Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki, Trans. by Alex Dudok de Wit

Shuna's Journey Book Cover


GoodreadsShuna’s Journey
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1983; Translation 2022

Official Summary

From legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki comes a new manga classic about a prince on a quest for a golden grain that would save his land, never before published in English!

Shuna, the prince of a poor land, watches in despair as his people work themselves to death harvesting the little grain that grows there. And so, when a traveler presents him with a sample of seeds from a mysterious western land, he sets out to find the source of the golden grain, dreaming of a better life for his subjects.

It is not long before he meets a proud girl named Thea. After freeing her from captivity, he is pursued by her enemies, and while Thea escapes north, Shuna continues toward the west, finally reaching the Land of the God-Folk.

Will Shuna ever see Thea again? And will he make it back home from his quest for the golden grain?

Star Divider


Two years before Studio Ghibli was founded, Hayao Miyazaki’s book Shuna’s Journey was released. Based on a Tibetan folktale, it follows Prince Shuna as he leaves his famine-stricken land to search for a fabled golden grain that can save his people. The trademarks of Miyazaki are all here–the epic scope, the flawed hero, the strong and determined heroine, and the beautiful artwork. Fans of Miyazaki will not want to miss out on another compelling story from the master storyteller!

Perhaps what intrigued me most about Shuna’s Journey was the sense of ambiguity it has. As with many of Miyazaki’s stories, much of the storytelling is actually left to the reader. Shuna travels across strange lands and encounters people both cruel and kind, but often what exactly is happening is never explained. Why do the city dwellers want to capture Shuna? What are the green giants? Are the gods still there? And, if so, are they good? Only the reader can decide.

The storytelling also does not fear to go its own way. Many stories on the market today seem similar to the point of being formulaic, but Miyazaki’s tale does not follow convention. If he wants to follow Shuna for most of the book, only to switch to another character’s perspective towards the end, he will! If he wants to upend the traditional way of fairy tales, he will do that, too. It is always pleasure to read something that feels original, and Miyazaki always delivers with his own unique vision.

Miyazaki fans will definitely want to check this one. The gorgeous water color artwork, especially the landscapes, are evocative, as always. And the story, strange and mysterious, is compelling, as always. This is a book that is more of an experience than a book.

4 stars

Movie Review: The Wind Rises (2013)

movie review stars

the wind risesInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Release: 2013


Jiro Horikoshi dreams of flying airplanes, but his poor eyesight means that he must forge a career designing them instead.  However, even though all he wants to do is make something beautiful, he knows that all his creations are destined to be turned into killing machines.


Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is a beautiful, introspective look at the process of artistic creation and a fitting end to a stunning career.  The story possesses Miyazaki’s signature pacing, moving slowly along as if in a dream and stopping to enjoy the small moments that bring wonder and beauty to life.  Even though the film touches on the destructive powers of war and mourns the lost lives and the poverty created by the fighting, death and destruction do not have the final word.  From utter ruin, the protagonist emerges at the end to contemplate his life’s work and to find comfort in its beauty, even if others put that work to poor use.  It is difficult not to feel that Miyazaki, in turn, is looking back on his own creations and hoping to find worth in what he did.  Bittersweet and poignant, The Wind Rises reminds viewers that life must be lived even in the face of insurmountable odds.

Upon its release, the film faced much controversy for, among other things, the positive depiction of a creator of fighter planes.  However, that sort of complexity is exactly what makes this movie special.  Jiro Horikoshi designed planes that were used in war, but does that make him inherently a bad person?  If he wants only to be able to design planes, is it just his bad luck that he was born in a period of heavy militarization?  Should Horikoshi have walked away from his dream, especially if he views the war as both harmful and futile?  And can his planes be considered beautiful in and of themselves, even if they are used by others for death?  There are no easy answers to these questions and the film does not attempt to answer them.  Instead, it tries to depict the turbulent circumstances of life in which we all find ourselves swept up in, and shows that sometimes the best one can do is just to try to keep treading water.  Perhaps you think Horikoshi was a victim of his time or perhaps you think he was wrong, but either way the film does its best to get you to understand and sympathize with him.

The underlying sense of futility and the constant reminders of death make The Wind Rises perhaps the saddest of Miyazaki’s films.  Comic relief is kept to a minimum and even the sweetest moments are tinged with the specter of future decay.  Everything in Japan, everything in Horikoshi’s life seems to be falling apart and yet, somehow, he keeps going and, more than that, keeps his inherent sense of decency.  His best friend may be a constant pessimist and others may think that the only thing left to do is to save themselves, but Horikoshi keeps giving of himself in the belief that one small action really can make a difference.  His courage is nothing short of inspiring.

