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Miyazaki’s Iconic Films Are Simple, Beautiful, and Child-Appropriate Stories of Addiction and Recovery

by Sam Leibowitz-Lord

For those who haven’t had the delight of enjoying Miyazaki’s classic films, now is the perfect time to do so. With snow blanketing much of the country and many regions still facing pandemic restrictions, most days can easily turn into movie nights.

Hiyao Miyazaki is a celebrated Japanese filmmaker whose animated masterpieces brought the Japanese tradition of “anime” cinema to the American screen. His films have come to mind as an ongoing socio-economic crisis ravages much of the world in the wake of COVID-19.

Despite their PG-rating, the films have somewhat dystopian premises. Spirited Away follows the adventures of a young girl as she works under cruel and hostile spirits to free her parents from a witch’s curse, while Princess Mononoke is an epic tale of a prince’s quest for peace between humanity and the old gods of Japan.  Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaä, meanwhile, both follow young women as they navigate war, environmental ruin, and the characters around them being consumed by various fantastical addictions.

Yet it is in these bleak but colorful landscapes that we find powerful stories of confrontation, recovery, and finding peace through love and openness. A universal theme throughout Miyazaki’s magical  film universe is the struggle of ordinary people against what seem to be omnipotent, all-consuming cycles of consumption, whether it be magically-enhanced food, liquor, or gold.  Another key theme is that the individuals who find themselves in these circumstances are often not there because of their own decisions; rather, the mechaniations of those with power, wealth, and privilege often coerce individuals into engaging in addictive behaviors.

Miyazaki is considered an artistic master due to his colorful, vibrant recreations of classic Japanese art forms using both digital and hand-drawn animation. One particularly striking element of his art style is how he portrays characters experiencing various magical health crises; characters in states of magical distress that follow the consumption of a magical substance are often seen vomiting, sweating, and shivering, all with discoloration of the skin and a general incoherence. The imagery is highly reminiscent of many symptoms of serious substance withdrawal. 

On that point, Miyazaki similarly puts intimate detail into his portrayal of recovery and resilience in the face of these crises. Characters who undergo these crises are not treated with disdain or contempt by the protagonists; love, empathy, and understanding are usually the remedies for the magical predicaments they find themselves under, though there are almost always physical and emotional scars left behind. As a result, even the most dastardly, machiavellian antagonists eventually see the protagonist’s point of view, as the antagonist’s own trauma is often rooted in the same addictive behaviors receiving little to no compassion from those around them.

 There are no real “villains” in Miyazaki’s world: there are only actors responding to their environmental, social, and economic conditions while trying (and often failing) to be at peace with both themselves and the convoluted fantasy-reality they find themselves in. Redemption, forgiveness, and emotional intelligence are the key qualities that define a Miyazaki protagonist and the characters they encounter, no matter any “villainous” characteristics they demonstrate beforehand.

Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies