Wonderment and Awe – the Way of the Kami – Lucy Wright

When watching the fantastic anime (animation) of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, it soon becomes apparent that he has infused his richly detailed worlds with an animistic world-view that references ancient Japanese beliefs, practices and myths. His films describe an intriguing mixture of earthy spirituality particularly drawn from the Shinto tradition. Shinto is less a religion than a way of life – a pantheistic and animistic faith that believes that every object possesses a spirit, and encourages nature worship, folk beliefs, ancient deities and rituals. It has no dogma or moral doctrine, except for four general tenets: worshipping and honouring the kami; love of nature; tradition and the family; and cleanliness (Picken 1994:9-10). For the scope of this article, I will be looking at how respect for the kami and nature inform two of Miyazaki’s films Princess Mononoke (Mononokehime 1997) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi 2001).

The key to Miyazaki’s work lies in his knack of transformation and transfusion. He transforms and reinvigorates the tenets of Shinto and also elements of Japanese myth such as dragons and gods. His films do not rework specific stories – rather he creates a hybrid Japanese ‘modern myth’ that is accessible (in different ways) to post-industrialised audiences all over the world. Film critics have praised his films: many appearing to share the sentiments of American film writer Chris Lanier that ‘ultimately, when the movie is over, one doesn’t chiefly savour its sequences or incidents, or even the audacity of its imagination. One rather savours the world-view that seeps through it, which is an eminently kind one’ (2002). I would suggest that Miyazaki is working to re-enchant his audience with a sense of spirituality that notably eschews the dogma and orthodoxies of organised religions.
The framework of ‘the Ancient Way’, as developed by 18th century scholar Moto-ori Norinaga, offers the clearest codification of the earliest form of Shinto and this is where Miyazaki’s sympathies appear to lie. Through extensive studies of the Kojiki during the 1750s – a book that could be described as the ‘bible’ of Shinto – Norinaga describes the humble and non-intellectual ideas in this pre-modern faith. As opposed to the other spiritual ‘Ways’ such as Buddhism (‘the way of the Buddha’) and Confucianism (‘the way of Confucius’), Norinaga translated Shinto’s way (‘the way of the kami’) as just an ordinary path (Matsumoto 1970:76). This distinction of ordinariness and its non-dogmatic quality is particularly important as there are serious political and historical implications in the study of Shinto. However, in reading the symbolism and narrative of the Miyazaki’s films, it seems that he is attempting to move away from the contemporary sense of Shinto and its associated political discourse, and is instead seeking to redefine and recapture the ancient form of Shinto via a kind of visual cinematic practice.

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi Poster

Honouring the Kami

In ancient Japan, naturally occurring phenomena that were particularly awe-inspiring were given the title of kami, or gods, and were sometimes thought to possess the power of speech. Around the time these beliefs arose, during the early Jomon period (10,000 BC – 300 BC), it was believed that respect for the kami was inseparably a part of the people’s love of nature. Norinaga describes kami as:

The deities of heaven and earth that appear in the ancient texts and also the spirits enshrined in the shrines; furthermore, among all kinds of beings – including not only human beings but also such objects as birds, beasts, trees, grass, seas, mountains, and so forth – any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary, and is awe-inspiring, is called kami. (Eminence here does not refer simply to superiority in nobility, goodness, or meritoriousness. Evil or queer things, if they are extraordinarily awe-inspiring, are also called kami.) (Norinaga, quoted in Matsumoto 1970:84)

He continues that the written character for kami, another way of reading the Chinese character for shin, can be literally translated as ‘above’ which gives rise to the interpretation of ‘god’ or ‘deity’. Yet kami are not omniscient and distant in the Christian or Muslim sense, but were often thought of in a similar way to the Greek gods: capable of human emotion and accessible to mortal communication. The Japanese characterise this relationship in terms of oya-ko, as ancestor to descendent or parent to child (Norinaga in Matsumoto 1970:115). So the relationship between humans and kami was characterized by a sense of familiarity and friendliness – the kami were respected and honoured, but usually not feared (Bunce 1955:112).

