Studio Ghibli’s films exist across a wide spectrum of stories and genres, and much has been said about the characters and the storytelling – something I myself have been heavily involved with for the past ten years.
But there’s one thing that connects Studio Ghibli films that I’ve felt for a long time is a more nuanced way of looking at these films, and that is the attention that the Studio’s two main writers and directors, Miyazaki and Takahata, seem to pay to the actual physical spaces that the characters move around in.
- the slow flow of seasons through the Japanese landscape that you can track through My Neighbour Totoro,
- or the internal construction of the bathhouse in Spirited Away,
- or the ancient forests of Princess Mononoke,
the landscape is as important to Studio Ghibli films as any of the main characters.
But it’s not just about an artistic representation of nature and architecture – the way Ghibli approaches its landscapes is integral to how these films are able to evoke feelings of childhood, feelings of nostalgia and even reverence, but also a sort of melancholy for the things that we’re watching that we know are no longer there.
Here to discuss this fascinating topic with me today is someone who is going to be a recurring guest to the Moon Rabbit podcast.
Nora Selmeczi, who holds an MFA in screenwriting and dramaturgy and worked for years as a screenwriter and script doctor for film, television and web projects in her native Hungary. She’s also worked in independent arts management and film journalism, specialising in the cinema of the Far East and Central Europe.
Nora was the co-editor The Wilds of Shikoku, a book about a walk through this pristine island in South-West Japan, and has recently spent 8 weeks walking through Scandinavia, and also took a smaller walking trip through parts of Japan. She has an irregularly published newsletter Enda Lettere where she writes about walking and landscapes.
We sat down with Nora in late 2019 and back in those carefree days of being blissfully unaware of what was coming in 2020 we talked about the environments represented in the Ghibli films.
And we’ve talked about:
- the vanishing landscape of My Neighbor Totoro,
- how Totoro’s entire storytelling is organised around the Japanese seasons,
- and how the film creates a feeling of childhood nostalgia for viewers who haven’t actually grown up on the now-vanished outskirts of Tokyo.
Then, in the second half of the episode, we’ll be talking about:
- the use of real versus imaginary landscapes,
- how and why Yakushima forest inspired the landscapes of Princess Mononoke,
- the exact building that inspired the bathhouse in Spirited Away,
- and how Studio Ghibli’s focus on landscapes ties into Buddhist meditation practices.
You can probably already tell this is going to be a jam-packed episode, and it’s also a conversation that I’m very excited about, so let’s dive right in.
My name is Adam Dobay, and this is Moon Rabbit, the film analysis podcast at the intersection of mythology and the human psyche.
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And now, for the full episode transcript!
- What makes Ghibli landscapes special
- Landscapes in My Neighbor Totoro
- Seasons in My Neighbor Totoro
- Magic vs. real landscapes in Ghibli films
- The natural landscape of Princess Mononoke
- Ghibli landscape inspiration roundup
- Walking in Japan as a meditation
- Mythbusting: Japan is not small
- Now it’s your turn!
What makes Ghibli landscapes special
Adam Dobay: So the topic that I wanted to go into today because we just kept talking about what aspect of Studio Ghibli films and Miyazaki films, we think is the least covered.
There’s a lot about the storytelling and there’s a lot about the topicality of them. And there’s a lot about the nature as a theme and nature conservation nature preservation on whatnot.
But the aspect that I read the least about is the actual graphical representation of that nature or the landscape or the cities when there are cities. So what is the actual environment that all the Miyazaki characters appear in and interact with?
One of the things that I hear a lot when I introduce someone to a Studio Ghibli film is “Look at those landscapes!”, like someone who’s film-minded, like someone who watches films, in a sense that they’re not just watching it for a story. They’re watching it for what’s on the screen, and what’s the visual art side of it.
And one of the frequent quotes I get from those people is those massive wide shots that you get throughout the Miyazaki films and in the Takahata ones as well. This kind of spans the entire spectrum of Studio Ghibli because I think that’s a very early decision for them to have made. “These are the kinds of films we want to make where we put the environment, front and centre.”
Ghibli landscapes are representational
Nora Selmeczi: That was my first impression of these movies as well. Because that is so recognisable as a stylistic element to them that you have these ultrawide stills, beautiful painted, depicting some sort of landscape, most often just images of untouched nature, but also a lot of architecture. And those are not mere establishing shots so you don’t get them in order to establish the location where this plotline is going to take place. You can identify I think, a lot of the aspects of how these stories are told. Where these characters are on their journey on their personal journey. And it has a lot to do with the representation of the bigger themes of Ghibli movies. So it’s something that’s very telling that’s very characteristic for the studio. And also, it’s very representational,
Adam Dobay: Representational how?
Nora Selmeczi: Representational in a way that it’s not just aesthetics. It’s not just a plot device. It’s not just an establishing shot. It’s a lot more than that. Landscapes have a lot of meaning. And they do have a lot of structure. And if you pay closer attention to what you’re looking at, then you recognise a lot of intricate details about the time, about nostalgia, memories, a confrontation with nature, a lot of romanticism, how we remember nature. That’s very, very important. Because the way Miyazaki looks at our environment, whether our built environment, whether our natural environment is true to both. He looks at it through tinted glasses. And I think for the images of nature, it is a conscious decision to show nature in a way it’s never been showed before in anime. So it’s a very conscious thing to do to show relocations, real cities, real forests places that when it somehow because big cities followed them, or places where childhood memories do have sanctuary.
