Review of The Journey of Shuna (1983)

Sequential art with text

Miyazaki Hayao (writer-artist).

Read in 2020.

Read in Japanese with the aid of a desktop-printed 1990 fan translation.

In a bleak period of the distant past or future, a young prince from a starving marginal kingdom quests for wheat.

Shuna is similar to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982), in that the world has been transformed by hypertechnology while the tools available to the protagonist—a valley youth of noble blood in both cases—is primitive, resembling those of the European Renaissance. Nausicaä, though structured almost like a set of layouts for a film, is nonetheless closer to the mainstream of its medium than Shuna, which is just a series of watercolour paintings without speech bubbles, like concept art. The later volumes of Nausicaä go into depth on its fantastic environment, whereas Shuna settles for a standard Campbellian quest that ultimately leaves the state of the world a mystery.

To the extent that reasons are even suggested, it seems that a hypertechnological, possibly alien civilization has entered into a commercial relationship with the current human civilization, whereby crushed wheat is exchanged for living human bodies, which are then recycled into a nutrient sludge for the wheat farm, and/or transformed into organic robot farmers that plant and tend the crops.

Such a relationship could perhaps be sustainable, which would suggest a metaphor for a corrupt regime or economic paradigm, where relative luxury (eating wheat) follows and engenders exploitation. However, judging by the depopulated villages in Shuna’s path, the relationship is not sustainable. This suggests that the “god people” are trying to eradicate humankind, but there must be more efficient means at their disposal than to hire humankind to do the job. If the “god people” are not in it to hurt humans, they must need the bodies for some third thing, but this is not shown, nor does it seem reasonable to think that they would need humans for any of the three hypothesized purposes, and they are hoarding wheat seeds as if they are at least afraid of human flourishing. Perhaps they have some relationship with the xian of Chinese mythology, enlightened people who avoid eating grains like wheat.

This is unenlightening and unsatisfying, like the thoughtless magic of a folk tale. Indeed, Miyazaki wrote in the afterword that he patterned Shuna after a Tibetan folk tale, “The Prince Who Became a Dog” (犬になった王子), a still-more traditional story of a taboo breaker saved from his metamorphosis by the love of a girl. Fortunately, the pictures are evocative—especially Shuna climbing down past the forgotten idols in the cliff face—and the bones of the folk tale as a genre are well implemented.

On a historical note, it was human-controlled selective breeding rather than nature or gods that made wheat the effective crop it was in 1983. In this aspect, Shuna can be considered a companion piece to “Sougen no ko Tenguri” (1977) which mythologizes cheesemaking, though not quite as fancifully.

References here: Castle in the Sky (1986), Princess Mononoke (1997), Texhnolyze (2003), Rice Boy (2006), Tales from Earthsea (2006), The Boy and the Heron (2023).

sequential art text fiction