Finding a Home in the Enchanted Forest: Hayao Miyazaki’s Humane Environmentalism

By Timothy Troutner

At least from ancient times up to a certain time in the [Japanese] medieval period, there was a boundary beyond which humans should not enter. Within this boundary was our territory, so we ruled it as the humans’ world with our rules, but beyond this road, we couldn’t do anything even if a crime had been committed, since it was no longer the humans’ world—there was… a sanctum… As we gradually lost the awareness of such holy things, humans somehow lost their respect for nature. This film [Princess Mononoke] deals with such a process in its entirety.

—Hayao Miyazaki

I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.

—Francis Bacon

With these words from the fittingly titled The Masculine Birth of Time, the English philosopher and politician ushered in the modern age. For several hundred years, Bacon’s call for the domination of nature by man’s new powers of science and technology seemed prophetic as human exploration spread across the globe and into space. Man triumphed over new diseases, harnessed the powers of steam and petroleum, and eventually split the atom itself, symbolizing his mastery over the elemental forces of Nature. Bacon became one of the great heroes of the Enlightenment, a spokesman for science and freedom who inaugurated a golden age for the human race.

However, the dark side of the Baconian project could only remain hidden for so long. It was not until the 20th century that man became fully conscious of the toll this Baconian project was taking on the earth and the other species that share it with man.

The horrific destruction of the atomic bomb, massive oil spills, the danger of catastrophic climate change, and the extinction or endangerment of countless species hammered home the point that not even the “Hillsdale Bubble” can obscure: Man’s centuries-long project of technological domination of nature has not only alienated man from the natural world, but has also unleashed forces that threaten to engulf the project entirely. The precious resources that fuel industry, the ecosystems that make agriculture viable, and the very air man breathes bear the marks of their enslavement to technological progress and financial profit.

In light of this crisis, craftsmen of the imagination have responded by reexamining the relationship between man and nature. One of the most insightful and imaginative of these interpreters is the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is widely considered to be the greatest master of the anime genre, creating beloved films for children and adults that have been become internationally known for their stunning visual beauty and engrossing storytelling.

Miyazaki’s films and his public statements bear witness to a consistent moral vision which mines the resources of Japanese tradition and culture to fight the forces of greed, violence, and environmental destruction perpetrated by Western modernity. In particular, the two films Princess Mononoke (1997) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) point the way toward a humane environmentalism in which human beings must relearn the ability to see nature as enchanted, assuming the responsibility to speak for her. However, his vision, while not a Baconian dualism, is ultimately tragic, and must be supplemented by a Christian eschatology where nature and man can take their places as co-workers in a cosmic liturgy of praise to God—looking forward to a new heavens and new earth.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa begins 1000 years after the collapse of industrial civilization. While small kingdoms have been reestablished, they are constantly threatened by the ever-expanding poisonous forest which has sprung up since the “Seven Days of Fire.” Our heroine Nausicaa is a courageous and empathetic young princess who lives in a village protected from the poisonous fumes of the forest by the wind from the sea. Along with primitive windmills and agriculture, the villagers possess remnants of the technology of the preceding age—Nausicaa’s glider, a gunship or two, and advanced materials they have taken from the shells of the Ohmu, the giant arachnid creatures that guard the poisonous forests. Through cooperation, Nausicaa’s village has established a kind of fragile balance, a communal steampunk neo-medievalism.

This balance in the face of the forest’s advance is disrupted when they make contact with “advanced” civilizations bent on destroying the forest once and for all. An airship crashes near their village, carrying a legendary weapon from the “Seven Days of Fire,” a bioengineered Giant Warrior they hope will allow them to clear the earth of what is not under man’s control. Nausicaa, gifted with empathy and an eerie ability to influence the animal world, must defend her village against the ambition, acquisitiveness, and violence of the civilizations clashing over this ultimate weapon, while simultaneously learning to calm the murderous rage of the Ohmu, protectors of the forest. She must discover the secret of the forest and determine whether humans, the forest, and Ohmu can ever coexist as a final apocalyptic battle between man’s ultimate weapon and nature’s most fearsome species looms.

