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James Cameron and Hayao Miyazaki share the same beautiful cursed dreams

A paradoxical fixation on nature and war binds two living legends

Princess Mononoke riding a wolf on the left side with Jake Sully riding a water dragon from Avatar: The Way of Water on the right side Source Images: GKIDS, 20th Century Studios | Graphic: Matt Patches/Polygon

Through a mix of cold and unnatural technological processes, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water manages to be a lovingly crafted showcase of natural splendor. It’s a romantic fantasy of a world untouched by the depravities of modern, capitalistic, and militaristic civilization, one in which there exists the freedom to coexist with nature, and to find family and love.

At the same time, all the impressive visual-effects energy put toward portraying the natural wonders of Avatar’s setting, Pandora, is also equally committed to rendering vehicles and weapons of war in similar, painstakingly realistic detail. There are fictitious airships only an iteration away from what we have on Earth, hydrofoil whaling vessels that leap powerfully over the waves, crablike diving robots, and mechanized armor that can also serve you a stiff cup of joe. They are all glorious, terrible inventions. They are love letters to futuristic military technology.

This tension might seem utterly confounding if it were not for another filmmaking auteur with a strikingly similar style: Hayao Miyazaki, founder of the famous animation company Studio Ghibli. As is self-evident from his vast catalog of films and television, Miyazaki is a pacifist and a lover of the environment. He also holds an admitted attraction to drawing military machinery. His films often contain exhortations against violence and imperialism, and messages to protect nature against the transgressions of man. At the same time, they are often replete with lovingly drawn tanks, airplanes, and other high-tech military hardware.

A Na’vi warrior sitting at water level on the ocean, riding a submerged sea creature, is seen from behind, looking at an immense mechanical human ship covered with rotors and engines in a shot from Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar: The Way of Water
Image: 20th Century Studios

Miyazaki grew up in Japan during the end of the Second World War. His father ran an aircraft parts manufacturer and helped produce fighter planes for the Japanese military. In Studio Ghibli’s 2013 film The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the famous inventor of Japan’s deadly WWII “Zero” fighter planes, Miyazaki reflects not just on world history, but on his own life as an artist, and the way his upbringing shaped his paradoxical interests. During one press conference captured in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Studio Ghibli, head producer Toshio Suzuki says that Miyazaki “finds himself fascinated by military aircrafts. He’s a man who’s lived with this contradiction. He’s torn by what he loves. He’s drawn to war planes, yet he’s anti-war. How is someone like him even possible?”

Similarly, Cameron’s directing philosophy is informed by his father’s engineering career. In an interview with The Talks, he says: “My father was an engineer, very rational and logical, while my mother was an artist. I’ve always felt that cinema is not a pure art form; it is a technical art form. It involves complex equipment, and there’s a mastery of a technical side of it that you have to have in order to express your emotions and your feelings. I love the engineering and I love the storytelling. In my mind, those two things go hand in hand.”

And, indeed, Cameron’s movies often deftly deploy both sides of this equation. His two Terminator films are famous for their futuristic designs of enemy airships, tanks, and glistening exoskeletons while primarily being about love and parenthood. True Lies uses jump jets and Bond-film-styled action sequences to tell a story of absent fathers. Aliens birthed an entire aesthetic around the surly space marines making up its cast while mainly being a story concerned with a mother’s love for her adoptive child. His attention to detail when it comes to mechanized mass destruction is rivaled only by his passion for making sentimental epics about love and companionship.

The lovers in his most recent work, The Way of Water, are, oddly enough, the son of protagonist Jake Sully, Lo’ak, and the teen boy’s whalelike tulkun buddy, Payakan. Lo’ak and Payakan are both misunderstood by their own tribes, and through their shared pain stemming from feelings of isolation, they become friends. Their relationship strengthens them both in two ways: It helps them find their place in their respective societies and ultimately helps them fight back against the humans who seek to destroy their tribes and their homes. The hurting tulkun represents not only humanity’s divorce from nature but from each other. it symbolizes that potent destruction lies in nature, rather than in man. Cameron exposes our tendency to relate to nature as something we should fear or control, and through empathic and visual impact, he pivots us toward a relationship of appreciation and aid.

Cameron’s committed romanticism toward nature manifests as grand adventures, not unlike the stories that have entranced Miyazaki. In the first Avatar, Jake Sully is only able to abandon his dead-end life as an injured military grunt and gain access to a life in Pandora with the guidance of the Na’vi princess Neytiri. As for Miyazaki, his characters often start out in towns, cities, and other bastions of human civilization, and are introduced to the wild secrets of nature through some magical interlocutor. The magical fish-girl Ponyo’s love for the young Sosuke requires the human world to find balance with the oceanic one or be swept away. In Princess Mononoke, the wild princess San allows Ashitaka, an exiled prince from a human village, to ride among her wolves, and help her save her forest from human encroachment. It’s as if these stories must forever twist between the poles of rigid, patriarchal social order and the idealized freedom of untrammeled nature.

