Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator, screenplay writer, and filmmaker. He co-founded Studio Ghibli, which has made some wonderful films in the past. A few of their notable works include Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, and Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind. I have written this essay as an homage to Miyazaki and his films because they have had such a huge impact on me.
A common thread that connects these films mentioned above is that they are all embedded with images of the ecosystem and the environment. Essentially, Miyazaki’s movies have characters that come from three realms of the world: human, supernatural and natural. His stories are a place where characters from these three realms interact. For example, supernatural entities in his films take the form of monsters, dragons or spirits. Most of the time, these spirits embody an aspect of nature such as a “forest spirit” or a “river spirit”. He sculpts characters that look human but possess the ability to shape-shift and wield other supernatural powers. In the natural realm, Miyazaki depicts animals but he humanises them by giving them a voice. His films are a space where all these characters from different realms interact.
His movies also explore the impact humans have had on the environment and nature. A few important concerns Miyazaki highlights in relation to the environment are the “human imagination of the environment, our relationship to it, and empathetic action towards it” (Gossin, 2015). However, with that being said, Miyazaki doesn’t overtly showcase the negative human impact on the environment and thus, it can’t be said that he is an ecologist. He explores the relationship between humans and the environment, he explores the dynamics of this relationship and it can thus be argued that he is an ‘eco-philosopher’ (Gossin, 2015).
In the following paragraphs, I am going to explore different aspects of the interaction between humans and nature across the four films mentioned above. I will also attempt to answer these questions: what is the nature of their interaction? What is the purpose of their interaction? And, what can be derived from their interaction?
In his films, Miyazaki deals with the concept of exploratory curiosity very literally and effectively. For instance, a scene in the film My Neighbour Totoro depicts Mei Kusakabe chasing creatures into a forest because she is intrigued by how they look. Eventually, she finds herself amidst a dense jungle where she meets ‘Totoro’, a forest spirit who stands for growth and nature. Mei’s curious and inquisitive nature leads her to the spirit of the forest.
This theme of curiosity is also explored in Spirited Away but in a slightly more morbid way. We are introduced to a family who are moving into a new town. Their car hits a dead-end where they discover an opening into a tunnel. Intrigued to find out what is on the other side, they enter the tunnel. It opens out into a clear field and forest. They admire the scenic landscape around them.
However, they are quickly drawn to the smell of food coming from various food-stalls. They cannot resist eating so they take a plate full and once they start, they can’t stop. Little do they know – the delicious food is cursed and soon, they will magically transform to pigs. Chihiro, their daughter and our protagonist, never tastes the food. Soon, the natural realm around her dissolves into a supernatural one ruled by monsters and ghosts, and the only human in there is Chihiro herself.
These ‘opening scenes’ or the ‘call to adventure’ scenes (Campbell 45) evidently point out the fact that human curiosity leads to the discovery of nature. Miyazaki tends to question the extent of human curiosity towards nature and explores how safe it is to venture into it. It could lead to nature’s destruction or, as in the case of Chihiro’s parents, our own.
Miyazaki creates a world that is similar to our own in his film Princess Mononoke, where he addresses concerns about the increase in unsustainable industries and rapid deforestation.
Furthermore, he highlights the distinction between what is human and what is natural, once again reinforcing his need to depict two worlds – the natural and the unnatural. Miyazaki works with varying motifs attached to what is human (artificial) and what is natural, and this distinction is at the root of the problem of destruction.
For instance, “Iron Town” stands for the unnatural, the artificial. It is a mechanised monstrosity. Almost like a dragon, Iron Town breathes fire. It’s a factory where they melt iron to make guns. It is headed by Lady Eboshi, a human, who schemes to expand into the forest. However, in opposition to her is Princess Mononoke, who is half-human and the defender of the forest. She believes in the spirit of the forest and its animals. She wishes to protect the natural entities who are threatened by the unnatural Iron Town created by Lady Eboshi.
