×

We've got news for you.

Register on Sunday Times at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

There’s nothing glib about Ghibli

Lifestyle

There’s nothing glib about Ghibli

How a Japanese film studio can help us rediscover the childlike wonder of our connection with nature

Yuan Pan
Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 film 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind' tells the story of an apocalyptic event that wreaks havoc on global ecosystems.
AHEAD OF ITS TIME Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 film 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind' tells the story of an apocalyptic event that wreaks havoc on global ecosystems.
Image: YouTube

Films with powerful environmental narratives can transform our thinking and connect us with nature in ways scientific papers cannot. For example, Studio Ghibli, a renowned Japanese film studio cofounded by animator Hayao Miyazaki, creates complex visual stories about human-nature relationships that transcend barriers of culture or age. A key message of Miyazaki’s work is that we must respect nature — or face our destruction.

Miyazaki’s films offer viewers moments of escape into fantastical worlds that nonetheless echo problems of modernity, demonstrating that it’s possible to portray complex environmental issues through animation in a way that retains mainstream appeal.

For example, 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released with a special recommendation from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, tells the story of an apocalyptic event that wreaks havoc on global ecosystems. Surviving humans must coexist alongside the Toxic Jungle, a dangerous landscape filled with poisonous fungal spores. Most humans fear the Toxic Jungle and seek to destroy it. But what they don’t understand is that it’s cleansing the environment for their benefit.

Miyazaki designed the film to mirror society, where prioritising short-term materialistic growth over long-term environmental sustainability is predicted to lead to collapse. The film reminds us that being at war with nature ultimately ends in our demise. To create a sustainable future, we must work with nature rather than against it.

In My Neighbour Totoro, released in 1988, a pair of young sisters moves to a house in the countryside with their father as their mother recovers from illness. The girls explore their new house and the surrounding forest.

In doing so they become friends with a large forest spirit named Totoro, explore their surroundings and discover their affinity for their environment. Totoro is depicted as a warm and nurturing mother figure, representing and encouraging the healing effects of communing with nature, which have been well-documented in research and culture.

Princess Mononoke, which came out in 1997, is set in 14th-century Japan, a world where the constant battle between humans and forest kami (spirits) leads to casualties on both sides. In Shinto, a traditional Japanese religion, these kami are part of nature, but they’re not soft-natured entities. When humans refuse to respect their environment, they seek revenge.

The film’s most powerful kami is the Forest Spirit (Shishigami), who is neither good nor evil, but represents the pure power of nature. During the day Shishigami appears as a deer. At night it transforms into the eerie Night Walker. This transformation represents the duality of nature as a bringer of life and death, echoing how the natural world has the ability to support and destroy humankind.

Similarly, the antagonist of the film, Lady Eboshi, isn’t a clear-cut villain. Though she wants to cut down the forest to feed iron mines, she’s also the kind, generous leader of Iron Town, providing a haven for social outcasts and espousing gender equality. Yet despite her wish to build a better society, her actions, however well-intentioned, will destroy the forest and the homes of the kami.

This situation is a microcosm of ongoing environmental justice issues across the world, where poor and marginalised groups, including indigenous people and women, suffer for the actions of the wealthy. In particular, though wealthy countries contribute the most to climate change, it’s poorer countries that must carry the greatest climate-related burdens.

Viewing Princess Mononoke, we’re encouraged to move beyond dichotomies of “us versus them”, thinking which allows groups with more power to distance themselves from those without, or even to dehumanise them altogether. Miyazaki’s work is a lesson in seeking intrinsic commonalities — what connects us rather than what divides — and using these to imagine fairer, more equal societies that live in harmony with nature.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

subscribe