Spirited Away With Heidegger

Heidegger and Studio Ghibli converge on technology

A link between the German existentialist Martin Heidegger and Japanese mainstream animator and author of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki, seems unlikely. But they share a recurring theme  the relationship between humans and nature. In Miyazaki’s animes, this relationship is mediated through technology which threatens the sacredness in nature. But despite the human-nature conflicts, Miyazaki is optimistic, and surprisingly close to Heidegger’s thoughts in his later works.

Technology and the Loss of the Gods

Nature, or earth, in Heidegger’s thought is introduced in the Origin of the Work of Art, where it is contrasted to the human world. Heidegger sees earth as darkness and sheltering because it can never be completely grasped or structured by humans. If humans, Heidegger states, live in a clearing, earth would be the rocks, soil and trees around and beyond the clearing.

This understanding of earth as something beyond human grasp is also seen in Miyazaki’s Laputa (Castle in the Sky, 1986): the shining crystals hidden in the rock disappear when that rock is broken by the hammer. This directly parallels Heidegger’s description of a stone: “if we attempt a penetration by smashing the rock, it still does not display in its fragments anything inward that has been opened up. The stone has instantly withdrawn again.” If we break the stone open, we cannot reveal the original inside of the unbroken stone. This is because this original inside withdraws as soon as we break the stone. In this sense, earth is ungraspable, being in darkness.


"If we break a stone open, we cannot reveal the original inside of the unbroken stone."


Hence, when Laputa transforms earth (the crystal stones) into a source of power and destruction, nature is no longer mysterious. This manifests Heidegger’s notion of technology, which does not simply refer to various types of technical equipment like machines, but more importantly the underlying way that humans view the earth in terms of economic use value. The effects of technology and disenchantment are also present in the background of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004): magic, which should be ancient and mysterious, is now industrialised as magicians are conscripted into the military. This tension is also seen in Howl’s companion, Calsifar’s (a fire spirit’s) dislike of the fact that fire is being produced on demand, as a resource, to light gun powder.

As earth allows for mystery, both Miyazaki and Heidegger associate it with a sense of sacredness, of gods. Thus, in their eyes, our technological mastery of the earth causes the loss of the gods. The forest can no longer be a sheltering place for the gods because it becomes a supply of wood. For this reason, they both seek to challenge such technological mastery by highlighting its destructive aspects.


The Alternative Way of Life

Despite their critical stances towards technology, neither Heidegger nor Miyazaki advocates simply abolishing technology as a way of life. Heidegger admits that nobody can brake or direct the progress of history. Attempting to abolish technology is not possible for Heidegger because it would repeat the mistake that people are complete masters of the earth. In Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008), Fujimoto (Ponyo’s father) aims to completely sweep away all traces of technology in a flood, hoping to return to a primordial sea. Although he is not wholly unsympathetic, ultimately his approach is futile and destructive. While Miyazaki and Heidegger reject such simplistic responses to technology, they are both concerned with the possibility of an alternative way of life.


"Our technological mastery of the earth causes the loss of the gods. The forest can no longer be a sheltering place for the gods because it becomes a supply of wood."


This possibility is presented in Miyazaki’s Naussicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982), which is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the earth has become inhospitable. Although it might be regarded as the ultimate loss of any human relationship to the earth, the story indeed focuses on a prophecy of a saviour who will restore this relationship. Unlike the Judeo-Christian redemption through a relationship with God as a supreme being, this saving is through human reconciliation with nature.

This coincides with Heidegger’s project in his later works. Heidegger does not take the western monotheistic view of God as a supreme being. But he does hope to recover a religious sense of wonder in dwelling on the earth. The gods for Heidegger are part of nature, and nature is mysterious. The connection between humans and earth is therefore our connection with the gods. Hence, gods are lost when nature is seen as merely a resource. So, to Heidegger, only when we turn away from viewing the earth as a resource can we renew the human relationship with the gods.

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Heidegger’s linking of the gods to mystery and earthly wonder parallels Folk-Shinto, an Ancient Japanese religion, which focuses on the sacred within nature. This is a key influence in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, where Shinto imagery is explicit, and, to a certain extent, in Princess Mononoke.

The future of the relationship between humans and nature is left open in Naussicaä, but for both Heidegger and Miyazaki this renewed relationship is sacred because it allows for the gods to reappear. In Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, we get an alternative world, in which, through gods, people see nature as sacred again.


The Retreat of the Gods: Princess Mononoke

The loss of the gods is obvious and central in Princess Mononoke, where the sacred forest is being transformed into a supply of iron. The forest animals cease to be gods and instead become a supply of meat. The final destruction of the forest god is accomplished by Lady Eboshi, who succeeds in decapitating the forest with her gun. This is more than simply an act of violence. Lady Eboshi’s act represents a radical transformation of the human way of seeing the forest.