Landscapes in My Neighbor Totoro
Adam Dobay: Let’s start with Totoro because that’s the best example for what you’re saying. For me, I love Totoro to bits and I’ve seen it a million times but the sequence that I can recite anytime – and when I think of Totoro, I think of that visual sequence – is when Satsuki is running in the landscape and looking for Mei, and there’s nothing that is happening that you would find in an American film, because that’s not how American plots are constructed. And I want to go back to what you said about not being an establishing shot when you see landscapes. When you have an establishing shot in American film, it’s wide and then closing in and closing and in closing, and most of the 90s films that we grew up with, start with the huge bird’s eye view, establishing shot clouds and then coming in like that, like the Simpsons main title, that’s kind of that’s kind of a parody of that almost. And then you go in and then and then from your helicopter or plane shot, and the credits come up because you have time for the credits and you have your Alan Silvestri soundtrack or whoever is making it, and it’s just to lay down the atmosphere. And once that’s done, you don’t get those wide shots anymore.
Nora Selmeczi: No it screams “Look at this guy, you’re gonna focus on this guy in the next 90 to 120 minutes. And that is our sole focus.” What Miyazaki does is very different. Because what he does is “Look at this place, look at the people and the animals and magic in this place. And let’s look at the dynamics. Let’s look at the relationships between landscape between characters between the magic there and let’s look at it through our ideological glasses and through our nostalgia laden glasses.” The optics is very different. It’s not the Western sort of, I’m signalling with the establishing shot, I’m telling you, this is where we are gonna put our focus on. This is the person in the world we are going to look at and we are going to adopt his way of seeing the world, it is quite the opposite. We are going to look at the whole ecosystem. And we are going to adopt a more universal way of looking at it. And that’s what’s the big, still quiet landscapes do tell me. And also of course there there are a lot of discrete elements like the vanishing landscape. That’s something that’s very characteristic. And that’s also very, very present in Totoro because those are that’s very rural Japan. That’s the rural Japan, around the outskirts of Tokyo, that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been swallowed by Chiba city and Tokyo. So where the little train goes, that place doesn’t exist anymore. And just thinking about this, how childhood memories and how the locations of childhood memories are swallowed by steel and concrete structures. It’s heartbreaking on the one hand. On the other hand, these are the images that underline what Miyazaki… what his tendencies are, what he wants to tell us about how we have to protect these centuries of memories.
Miyazaki’s childhood memories
Adam Dobay: That’s really interesting from the standpoint of… in Totoro, those are the landscapes that come directly from Miyazaki’s childhood, he was there as a kid, his mother was the mother in Totoro who was treated for tuberculosis in that clinic. So he actually gets them at the point in time where that landscape does not exist anymore because in the late 80s, that part is gone. It’s as you said, it’s part of Tokyo. So he he needs to go back into his own head to recreate those landscapes from his childhood from the late 40s and early 50s. But at the same time, he says he’s not a fan of nostalgia. He doesn’t like nostalgia, which is was a weird thing to read when I first read it from him in his proposal to make the film. But then he continues to say, I want to make something that’s living. And I love this so much. So even though it’s a memory, it’s made from a memory and it is it does go back decades – and for us, it’s 30 more years after that. So it’s it’s ridiculously far in the past.
Nora Selmeczi: It’s not nostalgic in a personal way. It’s nostalgic in a very universal way. Those could be our childhood memories as well. If I think about the place I grew up in, I am constantly confronted on every single visit with how the city is growing beyond the point that makes the landscape recognisable for me. There is a forest – there is a forest disappearing at the place I was born and where I grew up. There is a forest disappearing I used to play in or go on long walks in my teenage years. And it’s frightening to look at it, to look at it this way. But then again, what music it doesn’t in tutorial, he creates a landscape that’s very universal. That is the landscape of memories, that is the landscape of nostalgia. So it’s not, he’s not nostalgic in a very personal sense of the word, but he creates those memories for everyone. It’s very accessible, and it becomes accessible through his memories. So it’s a weird contradiction that makes this thing living through something that’s gone.
Seasons in My Neighbor Totoro
Adam Dobay: And with that, I’m gonna move on to another thing that’s in some Miyazaki films but Totoro especially, which is seasons and depicting the seasons and depicting the seasons of Japan especially, and I want to go back to the project plan that I’m again, quoting from Starting Point, which I think this podcast is becoming an advertisement for. And so, he says, “Until a short time ago when asked, what can Japan proudly show to the world, grownups and children alike would answer the beauty in nature and the four seasons. No one says this anymore.” So, again, we both worked for 10 years in the film industry as screenwriters, we worked on a lot of projects together. We never had pitches like this. I really love how Miyazaki’s pitches or like poems, in a way. I’m not sure how to pitch a film in Japan. This is very weird for me to read, because it’s not about the plot. And it’s not about this is the character who the audiences will feel like they are or feel represented by or this is a genre that represents the movie going audience who will pay for this film. It’s about poetry and it’s about the things we have lost and the things we have to recreate. And that’s the kind of pitch that a man like Miyazaki puts in. And if you read his other pitches, they’re just like this, like he looks at the world, recognises something that’s missing, and then he just goes into the studio and says, “Let’s make a film about this feeling that I have”, which I think is very unique in Studio Ghibli, because you couldn’t walk into any other studio and say, “I have a feeling. Let’s make a film”.
