Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and creator of film classics including Princess Mononoke, my neighbor Totoro, Castle in THE sky, and Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle among others, is one of the greatest animators of the last half-century. But before the world could see the full extent of his vision on the big screen, he was working manga artist (cartoonist) in the world of Japanese comics in the 1970s and 1980s, where he laid the groundwork for his later stories and distinctive style.
Western readers rarely got a glimpse of this phase of Miyazaki’s career, as his early work was never officially published in English or outside Japan. It ends on November 1, when First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, publishes a beautiful hardcover edition of Shuna’s Journeya fantasy adventure story originally published in 1983, in a new translation by Alex Dudok de Wit.
Shuna’s Journey tells the story of young Prince Shuna, heir to a landlocked and impoverished kingdom, as he sets out in search of a mythical grain capable of feeding his people. His travels bring him into contact with a neighboring kingdom that trades in slaves – a practice that disgusts and irritates Shuna enough that he risks his life to free two captured younger sisters.
Shuna’s Journey is inspired by Tibetan folklore, filtered through Miyazaki’s own fantasy sensibility. The story contains many core tropes that will inform his later work, including the fearless teenage hero driven by passion and idealism, facing an adult world tainted with brutality, greed and darkness. There are mythical realms, glorious landscapes, mysterious forces and a bestiary of whimsical creatures, united in a radical creative vision and delivered in an understated narrative voice.
It’s easy to see the line through Shuna’s Journey to Miyazaki’s groundbreaking 1984 film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and later explorations of comparable themes like Princess Mononoke from 2001. In Miyazaki’s delicate lines and pastel palette, one can also see the basis of the visual vocabulary that defines the look of Studio Ghibli and, by extension, the look of many high-end Asian anime since the 1980s. .
Translator Alex Dudok de Wit renders Miyazaki’s text in evocative English and also provides a substantial afterword that places Shuna’s Journey in a broader context of Central Asian folklore and Miyazaki’s career. The design of the book, which reads from right to left and back to front (e.g. spine to right) to preserve the layout of the Japanese original, is beautiful. The whole edition is a beautiful package. Although intended and certainly appropriate for young readers, Shuna’s Journey is a delight for any graphic novel or manga fan.
Beyond that, the arrival of this book is an editorial event that should be widely celebrated. Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan and one of the country’s greatest gifts to global culture, with audiences everywhere embracing the vision he and his studio have brought to the screen. As much of his work as possible deserves to be available in such beautiful volumes.