Directly inspired by Tibetan folklore, Hayao Miyazaki’s early graphic novel Shuna’s Journey is a look into the themes, stories, and character archetypes that define his more well-known work. Translated by Alex Dudok De Wit and published in English for the first time since its original Japanese release in 1983, this singular work within Miyazaki’s incredible opus is well worth picking up.
Shuna’s Journey uses a restrained but evocative visual language, and the limited panels and reliance on narration help create a sad, if ultimately hopeful fable. It follows a young prince as he attempts to find the golden grain that grows in the land of the gods. The canyon where he lives is difficult to farm, and he and his people barely eke out a living from the harsh land. The golden grain is supposed to be able to grow in any conditions, and would guarantee the preservation of his people and his family. During his travels west he hears of the land of the gods, and he finds a great city. He encounters the young girl Thea, a slave, and eventually frees her. When he does find the land of the gods, the truth of the golden grain is frightening and horrific. Regardless of the cost, he attempts to bring the grain back to his homeland.
Miyazaki’s work has always blended the fantastic and the horrific, and Shuna’s Journey is no different. The book demonstrates Miyazaki’s lifelong commitment to creating children’s stories for an adult audience, dealing with themes and crises of humanity that children easily accept as evil and adults tend to trip up on. This book in particular has no qualms about bringing up questions of morality as well as underlying anxieties about ecology and climate. Within this there-and-back-again story is a deeply considered commentary on the value of human life and the world that we leave behind.
Miyazaki is well known for incorporating a European setting into many of his works–Kiki’s Delivery Service is set in Sweden, Porco Rosso is set in the Adriatic, and Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy version of Europe. Shuna’s Journey is a very Asian-inspired story, taking story and setting elements from across Tibet and incorporating it into a visual narrative that evokes the Silk Road, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the city of Khiva, and most recognizably, the mountain cities of the Himalayas. In Shuna’s Journey we can clearly see the prototype for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, with similar beasts and narratives about climate, ecology, and human greed taking root here first.
This rather unique piece of Miyazaki’s oeuvre is his only story told within this format. He is known for having produced manga (famously the manga for Nausicaä which allowed him to direct the film), but this is the only standalone visual piece. De Wit, the translator, describes this format as emonogatari—an illustrated story—rather than a manga. It’s restrained, plot-heavy, and without a lot of the sentiment that Miyazaki would become known for in his later works.
Ultimately this book is an eerie and delightful piece of work that highlights Miyazaki’s gorgeous art, long before it became the Ghibli style. Longtime fans will enjoy finding the threads that tie Shuna’s Journey to his later works, from familiar creature designs to costumes to settings. New readers will have no problem with the direct, evocative translation and the bold illustrations.
Shuna’s Journey is currently available from First Second.
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