Review by C.J. Bunce
If you’d like a reminder why Hakao Miyazaki is the greatest fantasy creator of our time, maybe of all time, all you need to do is pick up a copy of Shuna’s Journey, now available for the first time in 40 years in an English translation by Alex Dudok de Wit (available here at Amazon). Written and illustrated by Miyazaki in 1982 and 1983, just before production of his masterwork anime film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the creation of Studio Ghibli, it was inspiration for many of his Studio Ghibli projects. The story of a young heir to a kingdom and two girls he rescues reveals Miyazki’s earliest storytelling ideas, rooted in mythology and fairy tales, with a style as stunning and memorable as H.R. Giger to science fiction and Syd Mead to futurism, while evocative of the fantasy worlds of Miyazaki’s contemporary and later friend, Moebius.
Shuna, a boy in a poor, unnamed village, encounters a dying old man who speaks on his deathbed of rare seeds that can bring a golden grain that will return prosperity to his people. But he must travel west to the edge of the world to find them. Shuna leaves his village astride his horned yakul steed, and encounters new places and peoples–like Guo Jing in Jin Yong’s stories–finding humans kidnapping and enslaving humans in nightmarish scenes like out of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chity Bang Bang. His journey is diverted when he finds a pair of sisters enslaved who he is at first unable to free. In this brief volume Shuna proves to be the kind of warrior found in Tolkien’s Bagginses and Akira Kurosawa’s movies. Shuna’s prospects are bleak in face of the weight of an unknowable pantheon of godlike beings not unlike that of Greek mythology. As he parts with Thea–the oldest girl–and her sister, they wonder if they will ever see each other in this giant world again.
Miyazaki’s stories are always emotional, at times epic and sweeping, sometimes gut-churning in his ability to find drama in only a few panels of watercolor drawings. This story, derived in part from a Tibetan folktale, is a hero’s journey similar to Jack and the Beanstalk, with elements of George Miller dystopian action. But it’s the shocking imagery of ancient worlds somehow familiar but also very much not, like he created in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, that stand out the most. A wall of statues of people-like forgotten gods, a ship in the desert unlike any ship anyone has ever seen, a building with soft floors unlike any other building. Readers are like the story’s hero–just as new to these strange sights and elements. Readers, too, must wander through them with little explanation as to their meaning.
As with the similar look in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, this story is sometimes a beautiful, sometimes horrific, post-apocalyptic world, similarly, chillingly, current. There’s action and daring adventure of the fantastical variety spliced with elements that seem inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind blending the look of science fiction with the supernatural world as it paints a picture of gods and rulers enslaving mankind. Oddly–and sadly–the story is really only the beginning of an adventure Miyazaki has never continued.
This edition, with Miyazaki’s original artwork reproduced page-by-page including the cover art, features thick pages and a jacketed hardcover–a night-reading storybook for every family. Like a manga it reads back to front, but it’s technically an emonogatari book more than a manga novel because it relies on narration instead of speech bubbles. It will take readers out of reality into a completely new world, something akin to David Petersen’s Mouse Guard or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
I’ve no doubt someday readers will look back on Miyazaki’s body of work like we see Grimm’s fairy tales. Miyazaki’s story is priceless and his watercolors timeless and sublime. A truly groundbreaking work and a must for fans of manga, anime, Studio Ghibli, and Hayao Miyazaki’s work, Shuna’s Journey is available now in English here at Amazon this month for the first time ever. Don’t miss it.