Nora Selmeczi: Also, it’s very unique because only Japan has four seasons, obviously.
Adam Dobay: Okay, you gotta… I know the story, but you have to explain.
Nora Selmeczi: I know, I know. I’ve been smirking the whole time when you read this quote from Starting Point, because this is something that reinforces a very Japanese stereotype and this is their own. This is one of the big self limiting stereotypes the most Japanese do have. And this is something that Alan Booth has written about very extensively. Alan Booth was a very popular travel writer who’s lived in Japan for decades. The timeframe for this is the 70s, 80s. He died quite young unfortunately. But once he walked the length of Japan – this was in the in the late 70s. So he was witness of the tipping point when those rural areas were being swallowed by big cities. And when this depopulation of the rural areas began, so he caught the last glimpse of this very traditional rural Japan. We don’t really like to visualise or think about this as Western people because this is not the very poetic, uplifting, aesthetic side of Japan. This is just like any other country, any other countryside with simple people leaving simple lives. But they had one thing in common. Many, many people told Alan Booth during this journey that the change of seasons is something that’s very unique to Japan. That they cannot imagine that people abroad have anything resembling the four seasons – which is in Japan, eight seasons to be precise. But this became sort of a motto, “only Japan has four seasons”. And this is something I really really like to repeat, mocking this poetic belief the Japanese state created for the Western people to revel in. So I really like to mock that but then again, the Four Seasons or the changing of seasons in general is something that you observe when you are confronted with nature. When you are becoming part of nature. This is something that you tend to forget about when you live in a city. Because the constructs in cities, they are so alien to nature, they don’t borrow forms, structures, textures, colours from nature. The structures of cities want to stand apart and not be a part of nature. And that is why city dwellers tend to distance themselves from from nature as well. Not in a conscious way. It’s something that you just forget.
Adam Dobay: It’s something that happens if you if you grew up in a city where everything’s stagnant because obviously, the buildings don’t change every three months. You kind of notice that the sun dips in a different way or maybe the colour that’s reflected back from the glass windows are different and you feel the temperature changing. But if you don’t have enough green space, or if you don’t have enough natural environment, then you really don’t notice anything else changing.
Nora Selmeczi: You are not exposed to fleeting moments anymore, because cities are built with this irreverent ambition of being eternal or wanting to be eternal. So the changing of seasons is something that you may remember from your childhood when you played outside, or when you’re outside walking. So the physical confrontation with fleeting moments and with a fleeting characteristic of nature and the seasons is something that Miyazaki does quite well in Totoro. Because if you know what you’re looking at, and if you observe closely, then the passing of time is done in a very, very realistic way. Because you recognise the sort of flowers, the leaves on the trees, the light, the way the sun dips below the horizon, the sunrises, again, the amount of rain, the sense of rain, snow, the melting of snow. So these sort of markers are very, very specific and very time bound. And the way he does that is so precise, that this is something I discussed when I did a project recently about a walk in Japan that this is something that you begin to pay attention to. And this is very striking in Miyazaki’s movies, especially Totoro, where you are confronted with the passing of time as well.
Adam Dobay: And I think we Western viewers don’t necessarily pick up a lot on the nuances of it. There are the visual markers of… I think Totoro is the only film where you can be sure that every 10 minutes you see a calendar on one of the walls that shows you the exact date just so you know where exactly you are in the year and what corresponds to that. And of course, there’s the mythological cycle of nature being reborn from spring to summer, which everyone notices in the film because that’s kind of the crux of the plot, but the nuances of what you said the specific flowers, the specific ways that the… you said something about the clouds being drawn a bit differently based on what scene you’re in Totoro…
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, the way the clouds appear on the horizon, whether they are closer to practically your hat, because clouds tend to have very low in Japan, especially during the rainy season. So the way he positions the clouds towards the horizon, or a bit higher up in the sky, it’s very telling. It’s very telling what sort of flowers, grasses he depicts in each scene. And this is something I would stress. It’s not about watching cherry blossoms or watching autumn foliage in the forest. It’s a lot more specific than that. And this is something you realise only when you have spent sufficient time in Japan and if this time was unstructured enough so that you are confronted with nature, and with the changing of seasons.
Adam Dobay: So when you go on your eventual tourist trip in Japan, do your city necessity tourist stuff, but then Japan has so much more to offer that is outside the cities and there’s still some of that non-city, something there are or at least the remnants of that natural landscape there even though a lot of times those old villages are gone, and those that are there don’t have any people in them anymore. But you can still venture outside and experience the natural part of Japan if you choose to. Right?
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, this is something that you can experience through the movies as well. And I think it’s interesting enough so that this piques your interest, and it piques your wanderlust as well, so that you do want to venture out. Or this is at least the feeling I always got from Miyazaki movies, “oh, I want to be in that landscape if possible”. But then again, modern tourism is something that’s been partially invented by the Japanese. Because if you look at how tourism is organised in Japan, it’s crazy. You have lists for everything you have the three most beautiful gardens that you have to visit, you have the hundred most beautiful mountains that you have to visit, and in a country that’s as mountainous as Japan, having a list of only a hundred mountains, most of them being in the middle part of Japan, it’s atrocious. And you have to be very afraid because you are told to be afraid of venturing outside these boundaries. So going anywhere that’s not on a specific list. And it’s not part of you know, well known tourist destinations. You are going to build that in a very funny way. “Wait, like why do you want to go there? There’s nothing there.” And then you realise there is everything there because there is nature. There is the Middle Ages, there is the remnants of time long gone by, a civilization that you can discover for yourself, and reclaim for yourself.
