Ghibli and animism

I’m really enjoying watching my way through the back catalogue of Studio Ghibli on Netflix.

These are feature length animated films that could be interpreted as being childish but they’re doing something important in the way they tell stories. The baddies aren’t bad, the goodies aren’t good. It usually ends with a question. There’s a vein of shinto running through them that encourages us to respect and love nature, and to take care of little things. It’s not quite as egregious as Marie Kondo asking us to treat our socks as if they have preferences. I think it’s useful to think that things have spirits that can be injured. It was in our culture with names we still know – Goblins and Faeries – Naiads and Dryads – Heffalumps and Woozles. In the Isle of Man there were faeries in the garden. In Jersey the sea is full of sprites. Even London has the river Gods.

I still bunch up my socks, and maybe the sock spirits moan about me while I’m sleeping. Maybe that’s why my boots are falling apart. They’re in league with the elves who help the shoemakers… Or maybe Marie Kondo is an extremist for telling us we must lay our socks flat or they’ll be unhappy. (I’m assuming most people by now have been given The Life Changing Magic of Tidiness, but that might be an overestimation based on the number of times it’s been given / recommended to me.)

I’ve heard some people express great distaste and even fear for animism. But if we were culturally steeped in it we wouldn’t need extremists like Kondo to anthropomorphise our socks, and Greta Thunberg to tell us to all be a little more mindful before we drop that bottle cap.

I find animism helpful, the idea that we are here with permission, as part of some ancient bargain, already taking more than our fair share, tending the fire and fighting back the darkness, tolerated and maybe even loved by the vast force of everything that we all have so many names for. I clapped at a small fly and stunned it just now. I did it without thinking, apologised to it thinking I’d killed it, and then saw it start to move again. I was relieved. If I think like that I’m a bit less likely to smash all the flowers with a stick. I quietly believe that actions like that have consequences. I’m going to try not to kill something mindlessly. Apart from clothes moths. They get the pinch. One day there’ll be a knock on the door and a huge clothes moth spirit will squish me with its fingers and it’ll serve me right.

I still eat meat. I’m not espousing a monkish existence here. I just always think we can try harder to be more careful and less selfish. We do the most damage to ourselves and our surroundings when we put our momentary pleasures at the front of everything. This individual spark of human existence we are experiencing is a mere flash, but we can be a fatal gunshot flash or a beautiful photograph flash or a needed warning flash … or just a meaningless lost flash of troublesome static.

We are encouraged to forget the coexistence of light and dark – of life and death in the same moment. Of ambiguity. We must stop forcing ourselves into boxes that fit other people’s ideas. If we can be sorted it’s easier to sell us things. But we are all a lot more confusing and unpredictable than the algorithms – and frequently our laziness – would have us believe.

These kids stories that have helped me express some of these ideas about how we should look after things – they were made in Japan. I’ve never been but I have the impression that in Japan they are pushing cows and chickens into industrial grinders while deliberately piping nuclear waste into the oceans by the tonne, attacking whales with chainsaws and mugging unicorns. The same culture, bringing thoughtful treatises on our responsibilities to each other, to objects, and to nature. The same culture that forged a latter day Buddha – Nichiren – who flew against all the animism I’m referencing here, and whose distilled and simplistic teachings I follow in daily practice. Because I’m a mess of different things, as we all are, and that is permitted. Or it should be. We don’t have to be extremists. Identity doesn’t come from monomania and denial – that’s just a mask. It’s ok to go wide.

But yeah, you could do worse than watch some of these lovely movies.

And while you think about it, do something surprising and kind to nature or to even an object in a way that is unobserved. You never know, there might be a spirit.

BURN THE WITCH. Be good. God Bless. NMHRK

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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