Humanity’s damaging effects on the environment have been considered pressing issues for many years now, and they continue to, rightfully, dominate global discussion and influence politics around the world. As these issues have continue to seep into the collective consciousness, people are increasingly thinking about how they interact with it, the responsibilities we have to the nature around us, even our place in the natural world at large. This shift in public opinion has also been reflected in popular media – an ever growing number of movies, TV shows and albums tackle environmental issues – documentaries focusing on one specific issue (Seaspiricy for instance) often become hot topics for discussion upon release – but they often present their ideas to varying degrees of success. One man who has been interested in these issues for a long time now is none other than visionary Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, who, through his films, has explored the human relationship with the natural world in its multitudes, often through the use of forest environments which take human protagonists out of their more traditional urban settings. In exploring these themes, Miyazaki has often been referred to as an ‘environmentalist’, and today we’ll be taking a look at how the forests of some of Miyazaki’s most celebrated movies help him present environmentalist concepts. In order to do so, we’ll first need to establish an understanding of the word ‘environmentalism’, and where Miyazaki’s portrayals of the natural world could fit inside of this school of thought.
As a word, ‘environmentalism’ seems easy enough to understand – just from looking at it, you can assume that it refers to a philosophy which supports the natural world around us, which, while correct, slightly underestimates the depth that can be found in this ideology. One definition claims that environmentalism is an ideology which aims to limit the damage caused by humans to the Earth, but once you start digging deeper, you’ll find that there are, broadly speaking, two distinct intellectual camps which make up the philosophy – the anthropocentric view, and the biocentric. Anthropocentric environmentalism is, as the name would suggest, focused more heavily on humanity, and places our needs at the centre of environmental problems. Anthropocentric environmentalists feel a need to protect the natural world through a sense of moral duty to their future descendants and what they feel humans owe to each other. Individual creatures and species serve instrumental value for humans, and as such, the reason that the environment needs to be protected is that if we don’t, life for humans will become increasingly difficult. Conversely, a biocentric view of environmentalism could be considered ‘life-centred’ and believes that the natural world around us and the various creatures which populate it have an intrinsic value, whether they benefit humanity or not. Biocentric environmentalists would generally argue that humans and other parts of the natural environment are members of one large, global, ecological community which we have a duty to preserve. Looking at Miyazaki’s movies and general criticism of his themes suggests that he is a strong member of the biocentric school of thought. This makes a lot of sense when you consider his cultural background – Shinto, often considered Japan’s indigenous religion (although Western views of the word religion might make it an unsuitable term), is often described as an animistic view of the world through its beliefs that kami (perhaps best considered as a mysterious life force rather than its general translation of ‘gods’ when one considers differences between what the West would consider ‘gods’ and what is presented in Shinto) exist in everything – both living and nonliving. This way of thinking often places humanity not at the centre of the world, but as a part of its grander systems – a school of thought which undoubtedly influenced the stories and worlds of Miyazaki.
Perhaps the most visually striking presentation of Miyazaki’s biocentric views of environmentalism is found in the composition of his scenes focusing on the natural world and, specifically, the forest. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’s Sea of Decay, a poisonous forest gradually worming its way through villages and spreading around the world, the sense of scale is immense. In many shots featuring human protagonists, they are dwarfed by their surroundings, rendered insignificant by this land of giant trees and insects. Miyazaki continues this trend in Princess Mononoke. The guardians deities of the forest are gigantuan, towering over Ashitaka and San. This composition is a direct attack on the human hubris which defines anthropocentric views of the world and attempts to humble us as viewers.
It’s not just in physical size that the mystical and alien forests of Nausicaa and Mononoke dominate the humans, but also in how they reign over people’s minds and lives. The unsettling knowledge that the Sea of Decay is ever growing looms large over life in the Valley of the Wind, while Mononoke’s forests dominate discussion and day-to-day life in Lady Eboshi’s city. The forest is not only physically large, but also omnipresent existence, the spectre of which defines the motivations and lives of the people around them.