Jiro working at his drafting desk lit by one overhanging light in The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises
Image: Studio Ghibli

Both men exhibit a kind of alienation with the modern world and its wasteful contrivances. Cameron drives a 2013 Kia Rio. He’s a vegan and a committed environmentalist. Miyazaki similarly leans away from philistinism and rejects others’ overreliance on technology. In the various documentaries on his life, he is portrayed as someone who lives the life of an artist aesthete, despite his outsized stature and influence in the industry. In spite of, or perhaps in response to, their roles directing huge teams of people and using advanced technology to produce their films, each director’s personal ethos stands in stark opposition to contemporary modes of productivity, efficiency, and large-scale production.

At the core, there is a tension between the things they inherently cherish — the innocent, grounded adventures they shape their films and lives around — and their own natures. They both desire to make great art, art that requires teams and resources and is expected to sell; to move the numbers up and make their investors happy. Disney’s production budget for The Way of Water and Cameron’s three planned follow-ups, if they are all completed, is expected to top $1 billion. As much as he and Miyazaki desire coexistence between humanity and nature, both directors’ films are driven by the same capitalist economy that exploits people and brings ruin to the natural world.

In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki admits as much: “People who design airplanes and machines, no matter how much they believe that what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilization. It’s never unscathed. They’re cursed dreams. Animation, too. Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams.”

The Way of Water is another cursed dream. To create Cameron’s vision of pristine natural fantasy, the big wheels of industry had to turn. Disney had to buy Twentieth Century Fox and balloon ever larger. Hundreds of visual effects artists had to dedicate years of their lives to see this vision to completion. It could only exist as something made from within the imperial core, from within the belly of capitalism’s beast. The film has to entertain audiences with its CGI creatures and high-stakes shootouts. In an interview with Esquire Middle East, despite a contrite look at his action film legacy, Cameron admits: “​​You have to have conflict, of course. Violence and action are the same thing, depending on how you look at it. This is the dilemma of every action filmmaker, and I’m known as an action filmmaker.”

Miyazaki’s films, though no match for Avatar in scale, also require investment, infrastructure, and the commitment of squadrons of talented artists. Though Ghibli’s films are intended to tell earnest stories about love, companionship, and the overcoming of obstacles, they must, at the same time, be impressive and expensive visual spectacles. Each subsequent Ghibli masterpiece must wow an ever more expectant and difficult-to-please audience. Even the threat of the then-72-year-old Miyazaki potentially retiring nearly shuttered the studio in 2014. (Miyazaki is currently working on a new film, How Do You Live.)

This drive to be released from “the work” and its constricting expectations exists not only in both directors’ artistic output, but also in the way they live their lives and relate to nature. Workaholic that he is, Miyazaki still finds time to remove garbage from a nearby river, an activity he has kept up for years. Cameron uses the time between films to go on yearslong oceanic expeditions — an effort, it seems, to lose himself within the welcoming natural womb of Earth’s oceans. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Cameron suggests he prefers this way of life to his far more successful day job: “Do I even want to make another movie, let alone another Avatar movie?”

Jake Sully brandishes a machine gun as he flies through the sky in close-up in Avatar 2009 Image: 20th Century Studios

When Cameron did eventually sit down to give us more Avatar after the success of his 2009 film, he aligned the sequel’s point of view, once again, with the Na’vi — not our own species, which is portrayed as villains who ravage everything they see. And when we watch a film like Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, we may sympathize with Lady Eboshi, the shrewd but charismatic leader of a frontier logging colony, but we shed tears for the forest and the innocent creatures that her colony destroys. Princess Mononoke is a lens of the past, tinged with regret; a view of Japan’s industrialization and evolution from the point of view of what is left behind and what is destroyed. Miyazaki writes it as a present-day eulogy to forests that have been burned and cleared, to beasts that are long since silenced and resigned.

Living today, we cannot extricate ourselves from what has been done. Miyazaki and Cameron cannot, as directors, extricate themselves from who they are, what they know how to do, where they make money, and what they gain fame from doing. Yet it’s clear that they both yearn for something beautiful and true. In his memoir/essay collection Starting Point, Miyazaki explains how movies or animation can “achieve a type of satisfaction, by substituting something for the unfulfilled portion of our lives.”

Where the two directors share further common ground is in their ability, in spite of everything, to hope. Regardless of — or perhaps because — the rest of us have become cynical and beaten down by our tenuous relationship to the environment, they continue to make breathtaking and earnest work in an effort to make visible and expand our relationship with nature.

To Cameron, movies may not be “pure,” but they can still tell stories that have reach and impact. In the Hollywood Reporter interview, he says: “We skipped from complete denial [of climate change] to fatalistic acceptance, and we missed the middle step. The filmmaker’s role is not to make it all gloom and doom anymore but to offer constructive solutions.”

This clear-sighted resolve carried by both directors is what makes their films so unique. We walk away from their moves in awe, struck by the beauty they capture, but also with a sense of renewed hope that we might belong to something greater than ourselves or our species, while still being grounded by our families and the natural world we inhabit.

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