Of course, because this is a Miyazaki film, the animation is gorgeous, the flights of fancy awe-inspiring, and the sense of wonder present even through the destruction.  Miyazaki presents one man’s beautiful dream through the beauty of his own animation and, in doing so, invites the audiences to start making dreams of their own.  Dreams that can offer just a little hint of beauty even in the roughest patches of life–enough beauty to make life worth living, even when everything else seems to be falling apart.

Krysta 64

Movie Review: The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat ReturnsInformation

Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Release: 2002


Studio Ghibli films are often filled with the inexplicable, but The Cat Returns may feature the most disturbing premise.  Shy high school student Haru saves the life of a cat on her way home from school one day.  The cat happens to be Prince Lune, heir to the Cat Kingdom, and the king attempts to show Haru his gratitude by sending her a series of unwanted gifts—culminating in the hand of Prince Lune in marriage.

As a child, I may have found the idea of a human’s marrying a cat a bit unusual, but not as troubling as I do as an adult.  There are certain connotations and, well, logistics that present some problems.  The film ignores these issues for a considerable amount of time until the cats reveal they do, in fact, have a solution.  (Spoiler alert!)  They are going to turn Haru into a cat, as well.  Viewers might be conflicted as to whether they find this plan relieving, or almost as troubling as the initial proposal.

Beyond all this, however, the movie is pretty fun—a crazy adventure where two cats from the Cat Bureau attempt to help Haru escape from the clutches of the Cat King back into her own world.  Exactly why Haru is told to seek the aid of the Cat Bureau is unclear, because they seem to have no relevant experience working in the Cat Kingdom.  In fact, beyond “helping people,” their mission statement and job are unclear.  However, their skills in intrigue and battle turn out to be extensive, and it makes their escape effort truly exciting to watch.

However the fun and the art are not the only points.  By narrowly avoiding life as a cat, Haru learns to know herself and to believe in herself.  She becomes confident and independent and is even brave enough to tell one of her rescuers she thinks she is beginning to like him.  (He happens to be a cat, too, so the oddity of the film never really ends, but it is something one ultimately grows to accept, or just ignore.)

The Cat Returns is not my favorite Studio Ghibli film.  There are ones with characters I like better and with more interesting premises, but it is a movie worth watching for Miyazaki fans, and for cat lovers.


Movie Review: Ponyo (2008)


Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Release: 2008


Ponyo is an imaginative movie about childlike wonder and what it means to love unconditionally.  The story follows five-year-old Sosuke, who rescues a “goldfish” from a jar in the ocean and names her Ponyo.  However, Ponyo is really a magical fish-girl who has run away from her wizard father to see more of the world.  She eventually uses her magic to transform completely into a human, but Sosuke must prove he can love Ponyo in both forms, if she is to remain on land.  If Sosuke fails, she will melt into sea foam.

As in many Miyazaki films, some of the logistics of Ponyo do not make much sense.  Beyond the fact that adults in the movie apparently see no problem with five-year-old children running about a flooded town alone, there are some inconsistencies (or, at least, unexplained circumstances) with the magic.  Ponyo’s birth and existence as a fish-girl are themselves in question.  Her transformation to human form also somehow upsets the balance of the world, in way that is never entirely clear.  In the end, however, the movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief anyway.  It is, after all, about a magical fish-girl.  So most viewers likely will have no problem overlooking a few other mysteries.

I personally found most of the characters very likable.  Sosuke is an intelligent, thoughtful child who seems to have an open heart for everyone around him: Ponyo, his mother, the women at the senior center where his mother works.  Ponyo, as a human, can border on annoying since she has a penchant for repeating things, but her exuberance and wonder at all her new experiences are ultimately catching.  Even Ponyo’s father, the story’s “villain” has enough complexity and depth to allow viewers to understand the actions he takes to retrieve his daughter from the “evil” humans.

Ponyo’s father also has an obsession with saving the environment, particularly the ocean, which I thought would become a major theme.  However, it never truly did.  His concern about pollution ends up mostly explaining only his personality; there does not seem to be a larger message for the audience.  The real theme of the movie is actually love.  The plot focuses on the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, which Sosuke is asked to dramatically prove, but viewers see him exhibit the same type of unconditional love for other characters.  His actions ultimately become a model for the adults in the story, as well.

