The Soothing Apocalypse of Studio Ghibli Films

Apocalyptic visions have pervaded through our collective consciousness since the start of the year. Although hardly new, considering tales concerning the end of the world have been told for as long as anyone could remember and as far back as historical (and religious) texts allow, a truly global destructive event like a pandemic was only something last seen during the last world war. We started the year with geopolitical tensions from several parties—namely the United States and Iran—that prompted premature deductions about the possibility of a third world war, although fortunately, it dissolved into a brief mishap in geopolitics (albeit with overarching consequences for the future). 

Then the pandemic hit, and the world was forced into a standstill. Many people felt that their time was stolen, the plans we made at the start of the year came to no fruition as an isolated and socially-distanced life became the norm. While for the unfortunate few like the essential workers and frontline medical professionals, the days have become gruellingly long, each minute passed meant the risk of being infected with the disease increased. Millions of people were then infected and many of them died from the virus. This was accompanied by various social uprisings and disasters worldwide. The year felt lost yet meaningful, a dilemma whether the present is a storm or are we only in the eye of it; the calmest part before the rest of the hurricane engulfs us whole. 

While the pandemic may eventually be eradicated through the development of vaccines, humanity was already on the precipice of a far longer-lasting environmental disaster through the destruction they bring to the natural lands; the air, water, forests, jungles, and glaciers. Through pollution and misuse of terrains, animals are hunted to extinction, the water turned acidic, forests barren, and land infertile. The implication of these disasters would not only cause peril for the humans and their annihilation but also the possibility that they are bringing everything down with them, making Earth inhabitable for the other lifeforms that they share the same planet with. 

The prominent Western artistic interpretation of the natural world that most people are familiar with is the idea of mother nature, this ancient Greek perception was heavily influenced by the culture’s mythology; the primordial goddess Gaia herself is the manifestation of all nature as a whole. While this may seem like it gives nature a soulful face, this all-encompassing, ambiguous depiction of nature often makes us feel detached from it, separating the human ‘self’ and nature ‘other’. If we are polluting the environment, we are somehow hurting mother nature. And if natural disasters befell us, mother nature is taking her revenge on us. This causes a view where there is a misconstrued polarity between human’s endless quest for advancement and the well-being of nature and detracts us from the need to find a balance between the two. 

For the sake of brevity, it may be productive to start mentioning the films of Studio Ghibli here. Because certainly not only do some of them deal with apocalyptic themes, they also offer an alternative, more constructive method to personify nature—more than nature being boiled down to a monolithic single entity. Being influenced by traditional Japanese animistic beliefs, famed Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki gives faces and also voices to the diverse parts that make-up nature, imparting to them souls and unique emotions. The films of Studio Ghibli also provide a rather unique, almost child-like way of looking at the possibility of our extinction from our own hands. The films that will be listed below also show the progression of director Hayao Miyazaki’s view on the environment throughout his lifetime.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Breaking The Cycle

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

The world of Nausicaä is one built on the residue of a world-ending cataclysm: The Ceramic Wars and the Seven Days of Fire. This post-apocalyptic world caused humanity to regress into an agrarian and feudal society, although hints of advanced technology from the past remain as futuristic avian machinery like airships and gliders are used. In this new world, humanity’s remaining days are yet again numbered; constantly-expanding toxic forests filled with evolved gigantic insects threaten to end humanity once more. We first see the world unveiled through the eyes of the titular character, a bright and optimistic young woman named Nausicaä whose exploration through a jungle filled with toxic spores and deadly giant insects revealed her childlike curiosity and respect for the deadly environment.

After her return to her hometown in the Valley of the Wind, we come to know that her view on nature contrasts heavily with the rest of her people. The humans of this world fear nature, some even abhor it completely. They fear the toxic spores that destroy the lungs and make the limbs as hard as stone. There is a certain sense of Otherness when the humans of this world—a world that is hinted to be our future—talk about nature; any shred of harmony and interconnectedness between the human world and the natural world seems to have been irreparably broken from the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the past. 

And yet the harmony is not all gone, and even with the denial of some humans, they are still fully dependent on some parts of nature. The wind, in particular, plays a rather large role in the film. It is through the wind that Nausicaä’s glider and most of the air vehicles can fly, and it is thanks to the wind that the Valley of the Wind is purified from the spores. The wind’s direction and whim decide whether the toxic spores will be delivered into human settlements or whisked away elsewhere. The wind’s sudden disappearance and then reappearance in the film signals the resurrection of nature itself. One can say that this is Miyazaki’s way of emphasizing how important that element of nature is; how the air that we inhale and exhale can be either the nourishment of our cells or its destruction depending on the level of pollution we excrete into the landscape. 

And indeed, this film permeates real-life parallels because it was also inspired by such events. A series of environmental disasters in the 1950s and 1960s, specifically the chemical poisoning of Minamata Bay, was one of the catalysts behind the making of this film. At the time, the Japanese industrial sector under the guise of economic development had been given the pass to do whatever it wanted. The dumping of mercury in the body of water caused both the destruction of the aquatic habitat and subsequently the creation of a new disease, the Minamata Disease. Some of the symptoms in that real-life disease such as numbness in the hands and feet even resemble the fictional disease seen in Nausicaä, where inhaling the toxic spores may cause your limbs to harden like stone. 

