For many members of younger generations, it’s hard to imagine what the world was like even 50 or 60 years ago. When things like wildfires in California become a yearly occurrence, replacing the beautiful West Coast fall, and coastlines continue to disappear due to increased flooding, it can be difficult to remember that this isn’t the way the earth has always been. However, with a lot of work, humans can learn to live in harmony with the earth. Studio Ghibli, a power-house of Japanese animation, has produced numerous movies with themes relating to the interaction between humans and their environments in order to convey the idea that humans can thrive without destroying the world around them. Fans will know the name of Hayao Miyazaki, born in Tokyo, Japan in 1941, and co-founder of Studio Ghibli as well as a well-known producer, screenwriter, and animator. His films often include lush landscapes, depictions of idealized everyday lives, and anti-war motifs. Many of his works also focus intently on the responsibility people have to care for their environments, with beautiful depictions of nature and the natural world.
Miyazaki’s emphasis on nature was likely influenced by the native Japanese religion of Shinto. Shinto focuses on the natural environment and how humans can influence and be influenced by nature. In Shinto belief, spirits inhabit all areas of nature, from old trees and beautiful waterfalls to entire islands. Due to this belief, respect for and kindness towards nature has been an important aspect of Japanese society for thousands of years, and forms a significant background for the cultural framework of the country. Depictions emerging from Shinto belief provide a very effective metaphor in Miyazaki’s works. Varied casts of extraordinary creatures and nature spirits are found in many of his films. In the film Spirited Away, the main character, Chihiro, is whisked into an otherworldly bathhouse where things like large talking frogs and river spirits are commonplace. In the beginning of the movie, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs due to their greediness, and Chihiro is tasked with figuring out a way to get her and her family back safely to the world of the mundane. During her time working in the bathhouse, Chihiro helps a customer who at first appears to be a large ‘stink spirit.’ After cleaning him of all debris, including a large bicycle and other trash, it turns out that the creature was actually the spirit of a nearby river that had been polluted by human activity. Chihiro is thanked by the river spirit for cleaning it, and is regarded more highly by the bathhouse workers afterward. The implications of this scene are obvious: Miyazaki expresses that human activity can cause a devastating amount of pollution, enough to make what was once a beautiful river seem like a disgusting sludge full of trash and refuse. In cleaning up the river and removing the human pollution, the natural beauty can be restored. Even though the river is represented by a spirit, the message easily gets across to the viewer. Pollution is a large aspect of climate change, especially on the local level, and Miyazaki urges his audience to exert any effort they can to clean up and lessen human impact through this film.
The film Princess Mononoke is full of ideas of anti-capitalism and emphasis on the relationship between humans and nature. It is set in medieval Japan and follows the journey of a boy as he tries to cure himself of a curse caused by a boar god, who was enraged and corrupted because he had been shot with an iron bullet. As the boy, Ashitaka, travels to the land the boar god came from, he learns about the Great Forest Spirit, who protects the forests and lands nearby. He also finds a young girl, San, who is cared for by a wolf goddess and her pups, and who hates humankind because of their destructive tendencies. Ashitaka finds the woman who shot the boar god, who built a town to forge weapons by clearcutting a forest. It is revealed that the woman has plans to kill the Forest Spirit, and when she cuts off its head, a dangerous liquid spreads over the land, killing everything it touches. Once Ashitaka reunites the head with the body, however, the forest and its inhabitants begin to come back. There are a variety of elements of this movie that make it typical of Miyazaki’s ideas. The nature spirits that he interacts with are clearly representative of Shinto belief, and, when not corrupted by human activity, tend to help those humans who are respectful towards them. They only turn destructive and demonic when humans make them so. The desire to use natural resources in a greedy, unsustainable manner is what ultimately brings destruction upon the humans. The major conflict itself is a morally grey area: the town and ironworks allow social castaways to live safely and contribute to the goals of their society, but it was built in a way that is not in balance with nature and causes the death of the inhabitants of the forest around them. The end of the movie implies that there is a way to instead live in harmony with nature, as Ashitaka stays behind to help rebuild the town, and, at the same time, the natural areas slowly return, protected by San. Once stability is understood, humans can live in harmony with nature and continue to work towards their own goals without sacrificing the world around them. The movie does not imply that humans are bad for wanting to grow and for their drive to create new things, but that in doing so we have to be more conscious of our effect on the world around us, and keep in mind the consequences of our actions.
