognize the softening power of these intimate intervals, and for the first time in Star Wars, we take breaks to enjoy them. These three films don’t pause for as long or as often as Miyazaki, but the impact is so acutely felt they are beloved by the fanbase. Upon seeing the endless green forests of Takadona, Rey exclaims: “I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy.” She rushes out of the Falcon to take it all in, a moment mirrored in The Last Jedi, when Rey is excited by seeing rain for the first time. In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is dazzled by the festival on Pasaana, taking in delight at the laugh of younglings, moments rare or entirely absent in Lucas’ vision of Star Wars.
These humanist interludes endear us to our heroes, but they serve an even more important purpose: they amplify the reality of the world as we see ourselves inside it through the characters. This is crucial in Miyazaki, whose films are so deeply concerned with the natural world. From My Neighbor Totoro to the environmental fable Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki treats nature with a pious, quasi-religious devotion. The Shinto religion of Japan has a literal, enormous presence in Miyazaki’s films, a belief system that posits a system of co-existence with gods and spirits called “Kami,” of which we are not the center. This same sentiment is expressed almost verbatim in Luke’s first training lesson to Rey in The Last Jedi: “That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity. Can you feel that?”
According to the Shinto tradition, our relationship with the Kami is symbiotic with nature; they are invisible to the human eye, yet often manifest as an object, like the sacred tree in My Neighbor Totoro. Lucas or Johnson might call such locations “strong with the force,” hubs with the greatest connection to the energy of all living things, such as Ach-To’s mist-enshrouded Jedi Tree or the mirror cave that gives Rey her second force vision.
To Miyazaki but also in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, we are the failed stewards of the natural world. This is why Miyazaki’s villains are often hawkish abusers of the Earth. Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi goes full Saruman on the nearby forest to build weapons, only to use those weapons against wolf and boar gods outside Iron Town. While she is benevolent to her own disenfranchised residents, her violence and hubris towards the forest and the life inside it triggers a chain reaction that “curses” the main character, Ashitaka, that ignites rage and violence inside him he can barely control, a Miyazaki equivalent of the dark side.
The casino planet of Canto Bight is an equal depiction of anti-capitalist fervor to Lady Eboshi’s Iron Town, demonstrating the galaxy’s inhumane status quo of war economy thugs, enabling cycles of violence for power and profit. Their abuse extends to the torture and enslavement of children and horse-deer with anime eyes called “Fathiers.” Miyazaki, a lifelong feminist whose work often celebrates the power of female heroes and villains alike, seems to hope the maternal power of his heroines will restore the forests, hillsides and lakes, which may be why his saviors are so often women. It’s also possibly why Johnson chose Rose, and not Finn, to free the Fathiers and literally smash the toxic status quo to the ground in a glorious stampede.
The Last Jedi takes devotion to the natural world more seriously than any Star Wars movie before it, with Johnson acknowledging to the Los Angeles Times, “I think you can see some of [Miyazaki’s] influence in this movie … how you engage with the natural world.” Johnson brings that philosophy into every planetary ecosystem, but especially on the planet Ach-To. In an epic sequence surveying a day in Luke’s monk-like existence, we observe Luke’s harmony with the island: fishing in the seas, traversing the rain swept hills, and drinking green milk straight from sea-cows called “thala-sirens,” all the while surrounded by the Totoro influenced porgs.
The Last Jedi even has a “circle of life” prayer-like visual mantra on the essence of the force. The camera dives from a wide-shot of the island into close-ups of flowers scored with birdsong, to the bones of death and decay below the surface, that “feeds new life” as we see plants rapidly grows. Of this circle, Luke says “It’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance, that binds the universe together.” Kinship between all forms of life is reaffirmed in the climax; it is the jingle of the foxlike Crystal Critters on Crait that lead a trapped Resistance to Rey, not the heroics of Finn or Poe. Crait itself is a great visual metaphor for the natural world: when struck with a laser blast, it bleeds in plumes of red dust, only to slowly restore itself to its pearly white surface once the fighting has ceased, like the forest healing itself in Princess Mononoke.
Heroism is a dominant theme in The Last Jedi, and no previous Star Wars movie has placed as much emphasis on the redemptive power on the natural world, redefining that heroism can often mean protection and stewardship. Listen to Master Yoda’s choice quotes: “Use the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Or “Your weapons, you will not need them.” Or heed Master Obi-Wan: “There are alternatives to fighting.” These are thematic ideas scarcely brought to the fore in Star Wars, and The Last Jedi is the first to take that subtext and make it text in a serious way. Imagine this: The Last Jedi is the first truly anti-war Star Wars movie.
But it’s Luke Skywalker’s astounding act of bravery on Crait that shatters normative conceptions of what a hero looks like, both within Star Wars and narrative art in general. Luke, standing before The First Order army order in a force projection, sacrifices himself in an act of pure pacifism that defeats the entire First Order and reignites hope throughout the Galaxy, while letting The Resistance flee to safety. He is the ultimate aspirational hero in Star Wars, the first Jedi to embody every positive tenant of Jedi Philosophy in practice. It is one of the greatest feats of cinematic heroism in all of movies.
Reconsidering the rigid, masculine boundaries of heroism is the core ethic of Miyazaki’s life’s work. Like Rian Johnson, he is an unapologetic pacifist, and he has been unafraid to dedicate nearly each of his movies to that end, depicting his villains as those who misunderstand power and how to use it, the greatest of sins to Miyazaki. Nausicaä’s Princess Kushana and Castle in the Sky’s Colonel Muska want to use ancient technology as personal Death Stars, the war in Howl’s Moving Castle is banal and unending, and Lady Eboshi’s on a mission to murder the Great Forest Spirit for a trifling profit.
In inspiring contrast, Miyazaki’s protagonists often refuse to use lethal force, frequently sacrificing their own well-being for others. Ashitaka defuses a stand-off between Princess Mononoke (the character) and the people of Iron Town, allowing himself to be stabbed in the process. Nausicaä’s Master Yupa permits a sword through his hand if it means saving his princess, prioritizing the betterment of the collective over desire for vengeance.
One of the great acts of compassion in all of Miyazaki comes back to Nausicaä, who like Luke in The Last Jedi willingly sacrifices herself to prevent a slaughter. A horde of enormous insectoids known as Ohms are charging towards the last bastion of human society, and rather than join the battlements to open fire, she tries to rescue a baby Ohm and calm the swarm. She does, but she dies. Miraculously, the Ohms bring her back to life and are pacified, an intervention of goodwill for a pure spirit that puts into action her love of the natural and spiritual world.
Just as the journeys of Rey and Nausicaä begin in parallel, so do their ends. On Pasaana in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey encounters a massive serpent, a symbol in mythology for fertility, as well as cycles of life, death, and rebirth, a continuation of a motif in The Last Jedi. The serpent, like an Ohm, appears deadly until pacified, and rather than fight, she heals its wounds and sets the creature free. Pasaana’s serpent is a living metaphor for Ben Solo; he appears deadly, but beneath his violent nature is a wounded soul whose spirit is “split to the bone,” in need of healing. She does for him what she did for the serpent, and in an act of transcendence that tethers the spiritual and natural worlds in one, Rey, like Nausicaä, dies saving civilization (through an act of defense, no less) only to be resurrected in an act of love, sacrifice, and redemption from Ben back to her, saviors of the Kami and of the force. To Miyazaki and Star Wars, nature itself is restorative, healing, and beautiful. As its custodians, we must aspire to be like our heroes: Rey, Ashitaka, Luke, and Nausicaä.
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