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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 467-493

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Confronting Master Narratives:
History As Vision in Miyazaki Hayao's Cinema of De-assurance

Susan J. Napier

There is something … timeless about the concept of global culture. Widely diffused in space, a global culture is cut off from any past. As the perennial pursuit of an elusive present or an imagined future it has no history. A global culture is here and now and everywhere, and for its purposes the past only serves to offer some decontexualized example or element for its cosmopolitan patchwork. —Anthony D. Smith, “Towards a Global Culture?”

If you opened a map of Japan and asked me where was the forest of the shishigami that Ashitaka went to, I couldn't tell you but I do believe that somehow traces of that kind of place still exist inside one's soul. —Miyazaki Hayao, in an interview with Yamaguchi Izumi, 1997

“Who speaks for the past?” Robert Rosenstone asks in his introduction to Revisioning History, a discussion of New History Cinema. Recently, this question has gained in importance as the past is acknowledged as one of [End Page 467] the key elements in the formation and maintenance of national identity, paradoxically (but hardly coincidentally) at a time when “historicity” seems to be on the wane. As the trend toward globalization has intensified over the last decade, both national histories and national identities have become contested territories, as the citizens of an increasingly interdependent world attempt to define themselves vis-à-vis what many fear to be an oppressively homogeneous global culture dominated by the United States. This “struggle for memory,” to use Henry Giroux's term, takes place not only in the areas of policies and politics, but also within the mass entertainment industries of television, video, and film, which increasingly take on the job of “speaking for the past” to the audience.1 If anything, far more than the diatribes of pundits or the letters (or characters) on a printed page, it is the visual representations of an embodied historical “reality” offered by the hybridized popular culture space of film, television, and video that most profoundly affect the viewing subject, offering the audience visually arresting and seductively plausible simulations of historical time and space. Depending on both producer and audience, these simulations can be either palatable or provocative, reassuring or subversive, but they are always more than simple reproductions of historical reality. As Shohat and Stam put it, “Narrative models in film are not simply reflective microcosms of historical processes; they are also experiential grids or templates through which history can be written and national identity created.”2

If film and the visual mass media in general can indeed help to “write history” and “create national identity,” the question of who speaks for the past in these industries becomes of particular importance. In the immediate postwar period in Japan, for example, the spokespeople included filmmakers such as Kurosawa Akira, whose vivid, humanistic jidaigeki (period films) both exploit and deconstruct the mythology of samurai warfare, and Ozu Yasujiro, whose films, although set in a contemporary postwar world, consistently elegize a vanishing past in which patriarchal authority was still sacrosanct. Even though Kurosawa's films often problematized certain myths and Ozu's work lamented their passing, they both offered memorable visions of a past that still had room for heroism and humanity and which, though separate from the contemporary world, resonated deeply within a Japan that was struggling to redefine its identity after its defeat in the Pacific War. With the [End Page 468] rise of television in the 1960s and the beginning of the animation boom in the 1970s, concurrent with the deep cultural changes occurring as Japan went from economic dependent to economic superpower, however, visions of the Japanese past became both fragmented and ideologically diverse. They now ranged from the conservative remapping of World War II history into a vision of twenty-first-century collective sacrifice in the animated science fiction classic Uchusenkan Yamato [Space Battleship Yamato] (dir...