Preeminent Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is a fabulist, yet his movies have some basis in reality. The locale of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was inspired, in part, by a Swedish town; the primeval wilderness in “Princess Mononoke” is based on the pristine island of Yakushima; and “My Neighbor Totoro” depicts the director’s own neighborhood just outside Tokyo.
So why isn’t there an “s” on the end of the title of Susan Napier’s “Miyazakiworld”?
The author argues that Miyazaki’s films, however disparate in look and theme, are all set in a single universe. She makes her case using biography, analysis and (occasionally) personal reminiscence. Each of Miyazaki’s 11 features gets its own chapter, and Napier also delves into the director’s background, early career and a manga that expanded significantly on his movie “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.”
Miyazaki was born in 1941 into a family whose factory made parts for Japanese military planes. His first memories are of the American firebombing of the city where he lived. The animator grew up to be a committed Marxist and antiwar activist who doesn’t like to fly. Yet he loves airplanes and airships, which appear in nearly all his films. He courted controversy with 2013’s “The Wind Rises,” which is partly the story of the designer of the Zero,a World War II Japanese fighter plane.
Miyzaki has a lifelong affinity for European children’s literature, and as a boy, he often read books intended primarily for girls. The protagonists of most of his films are female, usually little girls or grandmotherly types. (Napier doesn’t make too much of the absence of young and middle-aged women.) Another thing his movies have in common is their concern with nature, which is depicted as both threatened and threatening.
Napier teaches at Tufts, where her classes include a Miyazaki seminar. She’s read extensively about the director and his work, and has interviewed him. (That effort, unsurprisingly, yielded very little.) Yet “Miyazakiworld” is not an academic work. Napier overuses some words, notably “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic,” which seem to appear on nearly every page, sometimes more than once. But her study is blessedly free of lit-crit and cultural-studies jargon.
The professor is above all a fan. She’s made the requisite pilgrimages to many of the places depicted in her hero’s movies and has written a book that will satisfy other fans. It’s packed with interesting details about the filmmaker’s life, interests and inspirations. (Who knew, for example, that “Totoro” was a Japanization of “troll”?)
What Napier doesn’t find is any overarching justification for the book’s “s”-less title. In the end, readers may conclude that they’ve visited 11 fantastic provinces, not a unified “Miyazakiworld.”
Mark Jenkins has written about art, movies and music for The Washington Post and NPR, among other outlets.
By Susan Napier. 344 pp. $30.