Shades of Green: Miyazaki’s Take on Environmentalism

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Elizabeth Paulyn Gostelow (21A01B) and Rachel Ho (21A01B)

Studio Ghibli classics have long prevailed over the ebb and flow of film trends, and their recent debut on streaming platforms has only cemented their place as perennial masterpieces. The animation studio has teamed up with streaming giants such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max to immerse audiences around the globe in the fantastical world of Ghibli. While Ghibli films offer a perfect respite from dreary quarantine life, their true charm lies in their percipience of the human condition, and can invoke much reflection among viewers. 

Princess Mononoke (San) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Nausicaä) exemplify the delicacy with which Ghibli movies explore complex issues. They share an environmental focus but are not necessarily environmentalist, and they expound on the tension between man and nature. Unlike Disney, this tension isn’t characterised by easy moral simplifications oft-seen in American animation. Instead, these movies embrace ambiguity and allow viewers to make their own judgement on how to respect and appreciate nature, and negotiate that fine balance between self-preservation and exploitation.

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San and one of Moro’s Clan (Princess Mononoke).

Princess Mononoke begins in 15th century Japan where the main character Ashitaka is a young prince of the disappearing Emishi people. Having been cursed by a demonized boar god, he must journey to find a cure. In his quest he encounters San, a young warrior raised by wolf gods fighting to protect her forest; and Lady Eboshi, the leader of an industrialized settlement (Irontown) who is waging war against it. Ashitaka tries to mediate between the two, all the while battling the deviant nature of his cursed arm. 

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Nausicaä riding her glider (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

Nausicaä is set in an apocalyptic world with an ecosystem in shambles. 1000 years prior to its current setting, a massive war—named the Seven Days of Fire—obliterated civilization and produced the Toxic Jungle, a colossal forest inhabited by mutant creatures such as Ohms. The conflict between the remaining surviving humans and the environment rages on as the world descends into complete inhospitality. Nausicaä, the young princess of the Valley of the Wind, is the world’s sole remaining beacon of hope. Accompanied by the introspective warrior Lord Yupa and guided by her acute understanding of the environment and the wildlife which inhabit it, she seeks to find a cure for the decaying planet. 

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The Nightwalker (Princess Mononoke).

Conflict is a point of central exploration in both films and they both feature some riveting action sequences. Miyazaki’s skill at using movement to create excitement and peril shines through in the aviation scenes of Nausicaä and opening chase of Princess Mononoke. Overall, the animation oeuvres are visually arresting and magnetic—when the luminous Nightwalker materialises against the night sky in Princess Mononoke, its eerie beauty sends shivers down your spine. To achieve such magical immersiveness, Miyazaki doesn’t use the glitzy style or special effects of his contemporaries; rather, he relies on a fervent attention to detail which makes Ghibli worlds feel tactile and realistic despite their imaginative aspects. 

Joe Hisashi’s music is intrinsic to any Ghibli film, and especially so in these two films, where at times complex emotions and themes are best expressed through music. Interwoven with Hisashi’s music, the film experience becomes transcendental. For example, in Legend of Ashitaka, the ominous overtures crescendo into a stirring chorus that resonates with Ashitaka’s arrival in uncharted territory. Similarly, the melancholic soundtrack of Nausicaä seems to mourn the wonderful beauty of its cruel world.                

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Lady Kushana in half-armour (top); Nausicaä is standing confidently with Teto perched on her shoulder (bottom) (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

Another striking commonality between Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä is the presence of strong female characters. Both San and Nausicaä are independent, capable and assertive. They also both happen to be princesses; not the ditzy, feeble kind but inspiring leaders who command respect from their clan or village. Relative to their male counterparts, they are portrayed to be on equal if not higher footing and seem to possess traditionally masculine traits of greater strength, tenacity, and courage… To match Miyazaki’s strong heroines are equally compelling female antagonists: Lady Eboshi and Kushana act as foils to the female leads and share most if not all of their characteristics—they lead armies or towns, are extremely competent in combat and are courageous enough to realise their visionary causes.

