Friday, December 16, 2022

Holiday Review #16: SHUNA'S JOURNEY

 But let's take a diversion to a more highbrow sort of fantasy, created by the one anime director that literally everyone knows.

SHUNA'S JOURNEY (Shuna no Tabi), by Hayao Miyazaki.  First published in 1983 and first published in North America in 2022.


Shuna is the prince of a far-away valley, where the people work hard to scrape what sustenance they can get from its cold, thin soil.  Shuna learns of a glorious golden grain, grown in a land far beyond his own.  Determined to gather some for his own, he sets off on his trusted yakul.  Along the way he faces off against slavers, cannibals, strange monsters, and the forces of nature itself, with only a few allies to aid him.


First of all: yes, Miyazaki made more manga than Nausicaa.  Hell, this isn't even the earliest one out there, according to the translator's notes.  But more importantly, this reads very differently than your typical manga.  It's closer to an illustrated storybook, where the narration is largely in distant third-person and the illustrations are large, static images versus more serialized ones.  In Japanese this sort of format is known as emonogatari, and if any others books like this have been localized in English I've certainly never heard of them.

But what about the story itself?  This is apparently based on an old Tibetan folk tale about a prince who set out to find a magical grain (which itself may be a fictionalized take on how barley was introduced to the region), and much of that mythic quality is present here.  While things start off fairly grounded, they grow more and more fantastical the further Shuna gets from home.  Yet most of the dangers here are quite grounded: hunger, exhaustion, and the cynical cruelty of mankind itself.  The only exception is Thea, a slave girl Shuna frees.  In true mythological fashion, this act of kindness has greater repurcussions as Thea and her sister not only provide him with companionship but are there to save Shuna when he needs it most.  Shuna has to make a lot of sacrifices to get what he wants, but ultimately comes out of it a richer, fuller person.


Do I even need to state how good the art is here?  It's Miyazaki after all, and the illustrations here are as pretty and painterly as anything he's ever made.  While he adds plenty of fantasy elements with some of the animal life and settings, he also clearly took a lot of visual inspiration from the real-world places one would encounter on a trip through central Asia.  Shura's home kingdom resembles the cold, scrappy villages of remote Tibet.  As Shura travels westward, he visits sites that evoke the images of rusting ships where the Aral Sea once stood and old Silk Road capitals like Samarkand or Merv.  He ends up in a small village that could easily be found in the Causcaus.  

Of course, it's also not hard to see echoes of Nausicaa in this as well.  It certainly makes sense, considering not only was Miyazaki still working on the manga but production was well underway on its film adaptation.  There's definitely some similarities in the premise - a royal teen in a tiny, sheltered kingdom, a spunky red-headed girl, an epic journey across a desert.  That being said, the differences only grow as the story goes on so it wouldn't be fair to call it a ripoff.

That said, you can't convince me otherwise that Miyazaki didn't take Shura's design and goat-like steed, save in his mind for a little over a decade, and revamp it when it came time to come up with Princess Mononoke's Ashitaka.  The translator would agree with me, since according to him Miyazaki first started conceptualizing that film during the time he made this book.


This was apparently a bit of a passion project for the translator, Alex Dudok de Wit.  He and First Second Books certainly gave it the red carpet treatment, complete with book-jacketed hardback covers, full color illustrations on fine paper, and an afterword from de Wit where he goes into the history of the folktale behind Shuna's Journey, Miyazaki's own history with this particular work, and a bit of narrative analysis to boot.

There's also a translated afterword from Miyazaki himself, where he notes that he had wanted to adapt this story to animation for ten years before its eventual release but feared that the Japanese film market would never accept it.  Of course, it's up to de Wit to note how Miyazaki's initial release of this was months behind its initial deadline or that Miyazaki would draw upon it decades later for what would become Tales of Earthsea.

I do have to ask why they got pull quotes for the back cover from the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Daisy Ridley, of all people, instead of more relevant critics or authors.


Shuna's Journey might not be what people might expect, but it's a fascinating little curiosity that's brief, beautiful, and essential for those with a more scholarly interest in the career of Hayao Miyazaki.

This book is published by First Second Books.  It is currently in print.

Don't forget about our Holiday Review Giveaway! Let us know what your favorite manga of 2022 was and you might win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate!  Find out more at this link!

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