One more parallel between the film and the Minamata Bay poisoning is that after finally the government recognized the unjust chemical dumping and banned it, the aquatic life that considered the bay home started to return. The natural habitat was rejuvenated once more after the filthy, grubby hands of the humans were no longer holding it—not as tightly as before at least. From this event unfolding did Miyazaki’s vision of nonhuman characters such as the insects we see in Nausicaä start to take shape; nature does heal itself, and it will continue doing so when humans are not directly interfering anymore. 

In the film, the intricately-crafted ecology of the giant insects and the new life that has sprouted from the ashes of cataclysm and past pollution suggests that they, not the humans, are the legitimate inheritors of this postwar, post-apocalyptic Earth. Some insects like the invertebrate Ohmu in the film have even developed a higher intelligence and sentience, they are capable of empathy and capacity to start their own advanced civilization. By numbers alone, even right now, insects outnumber humans immensely and one could say they practically are the true rulers of Earth. The selfishness and greed of the humans and their inefficient management of the environment have led them to become unsuitable “owners” of the planet; by natural selection, if they went extinct then it is through their own blunder. 

And rest assured that, while most insects will survive, we are just a brief phase on this planet of bugs.

-Scott Shaw, Entomologist. 

Nausicaä is portrayed as a Christ-like, messianic figure in the film. Her maternal, feminine instincts and unbridled affection towards her people and the environment are portrayed as the ideal behavior and attitude one must have to break the cycle; a cycle that even after a world-ending apocalypse caused by pollution and war, the humans seen in the film is doomed to repeat it. If we take Nausicaä out of the equation entirely then the humans in the film will not only repeat their mistakes, but they will finally cause their own extinction. In the real world, we probably would not have individual saviors like Nausicaä that will somehow steer us into the right path, rather the collective effort of everyone that believes the Earth to be their home is required, compulsory even. 

Princess Mononoke: Radical Vision of Hybridity

Princess Mononoke (1997) Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

How do you live with a true heart when everything around you is collapsing?

-Hayao Miyazaki

Princess Mononoke tells the story of an increasingly deteriorating balance between humanity and nature. Ashitaka, after finding a corrupted boar-god attacking his village and becoming partially corrupted himself, is sent on a quest to find the cure to his ailment and also to find who is responsible for aggravating the magnificent beast. On his journey, he meets San, a feral girl raised by wolves, and an Ironworkers settlement led by the charismatic Lady Eboshi. As Lady Eboshi seeks to kill the god of the forest while San and the beasts of the forest want humans to stop invading their territory, he must navigate and try to reconcile the needs and wants between the two sides.

In a lot of ways, Princess Mononoke expands the ideas of environmental catastrophe and the perpetual conflict between human versus nature that Nausicaä introduced. Here, Miyazaki asks the question of, taking into account what humanity has done to the planet in terms of our excessive extraction of resources and destruction of habitats, would we have the right to wage war against the nonhuman Other if they retaliate against us? However, this time, Miyazaki presents a world where he has given slightly more nuance to humanity’s gluttonous nature; the industrialist human settlement led by Lady Eboshi is shown to not be caricatures of corporate greed, but creatures that are presented a crossroad between stopping the advancement of their society or continue marching forward, destroying the environment in the process.

Humanity’s relationship with technology is, after all, perhaps something irreversible, imperative even. The current population density of the world, supply-chain management, energy consumption, and humanity’s overreliance to convenience would not make it a simple thing to ‘return to nature’ as simply saying it is. There is simply not a button you can press that would reverse everything in an instant. People’s consumption habits would not suddenly shift overnight and a transition into renewable sources of energy would need a collective effort. With Mononoke, Miyazaki offers a rather radical vision of hybridity where there is an interdependence between humans, nature, and the spiritual.

Miyazaki shows the people under Lady Eboshi (and herself) to be so generous, kind, and easy to relate to because that’s where a large proportion of humanity falls into; people only trying to survive, make the best of their situation, and improve their living condition. Lady Eboshi, said to be Miyazaki’s personal favorite character in the film, is not evil albeit she can be considered to fit into the villain’s role. She is generous and is genuinely compassionate towards her people (who are also marginalized individuals like prostitutes or lepers), and yet she is also trying to build an arsenal to kill the god of the forest and destroy the natural world. On the other side, bloodthirsty beasts that would welcome the eradication of humanity also exists. The film asks its audience “to see with eyes unclouded” and observe all the different factors that are at play between these two sides.

The moment we invented farming we started to plunder nature mercilessly. Both famine and abundance are contained in the cycles of nature and that’s the way people were, before they took a bite out of the apple, so to speak. When you search for the reason why humans did a foolish thing, you arrive at farming.