Kami appear again and again in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and the respect for nature from which they emerge is woven into the fabric of his stories. He has said before that ‘we should treasure everything because gods and spirits might exist there’ (Miyazaki in Krolicki 2002) and this humble world-view is apparent in all of his films, from his earliest, Nausicaa, to his latest Spirited Away. A fundamental theme in each film is the hero or heroine’s awed appreciation of the natural world. However, the relationship between humans and nature is not always harmonious. Miyazaki’s films explore and problematise different aspects of this relationship. For instance his first film Nausicaa (1984) looks to a post-apocalyptic future where nature has reclaimed the damaged earth. The floating island of Laputa (1986) offers a literal yin-yang view of the man-made and the natural – the world-tree and the world-destroying weapon bound in its roots are forced together until the tree shakes off the destructive technology and drifts away into the clouds. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) offers perhaps the best example of the childlike, pre-intellectual fascination with nature that characterised ancient Shinto, here personified in the form of the gentle, teddy-bear-ish woodland kami O-Totoro (King Totoro). And in Spirited Away, the kami live in a ghostly world overlaying the human realm. These gods are rowdy patrons of a tacky establishment – not so much threatening as boisterous.


Representations of kami and the natural world in these films express an underlying belief of the early Shinto world-view, that is, continuity between man and nature. This concept is also encapsulated by the Japanese word nagare, meaning ‘flow’, and leads to the conception of vital connections between the divine nature of the kami, and by extension the natural world, and humanity (through respectful rituals); between post-mortem souls and the living (such as the ie construct which is an extended sense of family); and between the inner and outer worlds (as found in ideas about pollution and purity). The ancient Japanese did not strictly divide their world into the material and the spiritual, nor between this world and another perfect realm, but their intuitive spirituality infused all domains.

Miyazaki is very much aware of this in his work, saying in an interview about Princess Mononoke that ‘I’ve come to the point where I just can’t make a movie without addressing the problem of humanity as part of an ecosystem’ (quoted in Chute 1997:64). In fact, many of his films are about the problems that arise when humanity takes itself apart from nature, either through destroying the natural environment (Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke) or via the inevitable separation of spheres that comes with urbanisation (Totoro and Spirited Away). Again, I will limit my discussion to just Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, although all of Miyazaki’s films have a new perspective on this ages-old relationship.

he Possessed Princess

Princess Mononoke opens with a wide shot of mist-shrouded mountains overlaid with the words: ’Long ago, this country was covered by deep forests in which, from ancient times, there lived the gods.’ From this serenity, it cuts to the forest where something is moving, something disquieting. The young prince Ashitaka on his red elk Yakul notices it first and races to warn his village. It’s a demonic creature, covered in livid red tentacles that rush and pull over its slithering form. As it emerges from the undergrowth the red morass pulls back far enough for us to see the gigantic wild boar beneath. Then it charges. Ashitaka pleads with the boar to stop its destructive path, but the tatarigami (the cursed god) ignores him.


Displaying heroic bravery, Ashitaka attacks the boar, firing arrows unerringly into the creature’s angry eyes. One, two, and at last the Boar God collapses, but not without passing some of his curse on to Ashitaka by burning his right arm with the tentacles. Hii-Sama, the grandmotherly oracle from the village hurries to the scene of the Boar God’s death. She bows and respectfully begs him not to bear her village any ill-will. She promises to build a burial mound to honour his memory, but the Boar God ignores her: ‘Disgusting little creatures. Soon all of you will feel my hate and suffer as I have suffered.’ We find out later at the tribal council that the tatari curse was caused by an iron ball impacted in the Boar God’s flesh and shattered bones. The maddening pain caused him to become a demon full of hate.

Miyazaki has deliberately chosen the temporal setting for Mononoke – the Muromachi era (1392-1573). Historians describe it as a time of great upheaval when the relationship between man and nature was radically changing in Japan. ‘Hand-cannons’ or firearms had been imported by the Portuguese in 1543 and the Iron Age was dawning. However, Miyazaki is not attempting historical realism in his depiction of the era; rather, he appears to illustrate a power shift in the growing conflict between the natural world and newly industrialised humans. And so, it was the time when humans declared war on the kamigami, the wild gods. Miyazaki comments:

I think that the Japanese did kill shishigami [Deer God] around the time of the Muromachi era. And then we stopped being in awe of forests… From ancient times up to a certain time in the medieval period, there was a boundary beyond which humans should not enter. Within this boundary was our territory, so we ruled it as the human’s world with our rules, but beyond this road, we couldn’t do anything even if a crime had been committed since it was no longer the human’s world… After shishigami’s head was returned, nature regenerated. But it has become a tame, non-frightening forest of the kind we are accustomed to seeing. The Japanese have been remaking the Japanese landscape in this way.
(Miyazaki in Nausicaa.net)

