“I don’t understand,” I said one Friday evening as I stuffed crinkle-cut potato chips and French onion dip into my mouth and watched Princess Mononoke with my roommate during my first winter away from home at university. “Why are the animals so big?” I protested. “Why’s everybody yelling all the time? Ashitaka! San!” We laughed at this. “And what are those black blob things?” This last question lingered in the air without an answer.
Princess Mononoke (1997) was my first experience of anime, since watching shows like Sailor Moon and Pokémon as a middle-schooler, and it thoroughly confused me. The film was nothing like what I remembered of the colorful, bubbly Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch when I was a kid, and yet, I became entranced.
Giant mammals that looked like megafauna from epochs past, a brave prince who came from a secluded, mystical community in the northeastern reaches of Japan—based on the indigenous Ainu people—and two female lead characters, both of whom were passionate and ready to kick ass! This list doesn’t even mention the hand-painted backgrounds, the sweeping soundtrack, or any of the other technical prowess that goes into making an animated film. Princess Mononoke was different, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
It was a turning point for me in terms of what I liked to watch. It was the beginning of my foray back into anime, and it sparked my initial fascination with all things Studio Ghibli. It stirred my imagination like nothing ever had before, and it gave me nightmares about “blob things.” If you’ve ever seen Princess Mononoke, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. The black, oozing tar that emerges from the boar god at the beginning of the film as he’s slowly corrupted by hate and turned into a demon—it’s an image that really stuck in my mind as I watched the film for the very first time, and it’s an image that stays with me still, even now.Princess Mononoke gives me chills. It’s creepy and slightly disgusting at times and makes the hair on my arms stand up straight. It makes me uncomfortable, it makes me question reality, and it makes me feel alive. Hayao Miyazaki’s depiction of hate incarnate, those “blob things,” is something you can’t forget. His almost magical realist vision of Muromachi period Japan intrigued me and inspired me to find out more about its maker and about why this story had been told.
The plot of Princess Mononoke, which was originally released in 1997 (I saw it in 2003), contains multitudes. One of its main premises centers on the constant push and pull that humans experience regarding preserving the environment and progressing as a species through the manipulation of the earth with technology. It is an obvious tale of the precarious nature of technology and materialism, how it can lead to greed, and to humankind’s eventual downfall. It is a tale told so many times before that I’m sure you know it very well. Woman versus nature, industrialization versus the environment, technology versus magic—yet, Princess Mononoke, and most of Miyazaki’s films, does not contain the usual conflict narrative you see in so many other nature versus technology themed stories. Instead, the message in Princess Mononoke—the message in almost all of Miyazaki’s films, for that matter—is deeper than that. It may seem obvious to the casual viewer that Miyazaki wants you to know that destroying the environment is wrong, but his worlds are never truly black and white.
Multifaceted and complex, Princess Mononoke contains a variety of themes and messages, many of which rest upon a solid foundation in Japanese history and culture. And while its message of environmental preservation is strong, this message couldn’t be more obvious than in one of Miyazaki’s earlier films—Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
Considered a classic Miyazaki work, Nausicaä actually started out as a manga series serialized in Animage, a Japanese anime and entertainment magazine, from 1982 to 1994. The film, which is technically pre-Studio Ghibli—animated by studio Topcraft and distributed by Toei Company, but the film did spark Ghibli’s creation—was released in 1984 after the manga became popular.
Human-caused climate change, the environmental disaster of our time, had yet to be a widely accepted scientific theory in the ’80s, or at least not well-known outside of the scientific community, and yet, Nausicaä reads strongly like a climate change story. It was the next pseudo-Studio Ghibli film I saw, and it was impactful. As Master Yupa, one of the main characters who acts as a father figure to Nausicaä throughout the movie, says in the manga, “Old life forms have given way to new many times in the history of this planet. But those transitions were all gradual, the work of slow biological shifts.” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Unlike Princess Mononoke, which takes place in the past, Nausicaä takes place in a post-apocalyptic future (the opening crawl says the story takes place 1,000 years in the past, but when you really look at the story, it feels more like a possible future) in which civilization has collapsed and humankind has destroyed much of the planet through war. The “Seven Days of Fire,” as it is referred to, created a poisonous landscape called the Sea of Decay or Corruption, depending upon how you translate it, that releases toxic spores into the air that are lethal to human beings.
The planet is in bad shape, and humans struggle to find ways to survive and flourish in a civilized and peaceful way. Resources are scarce, and people continue to fight one another rather than working together to find a solution. Only Nausicaä, the title character of the film, seems to be in tune with the earth and what it would take to live with it and heal the wounds that humans created. Nausicaä is loving, but also very passionate, often to the detriment of her own health and safety. She understands the ancient technology left behind by the people of the past, something that helps her to find solutions to her people’s problems.
Similar to most other Miyazaki films, Nausicaä never outright rejects or even denounces technology. Instead, it takes a middle stance, neither condemning technological advances nor condoning austere living. From the start, viewers are shown the post-apocalyptic technological state of Nausicaä’s world. Crumbling mechanical objects dot the landscape, archaeological remnants of a time when humans used their superior technology to wipe out society, and a brief flash of Giant Warriors can be seen at the beginning of the film surrounded by fire and brimstone. These humongous robotic warriors—reminiscent of mecha—played a central role in the apocalyptic war that destroyed civilization and created the Sea of Decay or Corruption that covers most of the earth and makes it uninhabitable for humankind. The Giant Warriors are obviously an extreme that Miyazaki is denouncing.