Adam Dobay: I think what it comes down to this podcast being an examination of storytelling at its core, I can’t help but notice how in Totoro the fact that it’s organised so much around the seasons and so nuanced about what week it is in the year and I just what season it is. It’s sort of feels to me like that film feels so natural in its pacing is because it adapts the the pacing of nature and the nature pacing dictates what happens in that film as opposed to a plot that was thought up somewhere that is disconnected. Or these two are pieced together in the way that does also feel nice. Which is, I think a very Japanese way of approaching art. The wa principle of “Am I in harmony with nature at all times? Am I in harmony with what I create?” I think Totoro and a lot of other Ghibli films are so aesthetically pleasing not just in their visuals but throughout the entire experience feels so organic is because of this philosophy that goes into it
Nora Selmeczi: In Totoro, Miyazaki’s answer is very poignant and very clear, because this is solely due to adopting the child’s perspective. You have to go back to how children sense time and how children perceive their environments. As a child, the passing of calendar days can be very visual through looking at an actual calendar. Apart from that, you have a very different perception of time passing and seasons changing because the whole world is sort of your playground, and the whole world suddenly becomes a huge sundial or a very colourful calendar that has nothing to do with actual calendar days or weeks. It has everything to do with how you see the world around yourself. So this organic and harmonious way of handling the passing of time and storytelling in on a bigger level in Totoro is thanks to that, thanks to going back to this unspoiled, very intuitive way of how children perceive time.
Magic vs. real landscapes in Ghibli films
Adam Dobay: We’ve discussed how in Totoro, and in fireflies as well, they were made at the same time with the same core concepts behind them. They made a deliberate attempt at bringing back the depiction of Japanese landscape into Japanese animation, something that wasn’t really around.
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, you always deal with sort of magical landscapes and imaginary landscapes. Never with the real and with the actual and never will rural Japan. So this was definitely a novel element in both movies, especially because those movies deal with childhood memories of actual physical places that you could go visit if they existed.
Adam Dobay: Yeah. And they kind of keep this. It’s interesting how the films they make us Studio Ghibli or pre-Studio Ghibli before Totoro and fireflies or Castle in the Sky, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. nausicaa is post apocalyptic kind of Japan but who knows it’s this completely dystopian sci fi fantasy universe that has resemblance to Japan in its philosophy. And if you go read the manga, it also reflects on a lot of very Japanese things like the Buddhist church, for example, is somehow referenced in there not in the text, but in what happens at certain points. And I’m not going to say anything more. I don’t want to risk any spoilers. But Castle in the Sky also is more Western. And for that film, what they did was they went on a scouting trip to England and Wales. The landscape for that is very different from Totoro. It’s actually this amalgamation of things we’ve seen in the West and looking at it from a Japanese perspective. And that’s also a big trend in a lot of Ghibli films, isn’t it?
Nora Selmeczi: Well, it is. And actually the way you can take a look at both of these films is “this is what happens when you exploit nature”. This is sort of a motto because mining and the mining industry is very exploitative we know that so Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa do resemble each other because one landscape leads into the other in a way. Nausicaa is about consequences. This is what happens to nature. If you try to exploit conquer it, subdue it. It is going to rise up against you, it is going to become this post apocalyptic, hostile environment that is going to try and kill you in every single moment you draw a breath. Whereas Laputa is a lot more peaceful, but then again, there is a lot of tinkering going on the whole time in the movie. There the landscape is a lot more functional. It underlines this. “We are resourceful people who try to make the best with the tools and with our tinkering, in order to make a living, what we try to make a living out of exploiting the earth beneath us literally.” I thought of the two films as complete juxtapositions to each other, but then again, they are not contradicting. Laputa is just a step or a period earlier on a timeline of destruction.
Adam Dobay: And I think they have similar intro sequences like in Nausicaä. You have the tapestry showing the end of the world, and then the huge bugs and then the other stuff, and you have sort of a similar retelling in the beginning of Castles in the Sky, when you see “Oh, look, we all used to live in these flying cities and look at our amazing technology that we have. And then it crashed. And we now have to live on the earth again.
Nora Selmeczi: On the Earth and of the Earth.
Adam Dobay: Yeah. So it’s this recurring theme of, we thought we were the biggest animals on the earth, and we could manage it and we could control everything. No. And now we’re forced to live in smaller communities and make do with what we have. And the antagonists are always people – and again, this is very similar in our circle and cast on the sky – where you have the antagonists who go back to this old thinking of, no, we must have more, we must always have more and we must have the power, because when we have the power, we won’t be stressed out about other people having the power.
Nora Selmeczi: Right. Also, the forces of nature and how nature is represented and both of these movies is just underlines how people behave against nature in both of the movies. So nature is a very neutral backdrop, mostly, up until the point until civilization becomes an antagonistic force that tries to to conquer nature, because that’s the point where nature is reflecting these qualities in a civilization and humanity in particular. And this is where nature also becomes hostile towards humans.
