Want to Understand Shinto? Watch a Miyazaki Movie

Shinto, which is translated as "believer" or "way of the gods," is the indigenous religion of Japan. The faith is animistic and polytheistic, and has been with the Japanese for as long as they can remember. Due to its lengthy history, it is no surprise that Shinto has had a significant influence on Japanese art -- from the woodblock paintings of centuries ago to the anime productions of the modern era. One would be hard-pressed to find a director that taps into the way of the gods with as much artistic flair and devotion as Studio Ghibli's very own, Hayao Miyazaki.

This piece will be a crash course on how Miyazaki's movies can give anime fans an encapsulated view into two of Shintoism's most essential beliefs. It would be foolhardy to try and contain an explanation of a millennia-old religion in a few paragraphs, but discussing My Neighbor Totoro is an excellent place to start.

Totoro grows a tree with the girls

Sacred Nature and the Shimenawa

My Neighbor Totoro is bursting with glorious imagery: bright azure skies with billowing clouds, crystal clear babbling brooks, and lush forests. Much like in a lot of Miyazaki's films, nature is beyond appreciated -- it is sacred. In one particular scene, where the Kusakabe family walks through a forest, this sacrament of the natural world is exemplified as the family meets the great Camphor Tree. In this context, "meet" might be a strange word for some folk. However, within the Shinto religion, the Camphor Tree is more than just a tree; it is a living entity to be worshipped.

Viewers watching the film will notice a series of ropes inlaid with folded paper, and some may question what such an object is. In Shinto, that is called a Shimenawa, which is utilized as a symbol to tell people that a particular thing or place is sacred. This is why, during the Camphor Tree scene, the Kusakabe family gives thanks to the great tree, complete with bows and solemn prayers. For those who are not involved with Shinto, this may seem like an odd practice. But in the religion's traditions, the natural world is Kami personified, and Kami, according to most non-Japanese, is roughly translated to "god." But Kami are not gods in the way some might think.

The Kami Are Complicated

Princess Mononoke shows this key principle of Shintoism the best. Kami can be literal gods or goddesses, which is where the polytheistic aspect comes in, or forces of nature and life that have been given meaning and are, thus, worthy of worship -- where the animistic element comes in. In Princess Mononoke, most of the human characters fight and kill the "gods of the forest," which present themselves as giant beasts such as wolves, apes, or boars. This could be the most challenging aspect of Shintoism to truly grasp: How can a human kill a god? It might seem absurd, but if taken figuratively, since nature is worshipped, nature is a deity. A human can kill god by destroying nature. In Princess Mononoke, such an act has dire consequences.

In Shintoism, anything can be a Kami. A rock, a tree, animals, a river, even humans. From the perspective of Shintoism, people too can be worshipped as Kami when they pass on since they are believed to become spirits that can help (or even harm) those who are living. Although Shinto does not have a holy book like Christianity or Islam does, and it does not list sins in the traditional sense like most other religions, it does hold to the belief that anything that harms nature or takes away from its glory is considered soiled. Tsumi is a Japanese word that can be roughly translated as sin -- and anything that drives humanity away from the Kami is Tsumi.

Anime Princess Mononoke Boar Demon Virus

On the other hand, Musubi is a term that encompasses the exact opposite meaning. It refers to cleanliness and harmony, particularly with the world as prime importance. "Thou shalt not" is not a saying in Shinto, but anything that harms humanity by drawing them away from the Kami is something to be avoided. Most of the human characters in Princess Mononoke ignored this principle and dealt with nature's backlash.

Miyazaki, the Environmentalist

If one word can sum up Shinto, it is environmentalism. Considering that Japan is a beautiful place, it is no surprise that a religion that focuses on the natural world would crop up. Miyazaki is a staunch environmentalist, with a lot of his films honing in on how one should treat the world around them. When the world becomes messed up, be it in people's hearts or literal pollution, the Kami will do what is necessary to balance the scales. Miyazaki urges humans to treat the world with the same sacrament that his religious beliefs do, and whether the viewer is a believer in the Kami or not, there is something to be said about keeping the world green.

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