But what sets the antagonists apart from San and Nausicaä is their defining trait: ambition. Lady Eboshi and Kushana are both driven by their desire to rule the earth. They claim to conquer in the name of peace and for the utilitarian good: Kushana seizes territory and creates a destructive god warrior to fight the Sea of Decay, and Lady Eboshi designs and uses vicious weaponry against her foes for the preservation of Irontown. This consequentialist approach comes into question when their pragmatism borderlines cruelty, and the destruction they cause is perceived to outweigh any potential gains. 

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A disintegrating God Warrior from Nausicaä (top) and cursed worms on a boar demon from Princess Mononoke (bottom).

Overall, Princess Mononoke delved deeper into the characters than Nausicaä, which still relied on character tropes to drive the plot. Lady Eboshi and Kushana are admirable for their aforementioned qualities; but unlike Kushana, Lady Eboshi is more than a cold-blooded villain bent on her cause. Her compassion toward the lepers and empowering treatment of the women in Irontown makes her more likeable, relatable and someone the audience can sympathise more readily with.

As for the heroines, despite being charismatic, influential, understanding, brave, and passionate (or perhaps because of these very traits), Nausicäa seems little more than a Mary Sue—an over-idealized fictional character who is flawless but also highly unbelievable. There is little depth or complexity to her, and like Cinderella or other well-known Mary Sues, she is nothing but a victim of her environment trying to ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’. Princess Mononoke is less altruistic and magnanimous by comparison: her passion often lapses into blind rage and the resentment she bears against humans makes her cynical, even towards Ashitaka, who is pacifistic and impartial to both man and nature. So in moments when she softens and shows vulnerability, her humanity is all the more accentuated. 

Early on in Princess Mononoke, the conflict is established when Prince Ashitaka comes under a terrible curse from the enraged boar god Nago who was set on destroying Ashitaka’s village in an effort to take his anger out on humanity. It is soon discovered that Nago’s rage was driven by the human’s destruction of the forest and an embedded bullet in his body, courtesy of Lady Eboshi’s manufactured guns. 

Ashitaka’s cursed arm endows him with incredible physical strength that teeters on uncontrollable, and even causes him to murder others against his own will. It is representative of the mindless violence one commits which arises from such all-consuming hatred. It would seem plausible to the viewer that Ashitaka may bear resentment against the forest gods after one almost wiped out his entire village—much like how the people of Irontown bear hatred towards the forest gods for forbidding them to use nature’s resources for human survival. This would continue the vicious cycle of hatred, ergo the downward-spiral of their embittered rivalry. 

But Prince Ashitaka would be the one who breaks this cycle. In spite of a life-threatening curse and disembodied violent impulses, he still manages his anger better than any side he defends. His determination ‘to see with eyes unclouded’ encapsulates the spirit of the film: he refuses to blind himself with hate or prejudice and is resolved to save all sides from mutual destruction. This culminates in a scene near the end of the film when he finally makes a peace offering to the Forest Spirit on behalf of mankind in an attempt at reconciliation—a moment symbolic of his undeterred commitment to pacifism.  

The fundamental opposition between man and nature is vibrantly enhanced through the illustration of each party’s stake in their survival. 

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Prince Ashitaka breaks up the fight between San and Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke).

Instead of leaving nature as an abstract monolithic entity, Miyazaki likens it to human society. There are various animal clans and a clear hierarchical order within each one—the boar clan is led by Nago and the wolf clan by Moro. These animal gods possess humanlike characteristics as well as the ability to communicate in human language, which allows the audience to better relate to them. Hence, through the anthropomorphisation of nature, we feel its anguish at having its resources exploited by humans such as Lady Eboshi.

While viewers may initially dislike Lady Eboshi for her seemingly vicious destruction of the forest, we learn to consider her perspective once she reveals that the forest had supplies (such as iron) which were essential to Irontown’s survival. This prompts viewers to contemplate whether human motives of survival justify our exploitation of nature’s resources. For example, our rapid deforestation undoubtedly causes wildlife to suffer from loss of habitats. But we too have to fulfill our needs for infrastructure expansion and urbanization—so where should we draw the line on deriving benefits from our environment?

