The Princess and the Climate Change: a relationship between nature and man
Keywords: post-apocalyptic; post-nature; nature; spirituality; mythology; Anthropocene; animation
by Hanne Groennestad, Bachelor of Media Studies; Iida Tervo, Bachelor of English; Ina Elise Arntzen, Bachelor of History; Ingvild Emélie Dumonceau, Bachelor of English
This article forms a comparative critical review of two films by director Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), examined through an environmentalist lens. The authors employ the concepts of the Anthropocene field using the definitions by Purdy (2015) and Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne (2015), as well as the discussion of agency from Nimmo (2015) to examine the relationship between humans and nature in the two films. Throughout this article, evidence is presented for the argument that in the film universes, nature and humanity do not share a symbiotic relationship, but nature would survive, and indeed thrive, without humanity, but the same is not true in reverse. This realization shares similarities with the current Earth Anthropocene condition.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness”
The Japanese film director and animator, Hayao Miyazaki, has been clear on his views of industrialisation and desecration of land throughout his career and his negative opinion on this has been a prominent theme in many of his films, like the Oscar winning Spirited Away (2001), Ponyo (2008) and When Marnie Was There (2014). He has written stories of pollution and consumerism as a catastrophic catalyst for the health degradation impacting both humans, animals and the earth, and criticises the commercial and political elite for not making sustainable and renewable decisions in infrastructure development. In this article we will look at Miyazaki’s most renowned environmental films Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997) by utilizing Anthropocene theories to analyze the relationship between humans and nature in these two films.
The Anthropocene – a term coined by Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and popularized by Nobel winner Paul Crutzen – is a geological epoch defined by a merge of the natural and the cultural (Purdy, 1-2). The enormous human impact on the planet over the past few centuries prompted scientists to develop new methodologies for discussing the precarious climate condition of the planet earth. As the name suggests, Anthropocene places recognises as “a force, if not the force, shaping the planet”, though not to mark their superiority (Purdy 2015, 1-2). The Anthropocene is realised in transformations of the landscape due to agriculture and urbanisation, resource extraction and waste dumping, as well as disruption to natural processes, such as the nitrogen cycle. While the Industrial Revolution is often chosen as a starting point to the shift in geological eras, others look to the agricultural revolution 5,000 years ago, and most recently, opinion seems to be converging on the year 1945 when a layer of radionuclides was spread over the Earth’s surface (Hamilton et al. 2015, 1-4).
These films both portray worlds where humans conflict with nature and animals over territorial rights, exploitation and desecration of natural resources. In our understanding, the human relationship with nature is a crucial aspect of the Anthropocene. These films also explore the spiritual relationships humans have had, particularly in the east, with natural creatures – non-humans; nature – as powerful beings with agency and to some extent mythical abilities through Shintōism, as will be evident from our analysis of Princess Mononoke.
critical review method will be used describe and compare themes, film plots and
storylines, together with anthropocentric concern for the survival of humans.
In what follows, we will first introduce the theoretical framework of the
article, essential to develop our argument of the environmental films looked
In our discussion of the two films, “nature” is at the forefront, and so it is necessary to define it. One way to understand nature is to contrast it with “post-nature” – effectively, the environmental condition of the Anthropocene, and an antithesis to “nature”, as Jedediah Purdy discusses in his book After Nature (Purdy 2015, 15-16). Post-natural existence, according to Purdy, is one where “the familiar divide between people and the natural world is no longer useful or accurate … There is no more nature that stands apart from human beings” (Purdy 2015, 2-3). If post-nature is an existence where nature and culture are no longer separate entities, one can infer that nature is something external to humanity. Hamilton et al. present a similar argument in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. The authors juxtapose nature and society – or culture – but only until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment (Hamilton, Bonneuil & Gemenne 2015, 1-6). Purdy, similarly, writes: “nature has been the thing without politics, the home of the principles that come before politics … [That] is coming to an end with the Anthropocene” (Purdy 2015, 21).
An important feature which Miyazaki attributes to animals is agency. Richie Nimmo defines agency as “not an exclusive property of human beings – in fact not a property of entities, but must be understood as relational” (Nimmo 2015, 179), and like Nimmo, the plots of the films, in particular Princess Mononoke, argue that animals and living things like the forest are also capable of agency and possess power to resist human domination. This idea is highly visible in the power relationship between humans and animals which is compared to the power relationship between “hunters” and “gatherers” (Ingold 1994, 13) where each party depend on the trust and respect of each other: if either party feels the trust is lost through deception or abuse, they will withdraw their end of the social deal. In other words, if the power is unevenly distributed, there is a chance of rebellion and conflict.
This is an established theory of human society, where actions are not implemented for a more even distribution of power because of the perception that animals are not equal to humans, so much so that they are considered expendable without consequence. Though the animals in Miyazaki’s films are regarded as impulsive beings acting only on primitive and primal impulses, conflicts are resolved once humans learn to accept nature and animals as a privilege; that they depend on nurture and trust to be mutually beneficial.
