Discussions around climate change and environmental issues have been a part of mainstream culture and popular media for some time now, and it is thus important to analyze the most common context such debates have been placed in: the Anthropocene, a theoretical approach that has greatly influenced our perceptions of the human-nature connection. The term Anthropocene was popularized in 2002 by Eugene F. Stoermer, a biologist, and Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, and it refers to the idea that humanity is a “geological force”, contrary to the Enlightenment perception of nature and society as distinct entities (Malm and Honborg, 2014, p.62). Especially since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine, humanity has become capable of manipulating its environment, and thus of exploiting it. The Anthropocene therefore identifies humanity as the force responsible for climate change and considers any contact between humans and nature as inherently damaging to the latter.
Figure 1. Indigenous people protest in Brazil for better land protection
The main concern around approaching environmental issues through the lens of the Anthropocene theory is that it can lead to human exceptionalism and Eurocentrism, since it ignores how the impact the western world has had on the environment is different from that of other cultures', and that even within the West not every social class is responsible to the same extent (Malm and Honborg, 2014, p.64). Scholars and human ecology professors Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg have argued that events like the popularization of the steam engine that Stoemer and Crutzen attribute to humanity as a whole are actually the result of the actions of a minority, namely Britain’s upper class male white capitalists, who exploited such invention for economic gain at the expense of the majority of the colonized world. Putting the blame on the entirety of humanity is unfair because it is inaccurate: different societies and different societal groups have had varying roles in causing today’s environmental problems, and not all humanity will suffer equally in the aftermath. This approach also completely ignores the many instances of positive human contact with nature and the various ecosystems that have emerged from interaction between humans and nature, exemplified to this day by indigenous ways of life and environmental activism. Furthermore, historian and postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty also highlights how the Anthropocene theory inevitably leaves out non-human forms of life and suggests that a more nuanced approach would be to “zoom into the details of intra-human injustice—otherwise we do not see the suffering of many humans—and to zoom out of that history, or else we do not see the suffering of other species” (Chakrabarty, 2016, p.111).
The tropes that dominate ecocinema, a term referring to movies that center around environmentalism, are a testimony of how the theory of the Anthropocene has shaped our narrative choices and techniques: the relationship between humans and nature is portrayed as a violent conflict, where humanity plays the role of the enemy and the only contemplated solution to end the fight is for humanity to stop interfering with its environment. In children's movies, these dichotomies are especially common, since their typical melodramatic structure offers fertile ground for the polarization and trivialization of concepts, usually coded through the dualism of good and evil. In Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, however, these tropes are reproduced but at the same time dismantled through narrative and animation techniques: the movie does not depict a war between humans and nature but rather shows different levels of human involvement with the environment. Just like our society, Miyazaki’s world is organized in vertical hierarchies of power, and each of them has a different impact in the story. The movie’s narrative shows that the problem is not human intervention per se: Ashitaka — the main character — and his village still use and shape the landscape to sustain themselves but, contrary to the case of Lady Eboshi and Irontown who are responsible for polluting and ruining the forests nearby, it does not cause harm to the environment.
Figure 2. The fairies Crysta and Pips in Ferngully, examples of traditional ecocinema
Princess Mononoke also challenges traditional tropes of the Anthropocene narrative through its aesthetics and character building. In order to convey the idea that nature is endangered and needs to be saved, in many children’s movies the natural landscape is greatly beautified and curated to appeal to the young audience and to leave a strong impression based on the supposition that children will be more prone to care about the environment if it looks visually pleasing. Plants and animals are portrayed to be endearing: they are cute, innocent and friendly to humans, usually resembling fluffy stuffed toys. Moreover, magical elements like sparkly pretty fairies help enforce the overall cute aesthetic. This portrayal of nature perpetuates the perception of its helplessness and passivity in the face of human activity, and of humanity as inherently detrimental to it.
In contrast, Princess Mononoke prioritizes a realistic and sometimes grotesque aesthetic over a cute one. The colors used for forest settings are bold and darker than usual, like deep greens and blues, and even though there are beautiful depictions of nature such as in the scenes where the deer god appears, the repeated contrast between those scenes and the more brute and coarse depiction of Irontown creates tension and visual complexity. The overall image offered to the viewer is that of a magical but also haunted nature, majestic and great to the point of being rather intimidating, not just pretty to look at. The animals especially are represented so realistically that it is almost disturbing: aside from being powerful and on occasion violent beings instead of cute and innocent creatures, they are often gruesome and terrifying. Even the most macabre aspects of death are not sanitized and filtered out but shown in their plain brutality: the boar god that attacks Ashitaka and is later killed by him is shown dying as its skin disintegrates, leaving its organs and skeleton in plain sight, its bodily liquids secreting from the decomposing carcass. Nature is not depicted as a passive presence, a secondary element functioning as the background to the protagonists’ romantic relationship. Animals communicate with each other, they plan their revenge and react to humans’ attacks: nature is therefore given agency and is able to play a central, active role in the story.