Castle in the Sky’s Laputa: technology vs. nature in the landscape
Adam Dobay: And it looks like Miyazaki is always teetering on the edge of what’s an acceptable level of technology use like in Castle in the Sky with the robot who can be a destructive Terminator-like dark father figure or it can be the protective nice father figure and the flying thing as well. You can have it as this kind of utopia that looks like I forget the name of the artwork that it looks like. Is it the Tower of Babel? One of the paintings of it?
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, it is.
Adam Dobay: And when you get onto it, it resembles what Plato described as the ideal society with circle base layers and so on. And when you actually go there, when the characters go there, you see, here’s the little squirrel foxes from Nausicaä interacting with these robots who we saw can be hostile and deadly. And they’re just tending the garden. And that’s like the ideal balance between technology and nature. And it exists for about 10 minutes in the film. (Sorry, spoilers.) So there’s this very careful balance of “Yes, we can make technology and use technology. And technology does come out of nature because we’re using the materials that we get from nature to make technology, but we have a tendency to overdo our technology”. And then this same idea comes back in Mononoke, and it comes back in The Wind Rises very strictly about, oh, here’s the technology. Oh, I’m just making art with my aeroplanes. No, you’re not you’re making war machines. What’s the decision on that? That’s the entire thing in that film, whether you can distance yourself from what you make as technology, and then what that technology is used for.
Nora Selmeczi: It seems to me that imaginary and these apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic landscapes are a reflection of human intent. And this also reflects on how humans use technology and the resources that enable this technology to to thrive and flourish in these societies. Because if the intent is a malicious one, this technology and nature is also going to reflect it back to to the human characters.
The natural landscape of Princess Mononoke
Adam Dobay: That reminds me of Mononoke, where when you approach nature with malicious intent when you want to conquer it when you go into kill it, of course it’s gonna behave antagonistically. And then you can say, “Oh, look at these evil wolves that want to eat us.” No, they don’t. You just ventured into their territory. They’re there. They’re fighting for their own life. So that’s very interesting how this theme keeps coming back and is reflected in the landscapes, a lot of landscapes in Mononoke, we are watching the landscapes disappear in front of our eyes, we see the city being built, and the forest being decimated. And then we see the actual symbol of the forest gone. And a very new landscape takes the place of the old landscape. So it’s very interesting balance that he does there.
Yakushima island – the inspiration for Princess Mononoke
Nora Selmeczi: The interesting thing about Mononoke is it’s a very cautionary tale. Because the inspiration for the landscaping Mononoke is Yakushima island. And yeah, Yakushima Island – the major part of the interior of the island – is a national park, you can just go there.
Adam Dobay: Whereabouts is it in Japan?
Nora Selmeczi: It’s in the Southern part of Japan, so is almost the southernmost part. It’s very subtropical. It’s hot. It’s wet mountainous with giant trees and giant firs and pines. For someone from Europe, it’s sort of a mystical, magical, unique place entirely. I think for the Japanese, it also represents this unspoiled ancient nature that they destroyed with a passion on the mainland. And it’s a very lucky coincidence almost that Yakushima Island is as it is, and it hasn’t been destroyed to the extent of other parts of this huge country.
Adam Dobay: So when they go there and scout it and draw their storyboards and actually use that as the basis of the landscape in that film, what they’re saying is, “look, this is what we used to have, versus what we have now, which is not a lot of this is left”.
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, exactly.
“Drawing on Tradition”: pilgrimages to Yakushima Forest
Adam Dobay: And there’s a point in the book Drawing on Tradition by Jolyon Baraka Thomas. It’s a lovely book about how manga and anime feed back into the contemporary view of religion and spirituality in Japan and how these two interact. And one of the chapters in there deals with the actual pilgrimages that people are taking to Yakushima Forest before it’s because of Mononoke. So it’s a weird thing that Japan like so many other countries has desacralized and lost its religious content, not just its church dictated religious content, but it’s folkloreistic spiritual content. So some of the folklore is there in the fairy tales and nowadays in the manga and the anime, but the actual connection to the more spiritual side of society is gone. And this is something that we see in Japan take place in a really short time because of the unique history it has with first closing itself off from the West and then being forced to open to the West. And then gradually, as the West moves in losing a lot of these characteristics, but what we see in the West happened over 300-400 years, with the start of industrialization, and the politics behind getting power back from the church and so on and so forth. That is a very, very long path of losing our stories, connections with sacred elements. And in the East, depending on the country you look at, this is a much quicker thing that happens, maybe under 100 years. And and it’s really interesting how in Japan, you kind of lose this or start to lose this in the late 1800s. And then lose it definitely after World War II. And then you have these filmmakers or modern artists who go back to the still existing heritage and reinsert it into modern art. And then you end up with pilgrimages to Yakushima Forest to reconnect with what the modern artists is pointing out saying, this is your past and this is where the depth of your culture comes from.
Nora Selmeczi: I’m more pessimistic about this. Because the way I see it, you end up with institutionalised replacements for something. And this is beside the point. When we look at the themes of Mononoke, you see that it is besides a point to undertake a pilgrimage on Yakushima Island. Of course, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful piece of nature. But then again, the point is this sort of beautiful nature is everywhere around you where you don’t bother nature and let it thrive, and where you are willing to coexist with nature, as opposed to owning it or conquering it. So the way Japanese popular culture and contemporary culture fills these gaps between old spirituality and the old institutionalised religion, and their empty forms, and this contemporary art of undertaking pilgrimages. It’s really just missing the point of what Miyazaki Hayao is trying to tell you with the movie.