Princess Mononoke

While Nausicaa takes place in the distant future, Princess Mononoke is set in medieval Japan. The story begins as a demonic boar threatens a remote village in a fit of rage. Through the heroic efforts of Ashitaka, the local prince, the boar’s attack is thwarted, but in the process, the boar is killed. The boar turns out to be a god who became a demon when an iron ball became embedded in his flesh. Ashitaka is cursed to be consumed by the poison that drove the boar insane, but this poison seems to lend him a murderous strength. As a result, Ashitaka must leave his village and seek out those who harmed the boar god. He must look upon the source of this evil “with eyes unclouded by hate.” Ashitaka journeys far from his village and finds that the boar was injured by the inhabitants of Irontown, a mining town led by Lady Eboshi. She and her soldiers are cutting down trees and incurring the wrath of the gods of the forest, especially the wolf-gods. Their industrial project has pitted them against the traditional animal gods and a wild girl raised by the wolf gods who seeks to kill Lady Eboshi and punish the humans for their crimes against the forest. The ripple effects of this conflict now threaten villages as distant as Ashitaka’s.

As he learns about both the good and evil that dwell in Irontown, he forms an unusual friendship with the wolf girl San. Together they seek the Great Forest Spirit, who can heal Ashitaka’s wounds. Meanwhile, the conflict between enraged gods, human industry, and military power reaches a climax. The animal gods are prepared to launch a suicidal assault on the town just as hunters plan to behead the Forest Spirit and finally tame the wild. Combining Ashitaka’s sympathy for the workers of Irontown and San’s fierce respect for the enchanted forest, they try to make peace between man and the gods.

The Wild Otherness of Nature

Too often, environmentalism is associated with naiveté, a romantic idealism portraying a peaceful, beautiful, and harmonious world suffering silently under man’s oppression. Nature is presented so that the sympathetic bourgeoisie can appease their consciences by supporting environmental causes without effort or sacrifice. While the plight of endangered species is sometimes pitiable, Miyazaki recognizes that nature is often frightening and violent. Nausicaa begins as the peaceful serenity of the forest is shattered by the mad attack of an Ohmu, calmed only by the charms of the princess. The monstrous insectoids with furious red eyes inspire fear, not naïve sympathy. Similarly, the first scene in Princess Mononoke introduces nature in the form of the demonically enraged boar god.

Nature presents a real danger to human communities, and in both films most people conclude that this danger is so grave that nature must be destroyed. Any realistic and humane environmentalism must acknowledge the fact that nature’s ways often seem wild and other—natural disasters and carnivorous predators prevent a simplistic embrace of nature as pure goodness. Its beauty also harbors death and its power can break out into hostility. In fact, at first glance man and nature appear to be at war.

Coexistance and the Potential For Despair

Confronted with the wild otherness of nature, the human communities in both films are tempted by despair. As Lord Yupa puts it in Nausicaa: “I want to know if mankind is truly fated to be swallowed up by [the forest], or if there is still some hope that we may survive. I want to know the truth.” On the one hand, many believe that only the elimination of nature’s wild otherness can allow for humans to flourish. As Nausicaa is told in a flashback to her childhood, “Insects and humans cannot live in the same world.” Those who seek to destroy the forest think they are taking the only step possible for human survival. In our world, many are convinced that the domination of nature by man is the only way for man to flourish, and that the answer to the negative effects of industry and technology on the natural world is more industry and technology, domesticating and destroying wildness and otherness, subjecting the planet to man’s comfort and prosperity. In its extreme form, these advocates suggest that climate engineering may one day bring the domination of nature to completion.

On the other hand, others who recognize the costs of this domination are often led to a fatalism of the opposite variety—humanity is so tied up with exploitation of nature that he deserves to go extinct. As the old woman laments near the end of Nausicaa, “The Earth knows it’s wrong for us to survive. That’s the way it should be.” This pessimism echoes the dark view taken by certain radical environmentalists today. Miyazaki has the honesty to face both forms of this fatalistic despair, and while he sees the potential for tragic conflict, he does not fall into the easy solution of either form of despair.

