June 3, 2014
In September of 2013 Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement following the completion of his latest work, “The Wind Rises.” The 73 year-old director and animator has captured the hearts of Japanese and American viewers alike, inspiring both young and old with his dream-like tales. Nearly all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films have been adapted for American audiences and dubbed by star-studded casts that have included Claire Danes, Liam Neeson, Minnie Driver and Christian Bale. What some may miss while distracted by the magic of his stories, are the eco-conscious themes embedded within.
Often set in fantasy worlds in which humanity and nature are at odds, Hayao Miyazaki’s protagonists are compelled by curiosity, empathy and love to fight for peace. Bold and intelligent young women always play important roles in his films, often as ambitious military leaders or clever heroines.
In his film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984), it is the unique ability of a humble princess to look deeper at the relationship between humans and “toxic jungles” of deadly fungi and to empathize with hordes of giant insects, that prevents disaster. Her opposition comes in the form of two symbolically similar militant societies, each of which embraces futuristic technologies, indiscriminately destroys nature and justifies conquest with vengeance.
Ashitaka plays a parallel role in “Princess Mononoke” (1997), mediating between mythical forest spirits and civilization’s conquest for iron. He finds that there is no black and white solution, as the gun-toting Lady Eboshi simultaneously depletes the forest with her mines and lovingly welcomes lepers and former prostitutes into her ranks. Defending the forest and its sentient spirits is Princess Mononoke, who would willingly kill all humans to prevent further deforestation.
Both films culminate in moments of sacrifice made in the hope of forging unity between the forces of nature and of man. In these moments, Hayao Miyazaki’s heroes and heroines demonstrate respect for the complexity and power of nature, and his antagonists begin to realize that it is not simply a threat to be diminished and subjugated.
Another way that Miyazaki addresses environmental issues is by praising the less wasteful, community-driven practices of rural societies and simpler times. These themes are especially apparent in Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky (1986), films in which the major characters come from small villages with limited technology and amiable inhabitants.
Additionally, water pollution is a major source of conflict in his films “Ponyo” (2008) and “Spirited Away” (2001). In “Ponyo,” pollution angers a sea god who opposes his daughter’s desire to become human. In “Spirited Away,” the spirit of a river is so engulfed in sludge and garbage that he cannot speak.
Miyazaki draws audiences in with visually stunning depictions of mythical realms, but he leaves them with something deeper. The films are resolved when his central characters demonstrate forgiveness. By their example, they encourage two warring sides, often technology and mythic ecology, to meet halfway and prevent mutually assured destruction. If the great animator does indeed retire, we can only hope that the thematic content of his films carries on through others with similar creative ability and international appeal.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Flapa