By Sean Michael Nelson
As animator Hayao Miyazaki ages, his films’ scales become increasingly intimate. 1997’s Princess Mononoke is 135 minutes long and set across the countryside of Warring States era Japan. 2008’s Ponyo is a half-hour shorter and seen occurring around a small oceanside village. The Secret World of Arrietty, which Miyazaki co-wrote and planned, is just over 90 minutes in length and is confined to a single household. Though “smaller,” the film, adapted from Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers, still has a large-scale message for its audience about Miyazaki’s ideals.
Attention is often paid to Miyazaki’s ecological and youth-oriented messages, but what is often overlooked is the Marxist slant of many of Miyazaki’s films. To take just one example, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) features a depiction of a beleaguered mining town inspired by the plight of Welsh miners the filmmakers encountered doing location research. The film makes a point of portraying the moral and physical strength of the townspeople in the face of adversity. The solidarity they display appears as a sort of Marxist ideal.
Though in his years in post-war Japan he was a student protester, union-leader, and card-carrying Marxist (as many were at the time), Miyazaki would be unlikely to label himself one at this point in his life. Still, his Marxism is apparent in his continual portrayals of empowered labour and communal property. Arrietty’s Borrowers, tiny people living inside a human household, procure the goods they need by setting out on expeditions from their small home into the larger world of the human dwelling. This labour is unalienated, to put it in Marxist terms: Arrietty and her father Pod don’t rent their bodies out to a master to produce objects for someone else to purchase, they “borrow” the goods they need in order to survive. In one scene Pod reminds his daughter of the ethic of the Borrowers, “we take only what we need,” evoking Marx’s oft-cited maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” The scale of Borrowers’ lives is one in line with this maxim, literally “smaller” and so based on an economy of needs instead of desires.
In a world where goods only need to be “borrowed,” private property’s malignancy becomes all the more apparent. When Arrietty’s mother is captured and placed in a jar to be exhibited she is literally treated like something one can own – something that can be bought and sold like so much labour in our world. Couldn’t it be said that part of the relief of seeing her freed from the jar is literally liberation from the institution of private property – here Miyazaki’s point is clear.
Throughout his career, though, Miyazaki has undermined this implicit communitarianism by making his heroines members of the ruling class: the female leads in Laputa, Mononoke, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), among others, are all princesses – which is one way of connoting the characters’ strength and stature in line with Miyazaki’s feminism. Starting with Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Miyazaki tried something different, making his protagonist an “ordinary” girl — this is also part of the success of Arrietty. In so doing, Miyazaki allows for a broader level of identification with the film’s hero and suggests a strength that exists within the common person. Strong women are a mainstay of Miyazaki’s films and are often a rallying point around which solidarity builds: The eponymous princess in Mononoke marshalls the animal kingdom for an all-out war against humans, while a former pirate and prostitute in the film founds a town of industry and commerce whose chief labour force is women; Arrietty herself becomes the lynchpin in a bond formed between humans and Borrowers. In Miyazaki’s worlds the inspiring source of communitarian values isn’t someone read “large” in History like a Trotsky, a Lenin, or a Christ; instead she’s a young woman who might only be a few inches tall.