We could interpret Lady Eboshi as a secular humanist. Her actions seem to be rational in so far as she aims to achieve progress and prosperity for her community. To her, there is nothing sacred in the forest and the gods or animals are simply obstacles to efficiently extracting iron. Lady Eboshi may appear as an exceptional individual in her world. She is not a wholly unsympathetic character. But eventually her actions bring about general destitution, both for the forest and humans. Through Lady Eboshi, Miyazaki pulls apart our understanding of technology as simply progress.


"The continued sacredness of life itself and the renewal of the sacred thus hold out the possibility that the gods may return."


Princess Mononoke is not just a story of loss. Ultimately, the sacred forest starts growing once again, presenting hope for a new beginning. The fate of the forest god is unclear as revealed in the discussion between Princess Mononoke and Ashitaka (the hero). The Princess despairs over the apparent death of the forest god, with Ashitaka remaining confident that the forest god cannot die because “he is life”. The message is clear: while the forest god may have apparently been killed, the god still exists in the sacredness of life itself. The continued sacredness of life itself and the renewal of the sacred thus hold out the possibility that the gods may return. Like Princess Mononoke, Heidegger is ambiguous on the return of the gods. He states that “the gods who ‘were once there’ return only at the ‘right time’, but this right time must be something beyond understanding. Humans can nonetheless prepare by opening up to the sacred.


Return of the Gods: Spirited Away

Spirited Away is set in near contemporary Japan with reference to Japan’s financial crash in the 90s. It might also be said to take place after the ending of Princess Mononoke, in a world where the gods have been lost. However, at the beginning of the anime there is a hint that this may not be the case. Passing the small but distinctive Shinto shrine at the side of the road, Chihiro’s (the heroine’s) mood is radically and inexplicably changed – from bored and comfortably apathetic towards the world around her, to a strange anxiousness coming from her being aware of something she cannot grasp.

In contrast, the shrine is largely ignored by Chihiro’s parents, whose main concern is moving house. Later, when they reach some mysterious buildings, conceived as an abandoned theme park (but really a dwelling for the gods), the area is considered only as a potential place for a picnic. Like Lady Eboshi, Chihiro’s parents show no sense of sacredness or mystery. They believe in the power of consumer capitalism that, in Heideggerian terms, rests on the power of technology. Hence, Chihiro’s father fails to see the obvious strangeness of the food in the seemingly abandoned theme park, while assuring her that he has credit cards and cash to pay for the food. In the Heideggerian sense, Chihiro’s parents are trapped in a world of technological consumerism and the gods are forever lost to them. Even if Chihiro had told them the story of her mysterious encounters with the gods, it is doubtful whether they would have believed her.


"In the Heideggerian sense, Chihiro’s parents are trapped in a world of technological consumerism and the gods are forever lost to them."


Chihiro’s most significant encounters concern a mysterious boy known as Haku. Chihiro eventually remembers Haku’s true identity as a river, which she once fell into. At this very moment, Haku also recovers his true identity as a river god, an identity which he had forgotten since the river had been converted into flats.

This is mirrored by Haku’s remembering of Chihiro’s name after her identity was stolen by the witch Yubaba. Haku’s condition both reflects the loss of gods in technology and shows how things can be different: Haku becomes a god again through Chihiro, and Chihiro remembers her true nature through her interaction with the river god. Spirited Away thus demonstrates how humans and gods can recover their true identity together and how humans can see earth as sacred again.

This reciprocal relationship, whereby nature (or the gods) and humans receive their identity through each other, manifests the true meaning of ‘dwelling’ in Heidegger’s thought. However, the ending of Spirited Away is still ambiguous: when Chihiro returns to her parents, the audience is left to wonder whether Chihiro will go on to view her encounters with the gods as simply a dream or a childish fantasy.


The Power to Change

Miyazaki’s anime and Heidegger’s later thought share the sense that technology is not merely destructive to nature, but also represents a loss of the gods. If earth is a supply of resources, it can no longer be a site of the sacred. While highlighting technology’s destructive force, Miyazaki and Heidegger also hint at the possibility of transformation through looking to the endangered traces of the sacredness of nature.

While not adopting a simple Luddite solution, how should we co-exist with nature? This seems to be an open question that Miyazaki and Heidegger pose to us. When we consider their works, we are given the opportunity to participate in the search for an answer. Once we start to reflect on it, perhaps we will gather the power to change.

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Apk nain 7 October 2022

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Daniel Williams 20 September 2022

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Pota Moon 23 August 2021

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Andrea Jesscia 15 June 2021

Love this move, I watched this film 3 times.
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Roxanne Ellis 20 February 2021

Ghibli Studio always brings the best to their audience. Every time watching their movies, I discover a new meaning. The nature and human in Ghibli's movies are strong, stunning and incredible.
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