Beyond the fantasy forests of Mononoke and Nausicaa, My Neighbour Totoro also employs the same elements when portraying the forest. The giant tree dominates the view from Mei and Satsuki’s house, constantly looking down on them, watching over their every move. When Mei first discovers Totoro, she is, much like Nausicaa in the Sea of Decay, dwarfed by the creature and the trees around her – only a small part of the nature that surrounds her. That Miyazaki portrays even smaller, more grounded forests in this way is key in his attempts to show that we are all part of this larger ecosystem. Were it just the fantastical forests of Mononoke and Nausicaa, it might be easy for the viewer to feel somewhat disconnected from Miyazaki’s message, but Totoro, its forests more immediate and relatable ensures that his message hits.
Another way in which Miyazaki’s movies portray a biocentric view of environmentalism is found in how they present the forests’ effects on the humans around them. Starting with Totoro, we see the benevolent forest often seen in Western attempts at promoting environmentalism. The forest and its creatures offer solace to the suffering of Mei and Satsuki as they struggle with life in their new home and their mother in hospital. Through their night time visits to the girls, the forest spirits offer a much needed sense of comfort. When Mei goes missing, the forest is where Satsuki ultimately turns to and where, with the help of Totoro, she finds the means to track her little sister via the catbus. The message is clear – the forest is a boon for humans, one that offers support when needed. Miyazaki’s portrayal of the forest here could be seen as anthropocentric when taken in isolation, but there are times when the girls are cut off from the forest – when Mei tries to guide her family back to Totoro for the first time for example – which already suggests an element of agency to the forest which typical anthropocentric presentations of environmentalism might lack.
Things continue to drift away from the anthropocentric viewpoint when we bring the forests of Nausicaa and Mononoke into th picture. Whereas the forests of Totoro were strictly benevolent, the Sea of Decay and Mononoke‘s forest are much more dangerous. In Mononoke, the forest and the humans are actively antagonistic towards each other, each attempting to destroy the other, while the Sea of Decay and the insects within appear to be bringing about the gradual extinctuon of humanity. This contradiction between the benevolence of Toronto’s forest and the destructive power of the others is key in placing Miyazaki’s views inside of environmentalist framework. While these representations may at first appear to be contradictory, that is mainly because, as humans, we have a tendency to look at things through an anthropocentric lens. If we consider Miyazaki’s forests through a biocentric viewpoint, we can remove humans from the equation when evaluating the forest an whether it should be preserved. Suddenly, we are able to consider them on their own and observe the place they hold in the larger global ecosystem. The Sea of Decay, while poisonous to humans, is also home to a multitude of creatures, some of which, like the Ohm, seem to have a high level of emotional intelligence. In addition, it is also actively purifying the ground that had been polluted through the acts of previous ‘great’ human civilizations. Nausicaa herself points out that the water the remaining people drink is only potable thanks to the forest, which would make it impossible to live without it. These contradictions ultimately lay the foundation of Miyazaki’s views and separate him from the ‘benevolent’ forests often seen in more anthropocentric Western attempts at environmentalism.
While it’s undeniable that Miyazaki’s portrayal of the forest and its value are predominantly biocentric in their viewpoints, there are a few moments in which characters inside the stories hold their own anthropocentric views. Nausicaa, when trying to convince others of the importance of the Sea of Decay informs them of its purifying properties and how it is helping support life for example. This could be seen as Miyazaki’s way of acknowledging that while we should be valuing nature through a biocentric lens, sometimes, when it comes to trying to convince others of the value of the environment and the natural world around us, it’s anthropocentric arguments that might hold more sway. Miyazaki’s stories are incredibly detailed and beautifully deep, but they don’t tend to be as clear in their lessons as Western movies aimed at families might be, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. This manner of more subtly sharing his views might help to foster a more innate sense of responsibility towards the natural world than simply telling the audience how to feel – he allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions, giving them a sense of ownership of the lessons they learn, and as such, these movies could be seen as hidden gateways into environmentalism in the biocentric sense of the word.