By Bob Clark
When looking over the entirety of an artist’s oeuvre in any medium, it’s natural to see recurring themes and archetypes from work to work, and in the case of narrative artists similar kinds of characters, settings and conflicts repeating themselves over and over. For storytellers who have worked in multiple mediums and by all accounts can said to have mastered either, the question of recurring motifs becomes an even more pressing concern, because you can no longer look at the repeating creative patterns and say they owe much of anything to the mere constraints and demands of the form of expression the artist chooses. What does one say about the way a writer’s use of language changes from form to form– Shakespeare the playwright, and the poet? Beckett’s theater and literature of the absurd? DeLillo the novelist for page, stage and sometimes screen?
In the case of Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for some of the most celebrated works of animation since the halcyon days of Disney, and recognized as a master mangaka for his epic comic-book version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the only real way to distinguish him as one thing or the other is the sheer volume of his output in either form. As a director and writer he has his mark on so many feature films, shorts and television series that it can often be hard to track down all of them. As a cartoonist, however, his body of work is relatively slimmer– yes, there’s the massive length of Nausicaa, but other than that only a handful of works compared to the better part of the Studio Ghibli efforts, and more. But among those few works of comics from the master’s hand is one that shows definite signs of precedence for anyone who values higher profile efforts like the anime or manga versions of Nausicaa or his later feature film Princess Mononoke. Standing as an ancestor to both of them, and to others in and out of the Ghibli canon, is The Journey of Shuna.
When compared to Miyazaki’s other works in manga, this slim graphic-novel could seem more different at first, in many ways betraying a far more obvious resemblance to his efforts as an animator. The fact that he works in full watercolors here, as opposed to the stark but stately black-and-white of Nausicaa and other stories is a major factor in this, every page and panel throughout the story displaying every bit the range and nuanced palate as any frame from his films. Perhaps more important than the mere use of color, however, is the way that Miyazaki structures the book’s design, composing the majority of the manga in two-page spreads rather than using individual pages as the primary unit of the book. Across epic panorama splashes and vast but simple panel sequences, he develops a succinct and economic balance of visual language, illustrating his mythic tale in his lushly colored collages while delivering the bulk of the story’s substance in accompanying text narrations.
Miyazaki rests purely on the strength of the image to convey emotion and the minimal text to imply events, using almost no dialogue-balloons throughout, as he tells a parable-simple story of a young prince who sets out on a journey to find powerful seeds from a valley of the gods and save his starving village, along the way getting swept up in adventure, love and danger in a way that very few fantasists are capable of with this kind of maturity and innocence, both. With its abundant use of long illustrations across its two-page folds, the book has something of a maverick streak in the way it casts off the constraint of the usual vertical flow and arrangements that comic-books have, in any country. It even turns the book into something more cinematic seeming, with those rectangular compositions across every other page, especially in comparison the the jagged, positively abstract way that most other manga panel-designs are conceived, deriving just as much energy and action in the way the frames are drawn like broken shards of glass exploding on the page as the action contained within them.
Considering the creative roots that the book had– Miyazaki deciding to illustrate his story, inspired by a Tibetan fable thought to be an allegory for the migration of the barley crop throughout the world, was too simple to be popular enough to succeed in animation– one can even be tempted to see it as a work that tries to make the best of both worlds, a comic-book drawn in CinemaScope. But the further the book goes on, and the more that Miyazaki arranges his pages as vast tableaux of image and text instead of merely portraying a series of visual displays alone helps turn the book into something more than just a sequence of storyboard drawings or production paintings ready to be pitched at a moment’s notice. In many ways, Shuna becomes something closer to a typical American picture-book in the Sendak/Seuss tradition, the kind of sequential-art that’s perfect fodder for a parent tasked with the duty of reading a child a story at bedtime.
Even as the book lushly illustrates vast expanses of beautiful environments, delivers bone-cracking action and portrays sensitive character portraits from Miyazaki’s instantly recognizable hand on every page, there’s plenty of the story that’s left to be told only in the text. There, he wisely relies mostly on summary to convey the main thrust of the story, leaving long stretches of it to the imagination of the reader, or perhaps more appropriately the person the book is being read to. Even many of the individual panels and large spreads don’t so much convey the story as provide illustrations that set a mood, a feeling for the narrative at play. As a story written and illustrated largely with a younger audience in mind (and indeed a story that may well work best when that audience is literally an audience being performed to by the reader, rather than an individual absorbing the work alone), and as a story concerning just as many rich interior transformations of the mind and heart as it does those of the physical world, the suggestive nature of the artwork and text strikes a distinctly impressionistic chord. It helps reduce the characters and events down almost to the level of pure archetypes, as though the story were legitimately inherited from some forgotten archeological dig, a piece of pure comic-book folklore.
