Since its inception, film quickly evolved as a medium for moral and ideological expression, ranging in topics from the cultural to the environmental. Very similarly, anime became an additional platform to communicate ideas, and one of the most significant entities that harnessed this potential is Studio Ghibli. Contrastly, however, Studio Ghibli employs an array of stylistic devices, including symbolism, allegory, and motif, to convey a more mature theme about environmentalism, nature, and humanity through its films Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. This more mature message Miyazaki and his team sought to instill is that the destruction of nature is inevitable and, quite possibly, irreversible.
One will notice very striking differences when comparing two pairs of environmentalist films: Ghibli’s Mononoke and Nausicaa, and the Western animations WALL-E and The Lorax. WALL-E and The Lorax both depict settings that were environmentally destroyed by human exploitation of nature. Albeit slightly different, Mononoke and Nausicaa depict a turning point in industrial exploitation of the environment and a post-apocalyptic hellscape caused by nuclear war, respectively.
A primary difference between these two pairs is that the opposing forces of WALL-E and The Lorax are driven by a senseless, short-sighted greed and selfishness, whereas the characters depicted as the antagonists in Mononoke and Nausicaa (Lady Eboshi and Princess Kushana, respectively) are driven by genuine responsibility to care for their people. The Mayor of The Lorax destroyed every single tree in order to capitalize on people’s needing oxygen; the BnL Company of WALL-E shirked its responsibility in restoring the very planet it destroyed, merely because giving up was more convenient. Between those, Lady Eboshi, and Princess Kushana, there is a stark contrast in motivations. Lady Eboshi’s ambitious economic goals were inspired by a responsibility to improve the lives of her people, as was Princess Kushana’s militaristic conquest. What can ultimately be said of this is that a person does not necessarily need to be greedy or power-hungry to destroy the environment. In fact, a person can nobly strive to best serve their people’s interests, and still destructively encroach upon nature. This is a tough pill Miyazaki gives us to swallow: mere human existence decimates the environment. This concept can be highlighted in Ashitaka’s role in Mononoke. Despite being part of a tribe that respects nature, so much so that he pleads with Kago, a hostile boar god, before subduing it, Ashitaka is inevitably lumped together with the majority of humanity — the majority that is advancing in the realms of technology and societal organization. Kago’s dying words, in spite of the villagers’ respect and apology, reflect that reality: “You loathsome rabble!” Kago, a symbol of nature, shows contempt for humanity toward the few people who actually respect the environment.
If the human-nature relationship has gotten to that point, is it possible to go back? This questions casts light on another major difference between those two aforementioned pairs of animations. WALL-E and The Lorax offer complete resolutions, showing the protagonists prevailing over clear antagonistic forces and restore life and nature as it had once been known. Alternatively, in Mononoke and Nausicaa, such all-inclusive solutions to the overarching problem are not offered. At the end of Mononoke, Ashitaka and San acknowledge their feelings for each other, as well as the reality that they cannot be together. This interaction completes the allegorical message that Man (represented by Ashitaka) and Nature (represented by San) cannot coexist at equal levels of power. This battle for dominance is optimally depicted in the period during which Mononoke takes place — a period in which the power of human technological innovation is about the same as that of nature, but the victory of one would spell the end of the other. Similarly, in the end of Nausicaa, the titular heroine demonstrates to all parties that a mutual respect can be established between Man and Nature. Neither the endings of Mononoke nor Nausicaa offer decisive resolutions that end with the protagonists ultimately reverting their world back to normal. This is another tough pill given to the audience to swallow, perhaps even tougher than before: there is no turning back time or human progress to restore nature.
With that, can it be concluded that these films are solely meant to say that there is no hope? This sentiment is backed by a plethora of evidence in both Mononoke and Nausicaa: in the former, there is a consistent motif that all humans are a curse and inevitably die, and in the latter, humans, just like the spores that plague them, travel through the wind, effectively comparing humans to a lethal disease. Is this all that Miyazaki sought to tell us?
I do not believe so. As mentioned before, Studio Ghibli’s objective was to convey a more mature theme on environmentalism and humanity, and part of that maturity is being able to resist blind optimism and hopeless pessimism; that resistance is realism. The realist vision Miyazaki aimed for avoided the optimism that is very common in Western animation. In works like WALL-E, there really is not much to be said about environmentalism at all, except for a gross oversimplified message such as “Nature is good”; primarily, it merely demonstrates that “Nature is good”, rather than offer a retrospective view of how humans destroy the environment and what can be learned from that for future decisions.
To its credit, The Lorax actually provides that retrospective view, and it inspires the protagonist to take action. However, therein lies another problem. As a self contained work, The Lorax resolves itself by using characters that learn, develop, and take action. These characters ultimately upend the ecologically destructive government and begin a new society that nurtures the environment. With the ending of the film comes the ending of the fundamental problem of environmental destruction. If that fundamental problem comes to a thematic end in the film, it also inadvertently ends in the mind of the viewer.
Studio Ghibli avoids this by giving Mononoke and Nausicaa “non-endings”, those being a stalemate between Man and Nature, and the ultimate failure in defeating the Ohms and Sea of Decay. These non-endings leave the underlying problem unresolved in the minds of the viewers, and thus sends the audience home with the task of deciding their own thoughts and feelings about the issue. This is best highlighted by the final scene of Princess Mononoke: a single kodama (tree spirit) standing among a group of saplings. Earlier in the film, the deer god, powerful ruler over the forest, is shown to transfer the life of a sapling to Ashitaka, saving his life. The interaction itself is a thematic analogy to the equivalent exchange between Man and Nature. A sapling was sacrificed to save Ashitaka, which is analogous to the many saplings (and likely, most other vegetation in the forest) being sacrificed for the sake of humankind. This final shot of a single kodama shows that there are not many trees left, and the saplings represent the opportunity of another sacrifice for humankind. Those saplings also represent the opportunity for change.
Though he demonstrates through these films that it is too late to turn back and that humans themselves are a plague on nature, it is not too late to stop the exponentially catastrophic behavior of humans that is so ruinous to the environment. With this final scene of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki extends to the viewer a moral dilemma and a decision. There is no clear “good guy” or “bad guy” in the film, which is the true, realist background provided throughout the story; the fact that there is no definitive moral standards complicates that decision. Utilizing non-endings and a variety of stylistic techniques, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli achieve that end of conveying and instilling a realist, mature view on environmentalism that reveals the objective history and moral conflicts of the issue — a view that differs from other works that offer optimistic, all-inclusive resolutions. Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, as a result, go beyond other pieces that merely bring attention to an issue, and informs the audience about the flaws of the choices before them — these films ask, “You now know the regrettable history, you now know the imperfect choices available to you, and you now know the consequential futures of those choices. What will you decide to do?”