In “5 Rules for California Roll Conservatives,” the beginning of this series, I explained how the world of sushi and conservative philosophy could align. Now let’s take a look at anime.
I recently watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
It is the tale of Chihiro Ogino, a girl whose parents are aloof and narcissistic. The family is moving, and Chihiro is unhappy about it. During the drive to their new home she spends most of the time complaining.
But then they take a wrong turn. They find a path that leads to an empty carnival and it is one filled with delicious, steaming foods. After assuming no one is around, her parents begin eating—but in gluttonous fashion. They soon morph into large pigs.
This is because Chihiro and her parents, without realizing it, have been whisked into a colorful and spiritual world.
It is in this world she learns the meaning of place and home, of friends and family. She overcomes her cowardice in order to become virtuous. And then, finally, she is able to return home.
Miyazaki is a great filmmaker. His work dazzles and provokes. As such, I think Spirited Away has much to offer us beyond what you might read on Rotten Tomatoes.
It is another lesson in California Roll Conservatism.
Its principles: a prejudice toward the local, a respect for tradition, a recognition that man must be ordered toward God, the desire to pursue the permanent things, and the enjoyment of high culture.
So let’s get started.
For this installment, I’d like to introduce Roger Scruton, whom I believe is the ultimate California Roll Conservative.
Rolltip 1. Build a Community.
I’ll be honest: Chihiro, later called ‘Sen,’ begins the film as a whiny kid. She’s frightened of everything, and she constantly complains. Her parents, though, aren’t different—they think only of themselves. It’s why they get into trouble.
This could be said of most of the characters in the film. Yubaba, the “villain,” is concerned with the upkeep of her business — namely, she wants cash. She doesn’t care about the rest of her employees in the Bathhouse, a place that offers respite to weary ghosts. But those who work for her aren’t much different. They steal and gorge and double-cross.
Such behavior creates a lack of community. But, unfortunately, this is encouraged in our modern world. We are taught to give into our lowest passions and destroy ties to others.
Roger Scruton argues that this is demonstrative of the ‘I’ attitude. In his book The Uses of Pessimism, he writes that “the ‘I’ attitude seeks change and improvement, overcoming the challenges presented by nature.” He contrasts this with the “we attitude,” which he says “seeks stasis and accommodation, in which we are at one with each other and with the world.”
After all, as Scruton writes, we “belong to a kind, and that kind has a place in nature.” We “depend upon others in countless ways that make it imperative to seek their approval.”
Chihiro needs to learn this. And we do, too.
Rolltip 2. Recognize the Good and Evil that Reside in All of Us.
What’s interesting about Miyazaki is that none of his characters is truly evil. Let’s take a look at Yubaba, the villain. She is depicted as greedy, temperamental, and utilitarian — she seems to not care for any of her employees. She also hates her twin sister.
But she’s also a devoted mother. And she also cares for her employees, even if she spends most of her time berating them. Her problem is this: she cares too much for material things. She has abandoned any desire to relate on a human level.
Too often, we see things on a Manichean basis. Someone is all-good, while another is totally evil. This leads to utopianism.
As Scruton observes:
Utopias are the visions of a future state in which the conflicts and problems of human life are all solved completely, in which people live together in unity and harmony, and in which everything is ordered according to a single will, which is the will of society as a whole—the “general will” of Rousseau, which might also be described…as a “collective ‘I’”. Utopias tell the story of the fall of man, but in reverse: the prelapsarian innocence and unity lie at the end of things, and not necessarily at the beginning—although there is also a tendency to describe the end as a recovery of the original harmony.
Miyzakai is not a utopian. Why? Well, at the end of the film, Chihiro’s parents remain the same, as does Yubaba.
Chihiro, however, grows with experience.
Rolltip 3. Pursue High Culture.
Miyazaki’s animation is emblematic of high art. It moves us and takes us to a higher plane. The audience bears witness to luscious pastoral settings and a fantastic spiritual world. You spend much of the film in awe. Indeed, it is a beautiful sight.
High culture and beauty are linked.
We don’t often view the beautiful as something in itself. Rather, it is, like so many things in our modern world, an overused adjective. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” we say. It is our response to plans that go well or a nice-looking picture. And we, of course, use the word when we see someone attractive walking in our direction.
But it is so much more. Seeing true beauty should take us out of ourselves and remind us that we play only a small part in the great order of things.
As Roger Scruton writes in his essay “Beauty and Desecration,”
Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.
One wonders if reminding us of this is Miyazaki’s goal. Indeed, as the Wikipedia entry for Spirited Away notes, he intended the film to be a sort of paean to traditional Japanese culture.
And, in a sense, it is a plea for all of us to recover the beautiful, to remember who we are.
Rolltip 4.) Always Search for God.
We are spiritual beings. So our relations with one another have a specific purpose: to point us toward the hereafter.
The point of Spirited Away is to demonstrate that Chihiro, of course, grows up. She is changed by the experience of trial and tribulation. But I think something else occurs.
At the beginning of the film she is miserable and angry and shy. Later, after spending time in the spiritual realm, she becomes confident, serious, and selfless. She recognizes that life is greater than the self.
She returns to parents and remains different.
Thus I would say that her engagement of the spiritual made her less self-involved. As Scruton writes in The Uses of Pessimism:
Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that is conveyed by all the memorable works of our culture. It is the message that has been lost in the noise of false hopes, but which, it seems to me, can be heard once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. Those who forgive sacrifice resentment, and renounce thereby something that has been dear to their heart. Forgiveness means stepping down from the ‘I’ posture, in full deference to the ‘we’. It is the standard of civilization, and the habit that makes civilization possible.
Chihiro gradually renounced herself and made sure to help her friends in the spiritual world. As such, she was able to return home.
Rolltip 5. Utilize Your Power to Change How You Choose to Live.
So what does this mean for all of us?
One of the most iconic scenes in Spirited Away is when Chihiro is traveling on a train. She and her companions are going to meet Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba, whom they later affectionately call “Granny.”
The passengers on this train, though, represent what’s at stake in our postmodern world. It is a visual presentation of the meaning of human loneliness. They are faceless; they are mere shapes and shadows. They slowly get on the train, rest in their seats, and then they exit. They are made weary by the weight of existence. As such, they remain focused totally on themselves.
This, unfortunately, describes much of our post-modern condition.
But we are not fated to live like this. As Scruton writes in “Beauty and Desecration,”
Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.
And so it is. If we remember what Scruton, Miyazaki, and others teach us, then we can get out of ourselves. Life will become that much more important, because we will remember that we, as brothers and sisters of the human family, are all on a journey together — one that we hope will lift us into permanent unity with God.
I, as the writer, am not exempt from incorporating these tips into my life. So know what I’d like to do? I think I’m going to attempt visit communal locations — bookstores, farmer’s markets, coffee shops — and talk to some people there. I’ll take my laptop, too. I do all of my writing indoors, alone. I should change that.