Blinded by Rage: Learning to See With Eyes Unclouded

Miyazaki’s heroes see the world differently, choosing to live with the reality of tragic conflict while recognizing man’s complicity through human evil and his failure to recognize his limits. Miyazaki knows that whoever is poisoned by evil turns into a demon, blindly destroying everything in his path. Truly opening one’s eyes to the effects of one’s actions brings a change of perspective. Where others despair, Ashitaka must learn to “see with eyes unclouded with rage.” Marked by the boar’s curse, he sees wickedness within himself and learns to reject it. When he does, he finds that man’s greed, lust for power, and rage have blinded him to the harm he has inflicted on the forest, just as the forest gods are in danger of giving in to rage. Similarly, Nausicaa’s extraordinary ability to sympathize with and calm animals allows her to see the purposes of the Ohmu and the beauty present even in the poisonous forest spreading across the globe. She realizes that the Ohmu and the forest have actually evolved to cleanse the world of man’s pollution, just as Ashitaka discovers that the hostility of the forest is rooted in the defense of animal life and the ecosystem that is their home.

A major element in the conflict between man and nature is man’s “original sin”—his greed, ambition and self-centeredness and the rage that blinds him when the natural consequences of his actions come back to bite him. In an interview, Miyazaki interprets this perspective on human arrogance, saying, “I think that in the essence of human civilization, we have the desire to become rich without limit, by taking the lives of other creatures.” This deeply embedded evil distorts all relationships with the natural world.

Instead of a dualistic struggle, human beings confront a world where both man and nature are good, even if those goods occasionally come into tragic conflicts that mankind cannot resolve. Instead of doing his best to reconcile these goods in the tragic situations in which he finds himself, man becomes arrogant, thereby distorting nature and turning it towards destruction. Miyazaki can help to expose the Baconian project for what it is—human evil writ large into systems and structures of domination rooted in the darkness of his own heart.

The Reenchantment of Nature

Miyazaki had to resort to traditional Japanese myth and religion to remind modern people blinded by anthropocentricism that the world is not just raw material for humans to consume and reshape. Instead, nature is full of creatures with their own plans who are worthy of respect and protection. Miyazaki’s gods, monsters, and forest spirits symbolize the fact that nature has its own integrity that goes beyond its utility for human projects. In Princess Mononoke, the focus is upon the animal species that share man’s world and that have their own dignity and purposes. Similarly, in Nausicaa, the larger ecosystems have purposes and serve functions that man cannot always see and that he ignores at his peril. When man does not take nature for granted but allows her to manifest her beauty in her own context, he is surprised at the inexhaustible richness of her flora and fauna. Nausicaa’s people are shocked to discover that the Ohmu are not monsters; the old woman weeps when she realizes that they could actually be beautiful creatures.

A Humane Environmentalism: Man’s Role As Mediator

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the role human beings play in Miyazaki’s environmentalism. Nausicaa, Ashitaka, and San play a critical mediatorial role, reconciling human civilization and the natural world. The ends and the purposes of the creatures and the forest are not initially reconciled with those of human communities, and it is man’s role to discover the purpose and beauty hidden within nature and to learn to accommodate himself to those purposes and to restore a context in which the purposes of the creature can lead to the good of all. Just as it was human failure to recognize limits and the human vices of greed, lust for power, and rage that threw nature into disarray, it is human empathy and discovery that can show the path toward harmony and coexistence.

The heroes in Miyazaki’s world play a role similar to that of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien railed against the ravages of industrial capitalism, symbolically portraying the deforestation wrought by mechanized industry upon the trees of Fangorn Forest, and peopling the forest with Ents whose wisdom and patience enabled them to steward and protect the natural world. Similarly, Nausicaa and Ashitaka are both gifted with the empathy to become “shepherds of the forest”—they learn to see through the eyes of others, including the eyes of nature herself. Ashitaka speaks for the gods of nature when with the villagers, but he speaks for the villagers when among the gods. Ashitaka’s position confuses the villagers. When he says “What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace!” they respond, “Just whose side is he on anyway?” The answer is that when man is fulfilling his purpose, he is on both sides—which is to say there are no sides. Man reconciles the divide between nature and himself by the act of imagination only he is capable of.

Not only that, but Miyazaki’s heroes are curious and use the human drive to discover in order to promote harmony. Nausicaa’s version of scientific inquiry does not lead her to domination, but to understanding and acceptance of the processes of nature. Once she understands the processes of the forest, she can teach man to change his ways to allow the forest to continue purging the earth of pollution.