In this comment, Miyazaki’s sympathies are seen to lie with the pre-modern world. The two heroes are both taken from this wild time before the forests were subjugated. Princess Mononoke of the title (which literally means ‘possessed princess’) Sen is modelled on a Jomon period pottery figure, and Ashitaka’s people, the Emishi, are suggestive of the Ainu or other groups that, like the forests, were pushed back by the growing Yamato civilization. Linking these two are the markings shared by Hii-Sama and Sen – they both wear decorative headgear. Even the didaribotchi, the night-time manifestation of the Spirit of the Forest, bears distinctive rope-like marks on its body similar to those that characterised the pottery of the Jomon era. They stand in for the original state of Japan when hunter-gatherer societies lived in relative harmony with nature. Miyazaki has said before that he sees the agricultural settlement of Japan as the beginning of the end of the reign of the forest. In an interview on the ecological world of Nausicaa, the ideas of which strongly inform Princess Mononoke, he says, ‘I was trying to summarise the history of humans since the beginning of farming, in pre-historic times – since we first began to tamper with the world… The existence of humans became complicated with the start of farming’ (Saitani 1995). He has also admitted to being heavily influenced by 1970s conservationism.

It’s not only the respect for kami that Miyazaki uses these characters to represent. They also manifest ideas about a non-intellectual understanding of spirituality, which divorces it from institutionalised religion per se. Miyazaki has depicted the spirits of the forest in various ways – from the shishigami, which is a gentle giver and taker of life, to the active, violent wolf and boar gods. But he believes his use of the kodama was the most effective:

The idea came to me because what I was interested in portraying was a sense of the depth and the mystery, the friendliness and the awe-inspiringness of a forest, and so I came up with the idea of a kodama. I think you can draw all the huge, giant trees in the world that you want to. It won’t have the same impact. And I wanted to choose a form that represented the liveliness and the freedom and the innocence that a baby represents. And that’s why I chose that form. (Miyazaki in Hammel 1999)

In a world where magic exists and gods walk the earth, it makes sense for humans to commune with this liminal realm. So, in the Emishi village Hii-Sama is respected as she consults her divining stones, and her words to Ashitaka are filled with portent: ‘You cannot change your fate. You can, though, rise to meet it. Go, and see with eyes unclouded.’

This kind of mystically-oriented intuition has been identified by contemporary Shinto scholar Stuart Picken as key to Shinto experience:

The sense of the mysterious at the heart of life, the desire to commune with it, and the willingness to express dependence upon it is the root from which all mythological expressions of religious experience spring. The way of the kami thus arose in the Japanese people of ancient times from their reverence for and pre-intellectual awareness of the structures of being that surrounded them. (Picken 1980:75)

But when Ashitaka relays his purpose to Lady Eboshi: ‘to see with eyes unclouded by hate’, she laughs. She rejects, and via her scorn the pragmatism of modernity rejects the simplicity of early spiritual thought in favour of the pragmatism and rationality privileged by modernity.
Eboshi, leader of the iron-mongering Tatara clan (whose name is perilously close to tatari) and the loci of ‘modern’ ideas, admits she would burn the forest down to get to the iron ore in the mountains, and is prepared to cut the head off the shishigami to secure a future for her people. She performs this brutal deed brazenly, calling to her hunters as she marks the transforming kami with her rifle, ‘Watch closely. This is how you kill a god.’ Yet, Eboshi is not without virtuous qualities: caring for lepers, empowering women to be more than brothel-workers, building a community in a hostile world. She epitomises the modern drive that moves towards progress at any cost. Miyazaki has described her as a modern character:

I conceived of Eboshi as the most contemporary character in [Princess Mononoke], and I say ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ because she no longer is the slightest bit interested in the salvation of her own soul. She kills off a god with the force of her own will. The monk Jigo is too afraid to do the killing himself, and so he makes others do his dirty work for him.
(Miyazaki in Vallen & Thorpe 2002)

Eboshi’s actions pose the question: which is more important – humanity’s survival or nature’s? Eboshi signifies a break from the pre-modern past as she moves into the non-ritualistic, non-spiritual future. And, importantly, she is not judged for this as her character both has a worthy justification and also learns from the disastrous consequences of her action. Miyazaki admits that ‘there can be no happy ending to the war between the rampaging forest gods and humanity’ (Studio Ghibli 1997:4). So while in Miyazaki’s vision these two important tenets of Shinto, respecting the kami and love of nature, are under threat from modernisation and industrialisation there is a sense that, like the infinitely accommodating faith of Shinto, there is a position where the conflict can be reconciled. This is achieved not by choosing sides, but by respecting the values of both forces: ‘Even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, there is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things still exist’ (Studio Ghibli 1997:4). Where Mononoke ends on a slightly melancholic note, with the ‘tamed’ forest, this positive vision has been more fully realised in the coming-of-age story, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away