Ponyo is an endearing film that truly celebrates the innocence and wonder of childhood.  Many of Miyazaki’s films are about growing up, but Ponyo recognizes that children have valuable talents and worldviews that adults should consider emulating. Both fun and inspiring, this is a great film.

Note: The English subtitles were very different from the English dubbing, with the subtitles being more philosophical and focused on abstract ideas like destiny.


Movie Review: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

From Up on Poppy HillInformation

Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Writers: Tetsurō Sayama (comic), Chizuru Takahashi (comic illustrator), Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (screenwriters)
Release: 2011


Teenagers Umi and Shun fall in love as they work together to save their school clubhouse from demolition.  A secret from their past, however, threatens to tear them apart.


From Up on Poppy Hill possesses a rare, quiet beauty, the kind that does not fully reveal itself until some time after the story has ended.  In part, this stems from the quiet nature of the story itself; it unfolds so simply and so naturally that one hardly feels a spectator of a work of art.  Instead, the viewer seems a part of Umi and Shun’s world, a sharer in their joys and in their sorrows.  Not until the final scene has faded does the full power of the story hit.  Then it is a swift, sharp blow: it hurts in its intensity.

Plot-wise, not everyone may find something remarkable about From Up on Poppy Hill.  Two threads intertwine to form the story: one follows the budding romance of Umi and Shun and the other follows the proposed demolition of a beloved school building.  The world has seen both before.  It is the characters that set this tale apart.

Umi and Shun’s story so easily could have turned into a turbid affair, some sick thing reminiscent of Greek myth or tragedy and its often illicit longings.  But the young lovers are so unassuming, so comfortable in their own sense of right and wrong that their very natures forbid such an occurrence.  Instead they soldier on, determined to the right thing and not to succumb to despair.  Their choice is as uplifting as it is, perhaps, unexpected.  And somehow their tears bring light to the hearts of the viewers.

Providing some welcome comic relief to this troubled romance is a whole host of characters, as varied as any could wish.  From the sleepy college student who boards in Umi’s house to the somewhat socially inept philosopher to the archaeology students who so desperately want to be “cool,” there is no dearth of endearing quirkiness among the ensemble.  None of them, however, ever becomes a caricature or a stereotype; the love the creators feel for each (no matter how minor a role they have) imbues them with individual life.  Soon, one feels acquainted with them all, as if they were people and not pictures on a screen.

From any Studio Ghibli film one expects exceptional quality—beautiful art, sympathetic characters, and a whisper of magic.  From Up on Poppy Hill, however, gained a special place in my heart.  The quiet uprightness of Umi and Shun, and their youthful innocence, contrasted with the confusion and vitality of their schoolmates, enchanted me.  They promise viewers that there are still good people in the world, people who long to do right.  And they inspire viewers to take a little bit of their courage and their integrity with them.

Krysta 64

Movie Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery ServiceInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Eiko Kadono (novel), Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
Release: 1989


At the age of thirteen, witches set out to live independently for a year in another city.  Young witch-in-training Kiki is excited to live in a city by the sea, but she worries that the only magical ability she possesses is to fly.  She therefore starts a flying delivery service, but her continued insecurities lead to a loss of her powers.  Will Kiki learn to believe in herself before she loses her magic forever?


Kiki’s Delivery Service enchanted me the first time I saw it and it loses none of its power with age.  I remember the film fondly as fun and bright, a tale that includes a talking cat, an endearingly awkward boy, and an exciting air rescue.  But now when I watch it, I see past Kiki’s bubbly exterior to the deep uncertainty that dogs her every step.  She may approach the world with an almost wild confidence and a certain admirable recklessness, but underneath it she’s only a thirteen-year-old girl and she cares more about fitting in with her peers than she does about training.  How funny that I never realized before how muck Kiki hates that black dress and what it seems to signify–a separation from other children, an “otherness” that can’t be bridged.  After all, from my perspective, who wouldn’t want to be Kiki, setting off for new adventures, soaring fearlessly through the sky on her broomstick, and talking, actually talking, to her cat!

From my new perspective, I realize that a certain poignancy pervades the film.  Kiki arrives to an intially hostile city, yet quickly (almost miraculously) settles in, finding herself a place to live, an easy way to earn money, and an invitation to friendship.  And yet the entire time she fails to see the things that are in front of her eyes, choosing instead to isolate herself in her high room.  Kiki’s aversion to Tombo never made sense to me–he’s the male lead in this film, he’s clearly nice despite his almost stalkerish tendencies, right?–but now I understand that it was nothing Tombo did, but only Kiki’s fear of discovering he didn’t want her after all.  It was the same with the children in the car.  Like them, I used to think they must have said something Kiki somehow found offensive.  But again, Kiki’s only enemy is herself.  It is a dark realization.

