Animist Cinema

The term animism has a primitive ring for many, so it might comes as a surprise that one of the world’s most successful film directors is making animist films, yet that is true of Hiyao Miyazaki. A huge number of children and adults have viewed My Neighbor Totoro. The movie’s protagonist, the little girl Mei, is just the right age—not yet fully socialized, psychological filters not fully in place—to experience the other-than-humans who surround and even live in the house her father rents in the rice growing hinterlands beyond Tokyo. Even the dustbunnies (or soot sprites) in the traditional-style house are vital and spirited. Older sister Setsuki still maintains her sense of wonder and comes to interact with the spirits also. The Totoros are forest spirits, and the big Totoro that befriends the girls is called King of the Forest. His home is a giant sacred tree, specifically, a camphor. One interpretation of Japanese mythology suggests that the original ancestor god of the Japanese was a lofty tree spirit. A god named Tatagi is mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan’s ancient collection of myth. Moto-ori Norinaga, a famous 18th century theorist of Shinto, believed Tatagi was the same as the first deity, Musubi-no-Kami.


Setsuki’s father, who is a writer and professor, has interestingly enough chosen a borderland, a liminal zone, for his retreat-like residence—a region called satoyama in Japanese. This word refers to a border zone or area between mountain foothills and cultivated flat land. Sato means arable and livable land or home land, while yama means mountain. Satoyama areas have been created over centuries of small scale local agriculture and appropriate use of the forests.  Their mixed character promotes biodiversity if attended by careful and caring traditional human ways, somewhat like traditional hedgerows in Britain.


That the girl’s mother is hospitalized heightens the sense of being away from the mundane world, a situation that further opens the girls to the sacred. A grandmotherly neighbor plays an important role linking the girls to an elder generation that is both archetypal and specific to this locale. In an intriguing relationship between art and life Totoro has become a mascot for the preservation of satoyama areas in Japan, with funds raised at a Pixar auction of drawing and painting inspired by the film. In fact, in 2009 the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco held an exhibition of artwork from this “Totoro Forest Project Charity Auction” of almost 200 pieces, many of them quite inspiring. The gift continues…. The proceeds went to protect the Sayama Forest surrounded by the Tokyo metropolitan area, a woodland said to be Miyazaki’s inspiration for Totoro’s home (info, though a bit dated, can be found at Some of the art from the auction can be seen here:



While Miyazaki has stated he has made his films primarily for the Japanese they have gained a global audience, and their animism, subtlety flowing through the narratives, has met deep yearning for a connection with the greater ecological world. There is a friendliness here in these small gods that is surprising, perhaps. That Setsuki shares an umbrella in a rainstorm with Totoro while waiting at a train stop is a particularly poignant example, and one that has become a popular icon. They call to us in this animist cinema in voices that are close, intimate, and outside of the conception most westerners have of religion, that is Abrahamic religion.



What I think Miyazaki has succeeded in is a cinema of re-enchantment on a transnational level, as much as it is rooted in non-statist Shinto  (see “Forest Spirits, Giant Insects and World Trees:  the Nature Vision of Hiyao Miyazaki” by Lucy Wright for analysis of Miyazaki’s complex relationship to Shinto). Polytheism and animism are part of that vast project of re-enchantment of the world that has been so dis-enchanted in the Cartesian modernism of the west, in which viewpoint the part that thinks is disrupted from that which extends—leading to the belief system that the earth, the forests, the seas are only dead resource, and that animals can well be tortured for industrial medicine, as they are lacking sentience, anyway. Miyazaki’s films offer healing nutrients to such a wasteland worldview.






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