Anime and the Environment: Princess Mononoke

I love April. It brings warmer days, flowers blooming, and some of our most recognized days for remembering Mother Earth. Celebrating Earth Hour at the end of March, followed by the ever important Earth Day, and quickly into Arbor day, always reminds me of the precious relationship we have with our planet. As a former Biology and Environmental Science teacher, I am always looking for ways to encourage environmental awareness. One of my favorite classroom tools was from my geek toolbox was Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

I was the crazy teacher who would show this fantastic film to my students every spring. Princess Mononoke tells the story of man’s struggle between the environment and modern industrialization. Using Japanese fairytale elements, Miyazaki beautifully crafts the struggle between the guardians of the forest and humanity’s intent on conquering them. Many of the humans in the movie are outcasts who are convinced that the nature gods taking the form of giant animals (Wolf, Boar, Gorilla) are standing in their way.

This is a movie about war as well. War between rival humans. War between man and nature. Even the War between the conservationist, represented by San and the animal gods, fighting the humans. War is never pretty. It’s bloody and violent. Miyazaki elegantly captures the struggles and battles in each of these different wars. He succinctly shows that violence only breeds more violence no matter how just you think your cause is. Violence breeds hate that is all-consuming and it will destroy all. Just ask Nago the Boar God, or Ashitaka, or Okkoto. In the end, it’s only nature who wins because no matter what, nature survives. Forms may be new, habitats are changed forever, but life continues on.

Hayao Miyazki mixed fantastical Japanese elements with modern problems and set them in a fantastical medieval Japan. When Disney’s Miramax films looked to adapt the original anime fairytale, they tapped some very talented people to bring this fantasy to English audiences. To help adapt the script, Disney got Neil Gaiman—no wonder I loved it from first viewing. The voice actors are nothing to sneeze at either—Billy Bob Thorton, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Jada Pinkett Smith and more.

As an environmentalist and an anime lover, this film speaks to me. It received critical acclaim in Japan as well as around the world. However, the broader American audience seemed to have little interest. I’m not sure if it was a lack of understanding of environmental issues, or a lack of patience for the Japanese fairytale elements, but comparatively speaking, few Americans have heard of the film, and fewer yet have seen it. To that I say, if you have an opportunity to watch it, do it (hide your eyes in some of the battle scenes if you are squeamish). You may just learn a better appreciation for life and Mother Earth.