Adam Dobay: So what is he saying then?
Nora Selmeczi: The thing he’s saying is: “As humans, we have to have to restraint not to over-exploit natural resources, conceding some of our civilization and some of our internal drives to expand, to build to conquer, and you know, just take a step back and just coexist with what we are given.”
Adam Dobay: So the point is not to go to a physical place to try to reconnect with the past that’s no longer really there. But to realise that we could have the connection and have it as a present connection, and a life connection right now, if only we would understand the principles that would lead us to have that connection.
Nora Selmeczi: Exactly. The most simple and most basic connection between the dots is: just don’t destroy your environment and everything’s gonna be fine. You are going to end up with a magical forest just around the corner if you don’t fell the trees.
Adam Dobay: If only we had paid attention 40 years ago, when they first started saying these in films and then research.
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, we will be a bit better off it.
Ghibli landscape inspiration roundup
Totoro’s location: Sayama hills, Saitama, Tokyo
Adam Dobay: Okay, so what I wanted to do before we round this off, we could possibly talk about each film for three hours at this point. So for now, I just wanted to quickly run through the list of other Ghibli films which are based on actual Japanese or non-Japanese locales, and to see what they are and what these people were inspired by when they made these films and when they purposely selected these places to make magical or almost magical environments out of. We already mentioned Totoro, which was based on then Tokyo outskirts now now Tokyo.
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, it’s approximately 30 kilometres North of Tokyo on the border of Saitama, these are the Sayama hills, the actual place where Miyazaki grew up.
Pom Poko’s location: Tama hills, Tokyo
Adam Dobay At the same time they make Mononoke, they make Pom Poko, which is a film we’ll have to talk about at one point. It’s not by Miyazaki, it’s by Takahata. And that’s kind of the other side of of Tokyo. So you mentioned that Totoro was the northern outskirts and Pom Poko is the other side, isn’t it?
Nora Selmeczi: Exactly. That’s in the Tama hills. There’s one of the housing projects that just sprung out of nowhere. And this is a very violent expansion of the city. Very exciting times for Tokyo. Very grave times for for the tanuki and the kitsune.
Adam Dobay: Yeah. Yeah. Another film, not to watch with children, small children, if you’re expecting a fun time. If you’re not expecting a fun time with your children, go watch Pom Poko. It’s kind of the other half of Totoro, isn’t it. Is the same thing of losing what we had, but we’re just watching. It’s not nostalgia. It’s “Look what we’ve done.”
Nora Selmeczi: Exactly.
Ocean Waves location: Kochi-shi
Adam Dobay: Okay, moving on. We have the not very much known Ocean Waves, which… is it a shorter Ghibli film?
Nora Selmeczi: It’s a TV movie.
Adam Dobay: Yes. So that that’s also based on something, isn’t it?
Nora Selmeczi: Exactly. Ocean Waves has two distribution titles. One of them is I Can Hear The Sea, that’s the title I know the movie by. So to get that straight. Ocean Waves take place in Kochi-shi. Kochi is one of the cities and one of the prefectures of Shikoku Island. It’s the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. And that’s the one that’s very rapidly depopulating, especially the mountainous interior of the island.
Dōgo Onsen: the real bathhouse in Spirited Away
Adam Dobay: Okay, one more honourable mention that we can’t pass by is of course, Spirited Away, which has two things that it’s based on. I didn’t actually know that the actual onset the actual bathhouse is based on an actual living, existing bathhouse. I learned that from you this afternoon.
Nora Selmeczi: Spirited Away’s bathhouse is one of the most famous ones. It’s Dōgo Onsen on the opposite end of Shikoku near Matsuyama city. It’s one of the biggest and one of the greatest bathhouses because that is one of the onsens that have a pool for the Emperor himself.
Adam Dobay: If he chooses to come.
Nora Selmeczi: Yeah, if he chooses to come. He’s never chosen to come ever so far. It can change though we are now in a new Imperial era so who knows what this new year brings, but then again it’s never been used before.
Adam Dobay: It’s like when you build a castle in England and you have the room for a Queen Victoria and when you go there and you look at the sign it says “Queen Victoria was supposed to sleep here but she ended up not coming”.
Nora Selmeczi: What’s this thing about royals? I mean they have like so many options offered, you can, you know, spend the night here going to visit there Take a look at this cool location and then just go “Nah, I’m not up to it today.”
Jiufen: the other inspiration for Spirited Away
Adam Dobay: I think it’s just busy itineraries and just the abundance of castles to try and onsen in Japan? Yeah, who has the time. The other thing and Spirited Away that I didn’t know about his Jiufen, which is not actually in Japan. It’s in Taiwan, which at one point in history, and my history knowledge is fuzzy on this, used to be Japanese?
Nora Selmeczi: It was occupied territory.
Adam Dobay: It was occupied territory. Thank you. I was trying to avoid saying anything that would offend anyone. So it’s this quasi-Japanese influenced Taiwanese town that has all the entertainment in there and all the things that we associate with the Japanese hospitality sector, all crammed into this one city. And that crammedness is kind of what went into the first part of Spirited Away, before anyone turns into a pig.
