I have a new essay up at Tor.com, about the gods and spirits in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, their often fraught relationship with mankind, and their uneasy overlap with Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism– “Gods and Spirits (….and Whatever Totoro Is): Exploring Miyazaki’s Fantasy World.”
Miyazaki’s movies aren’t religious or even mythological, at least in the way we Americans think of religious and mythological movies. They don’t proselytize or directly adapt Japanese myths. But Miyazaki’s films draw a great deal from Shinto and Buddhist ideas and some–especially Totoro and Spirited Away–have a healthy dose of religious iconography in the background (one might think of the difference between The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories are obviously heavily influenced by his Catholicism, but it’s not an explicitly Christian tale like C.S. Lewis’s.)
After living in Japan, especially in a place as grounded in myth as Toyotama (as I talked about in my essay “Teshima”), I’ve loved seeing the Shinto and Buddhist elements in Miyazaki’s films and how they both fit and don’t fit the gods, spirits, and monsters he animates. This fits the mainstream Japanese approach to religion, which is less a matter of faith in the divine than showing respect through religious rituals. It doesn’t matter if one believes in the Sun Goddess Amaterasu or not, one still goes to Ise Shrine to pay one’s respects. After all, no matter what you believe, the Sun still shines and provides life and light on our planet, and will one day destroy it in a spasm of unimaginable fire. In Miyazaki’s films, as in Japanese religion, the natural world and spiritual world are one and the same, and their relationship with the human world is paramount to all, be it fraught, hostile, or loving.