Environmentalism & Pacifism in Films: Studio Ghibli of Hayao Miyazaki
The research question investigated was ‘To what extent do Studio Ghibli productions reflect the political ideologies of their filmmakers?’ The aim of the project was to thoroughly research and determine the various political ideologies that were conveyed through the art, the filmmakers’ intentions, and whether these ideologies have an influence on the audience. This outcome will address the key findings that have come out of the research process including but not limited to, Japan’s history, the filmmakers’ influences and known political stance on controversial topics, the context of the film, expert reviews on the films, and the international response to the productions. The findings from the research are aimed at those involved or interested in animated film, particularly Japanese cinema, and one of the well-known animation studios, Studio Ghibli.
To step into the world of animated cinema, one cannot miss the powerhouse animated production company, Studio Ghibli. World-renowned and critically acclaimed, Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most revered and beloved works to have ever graced the screen. As a Japanese animation film studio based in Tokyo, it is strange to find a studio with an Italian-based name from the noun ‘ghibli’ meaning hot desert wind; the idea being the studio would “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli was created to foster a creative environment where originality and artistic vision took precedence over commercial success – never once taking the easy route and making a sequel to any of their past successes. The studio is responsible for some of the finest feature-length animated films ever produced, inspiring countless artists and filmmakers including John Lasseter (co-founder of Pixar) who once said that Ghibli’s “Miyazaki is the greatest animation director living today.”
Throughout the Ghibli universes, common themes and artistic styles crop up repeatedly; particularly a few subtle political messages that are often hidden deep into the many layers of Ghibli’s productions, or at other times, expressed obviously. Political ideology in film is not a new concept nor limited to Japanese cinema in particular. Ideology is usually defined as a body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. The term is generally associated with politics and party platforms; however, it can also mean a given set of values that are embedded in any human enterprise – including filmmaking. In other words, specifically in film, ideology can be known mainly as ‘assumptions’. It can be imagined as a way of looking at things or simply as an artistic vision. Studio Ghibli productions are not political films in any sense but that does not mean they do not contain political messages or align with certain opinions of the filmmaker.
Heavily recurrent and possibly the most criticised Studio Ghibli productions follow a clear ideology; anti-war pacifism. It is publicly known that both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have strong opinions on Japan’s militarism based on their own childhood growing up. Takahata experienced the horrors of war firsthand, having survived a devastating U.S. air raid on his hometown in World War II and staunchly opposes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to amend the war-renouncing Constitution of 1947. World War II also had an impact on Miyazaki; his family moved away from the capital city to escape the severe effects when he was an infant, and their family in the business of manufacturing parts for warplanes, of which Miyazaki later in life indicated that he felt guilty that his family profited from Japan’s involvement in World War II. Both directors’ firm dislike of Japan’s militarism has manifested in their work. In particular, Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, pictured in Figure 1, and Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, pictured in Figure 4, weave a haunting and harrowing web of consequences of ‘senseless’ wars.
In Robert Ebert’s 4-star review of Grave of the Fireflies, Ebert believes that Fireflies belongs on the list of the greatest war movies ever made despite being an animated film. The director Isao Takahata has denied its characterization as an anti-war film, but as Clint Eastwood has said, “any war told realistically is an anti-war movie.” And Fireflies is unsparing in its portrayal of the realities of war, especially for being based on a semi-autobiographical novel, whose author lost his adoptive father to the firebombing of Kobe and had to watch his baby sister Keiko die of hunger. Similarly, Fireflies tells the story of two children who actually paid the price of war; from the realistic perspective of its most vulnerable victims struggling to survive the last few months of WWII as opposed to the fighters. Displayed in Figures 2 and 3, the film’s plot is not only centered on the horrors of war, the film starting and ending with the protagonists’ deaths, but the cinematic techniques employed, such as lightning, colour, and sound, all accumulate to a visual masterpiece which depicts war as dark, alarming, and ruthless. Regardless of Takahata’s intentions, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful anti-war film that shadows Takahata’s stance on Japan’s militarism.