In contrast, Nausicaä’s peaceful valley kingdom has undoubtedly struck a balance between living with nature, with the fields and orchards the villagers maintain, and utilizing the technology they have left from the past to keep their homes safe. Nausicaä’s trusty mehve or möwe or glider, for example, her principal mode of transportation throughout the film, appears to be benevolent. “The Blue-Clad One,” as she is eventually called, transverses the skies with ease and with minimal damage to the Ohm and other creatures and vegetation living in the Sea of Corruption. The polluting capabilities of the glider seem minimal, with only a basic engine and boosters available for flight. A brief glimpse of the town, too, demonstrates how, at least in Nausicaä’s community, humans can use technology to both harness the wild and live with it. The valley is marked with windmills that, presumably, create non-polluting electricity for the settlement.
Miyazaki believes in the protection of the environment and advocates for its protection in Nausicaä, and yet, he also believes in using technology for humankind’s betterment. This is shown in Nausicaä, but even so, many people forget Miyazaki’s optimistic outlook with regard to technology and only look at his love of nature. They assume that his message of environmentalism and pacifism means that technological advancement is out of the question when in reality Miyazaki’s films tell us a different story: when used properly and with care and mindfulness, humans can use technology not only to better society, but also the planet.
In retrospect, Nausicaä is a highly hopeful film about the future. Given that it came out over 30 years ago and that our current environmental-technological situation is rather grim, I’d like to look at a more recent Miyazaki film in order to drive the point home. If Nausicaä, one of Miyazaki’s earliest works, is optimistic about humankind’s ability to use technology for good, both for themselves and the planet, then The Wind Rises (2013), Miyazaki’s most recent film (it was lauded as his final film, but Miyazaki eventually came back out of retirement, again, to start work on Boro the Caterpillar), is cynical about humanity’s relationship with technology and nature.
Just like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä, the magical realist The Wind Rises addresses the constant tug of war between preserving the environment and transcending it, even if this is not obvious at first glance. The main character Jiro Horikoshi—a highly fictionalized and idealized vision of the real-life man who designed the maneuverable and deadly Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” during World War II—struggles constantly with his romantic desire to design the perfect plane and the fact that his plane will be used to kill people in war.
His struggle, which manifests itself in subtle ways throughout the film, like in his sweetheart and wife Naoko Satomi’s battle with tuberculosis, ends with regret; regret that he created such a destructive weapon and regret that humanity couldn’t find a better way to utilize his amazing invention. Jiro questions whether or not he spent his time alive wisely, and unlike Nausicaä, which seems to be saying “use technology for good,” it isn’t clear in The Wind Rises whether or not humans should be creating anything at all.
Near the end of the film, the chimerical Giovanni Battista Caproni—also a real-life Italian aeronautical engineer—who appears in Jiro’s dreams throughout the story tells him that at least his dream was fulfilled and that he should be proud of his creation. Caproni says at one point, “Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” This sentiment, the idea that humankind’s creations are cursed and simultaneously beautiful, I believe is the main message of many Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films. Knowing the right means to fulfilling your dreams isn’t easy, something Miyazaki knows personally, and yet, finding a way to accomplish your deepest aspirations is something all humans seem to crave. Dreaming and striving are not inherently wrong, but they can be problematic, especially when they are ill-considered and done for selfish reasons.
You can see this harmonious dichotomy is Princess Mononoke when Ashitaka decides to live with both the humans and Lady Eboshi in Irontown and with San and the wolves in the forest. It is also apparent in Nausicaä when Nausicaä discovers through experimentation and technological manipulation that the earth can heal itself. And Miyazaki has also said it himself.
In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), a documentary about Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki says that “Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams.” He questions his role as an anime director, his role in the world, and his role as a citizen of humanity. Does making anime really help anyone when natural and human-made disasters continue to negatively affect humankind? Does making anime really make the world a better place? Later in the documentary, he questions why he entered the industry at all and if his efforts really make him happy. He says, “I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life. How could that be our ultimate goal? Film-making only brings suffering.”
But in the end, even if film-making appears superfluous and also difficult, it is a necessary creation, a necessary technology in our lives. Humans are more than simply consuming animals. We are more than thoughtless creatures, and we need something to look to for hope. Miyazaki’s films bring that hope back into our lives and make it worth dreaming and worth living, even if our dreams and our technology come into conflict with the planet. Miyazaki wants us to find solutions to those conflicts. He wants us to keep trying, but only if we pursue our dreams in a compassionate and open-minded way.
“Problems begin the moment we’re born,” Miyazaki declares in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. “We’re born with infinite possibilities, only to give up on them one after another. To choose one thing is to give up on another. That’s inevitable. But what can you do? That’s what it is to live.”
When Lady Eboshi asked Ashitaka what his goals were in Princess Mononoke, he replied, “To see with eyes unclouded by hate.” Miyazaki has been quoted as saying something similar. He wants people to do good and fight hate, but in a way that does not embrace dichotomies and sees through the insincerity and ignorance that often clouds people’s judgments and decisions. “You must see with eyes unclouded by hate,” he says. “See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.”