As such, it’s little wonder how so much of Miyazaki’s work here looks forward in broad and minute strokes the mythological tapestries of Nausicaa and Mononoke. The essential stories of each work are largely similar– each follows a young princely protagonist living in an isolated community suffering from hardships of the land who sets off on a “journey to the West” and comes in contact with powers both human and divine, settling on a conflict between the sanctity of the environment and man’s needs to survive. In the case of Nausicaa, the connection seems all the closer for the way in which the film and manga followed so swiftly upon the publication of Shuna, as though Miyazaki was consciously beginning to rework the details of the story he’d thought too simple for animation, bringing enough complications to make the same basic archetypes sufficiently compelling for the screen (enough complications, as it would turn out, that he’d need several year’s worth of comics-pages to fully flesh them out).
Even with those complications, there’s a lot between the two works directly to recognize– they both share a host of desert backdrops and crumbling kingdoms, and even share a subtly post-apocalyptic combination of elements. The opening pages of Shuna directly state that what we read might be the distant past or even more distant future, and the addition of rifles and ancient structures only add to the mystery of whether we’re reading the shape of things to come or the days of First People-like progenitors. The bulk of Nausicaa‘s unique elements come from the emphases placed on man’s inhumanity to man during warfare (something that’s touched upon briefly, but poignantly, in the story of two slavegirl sisters the young prince goes out of his way to rescue) and especially in man’s inhumanity to the environment and the self-destructive way it brings to bear on future generations. Most of Shuna‘s locations are simplistic, but evocative and beautiful landscapes that never stretch too far beyond realism– there aren’t any of the surreal jungle climes modeled after microscopic fungi and bacteria ballooned to human proportions. That’s one thing that this previous work has over the more famous succeeding tellings of Nausicaa— both may attempt to tell stories of a world that was or will be, but only one of them looks anything remotely like a would that could be.
Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, may likewise illustrate a world that largely sits between the possible and the fantastical, but it at least situates itself comfortably in the realm of Japanese folklore, like much of the Ghibli canon, giving it at least a level of cultural realism and clarity. It may not depict anything that exists on our plane of reality, but at least it comes close to portraying things that people have believed in. As such, all the talk and focus on the gods of the forest carry a much greater weight than they do in Nausicaa, where the immense God Warriors serve less as an expression of the divine and more as an offshoot in the extended mecha family tree that led to Evangelion, and even than in Shuna, where the story peaks with the young prince’s journey into the land of a breed of gods that betray a telling family resemblance to Swamp Thing. Those more relatable giant-animal gods help make Mononoke such a thrilling combination of samurai-action and epic fantasy, and one that builds off of much of the character elements from Miyazaki’s previous work. The central character of Prince Ashitaka bears a strong resemblance to the title character from Shuna, his wardrobe only slightly modified for a more distinctly Japanese flavor than the semi-Mongolian appearance of the earlier effort.
Most obviously, they ride an identical red-elk steed on their journeys (only one instance of the direct repurposing of art-assets throughout Miyazaki’s work) and come into contact with castle-keeps that become central to the conflicts portrayed between mankind and nature in both stories. But where the castle-town of Shuna lives as a hotbed of human slavery, the iron-works village of Princess Mononoke illustrates how civilization’s pillaging of the environment can pave the way to all kinds of social liberation and improved quality of life, making the story less an illustration of the evils of the world and more an open debate as to the kind of balance it requires to sustain itself. Miyazaki takes full advantage of the range of storytelling opportunities presented in cinema for that film, delivering what might be his single most impressive and accessibly mature work, but in ways that don’t necessarily diminish the comparative minimalism of Shuna, which affords itself as fully of the creative potential for its medium, in kind. In a way, the restraint of that work helps show how excessive some of the Nausicaa manga can be at times in its full, unabridged form– both works go to deep and compelling places, but the earlier book does so in a fraction of the time. It presents only the essentials of its story, reaching for the truly mythic, instead of the merely epic.
As with the works of all great artists, however, it’s essential to keep in mind all the variations and expressions of a single set of ideas worked out from telling to telling– from Shuna to Mononoke, it’s possible to see Miyazaki working out different versions of the same basic narrative and selecting a few elements to keep and toy with throughout, but the things that keep them separate and unique are plentiful enough to make each story a joy to experience all of its own. And the influence that the original work has reaches out beyond its author’s personal hand as mangaka and animator– when Studio Ghibli finally commenced production in adapting Ursula K. LeGuin’s work for Tales of Earthsea, much of the resulting film owed as much to Shuna as it did to the pioneering author’s sci-fi literature, showing as much as anything the wide range of influences upon Miyazaki’s art. At the same time, it’s impressive to see so much of the jaw-dropping imagery from this book find itself repeated in sometimes astonishingly direct forms in Makoto Shinkai’s most recent film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, where a journey towards the home of the gods and forbidden knowledge again asserts itself, with much of the same iconography and landscapes throughout. Of course, Shinkai has never been hesitant to admit a strong influence from Miyazaki’s work, but where most Westerners might’ve assumed that the primary influence was from one of his animated or more widely-published comics efforts, here we may have as direct an ancestor as possible to his work in the slimmest of manga storybooks. In any case, it’s an influence that Miyazaki shares, and this is where the mark of a true master can be seen– owing a creative debt to one’s self, and instantly repaid by the rest of the world.