Nora Selmeczi: Right? Because you have to visit quaint, crammed entertainment or tourist areas in order to become a pig. Make sense.
Adam Dobay: Or where they pigs all along?
Nora Selmeczi: Nobody knows.
Walking in Japan as a meditation
‘The Wilds of Shikoku’
Adam Dobay: There’s one more thing we have to mention, which is a book called The Wilds of Shikoku. And it’s published by you because you’re the editor at I Love Wasting Ink which is a nano-publisher and you Just came out with… is it the first book?
Nora Selmeczi: The first book. Yeah, it’s the very first.
Adam Dobay: This is the flagship book of this new publishing house. I’m just gonna say publishing house. I’m just projecting into the future. So tell me about what this book is. And this is actually the plot twist at the end of our Japanese story, when you finally reveal what it has been about all along. The reason we’ve been talking about landscape and environment and walking in that environment is because this is a book about walking in the Japanese environment, and a very specific one.
Nora Selmeczi: Exactly. We mentioned the confrontation with nature, and the confrontation of the passing of time. And Wilds of Shikoku is exactly about these things. It takes place in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands, we’ve been there with Ghibli films like I Can Hear The See / Ocean Waves and Spirited Away. But those are Matsuyama and Kochi-shi are both on the seashore. So those are coastal towns on the island and Peter Orosz the author of The Wilds of Shikoku undertook a walk in the dead of winter through the mountainous interior of the island in order to immerse himself in the rapid depopulation of the towns and villages there and to observe how this affects him and how nature is sort of getting the upper hand or conquering back what humans took away generation to generation. But then again, this is a very delicate balance, and you certainly feel just like a character in Nausicaä. It can be a very hostile environment. There can be a lot of snow, it’s cold, and there’s nobody around for days on end. This is a 550-kilometre walk in January. And we did our Kickstarter campaign around the project and came up with the book in August. We nicknamed it the beach book of doom. Because you know, publishing it in the summer, is just prompts you to take it to the beach and just read about the end of human civilization in a desolate place. Just to have fun. Yeah, just to have a fun, entertaining read.
Adam Dobay: What you have to know about the book is because this audio, I just have to describe it. It’s full of these wonderful images. It’s arranged very poetically, I would say. There’s a lovely removable watercolour map. And you know it’s a good book when it has a map in it. That’s that’s just the rule. It’s a map of Shikoku. It has a very, for me a very Japanese sense of this reflection on nature and also a sort of melancholy in there about the passing of things. But there’s also this reclamation, from nature, from which you learn that nature is the thing that was always there. And humans are just this glimpse in the middle of this huge history of what nature is and how it operates. And it’s always mystical. If you look at it, if you don’t build cities, around your nature, to lock nature out, then there’s all of these nuances with the visuals, you can get the feeling of being kind of transported there and going with Peter on this walk that he did, and I’m not sure a lot of people would do this walk. I mean, it takes a lot of endurance to how many days was it?
Nora Selmeczi: 17 days.
Adam Dobay: So it doesn’t it doesn’t sound much but it is.
Nora Selmeczi: The actual thing is everyone with two legs is capable of doing this. You just have to have the resolve to do it. And then you just negotiate it with yourself. It’s all in the head. Well maybe not in the winter, because obviously in the winter, it’s more of a challenge. It pertains to the fact that in the winter, it’s a lot quieter than usual in the summer, and you can catch a glimpse of how people used to live there in these harsh conditions. That’s something that you never get a glimpse of doing this walk in the summer. But then again, everybody can just, you know, set out and just take a long walk, because that’s all you do. And if that’s all you do for an entire day, and then the next day and the next day and the next day, you adapt to that, because we as humans evolved to do that. We did that for hundreds of thousands of years. We are just not accustomed to it anymore, because what we view as civilization and this work and means of transportation, those are disconnected. So there is this joint from our modes of transportation. That was the traditional way to get from point A to point B.
Adam Dobay: And when you don’t embark on a walk to go from point A to point B, where you have something to do in point A and point B, but you go on the walk to go on the walk, there is an added layer of meditation that instantly goes into there because you’re taking a walk on purpose.
Walking meditations in Tendai Buddhism
Nora Selmeczi: It’s not a coincidence that the Tendai Buddhist sect at Hieizan exercises, practices this sort of enlightenment. The monks at Hieizan undertake a walk every single day for long periods of time. And it’s a very structured walk, because you have to visit the same landmarks every day in the same order at the same time. And you walk around 50 kilometres for a hundred days, every day, a 50 kilometre portion, and then you do that next year, for a hundred days and then you do next year, a hundred days again, and then you do it for a thousand days. And after that when you completed years of walking, then you go into this extreme meditation for 10 days where you don’t eat and don’t drink. And where you have ritualised tests to carry out everyday, carry water from a well, but you don’t drink from it, you just carry it inside the sanctuary. And this is the proof of concept. If you did the walk in a correct way, then you are already in this mindset and you are already in an enlightened state enough to just master this last 10 day stretch. If not, then your walk was somehow done in an incorrect way. Walking as let’s say, monotonous exercise is a confrontation with who we are and where we are in the world. So it signifies the place, your place, in the world and it also signifies your connection to this place in the world. So you understand some things about yourself as well. And about the world, the passing of seasons, small changes in nature, the small changes within. But apart from that, it’s also just fun because this way you perceive the world at a slower pace. And it’s a very democratic thing, because everybody can walk who has two legs. So you don’t have to have a car. You don’t have to have a fancy suitcase, or you don’t have to fly out to exotic destinations. You just go out somewhere and you just, you know, begin walking and you will encounter people, animals, yourself on this journey.
