Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was on TV the other day. Like the other Miyazaki movies I’ve seen, it’s very concerned with the idea of nature spirits. The idea that every tree or rock has spirits associated with it is drawn from Shinto, of course, but it seems to have a particular resonance for Miyazaki.

I find the magical world of these movies much more attractive than, for example, Harry Potter. In the Potter books, the wizards are superhuman beings living secretly in a mundane world, holding themselves aloof from the lives of mortals except when they feel the need to play God.

Miyazaki’s characters are ordinary humans living in a magical world. They don’t get to do magic; magic happens around them and to them. They don’t get to bend the world to their will; the world is mysterious and rather inhuman. Sometimes it’s friendly and charming, and sometimes it’s hostile and scary, but it’s always other, and demanding of respect.

I think that the ordinary person in a magical world is a much more attractive dynamic. The clear environmental message intended appeals as well. But I think mostly it’s the idea of investing the world, and nature, with a sense of wonder.

I’ve commented on this strand of Japanese culture before, though from a rather different angle.


In Praise of Shadows

‘Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold…’

From Junichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an essay from 1933 discussing the importance of lighting in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The gold, the lacquer, Nō theatre, even Japanese make-up are all, he suggests, dependent for their effect on low, indirect lighting; bright light makes them look garish.

He contrasts this with a Western ideal of brightly-lit rooms, but I’m sure the same applies. We have an inherited reverence for gold and diamonds, but do they really look anything special under electric light? When I read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I imagine the gold glowing by fire and lamplight.


Bashō big in school supplies

Matsuo Bashō is selling pencils. Sort of.


Dokonjo Daikon

I love the Japanese sometimes.

Culture Nature Other

Fairy rocks

The Times reports today that a property developer in Scotland has had to come up with new plans for a housing estate to accomodate a large rock after locals protested that digging it up would disturb the fairies that lived there. Or possibly because Pictish kings had been crowned on it – their stories seem to be a bit mixed, but they seem to have agreed that moving the rock would be bad juju.

Given my general scepticism about all things New Age and supernatural, you might expect me to be exasperated by this. But no, I think it’s great. One of the things I really liked in Japan was that, when you went walking in the country, any prominent landscape feature – a big rock, a waterfall – would usually have a little shrine on it or by it. The shrines were extremely rudimentary – often just three bits of rock arranged into the rough shape of a torii gate, like a little tiny dolmen about a foot high – but just enough to indicate that the spot was important. This picture gives you some idea of the shrines I’m talking about, although it’s taken at Kamakura, a big temple site, not just some random bit of the Japanese countryside.

In Japan, the shrines would be to kami – Shinto nature spirits – but really, kami, fairies, it’s all the same thing. Now I don’t believe there are actually fairies or spirits living in every prominent rock or ancient tree; but the practice humanises and enriches the landscape. Just the fact that it picks out striking things and says ‘look at me’ gives a focus to the landscape. When we talk about respect for nature, it tends to be in an environmental context; respecting whole ecosystems. There’s a lot to be said for respecting your local big rock.

My uncle had a cottage in Wales. In one of the fields nearby was a standing stone. I’m not talking Stonehenge here; just a long thin rock sticking about two feet out of the ground. For all I know, it was actually put there by a couple of bored locals as a gag, but it doesn’t matter, somehow; the fact that it’s there makes the field a special place in a way no functional building would.

I think a lot of Andy Goldsworthy’s work has the same appeal – it’s the non-destructive, respectful engagement with the landscape, to give it a human aspect without de-naturing it.