The ecological aesthetics of Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki’s films are deceptively simple. Author Maria Popova, once commented on how good children’s books speak “a language of absolute sincerity, so deliciously countercultural in our age of cynicism.” Miyazaki’s films are imbued with a similar quality of tenderness, without compromising on the complexity of the moral landscape. Their universal appeal is perhaps a testimony of how meaningful content designed for children effortlessly slice through the cumbersome baggage of adulthood narratives. Indeed, Tolkein once remarked that there is no such thing as writing for children.

I, for one, have found ecological themes more eloquently described in Miyazaki’s films, than many academic books on the subject. Miyazaki’s world is animated in the true sense of word. Trees talk, forests rebel, a river can be angry and spirits need to be understood as unique individuals. The vivid, fantastical and detailed scenes depicted in his films foreground Nature and attune the viewers to its eclectic character. Ecological sensitivity looms large as a theme without ever taking on a preachy or dull tone. Rather than painting simplistic dichotomies of good/bad or right/ wrong, his characters need to work through the consequences of their actions, and the trade-offs it would entail. Nature is seen as an active co-participant rather than a passive backdrop of human actions, and as a result remain in constant dialogue with the characters of the films.

Animacy of the world

A particular scene from Princess Mononoke stayed with me for this reason. Here, a female leader (Lady Eboshi) has been building an industrial village through the mining of iron ore, which has brought prosperity to the locals but greatly harmed the forest. Eboshi has angered the forest gods with her guns and destruction of the forest. Yet, at the same time, she shows great compassion to the lepers and former prostitutes who work in her factory-fortress.A few forest gods such as giant boars and wolves have tried to retaliate in anger. A young prince (Ashitaka) from a far-away land gets unwittingly involved (and injured) in this fight due to a series of events and travels to this town to in order to find a cure. While spending a night in the town, he sees Lady Eboshi firing at some forest creatures:

Lady Eboshi: They keep coming back. Every night they’re out there planting trees trying to turn the mountain into a forest again. Stay here, help me kill the forest spirit, Ashitaka.

Prince Ashitaka: Why would you do that? Kill the very heart of the forest?

Lady Eboshi: Without that ancient God, the animals here would be nothing but dumb beasts once more.

There is a literal sense in which the creatures of the forest are rendered dumb and voiceless. The other protagonist of the film is a young girl (San) who has grown up in the forest along with the wolves, and actively (but unsuccessfully) tries to stop Lady Eboshi. There is no easy resolution for the mounting tension, and the complexity of the situation is laid bare (read: tension between conservationists and political ecologists). In fact, Ashitaka’s wish for some respect and understanding between the mining village and the forest requires an incredible level of sacrifice and patience from him. Here in lies the philosophical commitment of Miyazaki. Pacifism is not for the weak-hearted. Middle-ground is a hard path to tread. Yet, there is hope.

Tales of transformation

Miyazaki’s works are replete with themes of transformation, both inward and outward. Spirited Away, perhaps one of Miyazaki’s most famous movies portrays the journey of Chihiro, from a spoilt, self-absorbed girl to into someone willing to face challenges bravely, and compassionately. When faced with the seemingly impossible task of bathing a monster, Chihiro sincerely applies herself to the task. As a result, after being sucessfully cleaned with Chihiro’s help, the spirit turns out to be that of a mighty river that had been polluted with trash. She is blessed and given an important gift by the river spirit for her work. The cleansing of the body, mind and the environment are co-dependent in simple yet profound ways. In another poignant scene, Chihiro is able to free another river spirit (Haku) from Yubaba’s enslavement by remembering his name (Yubaba ensalves people and spirits by ‘taking away their name’).

Chihiro: It finally came back to me. The river’s name was Kohaku river. I think that river is you, and your real name is the Kohaku river.

Haku: You did it Chihiro. I remember! I was the spirit of the Kohaku river.

Chihiro: They filled in that river. It is all apartments now.

Haku: That must be why I can’t find my way home, Chihiro.

The scene reminded me of biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s brilliant meditation on the act of naming. She wrote, “In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants…” In a world riddled with collective amnesia and disenchantment, perhaps the simple act of attending to the particularities of our environment through their names is an important start. It certainly forms a crucial plot point in Miyazaki’s works.

Another movie titled, ‘Only Yesterday’ is almost a form of visual poetry, depicting the thoughts of a young urban woman, as she contemplates transitioning to a life in the rural farm side. Though beautiful and sincere, the film is not naïve in its musings. In one scene, the film’s protagonist, Taeko narrates the hardships of the farmers cultivating safflower,

How could this yellow flower produce such bright red? They told me a sad tale from old days. The girls didn’t have gloves, and their bare hands would get pricked by the thorns. It was their blood that made the red so deep. I could imagine the resentment they must’ve felt toward the fancy city girls. To make a handful of rouge took nearly sixty basket of petals … Once picked, as the petals oxidise, they gradually turn red. After a few days fermentation turns them bright red, they become sticky. Pounded, wrung into balls and sun-dried, they finally become the base material of rouge.

Over the course of the film, she gains the courage to act on her wish of moving to the rural side, without shying away from the difficulties she may face.

Reciprocity and care as a political act

One may be tempted to call Miyazaki a Romantic, but his works resist clear categorisation. “Nature” is not seen as being unconditionally benign. Rather they can succumb to evil forces, and cause harm as well. For example, in Nausicäa, The world has mostly become uninhabitable due to large scale wars (alluding to radioactive weapons) and humans live in constant danger from a poisonous jungle and easily-angered giant insects. The film’s protagonist Nausicäa, however tries to understand the behaviour of the insects and care for the forest rather than seeing them as a danger that needs to be destroyed. Her act of caring for these creatures becomes an act of political rebellion, and she needs to go through enormous pain to stay true to her beliefs. Her belief in reciprocity of Nature saves humankind from the wrath of the insects in the end. Miyazaki’s idea of environmental stewardship rests on changing the perspectives and thoughts of the characters rather than ‘saving Nature’. A notion of respect, and care is woven deep into the fabric of the stories, enabling even the most casual audience to become reflective for a while. These stories don’t always make for an entertaining watch, and directing them required a kind of stubborn hope. For instance, while making Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki knew he was taking a big risk since the theme was deemed too dark for children. His comment was as follows, “How could we pretend to them that we’re happy? I think I really exhausted the animation staff with this film… At first I decided, ‘This is something children shouldn’t see,’ but in the end I realised, ‘No, this is something that children must see’, because adults, they didn’t get it — children understood it’.” Children always do. Perhaps, his films could be way of reminding us of our childhood wisdom and lost awe for the world. There is always a susuwatari lurking under our bed or a forest sprite sitting under a tree. We just need to see them again.

Kodama or forest spirits depicted in Princess Mononoke

Published by debbiebornfree

I am cynical, yet hopeful. I am scared, yet take a step into the dark. I am an introvert, yet I can fill the room with conversations. I listen to stories, as I write my own. I am human.

6 thoughts on “The ecological aesthetics of Hayao Miyazaki

    1. Thank you, Vidya! Glad to meet fellow fans 🙂 Looking forward to reading the review. That movie occupies a special corner in my heart.


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