The Portrayals of Eco-feminism Through Japanese Anime: An Examination
Animation studio, Studio Ghibli, focuses on messages not so commonly found in children’s programming: environmentalism and feminism. Since its debut in 1985, Hayao Miyazaki has been implementing these ideologies into his films through the Studio’s Japanese animation world alongside co-founder Isao Takahata. After a while, Miyazaki and Takahata were tremendously successful in expanding their audience outside of Japan, as countries like America and England have joined the Ghibli craze. Amongst the studios’ prosperous development, Miyazaki picked up an Academy Award for his film Spirited Away in 2003 for best-animated feature film as it became the highest grossing movie ever seen in Japan. These victories could easily be due to Miyazaki’s beautiful use of animation; however, it is more so his ability to transmit authentic emotion into audiences that allows Miyazaki to be considered the father of Japanese anime. He communicates these emotions by employing themes uncommon to most American studios such as Walt Disney – although they eventually bought out Studio Ghibli. For example, most classic Walt Disney films enforce the idea that every princess needs a prince to rescue and marry her in order to have a happy ending. Meanwhile, Miyazaki has been using female characters as the ones doing the rescuing since the release of his first film Castle in the Sky in 1986. Amongst his use of strong female leads, Miyazaki has also strayed from incorporating romance in his films in order to focus on more critical issues such as ecology and the relationship between nature and humankind.
Miyazaki explores these various relationships by implementing a similar theme regarding environmentalism through the use of female heroines in several of his films. This is where Hayao Miyazaki is most noted in a discussion of ecological themes by Kozo Mayumi, Barry D. Solomon, and Jason Change, being that he “is singled out to offer ample material in many of his popular children’s films to stimulate such critical thinking on the systemic problems addressed by ecological economics” (1). Though sustainability can be rather complex – ranging from a number of issues such as climate change, recycling, and overpopulation – Miyazaki has the ability to send a clear message regarding ecology and environmentalism to viewers of all ages. By analyzing two of Miyazaki’s films; Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind I will further investigate how ecological awareness is depicted through a relationship between humans and nature with the use of female heroines and how this ideology becomes the central themes of this work.
All three films are similar in theme, heroine, and animation style. Through a narrative analysis, the settings of each film were examined in order to establish a sense of how nature is depicted through Miyazaki’s incredible use of animation. Then, the futurist female leaders and the female protagonist from both films were evaluated to show how the relationship between humans and nature is presented through leading feminist roles. Specific events in each film also uncovered an important message regarding the impacts humankind has on nature and how women are portrayed. With that, I have also explored the feministic ideologies present in each film, preforming a feminist critique in order to examine how female leadership ultimately represents an environmental appreciation as well.
Princess Mononoke. This film takes place in Japan during an era known as Japan’s Muromachi Period (1336-1573). Where, according to Brian Eggert and his discussion in Deep Focus Review, “Zen Buddhism spread, Christian Jesuits and Chinese satraps penetrated the landscape, and new ideas sprung about from all directions” (1). Though this time period was essentially thought of as a time for samurai and nobles, Miyazaki abandons those ideas in order to focus on how changing times and industrialization puts a strain on humanity’s relationship with nature. Eggert explains that, “the film’s epoch was the first time in Japan’s history that people tried to tame nature versus worship it, raping the land for its treasures and using them to further the superiority of humankind” (1). Because this was a new idea, nature still held dominance and remained significant in the film, as most of it had not yet been industrialized and corrupted by humanity. Aside from Iron Town, a now industrialized part of the forest due to the futurist leader Lady Eboshi, mystery and magic still remains in the wild forests that cover the hills and it exists in a pure form. This forest in comparison to Iron Town provides an interesting contrast that allows viewers to see what the rest of the beautiful forests will probably become – conveying a tense relationship between humans and nature – and why Princess Mononoke resents people like Lady Eboshi.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Setting is perhaps the most important aspect of this film, especially when conveying an ecological message relevant in today’s civilization. It takes place 1,000 years after “The Seven Days Fire,” an apocalyptic catastrophe in which the great God Warriors destroyed civilization and the forest spirits. Since then, Eggert explains that “massive toxic forests, in sum called ‘The Sea of Decay,’ release deadly flora, contagious spores, contain lethal gasses, and serve as a breeding ground to colossal insects” (1). Because of this destruction, all of the characters, including Nausicaa, are forced to wear masks when prone to such environments. These masks are a symbol that directly represents the now poor relationship between humans and nature after what the God Warriors had done. Though this is the main setting throughout the movie, only briefly do viewers see a location that was unharmed by the dangers of toxic forests. It is a seaside location and like Princess Mononoke it provides a contrast between what nature could have been and what it is now. However, an airship crash-lands onto the untouched valley and releases the deadly spores to the only safe haven on the planet.