Adam Dobay: I really love this concept. And if anyone’s ever gone on a walk that was more than an hour long and you don’t have your phone on you, which is I think a requirement if you leave your gadgets and just go and just embrace your senses and that’s a very Buddhist thing. One of the basic Buddhist tenets is like the one of the basic reminders for everyday meditations is: “What do you see? What do you hear? What are you feeling right now?” That’s one of the basic centraliser Buddhist techniques. What are the first I’ve learned, and that travels from India to Japan and then it gets attached to all these sorts of activities that you find in the various Buddhist regions and denominations. And walking is one of them. I remember I’ve done a lot of meditative walks when I back when I did Zen retreats, that would have been for a couple of hours at a time. But when you are removed from your city landscape, and you’re when you’re removed from your technology, and when you go into the walk without the expectation of A.) getting somewhere, or B.) achieving a goal, then really something clicks after a time and your senses do get more honed to what’s going on around you. And as humans, we’ve been doing this for hundreds and thousands of years just spending most of our day walking. So I feel like when we do that we just sort of regress – and I use regress in a positive sense – regress into this very ancient way of being attuned to our own biology and to noticing what’s around us and noticing what our own senses are picking up because nowadays, we mostly use our visual senses and our thumbs to look at small screens and manipulate them. That’s not what our bodies I think were originally made to do. Who knows what the big plan was. It all goes back to what these films are about that we’ve been discussing about using this very modern media of you going into the cinema and watching images being projected with groundbreaking technology and Dolby Surround Sound, something that is very modern to humanity, to remind you that you already have things in you that you can connect with that are actually ancient, and which will get you to a life that is more connected to yourself and to your environment, so you don’t destroy it as much.
Nora Selmeczi: Well, all it takes sometimes is just a nice, gentle nudge. So that’s why a movie is a perfect way to first experience all of this without taking a risk. Going to a movie is a ritual of our modern times and going to see a movie is also a ritual to discover something hopefully within ourselves. So if anybody is animated to go on a walk, or to take a look, take a good look at nature and well cities as well. Take a good look at our environments. Just by watching the movies we talked about, I think that the studio has achieved a big goal because the moment you open your eyes on the world and consciously begin to see it as the moment you consciously begin to think about how you are interacting with this world and what you are doing with your environment and to your environment as well.
Mythbusting: Japan is not small
Adam Dobay: Final thing that we do in every episode, and I haven’t told you this, because I forgot it wasn’t a deliberate surprise. With every guest I have on I have a myth busting round where I asked that they bust a simple myth that they learned from their line of work or their expertise that normal everyday people wouldn’t know or would know wrong based on things they got from the media or films or whatever. So it might come from the film industry. It might come from what you’ve learned about Japan and the past few decades, anything that is a myth to be busted.
Nora Selmeczi: There is a widespread myth or a stereotype in Japan that it’s a very small country and a very weak country. And this is a myth that’s been around since the Second World War. This is one of the self-limiting myths and stereotypes. And one of the books of Alan Booth, The Roads to Sata, he mentions an encounter with an old man and he says: “The thing you’re doing like walking the length of Japan from North to South. That’s a great thing. That’s something I would love to do. But this is something nobody is able to do since we lost the war.” It’s like they perceive their country has shrunken to a miniscule size. Because most of the land in Japan is uninhabited because of the mountainous interior and a lot of volcano activity in the interior, they feel that they are on land that’s been truncated to a bite sized chunk. And since then they are just not able to function anymore. So Japan being a small land and a miniscule country is obviously a myth. You could put Great Britain almost twice into the four main islands. Or you could just walk from Frankfurt in Germany to Sub-Saharan Africa, and then you would approximately have walked the length of Japan. So this is a small country for you.
Adam Dobay: Okay, myth busted. All right, Nora, thanks so much for coming on. I would love to have you back later. talk about all the other Ghibli films and talk about Utena, which is the most wondrous anime series I’ve ever seen in which you have introduced me to by sitting in a tea house with me and frantically trying to explain the first episode’s plot to me and I think it took more time than the actual episode length. And I said that is so weird and I must watch it and it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever seen. (That was an ad for Utena.) And, if you, dear listener, are interested in looking at this glimpse at a Japan that’s not in the tourist books, and that’s outside of the normal media coverage, well outside the normal media coverage of Japan, then do take a look at The Wilds of Shikoku by Peter or us, which is out now and it’s a limited edition print. There’s only 500 of them hand-numbered, softcover and you can get the book at ilovewasting.ink . It’s one of these funny new domain names like what did you say, there’s a domain that’s .horse?
Nora Selmeczi: .horse. Exactly.
Adam Dobay: I have to buy a dot horse domain but this is not a dot horse domain. This is ilovewasting.ink where you can pick up your copy of The Wilds of Shikoku. Thanks again Nora for coming on. See you next time.
Nora Selmeczi: Thank you for having me and see you next time.
Now it’s your turn!
That was a real packed episode there. What’s your biggest takeaway? Let me know in the comments below.
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