The Miyazaki connection is the key to understanding Ahsoka, the Bendu, and Filoni’s influence emerging on Star Wars Rebels.
By Andrew McAvoy // To read the true intentions of Dave Filoni is a difficult thing. One thing that is known however is his appreciation of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke.
Run with the Wolves
At Star Wars Celebration Europe Filoni was fairly frank about the inspiration for Ahsoka in Princess Mononoke. This lies within the character of San within the Studio Ghibli film. There are clear linkages between the two character’s temperament, movement and fighting style. These have also been identified recently by Bryan Young in his short Cinema Behind Star Wars articles on StarWars.com.
Visually too Ahsoka and San share similarities, not least through color schemes utilized in their respective character designs. In particular, the masked version of San (seen in the attack on Iron Town) is reflected within Ahsoka’s visual appearance. It is particularly hard to escape the deep influence of San once fans were shown in Filoni’s depiction of Ahsoka on Wolf-back. The representation accompanied Filoni’s fun (personal) speculation about Ahsoka’s escape from her clones during Order 66 with the help of a giant wolf pack.
The Spirit of the Bendu in Princess Mononoke
It is within the Bendu character that the richest influence of the Princess Mononoke film is found, though. There are fascinating connections between the Bendu in Rebels and the Shishigami (the Forest Spirit) within Princess Mononoke. It’s the type of connection that immediately provides a thrill for those who appreciate the artistry of both Star Wars and Miyazaki. This is regardless of whether it was a conscious, subconscious, or indirect cultural influence.
As with San and Ahsoka, the visual cues are there to see. Both have antler shaped features. There is a stately grace about their conduct and actions and movements. They also both exude a detached air. They are separate from trivial considerations of day-to-day affairs.
The struggle that surrounds Shishigami is one between nature and man/technology. This is a broad proxy for the two struggling factions of Jedi and Sith within the Star Wars saga. Just as the Shishigami views these two competing elements at one remove, so does the Bendu (a trait outlined in my previous article in Retrozap). They are detached from the ongoing conflict. Their focus is on a spiritual plane.
Going beyond that, however, it is fascinating to look at the layer beneath these traits. There is a cultural genesis that both characters are either directly or indirectly drawing on.
Firstly in comparing the Bendu with any animal in the natural world most people would link his appearance and design to that of a Moose, the largest member of the deer family. This is also the case in the representation of the Shishigami who has Stag characteristics.
The symbolism of the Antler /Deer / Stag motif has a significant meaning in many ancient cultures. Those link into the wider themes explored through the Star Wars saga.
The Stag in ancient Celtic culture is the representation of the fertility of nature and renewal; put broadly spiritual regeneration. This links to the fact that antler growth and shedding is annual. What is particularly interesting is the fact that the antlers themselves have been said to facilitate the Stag’s role as a divine messenger. The antlers serve as an antenna for tuning into a wider spiritual dimension.
Upping the Antlers
The Antlers also appear as means of tapping into the energy field created by all living things. We already know that the Bendu’s focus is on that which “surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together”. It is not the trivial engagement between Jedi and Sith. His focus is the individual’s connection and relationship to that energy field; not individuals’ connections to other individuals.
This aligns with the symbolism of the Stag or Deer motif in wider ancient Celtic culture. The Celtic deity, Cernunnos (ruler and protector of water, animals, and nature) took the Stag as his totem animal. He, in turn, takes an antlered form, alongside the Stag totems, in the Gundestrup Cauldron (see image above).
As well as the similarities between the Bendu and the Shishigami, the influence on the latter character is the Shinto religion, who also worship the deer as part of the Shinto pantheon, treated as Divine messengers.
Shinto is the way of kami. (kami means “mystical,” “superior,” or “divine,” generally sacred or divine power, specifically the various gods or deities). Ancient Shinto found kami in nature, which ruled seas or mountains (as well as in outstanding men). Incidentally at the Shinto shrine (above) in Miyajima (also known as Itsukushima) deer were considered sacred messengers from the gods.The island is still home to 1,000 deer.
Diversity and universality
The antler/deer/stag motif in world mythology has a much wider spread than the two examples above. The fact is that ancient Celtic and Japanese cultural influences share common links with the Bendu character. Remember in this context the universality aimed at by Lucas in his crafting of the Star Wars Saga.
One of the newest characters, The Bendu, scratches the surface of deep universal themes. He conveys this both in terms of his appearance and his functional role. He is representative of the ongoing distillation of world cultures into the saga.
A debt is therefore owed to the Miyazaki connection. That influence continues to help Star Wars draw on other cultures and influences intentional or otherwise. I know that I’ll continue to look for the connection as season three of Rebels continues.