While the previous films use natural spirits as a metaphor, the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind depicts human-environment interaction in a more overt way. This film is set in a future, post-apocalyptic society, living near a toxic jungle full of giant insects known as Ohmu. The main character, Nausicaä, wants to learn how to co-exist with this jungle and its inhabitants. Nausicaä had discovered that the plants that grew in the jungle were only toxic because of the soil, which had become contaminated by pollution. Eventually, Nausicaä is taken prisoner, and then crash lands in quicksand in the middle of the jungle, where she learns that the plants themselves purify the soil, allowing a clean jungle to grow. When she returns to her home, she discovers that a group from a nearby country are using a baby Ohmu to anger and lure a large herd into destroying everything in their path. Nausicaä is able to return the baby to the herd, but they are so enraged that they fatally injure her. Once they realize she has returned their baby, however, they resuscitate her. The ending of the movie includes a scene of a non-toxic tree sprouting under the jungle. The environmental messages in this film are abundantly clear. The world turned toxic due to pollution from, and war between, humans, but nonetheless nature is able to find a way to return to its pure state. If the jungle had been simply destroyed, the surprising detoxification ability would never have been discovered, and the world would continue to be polluted. Nausicaä’s trust of the Ohmu insects is also indicative of the overall message. Throughout the film, Ohmu are used to show how harmful the natural world can be when misunderstood and mistreated. While most characters think of Ohmu as destructive, Nausicaä is generally able to calm them down through her kindness and respect. Thus, the film as a whole imparts a call to undo the harm humans have had on the environment, and to live in harmony with nature and respect it.
While the influence of Shinto and subsequent emphasis on respecting the environment is readily available in these films, due to the oversimplification necessary for a movie, they can’t tell the viewer exactly what to do in each individual situation they may face. It is the responsibility of the viewer to take those themes and integrate them into their own lives. It also might be hard for someone with different cultural backgrounds, perhaps ones where they’re taught that the environment is only there for their use, to see past the metaphors. However, the fantastical elements, whether influenced directly by Shinto or otherwise, are an important vessel to get Miyazaki’s messages across. The fantasy also doesn’t take away or distract the viewer from the overt action and interaction between characters.
The influence of Shinto, a native Japanese religion, might seem to shed some light onto the way that Japan has reacted to our current climate crisis. However, Japan, like the rest of the world, is still only recently addressing major pollution areas, and still has poor air quality in larger cities. The infrastructure for respecting the environment is present in the culture from their ancient history, but in the modern day, it can be overshadowed by ever-increasing industrialization. Something that turns Miyazaki’s films from good to truly incredible is the fact that he never implies humans cannot grow and build societies in order for the earth to also flourish. While his movies are full of anti-war messages, and sometimes even anti-capitalist, they are not anti-human. He does not suggest that in order for the earth to heal, we cannot continue to expand, but that when people respect and keep their natural environments in mind, both can thrive together. There’s an important distinction between the idea that humans are inherently evil and destructive, and the idea that sometimes people make mistakes and can change to avoid those mistakes in the future. Even if the destructive tendencies are deep-rooted, they should work to repair what damage they can — and to grow anew what could not be salvaged.
In the end, it’s a rather forgiving outlook. People in my generation are often overwhelmed by the levels the climate crisis has reached and view these movies as a way to escape their tortured environments for the beautiful and healthy ones depicted in his works, where individual action directly impacts and improves the world around them. In real life, you can’t go down the street to the giant oil company and convince them to turn to sustainable energy sources. That’s likely why most of Miyazaki’s movies focus on very small-scale actions that have big effects, while those that are more large-scale still urge the viewer to try their best. When small individual actions are brought to the forefront, the burden can feel less overwhelming. Maybe you can’t convince the CEO to change their lifestyle, but you can help empty a nearby beach of washed-up trash. Like Chihiro, you could organize the clean-up of a local waterway or natural area, or, like Ashitaka, ‘lobby’ for an end to deforestation and unsustainable business models. In romanticizing a beautiful connection between humans and nature, the viewer feels compelled to seek that connection out in their daily life. It’s no wonder these movies are incredibly popular with people who are pursuing that kind of interconnectedness and balance in their own lives.
All of these films, and most of Miyazaki’s works, have marked overtones of his message of harmony between humans and environment. Rather than use up every natural resource, or ignore the health of the earth for our own gains, we should focus on stability and equilibrium between human action and environmental action. This is extremely relevant in today’s world of ever-worsening climate change and environmental destruction due to human involvement. These films are a call to action for his viewers: if we can live in a harmonious relationship with our environment, it will benefit all involved. If we cannot learn to do so soon, however, it could prove disastrous for generations to come, and our current climate crisis will continue to worsen.
“Japanese Environmental Pollution Experience.” Ministry of the Environment, Government of Japan, www.env.go.jp/en/coop/experience.html
My Neighbor Totoro [となりのトトロ]. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1988.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [風の谷のナウシカ]. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Topcraft, 1984.
Princess Mononoke [もののけ姫]. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1997.
Schilling, Mark. “An Audience with Miyazaki, Japan’s Animation King.” The Japan Times, 4 Dec. 2008.
“Shinto: A Japanese Religion.” Asia Society, asiasociety.org/education/shinto.
Spirited Away [千と千尋の神隠し]. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 2001.