Miyazaki and Aomori


In case you don’t know, Hayao Miyazaki‘s films basically represent the gold standard of Japanese animation.  His gorgeous, whimsical movies are famous the world over for rich characters, beautiful animation, and engaging storylines.  They are imaginative films suitable for people of all ages and cultures.  Miyazaki frequently dwells on themes involving the nature of good and evil, man’s relationship with the environment, childhood, and pacifism.

I enjoyed watching his movies in the States.  The settings he created on film were so imaginative and new to me it felt like another world unto itself.  However, now that I live in Japan, there are elements of his movies that seem strangely familiar.  There have been times in the past few months, walking in the woods, riding a bicycle past a meadow with chirping cicadas, hiking mountains, when I felt I was actually in one of Miyazaki’s movies.  Until recently I thought I was just enchanted by Japan’s natural beauty and constructing a connection when there was none.  However, it turns out I may be on to something.

On a daytrip to Hachinohe a few weeks back, Julie and I visited a local history museum.  It was fascinating and humbling to see ancient Jomon pottery and various Nanbu artifacts while learning more about the history of the area and how it became what it is today.  One story in particular really caught my eye.  It turns out that during the Edo Period, the people of the Nanbu region (an area in Northern Japan that includes the town in which we live and work) largely abandoned farming food for sustenance in favor of cash crops.  In order to make enough money to buy food from other areas (since they weren’t harvesting enough to feed their own people), many patches of forests were burned down to clear space for cash crops like cotton.

As it turns out, burning down a vast acreage of trees puts stress on the animals trying to live in that habitat.  Many of these creatures began venturing out of the forest and into people’s farms, ultimately devastating the already short supply of food.  The animal that did the most damage was the boar, or wild pig.  The Nanbu people became so fed up with the wild pigs that they prayed they would be inflicted with a disease.

What does this have to do with Miyazaki?  Anybody who has seen his film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), can tell you that the similarities between the opening scene and the story above are uncanny.  In the opening scene of the movie, an enormous wild boar runs out of the forest and brings chaos to the nearby village.  Oh, and he has a terrible disease.  We learn later in the film that the disease was caused by an iron bullet that festered inside his body.

After some research I learned that iron production used to be big in the Nanbu region.  Also, one of the character’s names, Lady Eboshi, derives from a kind of hat still worn during traditional ceremonies in the area.  And, as you may recall, Eboshi is also the name of the mountain in the picture at the top of this blog — a mountain we see every time we step outside our house.

That last connection might be a little bit of a stretch, but after doing some research it turns out that Miyazaki was inspired by the mountains of the Nanbu region.  Compare this screenshot to Mount Eboshi on the top of the screen:

Also, one of the main characters, Prince Ashitaka, seems to have been inspired by the Emishi — a group of people who called Northeastern Japan home.  The Emishi, like the people in Ashitaka’s village, were ostracized by other cultural groups.  Eventually the Nanbu Clan drove the Emishi to the far Northern reaches of Honshu.  They later settled in Hokkaido.  Among other things, the Emishi were known for their hit-and-run archery assaults on horses, something Ashitake performs well in the film (although, to be fair, he’s actually riding an elk).

All of this information inspired me to begin rewatching Miyazaki’s films.  I began with Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away).  What a masterpiece.  It was particularly interesting watching the film with Japanese dialogue and English subtitles.  Although my ability to speak Japanese is below where I hoped it would be right now, I was still able to pick up a lot of the dialogue through listening alone.  It was surprising.

Also, having learned and experienced some of Japan’s culture added a new dimension to the film.  Take, for instance, the scene where Chihiro-san has to prepare the bath for the filthy guest at the onsen.  Now that I know more about onsen etiquette and the strict cleanliness that is enforced, the scene enhanced my viewing experience.  During this part of the movie, Chihiro-san discovers what she at first believes is a thorn in the guest’s side that may be causing his filth and stench.  She pulls it out and realizes it’s actually a bicycle, tossed out fishing gear, and a bunch of other debris.  It is then revealed that the guest is a river spirit and thus Miyazaki develops Chihiro’s character while simultaneously offering commentary on man’s relationship to the environment.

Spirited Away didn’t remind me of Aomori as much as Princess Mononoke.  That is until last week when I noticed a bicycle had been thrown into a river I walk by on my way to work.  A few days later, someone had taken the time to pull it out and left it to be claimed in a nearby meadow.


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6 Responses to “Miyazaki and Aomori”

  1. sarah austad Says:

    My goodness, Taylor…you’re such a good writer! You have been interested in Japanese animation for a long time! Your blog was interesting. The picture included was really amazing too. Hope you and Julie have a great weekend.

  2. Jamie Says:

    That’s a very interesting theory! True or not, I love learning about Noheji’s history and its small place Japanese in culture. One of the teachers I used to work with at Noheji SHS would tell me all about Noheji’s prosperous past… how it used to be a thriving logging town… how there used to be a ferry to Hokkaido that left from the waterfront (you can probably still find the old dock a little north of Max Value)… how there used to be movie theatres and bowling alleys etc.

    You might have also found a fairly large ropped-off park near the path up Eboshi with a Suntory sign on it. Apparently Suntory Whiskey was going to build a big bottling plant in Noheji many moons ago, but the plans fell through. They still own the land, but what they do with it now I have no idea. I never dared to cross the rope and venture into Suntory Park. If you ever do, let me know what you find!

    You might also be interested to know that the name Noheji may originally come from the Ainu, before they were driven off to the darkest corners of Hokkaido. Of course, I can’t confirm any of this, so this could be completely false. Most of my knowledge of Noheji came from people who commuted there each day from Aomori and not from the locals. Maybe your Ramen shop keeper would have more accurate information.

    • pacificloons Says:

      Thanks! We watched Mononoke Hime all the way through last night and I may have been overreaching on a few of those ideas. One thing is for certain though — he was totally inspired by the Shimokita mountains. We also spotted some Jomon jewelry and pottery and noticed most of the Emishi men in the village sported beards which was interesting because I’ve read about how the Emishi were believed to be linked to both the Jomon and the Ainu people.

      Anyway, we’ll be sure to look out for that park! And the pro wrestling! We’re also eager to learn about the local history. A few of my coworkers have told me a little bit about it…mostly the former close connection between Hokkaido and Kyoto and how Noheji basically acted as the Middle Man. We’ll keep investigating.

      Thanks for the boots! I wore them today when we went X-Mas shopping in Aomori-shi.

  3. Jamie Sensei Says:

    One more thing I forgot to mention…
    Your post reminded me of the current man vs. nature war that a former colleague of mine has been reporting on for years just north of you in Shimokita. There the locals have been foraging in the woods, gobbling up all the fruits and berries that the local monkey population survives on. As a result, the monkeys have taken to terrorizing the locals on their home turf in an attempt to find nutritian, and the government has been fighting back with lethal force. You can read all about it here if you’re interested:

  4. Jamie Says:

    Yeah I heard about the Noheji/Kyoto connection thing before. Apparently that’s the reason why Noheji’s summer festival (featuring white faced girls on parade) is so similar to the Gion matsuri in Kyoto.. albeit much, much smaller in scale.

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