As I mentioned before, Lady Eboshi runs an industrial town. She wants to take up more forest land through the process of deforestation. Her factory is also responsible for constantly polluting the air with smoke. Sounds familiar? Clearly, Miyazaki is trying to highlight the damage humans inflict on the environment. However, it is not as simple as that; Lady Eboshi is not entirely depicted in a negative light. Her industry is the source of employment for many women. The women who work for her adore her. Through this, one can deduce that Miyazaki tries to show how industries are not inherently evil. He personifies nature but does not demonise humans. Perhaps Miyazaki maintains that one realm should not overpower another; he hints at a need for balance, for harmony.
In Spirited Away, Miyazaki explores the problem of land reclamation and water pollution due to human waste. The setting of this film is in a ghost town that is popular for running a bath-house for spirits. Chihiro, who is human and also the protagonist of the film, works in this bathhouse. On a particular day, a gigantic and ghastly creature walks into the bathhouse demanding a bath. The creature is covered in grubby filth.
Chihiro cleans him up with great difficulty. Finally, however, when the creature is rid of all toxins, under all the grub, lies a beautiful river spirit. This spirit had accumulated human filth. It is important to note that Chihiro, a human, was the only one who could help the river spirit. Other characters part of the supernatural world couldn’t. Perhaps, Miyazaki is suggesting that whatever we do to our environment is very well within our control, whether we choose to destroy it or mend it.
Another interesting aspect of land reclamation is explored in the same movie. Haku is shown to be struggling with his identity because he doesn’t remember his name, which the crux of his identity. Chihiro, however, discovers the truth and tells him that he is the Kohaku River, another river spirit. He recollects that he lost his identity when humans built dams and bridges over him. This is yet another instance of human interference in nature’s existence.
Additionally, the world in the film Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind is also heavily polluted because of humans. A ‘backstory’ is provided to us at the beginning of the film where the narrator tells the story of the ‘Seven Days of Fire’, which are set off due to a massive war between humans. This causes mass destruction of life and natural landscapes. These landscapes then become poisonous for human lungs and create giant mutated insects called Ohmus/Ohms, who are both impatient and, if triggered, dangerous. This becomes another film where Miyazaki explores the adversity of human impact on the natural world.
Resolving Conflict Through Love
Miyazaki uses the emotion of ‘love’ very effectively across his films. Even though he tries to depict how humans are toxic towards nature, his protagonists or ‘heroes’ harbour the characteristics of love and resilience. This love isn’t exchanged between two humans. Rather, it is explored between humans and nature. For instance, Mei and her sister love and care for the forest spirit, Totoro. The protagonist in Spirited Away, Chihiro, loves Haku, the river spirit. Also, there is a moving dialogue towards the end of the film when Chihiro calls the ‘antagonist’, Yubaba, “Obaasan” meaning “Grandmother”, once again making us feel like there is no outright evil. Chihiro thus solves the conflict through sentiment and love.
In Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind, Princess Nausicaä resolves the dispute between the insects (Ohmus/Ohms) and the humans by caring for the angry insect and by displaying compassion at a time of great distress. She also reflects on the beauty of the forest which is otherwise believed to be poisonous. She cares to investigate the poisonous ‘spores’ found within the forest and then tends to them with care. She discovers that these poisonous spores can be turned into harmless and beautiful flora. She finds beauty, through love, where others don’t. Miyazaki stresses that we must care about the environment with love just like the heroes in his movies.
Cultural Importance Humans Give to Nature
In the movie My Neighbour Totoro, there is a scene where the characters bow to the Camphor Tree that stands as the epitome of nature’s beauty and greatness. Miyazaki highlights how worshipping nature is a part of Japanese culture. This positive practice seems to have left the minds of humans, who continue to negatively impact the environment.
Miyazaki highlights that there is a positive relationship that exists between humans and the environment, a relationship that is not toxic and exploitative. We can see it around us. An instance that came to mind was that while learning Bharatanatyam, I remember, I was trained to thank the earth that my feet danced on. This cultural relationship is difficult to ignore. We must learn from Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki to try and redeem this relationship grounded on mutual respect.
Gossin, P. (2015). Animated Nature: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Empathy in Miyazaki Hayao’s Ecophilosophy. Mechademia, 209-234.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1949. Digital file.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.