Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Shuna's Journey by Hayao Miyazaki

First of all, I should note that, as we learn in the detailed and useful afterword from the translator, Alex Dudok De Wit, this is not really a manga but an emonogatari [1], or at least closer to that than to a standard manga.

What that means is that Suna's Journey is heavily narrated, only dropping into dialogue balloons for three conversations in the same short stretch of the middle of the book. The rest of the story is told by a somewhat cold, omniscient narrator, in captions on nearly every page, and that means this short book - 144 story pages - tells a longer, more detailed story than a reader might expect, but also that that story is seen at a distance, that Shuna is not much like manga.

It's by Hayao Miyazaki, who is much better known as an animator and filmmaker - I think his "comics" work is mostly this book and the original Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind - and was published in 1983, in that uneasy period of his career before the success of the Nausicaa film gave him the foundation to co-found Studio Ghibli and move on to all of the other movies since then.

The Shuna of the title is a young prince, of a small country in an isolated valley - the story is based loosely on a Tibetan legend, and Shuna's country, the little we see of it, is vaguely Tibetan. Life is hard there, and crops are meagre, but a far traveler, before he dies of old age, tells Shuna the story of a fabled land, far to the West, full of golden grain.

Shuna, of course, sets off on his Yakul, planning to find that bounteous grain and bring it back to his people. He has a series of episodic adventures, finding other people and other lands - none of which are friendly or full of grain - eventually finding the source of the grain, which is strange and fantastic. (And which I will not describe; you need to read the book to experience it.)

He succeeds, sort of, with the help of a young woman, Thea, who he saved during his travels through the dangerous lands. She saves him in turn, in a different way, and they bring the fast-growing grain to a village of mostly friendly people. At the very end, he and Thea are poised for another journey, to go back to the original pseudo-Tibetan kingdom - but Miyazaki never told that promised continuation of this story.

Shuna's Journey is deeply Miyazki-esque, as of course it would be. It's compressed and narrated, and lives on pages rather than in light and celluloid, so it doesn't have the quiet contemplative moments of his films, but the tone and style and concerns and visual world are very much those of '80s Miyazki, directly connected to Nausicaa in particular.  It's a quirky sidebar in his oeuvre, but definitely worth seeking out, particularly for fans of the Nausicaa manga.

[1] An illustrated story - the standard seems to be somewhere in between Stardust and an American-style picture book for young readers.

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