From 'Princess Mononoke' To 'My Neighbor Totoro': Hayao Miyazaki, Environmental Activist

Even from the 1980s, the prolific Hayao Miyazaki was already questioning the obvious conflict between humankind and nature.

Despite the fact that most of them were released in the 1990s and 2000s, the films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the famous co-founder of Studio Ghibli, are once again becoming increasingly popular. Why? Because as early as several decades ago, the director had already begun to address certain themes which are now of central importance in our society. From feminism to pacifism, he made numerous pertinent observations in his animes despite them initially appearing to be merely aesthetic. 

His films present an alarming portrait of the relationship between humans and the environment. The tentative interpretations made by critics of Miyazaki's films upon their release have now been replaced by a far more urgent understanding of the environmental problems facing the world today. Now, in an era of advanced climate change in which plastic is omnipresent, his animated films resonate even more. 


© Castle in the Sky

Nature: Magnificent, Supreme, Preserved

One of the key aspects of Miyazaki's relationship with nature is the unique way he depicts it, with an almost surreal beauty. This exuberant, sublime illustration of the natural world almost seems overdone, given how unusual it is to find such landscapes in 2019. 

Hayao Miyazaki takes great care to invent ever more surprising, magical places in his films, like the underground grotto covered in blueish crystals we see in Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind.


The peaceful forest in My Neighbor Totoro is another of Miyazaki's attempts to depict an almost utopian environment. It's almost as if he wants to show what humankind would lose by prioritizing industrialization and technological progress over the environment. What's more, technology plays a very minor role in Miyazaki's work, suggesting that the director views it as one of the culprits guilty of destroying his verdant landscapes.  

This idealized depiction of nature is perfectly acceptable within the codes governing the animation genre, allowing Miyazaki to make his natural settings as vibrant as possible. The environments he depicts bear no traces of human inventions. He often portrays a return to a stricter, more traditional Japanese culture prior to the emergence of technology.

Castle in the Sky and its splendid ancient city of Laputa show the almost mystical nature of the landscapes imagined by the famous artist. For Miyazaki, nature is a treasure to be cherished and preserved above all else. He revealed in Orikaeshi-ten: "It's not only relationships between humans which are important. The world as a whole, or in other words its landscapes, weather, light, plants, water, wind, it's all magnificent and I do my best to make sure it is included in our films."

© My Neighbor Totoro

Humankind And Nature, A Conflict In Which Respect Is The Only Solution 

Although Miyazaki's perspective may now be viewed as old-fashioned due to the differences between his landscapes and those of the modern era, it nonetheless reflects a major conflict responsible for numerous environmental issues: humankind and nature have difficulty coexisting alongside one another. As if it was necessary to choose between industrialization and ecology, he creates two very different worlds with carefully defined borders between the ancient and the modern.  

In Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, he goes further still, imagining a world ravaged by hundreds of years of man's innovations. Symbolized by the character Nausicäa, the fightback begins to ensure that humans learn once again how to live with nature. In the last part of the Earth which is still inhabitable, nature becomes terrifying with the development of the Fukai, toxic spores used by the forest to protect itself from pollution caused by humans. The environment is personified. Miyazaki makes it clear that there is only one possible solution – we must learn to live with mutual respect in order to resolve the conflict. Both the environment and humankind have much more to lose by battling one another than by learning to exist peacefully together. 

A similar phenomenon may be observed in Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea, where Fujimoto attempts to create an elixir able to boost marina fauna in order to protect it from the rubbish and pollution left by humans. Here, nature uses its supreme power to fight back against human inventions. In fact, the environment created by Hayao Miyazaki regularly becomes suffocating and domineering. Yet by showing the possibility of a better world in which we could all coexist together, Miyazaki also shows that it is important to change our behavior.

Margaret Talbot, journalist at the New Yorker, explains that the director is mistrustful of technology and views it as responsible for "the obliteration of cultural richness". He hopes for the return of a simple world focusing on the basics. So, a world without capitalism...

Finally, Castle in the Sky shows the traces of a lost civilization, where nature has taken over and protects itself with the help of giant robots, which continue to exist as the centuries pass. Miyazaki does not seem hostile to technical progress, but he wishes to highlight the risks that come with it. He envisages a world in which nature and human inventions could live side-by-side, devoid of materialistic, consumerist tendencies. 

© Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind

The Primacy Of The Environment Over Humankind

Far from seeking to preach to his viewers, Hayao Miyazaki wishes to allow those who watch his films to build their own opinion. With every film, he attempts to refocus the place of humans within the landscape, creating a portrait in which humans are equal to the other creatures in the world. Opposed to the idea of humankind dominating nature and manoeuvring it to suit its own needs and desires, he proposes a more spiritual universe in which fauna, flora and humans are all on the same level. 