I mourn a little bit my lost innocence.  I remembered this film as having a rather standard plot–the one where a plucky girl momentarily loses belief in herself, but then saves the day.  Instead I find a bittersweet story about the tensions inside a young girl as she struggles to gain her independence and to accept herself while always remembering that she is dependent on others and that she will always be different.  It’s difficult not to feel pain watching Kiki unwittingly sabotage herself time and again.

And yet, this is a bright and fun story, one where people can fly, cats can talk, and miracles can happen.  Kiki lives surrounded by the most extraordinary people, from the couple who take her in with no questions asked to the artist who helps her listen to her heart.  This is a world mostly full of love and trust.  Time and again Kiki walks into people’s lives and their homes, fearing nothing and finding herself rewarded with friends.  Sometimes, now, I find it almost too good to be true.

Though my cynical older self may have more difficulty accepting Miyazaki’s world, I cannot deny that it is one in which I very much want to believe.  I want to believe that Kiki can fly, that she has accepted herself and that that makes all things possible.  I want to believe that people are inherently good and that in approaching others I will always find a friend.  I want to believe that bright cities by the sea exist, untouched by the horrors of war.  And maybe that’s the point.  Maybe if enough of us believe, like Kiki, we, too, can achieve the impossible.

Krysta 64

Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor TotoroInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Release: 1988


When Mei and Satsuki Kusakabe move to the countryside, they discover the woods nearby are inhabited by magical spirits called Totoros.


My Neighbor Totoro possesses a charm that is, perhaps, all its own.  No other film that I can think of, not even from Studio Ghibli, has quite the same blend of childlike belief, natural wonder, and magical strangeness as the background for its story.  From the first moments when we see the family ride through the countryside to their new home, audiences know that something extraordinary must await them—and yet everything around them looks perfectly normal.  The film just succeeds in suggesting the potential of magic without even seeming to try.

And what a magic the children find!  It is like nothing that viewers could have predicted.  Its rules are unexplained, its ways strange, and its appearances almost frightening.  Yet at the same time it manages to seem benign, even friendly.  It is a part of the home and yet also part of nature.  It is everywhere, yet typically nowhere to be found.  It goes its ways as it pleases, yet never seems standoffish.  Somehow, it just is.  And audiences accept it as they find it.

The children, of course, are our guides to understanding this new world.  They embrace it whole-heartedly, taking its existence for granted and never questioning its benevolence.  It is wild and strange, but they trust it with the type of trust only children can bestow and they find themselves richly rewarded.  To see the world through their eyes—young, innocent, and unafraid—is a great gift, and one that helps weave the enchantment more strongly.

I am always amazed at the eye Miyazaki has for human nature.  The details he imparts to his characters make them come to life and I wonder if I have ever seen an animated child seem quite so childlike as I do when I watch his two young protagonists laugh and shriek gleefully for no reason, or when I see them tripping about the yard totally oblivious to their clothing—to stains, to tears, and to the flashing of undergarments.  These seem not to be animations but real people.  I half expect them to step off the screen.

Some may find the lack of a well-defined plot in My Neighbor Totoro a disappointment, but I believe that the richness of Miyazaki’s world and the beauty of his character depictions are all that this story needs.  It presents to us a moment in two lives, a moment that contains all the meaning in the world.  There is love and life and laughter and beauty in that moment, as well as sorrow and loneliness and fear.  And if that is not a story, and one worth telling, then what is?

Krysta 64

Celebrating Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli

Starting today, April 13, Pages Unbound will be celebrating the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  Come back all week long for reviews of some of your favorite stories, including Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro, as well as a look at some of the Studio Ghibli films you may not have had a chance to see yet.  Miyazaki’s work has touched our lives for many years, introducing us to magical worlds where castles fly, cats talk, and love is always mightier than the sword.  We are excited to discuss these films with you and hope that you will join us!  Here’s a sneak preview of what you can expect:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki

so if you're reading this you've found the top secret message. congratulations. leave a comment regarding badgers to await further instructionInformation

Goodreads: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Source: Library
Published: 1982 (the compilation I read was published in 1995)


Nausicaä, a gentle but strong-willed young princess, has grown up in the Valley of the Wind, one of the few remaining peaceful kingdoms in a perilous world. Danger presses on every side: the war brewing between the neighboring Torumekian and Dorok nations, the acidic ocean created by thousands of years of pollution, and the “Sea of Corruption”—a poisonous, ever-growing forest that is home to giant, sentient bugs—each threaten to tear Nausicaä’s home apart. She and her allies must find a way to safely navigate through this world of extremes, or witness the destruction of the human race.