Similarly, Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle has the same anti-war sentiments, however much more deliberate. Traditionally, in western fantasies struggles between the protagonist and antagonist are straightforward, the former and latter being characterised as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ respectively. However, Miyazaki’s fantasies depict war as senseless and horrific, with characters that are deeply flawed and heroes who are trying to defuse the war while being caught between the two sides. In Howl, a war between two neighboring countries has resulted in enforced conscription for magicians. Howl is a draft-dodging magician who stays free through his numerous identities and teleporting magical-mechanical castle, eventually joined by spell-cursed Sophie. Miyazaki has stated that his outrage over the Iraq War occurring at the time had a major influence on the film and for a time even boycotted travel to America. The war repeatedly referred to as “this stupid war”, depicted in Howl is blatantly anti-war and in line with Miyazaki’s consistent pacifistic philosophy. A glorious moment in the film, shown in Figure 8, is when Howl and Sophie see a flying battleship appear and violate the beautiful serenity of Howl’s long-time refuge. The dialogue in Figure 9 occurs.
Then, Howl magically disables the ship with a wave of his hand. It is a pure Miyazaki move; air raids are mass murder, regardless of whether it is done by ‘our side’ or ‘the enemy’. In Howl’s Moving Castle, it is grasped that true victory comes from choosing to cease the fight, as per Miyazaki’s impression of the futility of war.
Miyazaki not only created profound messages in his films based on his anti-war philosophy but also expresses the importance of environmentalism through his works. As one of Miyazaki’s greatest epics, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, pictured in Figure 10, is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ravaged and turned to ash by humanity’s greed and war. The film focuses on Nausicaä, princess of the last livable land, and her fight to find a way to save the planet and heal the earth. For Nausicaä, the drive to find an alternative solution to prevent the ruin of her country centres completely on Miyazaki’s position on pollution and the damage humans are creating, where he draws upon Shinto beliefs of the sacredness of nature and expresses them through the gorgeously hand-drawn landscapes, shown in Figures 11 and 12, and complex protagonists who hope to forge unity between forces of man and nature. Miyazaki does not use the landscape as a background prop but as an active participant and catalyst for plot progression, which in turn challenges the viewers to think about the consequences of human greed and reflect upon the struggle between industrialization and environmental conservation.
Miyazaki continues this trend of promoting his environmentalism ideology, or even just the presence of nature as a center in his creations, with Princess Mononoke, featured in Figure 13. Princess Mononoke features a direct war between nature versus industrialism and serves to be an important lesson on cherishing and respecting the environment; if there’s too much industry the world can become imbalanced. Figures 14 and 15 highlights the use of color to differentiate Miyazaki’s intentions in regard to respecting nature and exploiting it. Miyazaki advocates for the protection of the environment, however, he also believes in using technology for humankind’s betterment as seen by the harmonious nature between technology and nature apparent in Nausicaä, and in 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. Even Spirited Away features an encounter with a Stink Spirit, which turned out to be a River Spirit with a lost identity caused by pollution. Miyazaki mentioned in an interview that the spirit represented a polluted river in his hometown he helped clean. It is undoubtedly clear that Miyazaki’s opposition towards the exploitative use of nature instead of the harmonious flourishing of nature and human civilization together has manifested in many of his productions and carved a mark in the rest of Studio Ghibli scenery animation.
The aim of my research project was to answer the question ‘To what extent do Studio Ghibli productions reflect the political ideology of their filmmakers?’ and to complete this by focusing on two key aspects: pacifism and environmentalism. It was found that profound and complex storytelling is woven into Studio Ghibli productions to focus and reflect on the futility of war and the consequences of exploiting the environment through vivid and imaginative films. The messages expressed are backed up by statements from the filmmakers and their own stances on the topics in the political arena. The outcome has resolved the research project question, however, more evidence from primary sources were needed to verify the claims and a wider range of ideologies analyzed may have further strengthened the outcome findings.
The fantasy of Studio Ghibli is wise and deeply moral, as well as exhilarating and achingly beautiful. It is a cultural treasure that stands and soars in a class of its own. Miyazaki’s films are beautiful dreams. May time never swallow them up.