Princess Mononoke is a symbol of this, demonstrating the director's commitment to the environment. The film portrays a world of environmental problems, whose animals, like the famous deer god, are radioactive and deformed as the result of uncontrolled industrial development.  

Peter Schellhase, author of The Conservative Vision of Hayao Miyazaki, notes that the characters in the Studio Ghibli films "attempt to dominate nature in pursuit of political domination, and are ultimately destructive to both nature and human civilization."

Humankind is thus portrayed as the cause of a profound imbalance between the species, leading to a major battle between wolves and pigs in the film. It's relevant to note that every time the animals rebel in Miyazaki's films, it's always in response to human activity. Ashitaka, for example, was cursed by an animal which had gone mad after being shot. From this point on, the conflict becomes more physical than moral and goes beyond the bounds of comprehension, destroying the environment along the way.

Produced in 2008, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is illustrative of Miyazaki's pessimistic stance in the 2000s. In the film, he condemns the handling of rubbish, showing the main character, a fish with a human face, finding his way through the waste to escape a fishing line. At the same time, he also criticizes the practice of trawling used by fishing boats to drag fish from the seabed to the shore, with a direct impact on the ecosystem. 

Spirited Away is another example of Miyazaki's rejection of human domination over nature. The film contains a whole sequence focusing on river pollution, as an evil, polluted spirit heads towards the baths. In the end, the young Chihiro realizes that the spirit isn't responsible and didn't mean to pollute the baths with his filth; he's simply transporting industrial waste belonging to humans, disposed of in the very waters used by humans for bathing. A real vicious circle. 

© Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

An Idealized, Spiritual Approach To Environmental Issues

In the current century, it is difficult to imagine an egalitarian world far-removed from industry. The films by Studio Ghibli could be interpreted as a form of escapism from the reality of pollution and urbanization, rather than as a genuine critique of society. 

Sometimes, as in Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki even perverts his own universe, underestimating the consequences which the castle could have on real life as its black smoke spreads over the villages it passes. 

Concern for the environment is a leitmotiv in Japan, which often experiences natural disasters and has had to learn to minimize its impact on biodiversity in order to avoid other catastrophes. This requirement is also present in Japanese religion in the form of Shintoism and Buddhism, the two main religions in the country. 

In the eyes of Miyazaki, nature has a whole series of magical and sometimes religious meanings – like Totoro, a spirit whose role is to protect the forest. Preservation of the environment is a Japanese tradition, forming an integral part of the Japanese religion and way of life. The inhabitants of the islands are very attached to their physical landscape. As well as arguing that the environment should be protected, Miyazaki also presents a religious perspective on our relationship with nature. "Kamis" or spirits, which take a random physical form, are celebrated in the director's films. 

The forest is therefore a sacred place which the Japanese are duty bound to protect and are prevented from walking in without authorization. Princess Mononoke embodies this vision of nature, becoming a kind of savior determined to repair the mistakes of her ancestors. Given the central role of protecting nature in Japanese religion, the spiritual elements incorporated by the director also encourage viewers to do their bit. 

For the Japanese, the films by Studio Ghibli represent the clash between a modern Japan and the more traditional country of the past, as well as the need to coexist between these two worlds. Meanwhile, in the West, the director's work tends to be understood as a tribute to the environment, and sometimes as a warning to protect it. 

© Spirited Away

Rejection Of A Society Lacking In Environmental Ethics

Unfortunately, not all of Hayao Miyazaki's characters are keen to protect the environment, such as Porco Rosso, who throws hundreds of cigarette butts into the sea throughout the film bearing his name.

Nonetheless, the director sets the scene for a world in which modernity could be detached from nature to avoid spoiling it. His approach isn't that radical: we need to find a middle ground which respects everyone's needs. This stance may not seem too coherent in the context of the climate emergency. 

In truth, Miyazaki tries to remind humankind of the value of nature and to emphasize the importance of respecting it and not taking it for granted. Using animation, he reveals the natural world we have lost or risk losing if we fail to change our customs quickly. Nostalgic for a Japan which he has perhaps over-idealized, he nevertheless attempts to highlight the importance of the natural world by filling it with symbols and spiritual meaning. 

His work remains timeless and is more powerful still in the current context. It also hints at notions of pacifism, although the famous director never attempts to impose his ideas or to demand that we change our way of life drastically. Perhaps Miyazaki simply refuses to accept the end of the pre-industrial era in Japan, a time when nature still took precedent over humankind. A victim of the radical shift towards a consumer society in the 1960s - the Japanese economic "miracle" -, Miyazaki appears to reject this new society in which environmental ethics have been lost.

© Princess Mononoke


Article translated by: Eleanor Staniforth

By Eléna Pougin, published on 25/06/2019


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