The Futurist Leaders. In Princess Mononoke the futurist leader, known as Lady Eboshi, is the direct representation of how the industrialized community is taking over the beautiful forests. As a result Princess Mononoke, who lives in the forest, spends a majority of the movie trying to murder her before Lady Eboshi continues to kill her home and the forest spirit, Shishigami. Because of her motives, Lady Eboshi is habitually perceived as the antagonist in the film; however, she represents something a lot more complex and that is moral ambiguity. On the surface, she appears to be a malicious ruler willing to destroy anything that stands in the way of increasing her wealth. However, in actuality, Ryan Bowen in his discussion on humans and nature states, “she sought to mine iron as way to bring prosperity to her people and combats Moro’s clan to protect them” (1). Furthermore, though the women who work for Lady Eboshi seem to be working tirelessly, they are actually grateful for Lady Eboshi, as she rescued them from their life in brothels. As a result, Bowen suggests that despite the fact she “focuses her efforts on killing [Shishigami], she is doing it for the people who otherwise would have nowhere to go if not for Iron Town” (1). As a fearless leader fighting for the people and the town she cares about, a skewed perception of her is formed because she harms nature while doing so. The battle between Lady and Eboshi and Princess Mononoke fully symbolizes the battle between humanity and nature; however, in the end Lady Eboshi agrees to live harmoniously with the forest.
Typically, Miyazaki portrays his princesses as the protagonists in his movies; however, Princess Kushana is represented as the futurist leader of the Tolmekian army in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, who is looking to destroy the forest despite Nausicaa’s efforts to save it. Like Lady Eboshi, Miyazaki paints Princess Kushana as the villain; yet, as the plot line develops audiences begin to sympathize with her as well. As a child, Princess Kushana lost an arm and both of her legs to the creatures that roam in Nausicaa’s forest and thus is looking to extinguish the area and get revenge. With her limbs now replaced by metal shells, she is rather ruthless in her attacks because she was born into battle. She grew up defending herself from her three brothers and their desire for the throne, as well as her father who she believes poisoned her mother. Despite her judgment being greatly clouded by revenge and habit, Nausicaa Wikia suggests, “she cares deeply for the men under her command, but is portrayed as brutal and harsh to her enemies” (“Kushana”). After much turmoil created between Nausicaa and Princess Kushana – another direct symbol for the battle of nature versus humanity – Princess Kushana begins to understand Nausicaa’s position and ceases fire. Though this change of heart can be confusing for audiences, Nausicaa Wiki states that “although at times she appears to be mean and cruel, she is actually very afraid. She puts up a strong front in order to hide her fears and actually has a very caring heart. As the story unfolds she changes into a gentle and caring person” (“Kushana”). Therefore, Miyazaki is careful not to paint her as an evil villain, but a character, like Lady Eboshi, doing what she believes is right.
The Protagonist Princesses. In each of the films, the princesses that are portrayed as the protagonists are nowhere near as complex as the futurist leaders. Because their motives are preferred in the name of preserving nature, Miyazaki spends less time justifying their behaviors. For example, Princess Mononoke, also known as San, dedicates her life to murdering Lady Eboshi simply because San assumes Lady Eboshi is eliminating her home for her own profit. Wolves raised San after her parents sacrificed her for their own protection; thus, her main duty throughout the film is defending her home and the animals she lives with, as she rejects her own humanity. Her perseverance and dedication towards saving the forest she lives in pays off and after much destruction and mayhem Lady Eboshi eventually surrenders to San and her wolf pack.
Nausicaa is the only character able to find some sort of beauty in the toxic forests and insects in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. With such appreciation, she is the first to realize that there is clean water and healthy soil deep beneath the poisonous wasteland. Because her perseverance ultimately stops Princess Kushana from destroying this last bit of hope for a habitable environment, she is viewed as a “prophesied idol.” Through her, Eggert explains “the films message suggests the environment must be preserved in its natural state, even if said ‘nature’ is not comprised of cute, fluffy, animals but rather precarious life” (1). Thus, Miyazaki uses her as a symbol for the future prosperity of nature when unharmed by humans.
Not only are both films similar in setting and character, but they contain comparable plot lines as well. Each film is focused on a female protagonist trying to save the forests that have been corrupted by humanity. However, in order to save the forests from further pollution each protagonist must undergo a war against futurist humans who do not deem the forest worth saving. In both films, these futurist leaders are females and the men are seen in the background during the battle, fighting for their female ruler. The end of each film portrays a sympathy hidden beneath each futurist leader, when the female protagonist and her allies win the war and the antagonists come to accept nature and vow to cause no further harm. Also in each film, nature is restored in some way having been burdened by the heat of battle.
In Princess Mononoke the female protagonist is the teenaged princess named San. Because she does not want the supposed antagonist, Lady Eboshi, to create further deforestation to her home for profit, San makes it her mission to kill her. The first sign of war begins when a clan of boars led by the boar god Okkoto and San attack Iron Town and fail while doing so. This acts as a kernel and greatly angers Lady Eboshi and her people, so they set out against San and Moro – the head of her wolf pack. The war, or the satellite, continues for the better part of the movie, as Lady Eboshi beheads the forest spirit and San searches for it amidst a heated battle. With the Forest Spirit’s head missing, a curse pours from its body and harms anything that touches it; therefore, the forest becomes more compromised than ever before as it starts to decay. Once San retrieves the Forest Spirit’s head and Moro bites off Lady Eboshi’s arm, she surrenders and agrees to build a more sustainable town. Amongst the truce, the forest begins to rid of decay and grow back.