Fictional works about climate change, or
cli-fi, have been hailed as a new genre due to the growing interest in
mainstream environmental issues. This genre does not shy away from imagining
the human civilization to be in a dire state, where humans have variously
overfilled Earth with waste, over-harvested its resources, denuded its
food-production or harmed Earth’s beauty and diversity (Svoboda 2016, 43-46).
In the following part we will discuss the two films of Princess Mononoke &
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and their divergent methodological
approaches for raising environmental consciousness around the central premise
of human-induced environmental decay.
In the films examined in this article, we identify both nature and post-nature as well as an intersection of the two. In Princess Mononoke, the divide between nature and culture still exists, but it is slowly and locally giving way to an Anthropocene condition. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, nature and culture are separate as a result of a post-apocalyptic world order where there is no natural resources left to deplete; another reading of Nausicaä could suggest a human-made disaster by fire demons which changed the world forever and irreparably, therefore making society post-natural.
Princess Mononoke encapsulates the negative implications of destroying nature for the sake of economic gain. The story takes places during the Japanese Muromachi Era (1336-1573). A period of great industrial upheaval and considered a significant era that era marks the onset of the societal transition in Japan from an agricultural society to a militarized and urbanized nation (Totman 1989, 111). Miyazaki also draws from the beliefs and writings of the Japanese environmentalist Sasuke Nakao who argues that Japan was once covered in lush vegetation before the advent of the rice culture, that now dominates the country’s landscape (Diogo et.al 2019, 223). Seen from an Anthropocene perspective, Princess Mononoke depicts several environmental issues happening during the industrial- and agricultural era. For example, the excessive demands for timber leads to deforestation, resulting in imbalance and loss of habitat for the species living in the forest (Totman 1989, 65)
In the Anthropocene, like in Princess Mononoke, humans can be seen as a “force” of nature (Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne 2015, 3). Humans are not properly taking care of the environment and are greedily consuming natural resources. However, another force in the films are the forests gods who occupy the superior position to humans. It is a common mythical Japanese belief that if humans are aggressive to the forests, the forest god will in return torment the humans (Mayumi, Solomon & Chang 2005). In the film, supernatural forces of destruction are unleashed by humans cutting down the forest in order. This makes the forest gods create dangers, which in turn, causes the humans to turn offensive by increasing their exploitation and create more weapons. This causes the forest gods to become more corrupted and destructive thus creating a escalating conflict (Smith & Parson 2012). The Ghibli film producer Toshio Suzuki has confirmed that his and Miyazaki’s common wish was that Ashitaka would take Lady Eboshi’s place to rebuild Iron Town, but in a more conscious and respectful way (Suzuki 2018, 75). From this perspective, San and Ashitaka’s subsequent relationship with each other would illustrate the symbiotic relationship humans should strive for with nature and animals (McCarthy 2002, 200). San decides to stay in the forest with her remaining family of gods, and Ashitaka chooses to interact with the human world on behalf of nature, and they both agree to meet occasionally between their two worlds in a beautiful display of love and respect. The closure of the film offers no universal solution to the conflict, instead suggest that ecological preservation must be enacted to that humans can benefit from nature.
In comparison to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind presents us with visions of futuristic technology. The 1984 film shows the possible after-effects of a human-made disaster: an apocalyptic war which makes nature and humanity unable to live in harmony because of the toxicity of the forest and the insects that live within. Several themes regarding the Anthropocene are prominent in the film. One such example is the anti-war message throughout Nausicaä’s search for other solutions to conflicts even at the cost of her own life, especially remarkable because the current state of her world was a side effect of warring. Through her love and respect for all beings, Nausicaä instigates a paradigm shift and a solution to the interspecies war. This is also connected to the environmental theme.
The toxic forest was inspired by the methyl mercury dumping in Minamata Bay in Japan in the 1950s which caused the area to become toxic and consequently causing the people to get sick. People stopped fishing and the population grew (Chan 2015). In Nausicaä, the toxicity of the trees evolves as a way to cleanse and purify the world of the pollution the humans had caused. Asbel’s realisation that this would in the end cause the extinction of humankind, but nature would thrive recapitulates the message that nature can live without humans, but not vice versa (Chan 2015).
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke focus on portraying to different relationships between nature and humanity, personified in Nausicaä and Kushana. While they both have experienced loss because of a changing nature: the death of a father or the loss of an arm, the way they react and treat nature vary greatly. These relationships that are portrayed the notion that humans have to go to war against nature, using the technology available to destroy and conquer the forests for the benefit of oneself or humanity as seen in Kushana or trying to understand it in hope that you can find a way to protects humans and co-exist with it (Cheng 2017, 75, 83).
films are pleading for a more conscious and balanced dynamic between humans and
nature where the responsibility for a more sustainable future for both parties
lies in the actions of humanity. In line with the recent Anthropocene sciences,
humans must realise we are one of many species responsible to contribute to the
earth’s health and that nature is able to thrive without humans, but humans are
doomed to extinction without nature.
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