Figure 3. The boar god in Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke
The same aesthetic used to represent nature is applied to character design too. While most of Miyazaki’s female characters do embody the Japanese popular aesthetic of cuteness, here this aspect is given up in favor of stronger, edgier characters with a complex and unique relationship with nature. Although it is true that San, or Princess Mononoke, is meant to stand for nature and Lady Eboshi represents humanity and modernity, their characters are not trivialized and stereotyped — on the contrary, they are problematized from two different perspectives: as female characters and in their relationship with nature. Both San and Lady Eboshi are far from the cute, innocent female figures typical of Japanese animation — but also animation in general — and are rather an “amalgamation of the nurturing and the ferocious” (Napier, 2005, p.183) in their appearance as well as in their personality. They are both caring and loving, one towards nature and animals, and the other towards the workers of Irontown. These typical female attributes, however, are juxtaposed with less common ones, resulting in a duality that makes it difficult for the audience to choose who to side with. San, the canonically good character, is capable of great violence and is driven by rage and revenge; Lady Eboshi, on the other hand, is the main exploiter of natural resources but is loved by the people of Irontown. A very meaningful scene shows that Lady Eboshi keeps a garden, “implying that her desire is not to destroy nature, but rather to use it as a means of providing for her community” (Thevenin, 2013, p.161).
Therefore, the depiction of all characters, good or evil, as multi-faceted individuals allows the viewer to engage in the complexity of the story, to question if it is even possible to identify a single, unequivocal enemy, and to critically think about environmental issues through a faithful representation of the ambiguities and the contradictions that permeate the real world. In the end, San and Lady Eboshi’s rivalry is attenuated by Ashitaka’s presence. His character chooses not to side with either of them and functions as a mediator between the human and the natural world. Although San and Eboshi do want to fight and to solve the conflict through violence — similarly to how conventional ecocinema for children usually develops its plots — Ashitaka’s effort to compromise is a manifestation of Miyazaki’s disapproval of such an approach.
Figure 4. San and Lady Eboshi in Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke
After all, it simply is not realistic to portray environmental issues like a biblical battle. And if the goal is to bring audiences closer to these topics, trivializing an already dualistic perspective like the Anthropocene could result in the opposite: how can people relate to such abstract and stereotyped representations of reality? The overall destabilization of tropes, the aesthetic choices, the dissolution of stereotyped characters and the incredible realism contribute to forming a cinema of “de-assurance” (Thevenin, 2013, p.150): Miyazaki does not want to feed his audience a reassuring happy ending story about humans helping nature and winning over the forces that are destroying it. In the real world deciding who to blame for climate change and environmental issues is not that straightforward, and Princess Mononoke is very careful not to offer a stereotyped, easily identifiable “bad guy”. Through an accurate and complex analysis of people’s interconnections and their relationship with nature, Miyazaki provides his audience with the tools to critically analyze environmental issues beyond the perspective of the Anthropocene and to, hopefully, face them “with eyes unclouded” (Princess Mononoke, 1997).
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Cover Image. Miyazaki, H. (1997). Princess Mononoke. [Still]. Studio Ghibli. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/28/studio-ghibli-ranked-netflix-princess-mononoke-spirited-away
Figure 1. McGrath, M. (2022). Indigenous people protest in Brazil about the need for greater protection for their lands. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-63064471
Figure 2. Kroyer, B. (1992). Ferngully. [Still]. Kroyer Films. Retrieved from: https://thecinematheque.ca/films/2022/ferngully-the-last-rainforest
Figure 3. Miyazaki, H. (1997). Princess Mononoke. [Still]. Studio Ghibli. Retrieved from: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Nago
Figure 4. Miyazaki, H. (1997). Princess Mononoke. [Still]. Studio Ghibli. Retrieved from: https://www.studioghibli.it/principessa-mononoke-tra-realismo-e-fantasia/