In everyday discourse, Japan is sometimes referred to as ‘the land of eight million kami’ (yaoyoruzu-no-kami) and this sentiment finds expression when in Spirited Away the tyrannical sorceress Yubaba says to young Chihiro, ‘This is no place for humans. It’s a bath-house where eight million gods can rest their weary bones.’ Miyazaki’s most recent film, and the one enjoying the most success outside Japan, takes a more modern look at the spiritual life of Japan. Instead of a war between gods and humans, this time Miyazaki looks at the way the folk beliefs of Shinto can be integrated into modern lives.

Like many other girls her age, petulant ten-year-old Chihiro knows little about her cultural heritage and while Miyazaki doesn’t set out to educate children, he would like ‘[young audiences] to be in the movie theatre with a sense of humility about the complexity and difficulty of the world that we live in’ (quoted in Vallen & Thorpe 2002). But he is adamant about avoiding Disney techniques such as simplifying the world for children: ‘to make a true children’s film is a real daunting challenge and this is because we need to clearly portray the essence of a very complex world’ (2002). This includes sharing with them his kindly world-view that is expressed symbolically through Shinto. ‘My feeling is that I have a very warm appreciation for the various, very humble rural Shinto rituals that continue to this day throughout rural Japan. Especially one ritual that takes place on the solstice when the villagers call forth all of the local gods and invite them to bathe in their baths,’ he says (2002).

Shinto and the kami again play a very prominent role in this film. At the beginning, as Chihiro and her parents get themselves lost on the way to their new home, Chihiro notices a grinning statue by the side of the road. Surrounded by tiny stone houses ‘where spirits live’, the squat statue seems to leer and grimace at her, however it is closely modelled on Douso-jin – a roadside Shinto deity and protector of travellers. Statues of this deity were often put at the boundary of a village or at crossroads to indicate the right direction (Nausicaa.com). This metaphor-heavy place symbolically marks the family’s movement from the known to the unknown. The old torii gate leaning against a tall camphor tree also offers the subtext of passage from the secular into the sacred. Chihiro’s initial fear of this ancient statue and her reluctance to join her parents as they explore the strange area they have stumbled into is borne from her unfamiliarity with these supposedly reassuring objects.


A little later, after Chihiro’s parents have succumbed to a greedy spell and been turned into pigs, Chihiro watches awestruck as the way home is now filled with water and a brightly lit barge arrives on the banks. The barge seems initially to be empty, but then hundreds of floating paper masks emerge and the gods’ ghostly forms materialise behind them. The masks, called zoumen, have been described as similar to those that Ama dancers wear. Ama is an ancient form of Japanese dance that is performed at Shinto shrines as well as at the Imperial palace.
Thus there are many elements of the mise-en-scene that are obviously Shinto-inspired – including offerings of salt, the use of white to indicate the presence of magic, death or kami, and purification by water. However the overriding idea in the film seems to be that the kami are continuing to live alongside humans. It is not the case that the kami have been killed off by the rational thought of modernisation. A number of anthropologists have made this point about the myth of secularisation in industrialised societies, epitomised in Max Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ theory (1965). Winston Davis (1980) has analysed the striking popularity of ‘magic and exorcism’ in post-WWII Japan and Jan van Bremen (1995) notes the persistence and transformation of ritualised behaviour: ‘ritual is just one aspect of social life, and just one variety of symbolic action’ (10). What Miyazaki has done is to transform the ideas and practices of Shinto for his modern, often very young, audiences. He signposts his offering within the discourse of Shinto and popular culture using metaphor and reworking familiar elements.

When Sen and her family initially stumble in to this magical realm, they think it is an abandoned theme park. Full of colour and intriguingly ancient architecture, yet it stands empty and forgotten. ‘They built so many of them,’ explains Chihiro’s father. By mistaking the kami realm for a man-made construction, Shinto itself could be metaphorically read to be an abandoned theme park, an antiquated oddity. But when they enter this magical realm, immediately life is breathed back into it. As if just by being present, they are suddenly able to see the spirits that live there. That is an aspect of Shinto ritual – most of the shrines are designed to frame nature, to enhance a contemplative relationship with the natural world. Stuart Picken has suggested that some of the very earliest Shinto shrines probably took the form of a himorogi, ‘a sacred, unpolluted place bounded by rope and surrounded by evergreen plants and trees’ (1980:49). By entering into this space, they are allowing the elements to capture them: the wind pulls them in and the water keeps them there. As the mysterious Haku, a resident of that world, helps Chihiro get up from the ground where she is stuck, he whispers a spell: ‘In the name of the wind and the water within thee… unbind her.’ And the landscape around the bathhouse changes gradually over the course of the film from green fields, to watery flats, to finally a shallow ocean.

