A World of Botanical Illustrations: Japanese plants referenced in Hayao Miyazaki's Animated Films

By Danna Carina Cruz

May 19 2022

For decades, Studio Ghibli Inc. has been revered as one of the most popular Japanese animation companies in the world. One main animator and director, Hayao Miyazaki, is iconic for his story-telling through images of lively landscapes, idiosyncratic characters, and magical creatures. In his films, he features countless breathtaking images of nature, specifically botanical specimens, plants, and flowers from a diverse set of regions of Japan.

In his films “Spirited Away” (2001), “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), and “The Wind Rises” (2013), Miyazaki depicts plant species in a subtle way. From the Japanese blue hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) and flowery Rhododendron indicum shrubs in “Spirited Away” to the Petasites japonicus (also known as the Fuki plant) and Cinnamomum camphora tree featured in “My Neighbor Totoro”, to the pink Lilium rubellum swaying amongst vibrant meadows, and white sacred Nelumbo nucifera (lotus flower) on character Nahoko Satomi's hair on her wedding day in “The Wind Rises”, each detail holds a powerful place in each film; they are woven together into unforgettable scenic illustrations.

In “Spirited Away” (2001), Miyazaki incorporates a sequence where the main character, Chihiro, is being led by Haku (a river spirit), through a vibrant sea of tall floral shrubs and trees that seems to be never-ending. These very plant species are not imagined, but rather they imitate real plant species found in Japan and other parts of Asia. They exist in our world. After some digging in the NYBG herbarium, with the help of my NYBG mentor, Leanna McMillin, we located some of these plants. One plant comes from the Ericaceae Family, the species is Satsuki Azalea or Rhododendron indicum. Its leaves are evergreen and it blooms in purple, pink, white, lavender, and red in the early spring. Another plant illustrated in the film is the Japanese blue hydrangea or Hydrangea macrophylla, which sits quietly in the backdrop of scenes. Although known to bloom in rainy seasons, the hydrangeas frolic in the spirit world where seasons cease to exist and species bloom altogether.

In “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), forest spirits make appearances out in the country, where two young sisters have just moved with their father. It is there where they befriend a large huggable spirit named Totoro. Totoro's home is in a sacred camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora). The young girls discover the world of this magical creature living in a deciduous forest, who takes them on dream-like adventures whilst among nature and other magical creatures. One iconic scene is when Totoro is waiting at the bus stop as it rains. A fuki plant or Petasites japonicus sits on its head, too small to act as an umbrella. This is a large edible plant that blooms during spring and is native to Japan.

In “The Wind Rises” (2013), the film follows a passion-filled aeronautical engineer named Jiro, destined to meet and marry a sick Nahoko in a war-stricken era in Japan. A memorable scene is when Nahoko is painting the meadows of what is believed to be in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. The meadows are decorated with vibrant wildflowers like the pink Lilium rubellum blowing in the wind. As Nahoko’s illness becomes more terminal, the young quiet couple decides to marry on a whim. In the marriage scene, Nahoko is draped in a beautiful robe and one single lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera) rests behind her ear as she walks in to say her nuptial vows in humble traditional Japanese fashion.

The plant species mentioned here are but a fraction of the floral species illustrated or referenced in Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s films. The effort put into the botanical illustrations in the films showcases the aptitude and respect on the part of the illustrator, Hayao Miyazaki, regarding plants and nature, in general. It is this very effort that many fans regard as admirable, inspiring, and worth applauding. These illustrations are Miyazaki’s legacy.