In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the female protagonist is also a teenaged princess; Nausicaa, who desperately wants to find a way for the forest to co-exist with humans after the apocalyptic war. Amidst her quest for a harmonious environment, Tolmekian troops led by Princess Kushana crash down in the valley and plan to burn down the toxic forest. This kernel creates the same satellite seen in Princess Mononoke: war. Nausicaa kills several Tolmekian soldiers during battle and ends up held hostage by Princess Kushana. Once she escapes, she discovers clean soil underground which implies the possibility of a non-toxic environment. However, the war continues as the Tolmekian soldiers release their deadliest bioweapon: a Giant Warrior that caused the Seven Days of Fire. With this Giant Warrior, Princess Kushana plans to burn down the toxic jungle, which Nausicaa now knows can be saved. In order to stop her, Nausicaa fights her way to make the Giant Warrior disintegrate and succeeds after a near death experience. Amongst her success, Princess Kushana flees and the last scene shows a healthy flower growing next to Nausicaa’s lost aviation goggles even after nature has undergone another devastating blow.
The princesses in both Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind destroy audience’s common assumptions regarding how princesses are normally thought to behave as portrayed in other Disney movies. For example, both Nausicaa and San do not win their battles by simply being kind, naïve, and innocent while waiting for prince charming; instead, they are at the front lines of each war from the very beginning. In Nausicaa’s case, she is the princess of a small group of people and her position actually holds incredible power and responsibility. According to Gaggin on Sexism “the fact that Nausicaa has power is a very distinctive difference between all the Disney princesses, none of whom are ever shown to have any power whatsoever as a princess” (“Destroying the Princess Stereotype: Nausicaa”). With this power, Nausicaa, takes great risks and puts herself in danger several times in order to save the people she loves and keep others from further destroying the world. Thus, Miyazaki portrays Nausicaa as a resilient character able to act on her own accord without being motivated by any kind of romance – often seen in Disney films as well – or any dominate male characters. The same can be said for San, as she holds no common princess traits like extreme beauty and kindness and is actually seen as a savage character. In fact, in her discussion of confronting narratives Susan J. Napier writes:“The ‘nature’ that San epitomizes suggests assault, destruction, and profound unstoppable rage” (18). Therefore, San is not driven by any kind of romance typically found in other Disney films – but an intense hatred.
As for the futurist leaders, Lady Eboshi is the head of Iron Town and the men who work for her, as she created it herself. Princess Kushana is also the head of her troop and has even beaten out all three of her brothers for the throne of her kingdom. In a feminist lens, this positions viewers to see women as powerful rather than using the typical male for the portrayal of such traits. Despite each of these characters seemingly malicious motives at the beginnings of each film, Miyazaki is careful not to paint these women in an extreme negative light. According to Eggert, “[Miyazaki’s] villains are usually sympathetic in some way, to demonstrate how political climates always contain uncertainty, and how only in the most thinly described fiction do extremes of right and wrong exist” (1). This is evident in Princess Kushana’s devastating background and Lady Eboshi’s fight to continue protecting the women she saved from the brothels. With Lady Eboshi’s intense dedication she is actually seen as “An incredibly strong female who understands the injustices of the women’s positions in society” (“Lady Eboshi Gozen”). As a result, Miyazaki restrained from representing these powerful female characters harshly and used them as a symbol for something much more complex. Though Lady Eboshi and Princess Kushana have different motives, they do share the same hatred for injustice.
Eco-Feminism is a genre that combines ecology and feminism and how they work together to create an important message regarding humanity’s relationship with nature. Upon analyzing the two films it is evident that Hayao Miyazaki uses the two ideologies to his advantage in order to depict female heroines as powerful and in charge as well as portray how humanity is destroying nature rather than respecting it. By presenting these ideologies in children’s animation, Miyazaki is implicating the vital role humanity; especially women, play on the environment to young viewers. By using female characters as the people both destroying and saving nature, Miyazaki exhibits to audiences at a young age the powerful impact that females have on the world and what they are capable of, whether it be good or evil.
Miyazaki allows for intense critical thinking regarding what is evil and what is considered justifiable. In their discussion on animating children’s activism Michelle J. Smith and Elizabeth Parsons say “[Miyazaki’s] principle strength lies in asking child audiences to think about compassion for the poor and disenfranchised in tandem with care for nature, as per the underlying principle of environmental justice” (5). Therefore, Miyazaki allows for audiences to sympathize with the female futurist leaders in the film, while questioning certain injustices and having audiences decide for themselves what is preferred. By using female characters as representations for nature itself, industrialization, injustice, and moral ambiguity, Miyazaki stresses the importance females have on the environments surrounding them. Thus, while telling audiences that humans are the cause and cure for such environmental destruction, Miyazaki is also implicating the leading roles females have in the world. Not only when it comes to nature but in each and every type of environment.