From the food we eat to the very air we breathe, there is an intrinsic bond between the natural world and humanity. Scientific studies suggest that nature also plays an essential role in improving our mental health. Now more than ever, when the world seems like it’s collapsing all around us and our mental health is taking a hit while we’re told to stay at home, we look to nature and the outside world for inspiration.
Walking through the local parks and green spaces on my daily exercise has become an essential part of my routine and has allowed me rediscover and appreciate nature in all its beauty; the smell of grass and tree blossoms, the vibrant colours of a field full of wildflowers and the sound of birds chirping in the trees all around.
My ability to be able to perceive nature in greater detail has also coincided with having spent the entirety of April viewing the back catalogue of Studio Ghibli films currently available on Netflix (and via my brother’s Blu-ray collection). There is no greater joy than sitting back and being enveloped in the detailed and wondrous worlds the animators have imagined, from the wild and untamed forests of Princess Mononoke, the secret garden full of flowers in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the seascapes of Ponyo.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Studio Ghibli films are an inoffensive way to entertain your children but, while that may be true with their multitude of charming stories and characters, there is a message threaded through many of their films which is of great importance to the world at large today. That of environmental advocacy and for greater harmony between humanity and the natural world.
So many of their most well-known works touch upon the beauty of nature, but also humanities desecration of it and how harmony between the two is ebbing away. Take, for example, My Neighbour Totoro. Satsuki and Mei arrive at their new rural home, having previously lived in the bustling city of Tokyo, to be closer to their mother who is seriously ill. The hope is that being closer to nature will improve her chances of healing. While there, the girls discover the magic and wonder of the environment around them. In traditional Satoyama landscapes, the forest is indelibly tied to the health and prosperity of the village, and in return the villagers are charged with the forest’s protection. Among those trees are the giant camphor where the totoro’s live. Upon seeing the tree for the first time, the girls’ father says: “Magnificent tree! It’s been around since long ago, back in the time when trees and people used to be friends,” implying that that time has now passed.
In Spirited Away, there are signs of man’s pollution of the natural world. A great ‘stink spirit’ arrives at the spa and Chihiro is tasked with cleaning the sludge away from it in a giant bath. She notices something protruding from the spirit and pulls at it, only to find all manner of human waste trapped there; a discarded bicycle, and an old refrigerator among many other things. It turns out the ‘stink spirit’ is a river spirit and has been transformed by human pollution.
Other references exist too. In Ponyo, the wizard Fukimoto tells Ponyo that humans “treat your home like their own black souls,” and gets entangled with waste which has been dumped into the ocean, whereas Ponyo herself gets trapped in a huge net, a reference to the damage fishing trawlers do to the ecosystems found in our oceans. Meanwhile, in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä helps people towards a greater understanding and respect for nature, which is welcoming, spiritual, and restorative for those who enter it peacefully.
However, nowhere is Studio Ghibli’s fascination with the environment, both its beauty and its wrath, more apparent than in their 1997 film Princess Mononoke. In the film, the boy Ashitaka journeys West to undo a fatal curse bestowed on him by the boar Nago, who had been turned in to a demon by the Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is the ruler of Irontown, where the economy is reliant on the clearing of the surrounding forest. This causes conflict with the inhabitants of the forest, which escalates when Eboshi decides to decapitate the Forest Spirit who holds sway over life and death.
We have an intertwined past, present and future with the natural world. In a comment made about Princess Mononoke, Minnie Driver, who voiced the character of the Lady Eboshi in the English dub, said: “It’s one of the most remarkable things about the film: Miyazaki gives a completed argument for both sides of the battle between technological achievement and our spiritual roots in the forest. He shows that good and evil, violence and peace exist in us all. It’s all about how you harmonise it all.”
Lack of human contact with the outside world, even in such a short amount of time as we have had during worldwide lockdown, has seen the waters of Venice’s great canals go clear, wildlife return to our towns and cities, and the growth of new plant life in the absence of human activity. As shown at the end of Princess Mononoke, when the Forest Spirit dies at the rising of the sun causing the land to heal and trees to grow again, nature can recover, and harmony can be achieved once more. If we want it to.