-Hayao Miyazaki

While staying away from organized religions, Miyazaki injects Japanese animistic beliefs into his films and especially Mononoke. This is where his radical vision of hybridity comes into play: by anthropomorphizing individual elements of nature instead of framing nature as a monolith like western depictions of ‘mother nature’, the distance between the human self and the nonhuman other may be decreased as the borders amidst the self and other are blurred. During the fourteenth century Japan, around the time when Princess Mononoke is set (certainly a conscious decision), the word “pollution” was a theological term that conveyed moral contamination of the physical and spiritual. Polluting the environment would, therefore, lead to the corruption of oneself instead of just the external world. This is seen in the film in the curse that Ashitaka carried throughout the film, harming the boar-god and by extension, nature would afflict equal amounts of ailments to humans.

In the apocalyptic end of the film, the god of the forest is killed, and its body spews toxic substance into the environment and turns the surrounding area into a wasteland. This serves as a warning that mutual destruction arises when mutual interdependence is not achieved and a war against the environment is waged instead. Ashitaka and San, belonging to these two sides, part ways due to the hybridity proposed in the film not being resolved yet. The film does not end with a solution or conclusion that would satisfy the senses—as it doesn’t reflect the current reality that we live in—instead, it acts as intellectual nourishment to model our future relationship with the natural world.

Ponyo: A Child’s Glimpse of Environmental Catastrophe

Ponyo (2008) Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Ponyo tells the story of the titular young princess of the sea, whom after she meets a human boy who lives in a beautiful seaside town and falls in love with him, longs to be a human while inadvertently unleashing a tsunami onto land. Meanwhile, Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father with a deep resentment towards humanity tries to retrieve Ponyo back into the ocean.

It is quite compelling that Ponyo, being one of Miyazaki’s most recent films that deals with the environment, is the most innocent and adolescent out of all of them. While I argue the topics covered in both Nausicaä and Mononoke appeal towards a more mature audience and requires a degree of critical thinking skills not yet developed in children in order to comprehend acutely (outside of simply seeing it as entertainment), Ponyo sees Miyazaki regressing back into his childhood and conveying an environmental and apocalyptical story through the eyes of children. Perhaps now being at the age that he could be a grandfather, Miyazaki recognizes that on this topic of protecting the environment, it was time to teach the newest generations of kids these things.

In retrospective, although he is now producing a new film and he made The Wind Rises (2013) after Ponyo, at the time, it was very likely that he worked on this film under the guise of it being his last and he made the conscious decision to have his environmental swan song to be the childish Ponyo. And that is not to also say that Ponyo lacks the refinement and bravado that previous films had just because of its primary demography, Miyazaki manages to encapsulate his nuanced takes on the environment and catastrophe in a child-friendly package that would also still serve as suitable intellectual nourishment for other age groups.

Professor Edward Said describes this as the “late style” of an artist’s final creative years where they embrace “the extremes of rage/pessimism/despair” but also “serenity/contemplation/resignation”. This is evident for Miyazaki in Ponyo where he expresses rage upon humanity by unleashing the ocean onto land, but also shows that the human’s responses are unexpectedly serene; one scene after the tsunami has stricken the seaside town even shows an entire family on a gondola boat treating the disaster like a fun outdoor picnic as they greet Ponyo and Sosuke enthusiastically as if nothing was wrong. Miyazaki shows the consequences of humanity’s destruction of nature in a cathartic manner but welcomes them in an ‘it-is-what-it-is’ attitude, because what’s done is done and the most important thing is to make the best of the current situation. Seeing these events unfold from the eyes of children also solidify this.

And this shift in storytelling style also applies to the catalyst in which the apocalypse kickstarts. Unlike the world war in Nausicaä or technological industrialism in Mononoke, Ponyo herself begins the apocalypse due to her magic and sheer passion to be with Sosuke, which releases the world-ending tsunami. It wasn’t greed, but love that caused the apocalypse this time. And we see it unfolding entirely from the two children’s eyes as they navigate and solve the problems through arduous perseverance and childlike curiosity.

The balance of nature is entirely chaotic and disrupted almost beyond repair in Ponyo, and this may be Miyazaki’s way of saying that the way he sees it, the future that the newest generation of children is heading towards is a grim one, and the projected trajectory might see humans raising the call-to-arms to protect the environment too late. Whether we will change our behavior or not, some parts of nature are already heading towards an irreversible entropy; animals have gone extinct, temperatures have risen and entire habitats have been lost. This film shows not a solution to the problem, but the proper attitude in facing it. In this grim future that we are heading towards together, childlike love, tolerance, curiosity, and optimism are perhaps not the solution itself, but a pathway towards it. Miyazaki is telling the future generation to face the apocalypse with open arms, and play around in that new world as a child would, then perhaps they could rebuild anew while reflecting on all the past mistakes we have made.

Some people suffer from the misconception that Isao Takahata and I are both some sorts of environmentalists, that we will make a film out of anything as long as it has an environmental theme or message. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a film would be like a fat dried-up log, propped upright. What we need is a living thing, with strong roots, a solid trunk and branches, so that we can be creative in the way we hang the ornaments.

-Hayao Miyazaki

References

Napier, S. (2018). Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale University Press.

Morgan, G. (2015). Creatures in Crisis: Apocalyptic Environmental Visions in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Resilience: A Journal of Environmental Humanities, 2(3), pp. 172-183. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/614511.

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