This is an original work by Hayao Miyazaki (yes, that Hayao Miyazaki). If that name doesn’t give you some idea of the quality of this manga, I’m going to have to ask you to click one of those links, watch the movie described in that link, and then write an essay about the hole in your life that’s just been filled. You’re welcome.

Miyazaki has a few signature themes and motifs in each of his works, and although he mixes and matches from one film to another, he manages to explore them all in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Man vs. nature, the ugliness of war, sympathetic villains, the joy of flight, and young girls faced with difficult worlds are each presented to the reader and then expanded upon over the course of the story. Although some characters, situations and topics of discussion begin stereotypically, Miyazaki promises to add depth and nuance with each installment.

Nausicaä herself is a wonderful character. She is smart and kind and a born leader. She has her subjects’ love and trust from the very beginning and (as of the second volume) their loyalty never falters. Her most mysterious quality is her deep empathy with all living things, which sometimes translates into telepathy if the animal is intelligent enough (such as the Ohmu, but we’ll get to them later). This empathy is what inspires her drive to fix the myriad of problems that face her world, and the narrative implies that it will be the key in helping her achieve her goal. The problem with many of the other people in the story is that although they, too, want to live without fear of invasion by other nations or the Sea of Corruption, they thoughtlessly make and carry out plans that hurt everything around them. Nausicaä’s brilliance in both politics and ecology stems from her practice of considering all forms of life before she makes decisions.

My favorite character has a very different outlook. Although Nausicaä is a great heroine, I can’t pass up the opportunity to gush over Kushana. Kushana is Nausicaä’s foil: she is also a princess with loyal subjects who wishes to make her way in the world with as much grace and dignity as possible. But this warrior princess is hard and calculating. She is the youngest daughter of the emperor of Torumekia, who recognizes her skills as both a ruler and a military commander and tries to assassinate her for them; and she has four older half-brothers who are too ignorant to respect her. She is actually the best option Torumekia has for a ruler because she cares more for her subjects’ lives than for any personal or national “honor,” but only people with half a brain can see it. (If they had a full brain, they wouldn’t put so much effort into preventing her succession.) It is only when she figures out her father’s plot against her life that she turns to a vengeful power play, saying, “You decrepit, hideous old monster, clinging to your throne… If it means so much to you, then by my own bloodied hands I will tear you from it!” I don’t usually fist pump the air when I read books, but for that moment I made an exception. (Seriously, she is surrounded by horrible people and she’s the only honorable one among them. She and Nausicaä actually get along for the most part and even though their destinies should oppose each other, their values parallel instead and it’s beautiful.)

Next we come to the Ohmu. Ohmu are those “giant, sentient bugs” I talked about earlier. They should be disgusting. They should be absolutely terrifying. The first time you see a live one is when it is chasing after a lone rider in a desert, its eyes red with anger. But then Nausicaä intervenes and it is explained that the Ohmu mistakenly thought that the rider had killed something in the forest. Between this display of ethics and the telepathic message of fury it projected to the entire area (that Nausicaä picked up), the Ohmu’s introduction leaves the audience with more questions than it settles. Ohmu also have a really awesome healing ability that I wish had been mentioned before it gets used to help settle a major conflict. Perhaps the main explanation for that little deus ex machina is that since nobody in Nausicaä’s world knows anything about Ohmu, there was no opportunity to broach the subject through conversation or thought processes (the way facts usually are conveyed in comics). Nevertheless, the Ohmu present an important aspect of the Sea of Corruption that will be exploited later.

I have only read the first two volumes, but Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has me enthralled. Miyazaki insists on making his audience to really think before they judge anything they see, and that works in his favor in two ways. First, it forces him to make a fuller, more realistic world available to the audience; second, once his readers fall into the spirit of the thing, they begin wanting more information about new subjects and problems. They start asking questions. I am dying to know more about the Ohmu, and Kashana’s past and family life, and Nausicaä’s telepathy. Although I am aware that a few things may be lost in translation (I sometimes feel that way with Miyazaki films because he’s working off a culture and history I know little to nothing about), I am sure that whatever I get will be exciting, original, and stimulating.