The ambiguous ending to Princess Mononoke opens up the possibility of an even deeper mediatorial role for man. When the Great Forest Spirit receives back its head, it collapses into the landscape, restoring the natural world, but seemingly dissolving back into the world for good. San declares that “The Great Forest Spirit is dead.” Ashitaka responds, “Never. The Forest Spirit is life itself. The Forest Spirit is life itself. He’s not dead, San. He’s here right now. Trying to tell us something. That it’s time for both of us to live.” Whether the spirit is literally dead is entirely beside the point—one could argue that the significance of the end of Princess Mononoke is that it is now the responsibility of human beings to interpret the natural world, to listen to what it is trying to say and to give it the voice that it does not possess. The gods may have left medieval Japan, but man can still give voice to what they represented.

The Limits of This Optimism

The picture I have been painting of Miyazaki’s films is a shade or two more optimistic than Miyazaki’s own perspective. For Miyazaki, even our attempts to restore nature fall short: “After Shishi Gami’s [the Forest Spirit’s] head was returned, nature regenerated. But it has become a tame, non-frightening forest of the kind that we are accustomed to seeing.” Miyazaki sees man as condemned to try tragically to balance two goods that, while not involved in a dualistic struggle, cannot be completely reconciled. Miyazaki does not think there are any easy solutions—the divide between man and nature cannot entirely be resolved. He believes that man is often placed in tragic situations where every course will cause some harm—either to nature or to his fellow men. In these instances, man has the dreadful responsibility of dealing with this tragedy. As Miyazaki himself says: “In our daily lives, things that humans can do to protect nature are limited. . . Ashitaka has no choice but to suffer and live, while being torn between such conflicts. That’s the only path human beings can take from now on.” Man’s role is to assume this double responsibility, tragic though it may be. He goes on: “It’s not like we can coexist with nature as long as we live humbly, and we destroy it because we become greedy. When we recognize that even living humbly destroys nature, we don’t know what to do.” When our gaze reaches only as far as the present, Miyazaki’s tragic vision is unavoidable.

Environment and the Eschaton

From the Christian perspective, this ultimately tragic view takes on a different hue. While man and nature may never be fully reconciled in this life, man is called to speak for nature and offer creation as a whole to God. In the Christian vision, man and nature are not involved in an ultimately tragic relationship but were made for each other and will be perfected together. The tragedy Hayao Miyazaki sees cannot yet be eliminated, but it can be contextualized in light of a final reconciliation in the eschaton. While man will be confronted with tragic choices when trying to live in a fallen world, those choices have meaning because man is not just another creature but God’s covenant partner. Nature has always been teleologically oriented towards man as the highest manifestation of created life, and when man’s good must take precedence over other natural goods, this sacrifice is meaningful and not a foreign imposition upon a nature indifferent toward man. The deaths of animals over the course of human evolution are not tragic in the grand scheme of things, for they have meaning as part of nature’s striving toward God, a striving which God ultimately answered gratuitously by endowing man with his image.

However, if this were the end of the story, we might arrive once more at a Baconian subjection of nature to man, one that could justify oppression of nature based on man’s greater dignity as God’s image. The fact is that nature’s gift of itself to man must be answered by man’s giving nature back to God, serving nature and allowing it to reach its fulfillment, even if that fulfillment will only be complete in the kingdom of God.

In Genesis 1, man is given the responsibility of naming the animals, and in Romans 8, Paul writes that “the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Man’s true “dominion” consists not in subjecting the natural world to his own whims as the top of the food chain or metaphysical hierarchy. Instead, he has a responsibility to lovingly lead all of creation towards the fulfillment of its purpose—presenting God not only with praise but also with the world God gave him stewardship over, restored, flourishing, and teeming with life. While this takes the entirety of cosmic history to unfold, in the end, man’s freedom and the well-being of creation are intimately connected. Man’s uniqueness in the natural world becomes an occasion for service. Creation is made subject to man, but only in light of its final freedom and perfection, which man brings about by exercising his God-given freedom to help nature reach its fulfillment.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films, when supplemented with a Christian eschatology, provide a framework for reconciling man’s uniqueness with his responsibility toward the enchanted natural world. Man’s refusal to recognize his limits and his tendencies toward evil distort nature and turn it against himself. However, when he learns to see anew and to speak for nature, he can guide it back to harmony, building a civilization that not only respects nature, but leads it toward greater fullness—a foretaste of the new heavens and earth, the cosmic liturgy where all of creation joins in the worship of God in its own unique way.
Timothy Troutner is a senior studying philosophy and history.

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