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San and Lady Eboshi caught in a fierce duel (Princess Mononoke).

However, the humans in Princess Mononoke too are divided in their aims. San, raised by wolves, discards her human identity and embraces her role in preserving the forest by joining the attack on Irontown. Meanwhile, the secondary antagonist Monk Jigo puts on a facade of alliance with Lady Eboshi to conceal his true motive of obtaining the Forest Spirit’s head—in order to receive a generous reward from Emperor Mikado, who believes that the Forest Spirit’s blood grants one the gift of immortality. Ashitaka, on the other hand, takes no sides, making reconciliation his main goal.

Nausicaä too illustrates man’s struggle to peacefully coexist with nature. The expanding Sea of Decay and the Toxic Jungle are phenomena first made out in the movie to be alarming threats to mankind—ridden with poisonous wildlife that will soon envelope the human kingdoms and threaten human survival.

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Princess Nausicaä in her secret room filled with plants from the Toxic Jungle (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

But the truth behind their origin is eventually revealed: nature has grown toxic because of human pollution. Untainted by human touch it was a source of nourishment and growth, providing pure drinking water and powering windmills for the valley’s sustenance. The wildlife in the Toxic Jungle are merely manifestations of humanity’s detrimental impact on the environment, and their mutations are only to ensure survival. From this perspective, perhaps the hideous-looking insects were not mindlessly bent on killing humans, but fierce protectors of the only place they could inhabit.

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Princess Nausicaä seeing the world from behind the eye of an Ohm creature (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

Princess Nausicaä is a beacon of hope against this conflict-ridden backdrop. Like Ashitaka, she is presented as a mediator showing magnanimity and compassion to all alike—from the grotesque Ohm creatures to her father’s murderer. She also willingly sacrifices herself for a slim hope of reconciliation at the climax of the movie, where she is firmly planted between the herd of angry Ohm creatures and her people.

Nature’s wrath is depicted as a repercussion that humanity inevitably ends up paying for—the Forest Spirit’s body destroys everything it touches after being beheaded by Lady Eboshi; and the Ohms nearly murder Nausicaä in their blinded rage at the cruelty towards their own species. 

Nonetheless, Miyazaki believes there is light at the end of the tunnel: humanity is allowed to start over and try to learn how to live harmoniously with nature. By the end of both movies, a greater understanding of nature is fostered, signifying a hope for the next generation.

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In the forest, a Kodama stands amidst the flourishing plants from Princess Mononoke (top).
A plant sprouts in front of Nausicaä’s garments in the Sea of Decay from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (bottom).

The films significantly illustrate the change in Miyazaki’s view on man’s relationship with nature. Both movies seem to end off on a hopeful note, albeit a more cautious optimism in Princess Mononoke. Nausicaä shines light on the message that peaceful coexistence is possible if man endeavours to reconnect with nature, while Princess Mononoke—released 13 years later—seems to depict the almost inevitable clash of interest between man and nature. 

Nausicaä’s unorthodox belief that all life should be valued equally—whether it be poisonous plants or innocent villagers—challenges the supremacy of human life and human domination of Earth’s ecosystem. The more ambivalent ending of Mononoke where San and Ashitaka part ways amicably builds upon this principle of equality; their differences do not end in assimilation or conflict but coexistence. ‘We depict hatred, but it is to depict that there are more important things. We depict a curse, to depict the joy of liberation.’ This poignant quote from Miyazaki reminds us that the raging wars in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä bear hope for a more peaceful and balanced world.

Prince Ashitaka and Princess Nausicaä are more than protagonists. They are emblematic of Miyazaki’s visions for a new generation committed to a cause larger than themselves, a generation willing to take significant action.

With increasing global pressure to fight against the worsening climate crisis, youths are making their voices heard. In the local scene, youths are flocking to participate in climate change events such as the Climate Change Rally, marking a key milestone in youth activism. It should be now more than ever that these visionary characters in Ghibli inspire a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards the environment, as we too prepare to take charge of our future.

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