The local gods in Japan have proved much more resilient than originally thought. While they are affected by human actions, they are still powerful and can be restored. We can see this when Chihiro (now called ‘Sen’ as Yubaba has stolen her name) rescues the Stink God. Miyazaki describes his inspiration for this scene, which is almost exactly what happens in the film:

No, it doesn’t come from mythology, but from my own experience. There is a river close to where I live in the countryside. When they cleaned the river we got to see what was at the bottom of it, which was truly putrid. In the river there was a bicycle with its wheel sticking out above the surface of the water. So they thought it would be easy to pull out, but it was terribly difficult because it had become so heavy from all the dirt it had collected over the years. Now they’ve managed to clean up the river, the fish are slowly returning to it, so all is not lost. But the smell of what they dug up was really awful. Everyone had just been throwing stuff into that river over the years, so it was an absolute mess. (Miyazaki in Mes 2001)

Sen is pushed forward for the task of helping the Stink God with his bath. She does so courageously and discovers that he has a ‘thorn’ in his side. When Yubaba hears this, she rallies all the workers to help Sen pull out the blocking object. It turns out to be the handle of a bicycle and heaving it loose unleashes a flood of appliances and debris: fridges, old microwaves, the junk of modern life. But finally, the radiant, dynamic form of a River God is revealed and enveloping Sen in a bubble of water, his wizened, wooden-masked face thanks her. He also gives her a ball of bitter material that seems to contain self-knowledge.
This theme of self-knowledge is echoed elsewhere in Spirited Away. Yubaba’s giant baby, as bullying as his mother, fears going outside. He says there are ‘bad germs out there’, but ends up enjoying his adventure with Sen. While this ties closely with Shinto ideas about pollution and purification, it also seems to be saying that in going outside yourself, you can gain true knowledge of what is inside. This is a lesson Sen learns as she works hard to save herself and her parents. She has an important memory that is the key to her love for Haku. Zaniba, Yubaba’s less decadent and more kindly sister, says, ‘Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can’t remember it.’ Eventually Sen realises that she has met Haku before, and that his presence here is due to events in the ‘real’ world. She says, finally understanding: ‘I don’t remember it but my mum told me. Once when I was little I fell into a river. She said they drained it and built things on top, but I’ve just remembered. The river was called… its name was the Kohaku River. Your real name is Kohaku.’ Filling in rivers is a common practice in Japan where space is a rare commodity. Yet perhaps the result of that action is that Haku is stuck in Yubaba’s clutches as he seeks to regain his knowledge of who he is and what his true name is. This knowledge comes to Sen after her contact with the natural world. The film gently suggests that children, and even adults, could benefit from Shinto’s typically wordless communion with nature.

In both of these films then, the kami are portrayed as having a very real effect on the everyday lives of humans. These are not passive gods who watch the world from afar, but active, energetic gods who participate in life and fight and drink and plot and can be reasoned with. The kami are capable of all the same dark and light, good and mischievous acts that humans are capable of – in fact, they reflect these aspects of human nature in order to grant human’s self-knowledge. Miyazaki uses the concept of the kami to illustrate both people’s relationship with the natural world and, by extension, with themselves. This is not an intellectualised process but more an intuitive and inner one. Shigeru Matsumoto, Norinaga’s translator and biographer, says of this early Shinto world-view; ‘the naturalness of the Way of Kami is not an antithesis to something, but naturalness for its own sake, something more naïve, undifferentiated, and emotional rather than theoretical’ (1970:106). In this sense, Miyazaki finds it difficult to pin his themes to any one thing, be it Shinto or a historical period, but shows how the resonance of Japan’s history can still be found inside the people:

The place where pure water is running in the depths of the forest in the deep mountains, where no human has ever set foot – the Japanese have long held such a place in their heart. (Miyazaki in Goldsmith 1997)



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Author Biography

Lucy Wright completed her Masters on Japanese anime and spirituality at RMIT, where she also teaches Media Studies. She is currently enrolled in a PhD at Melbourne University. Lucy can be contacted on lucy.wright@ems.rmit.edu.au