Entry #4 – Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, and Art as a Tool for Activism

Hi! Kohaku here. I hope everyone had a great week.

Recently I have been rewatching the works of Hayao Miyazaki. If you haven’t heard of him before, Miyazaki is a very famous Japanese animator, screenwriter, and director usually associated with Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.). I’ve said this before, but I basically grew up on Studio Ghibli and not Disney. I like to revisit Ghibli films now and then, and every time I do this I always end up thinking about the power of Miyazaki’s work and their continued (and perhaps increasing) relevance to modern day. I thought I’d use this week’s journal entry to talk about that.

Here are some reasons why I respect and admire the stories Miyazaki has chosen to tell, and why even the older ones are still important today.

Some minor spoilers below for the following films:

  • Princess Mononoke / もののけ姫
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind / 風の谷のナウシカ
  • Ponyo / 崖の上のポニョ
  • Spirited Away / 千と千尋の神隠し
  • Castle in the Sky / 天空の城ラピュタ
  • The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ
  • Grave of the Fireflies / 火垂るの墓
  • Tales from Earthsea / ゲド戦記

He uses recurring themes of human greed, arrogance, and ignorance causing devastating environmental consequences, and environmentalist messages can be seen in almost all of his work.

These themes are pretty obvious in some Ghibli films. Princess Mononoke, for instance, focuses strongly on how humans wage war on and exploit the environment, and reinforces a moral of living in balance with nature instead. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind essentially imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which many humans still continue to destroy the planet, even though it’s so painfully obvious that they’re killing themselves along with it.

In other films, environmentalism isn’t so obvious or important, but it’s still there – in Ponyo, for example. It’s very heavily directed towards children, and the theme of the film isn’t necessarily the relationship between humans and the environment… but it kind of is. Scenes in the movie show tons of trash floating on the ocean and on the beach, and Ponyo’s father consistently reiterates that nature is out of balance. Now, part of the imbalance has to do with Ponyo trying to become human and having too much power, but it also has to do with how humans are flooding the ocean with things that aren’t supposed to be there.

I think films with messages like these are so important, and are getting increasingly important as we learn to face the realities of climate change and own up to our mistakes with how we’ve dealt with nature in the past. Moving forward, we have to clean up after ourselves and learn how to live sustainably, in balance, without any of the greed and arrogance that has historically consumed us. Miyazaki uses incredible animation and storytelling to convey these important lessons to people of all ages and especially children, the younger generations who will have to bear the double burden of the consequences of environmental destruction and the necessitated responsibility of fighting it.

Many of his films have a strong pacifist sentiment.

Most of Miyazaki’s protagonists spend much of their movies pleading for peace and trying to show others that war isn’t the answer. Sometimes, that’s about war against the environment; other times, it’s about humans fighting wars against each other.

The Wind Rises follows Jiro Horikoshi, who laments that while all he wants to do is design beautiful airplanes, people take his planes and use them to kill each other in war. In Castle in the Sky, Sheeta tries to teach a crazed man that the world needs love, not war, and prevents him from launching Laputa’s equivalent of a WMD. And don’t get me started on Grave of the Fireflies

Some Ghibli films tackle human-human wars as well as human-environment wars. Take Princess Mononoke. Most of the film is centered on the protagonist, Ashitaka, struggling to make peace between the people of Iron Town and the spirits of the forest. But Ashitaka is also trying to make peace between the people of Iron Town and the samurai who attack them. In Nausicaa, the title character tries to make peace between humans everywhere and the giant insects in the expanding toxic jungle… but she’s also trying to make peace between the various people who come from Tolmekia, Pejite, and the Valley of the Wind.

At the end of the day, almost all of Miyazaki’s films are pleading for peace in all its forms, and I think this is incredibly important. As we continue to develop more terrible weapons, as we continue to start wars, as we continue to see a rise in acts of mass violence… the lessons taught by Studio Ghibli serve as very powerful reminders that we need to learn how to be at peace, or soon we won’t exist.

In his films, people/spirits/etc. generally aren’t bad or evil “by nature.” They become evil as a result of greed, arrogance, and ignorance – other’s, or their own.

In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka’s journey begins when he gets cursed by the demon Nago. Although Nago appears to be incredibly destructive and terrible, we soon learn that he was originally a boar god, and he became corrupted when a human shot him with a rifle and the bullet lodged in his body. In Spirited Away, the spirit No-Face is originally quiet and calm, but he turns into a hungry, destructive, rampaging monster after being corrupted by the greedy atmosphere of the bathhouse in which he stays.

Miyazaki’s works always underline the fact that the problem isn’t some distant, vague evil – it’s greed and arrogance, usually on the part of humans, and it needs to end.

On a similar note, protagonists and antagonists in his films tend to be complex. They aren’t always purely good or purely evil, and there isn’t always a strong “good vs. bad” mentality. Sometimes antagonists aren’t even present or are hard to name.

In Princess Mononoke, the leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi, commits a lot of the environmental destruction in the film. However, she also empowers women and provides a refuge for lepers, who are rejected by society, and she gives them work and food and a place to stay. In Tales from Earthsea, directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, the protagonist Arren essentially starts off by murdering his dad, and spends the rest of the film fighting a side of himself that thirsts for violence.

Rather than painting a picture of the world as black-and-white, Ghibli films emphasize that reality is complex, that people can be both good and bad, and that “good” and “bad” are actually extremely ambiguous. I think this is also a very important lesson for people to learn.

He often tells stories of strong female protagonists that are intelligent, complex, human, and aren’t limited to their relationships with men.

This has always amazed me about Miyazaki’s work. Strong female protagonists (and antagonists) that are portrayed well are relatively rare. Most female main characters are written into the story simply by linking them to male characters, and their whole lives apparently revolve around guys (their boyfriends, their dads, etc.). Appearances and relationships are usually over-emphasized. Sometimes, female main characters are too perfect, so much so that they’re totally unrealistic. Other times, they’re portrayed as utterly stupid or lacking, so much so that they’re also totally unrealistic.

But Studio Ghibli conveys its female characters in a much more accurate way. They’re human. They’re self-possessed, capable of critical thinking and decision making. They have big things to say about the environment and war and inhumanity. They’re rational and emotional. They make mistakes sometimes, and other times they save the world. Their lives don’t revolve around guys, and even though many Ghibli films have or hint at a love interest, that’s not the point of the film.

I think accurate, human portrayal of female main characters is another important aspect of Miyazaki’s work, and I’m really grateful for it.

Having said all that, I’m not going to force you to go watch a Ghibli film if you don’t want to. But this week, maybe think about the movies you like to watch and the movies you grew up on. Why do you like them? What lessons do they teach, and do you think those lessons are important for people to learn today? I’m always going on about art as a tool for activism. If you like movies that are good just for the sake of being good, that’s okay, but I prefer movies that use their goodness to encourage or advocate for something larger – like environmentalism or peace or empowering minorities. Movies that can do that while still being incredibly enjoyable, despite or perhaps because of the lessons they teach, are insanely amazing to me.

Anyway, please think about it, and as always, take care of yourself.


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