How to Deliver an Effective Environmental Commentary in an Animated Film (and how Princess Mononoke does it so right)
It is not uncommon to see environmental themes woven into the plots of animated films and, in my opinion, this is a very good thing. The importance of striking a balance between progress and sustainability is arguably vital for society to understand, and film can be the perfect medium to communicate this. Unfortunately, many animated movies tend to develop their characters and convey their messages in ways that prevent them from having a meaningful impact on the audience. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), on the other hand, stands out from the rest and is perhaps one of the most thoughtful, multi-layered, and complete commentaries out there. This becomes all the more apparent when comparing its narrative and stylistic choices to those in other animated films with the same environmental focus. Mononoke both outshines The Lorax (2012) and Wall·E (2008) as an environmental commentary and builds upon Miyazaki’s previous works: My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
Before I go any further, I’d like to give a brief summary of Princess Mononoke’s plot. Set in a fictionalized Muromachi Japan, the untamed landscape is protected by animal-like gods. An industrialist called Lady Eboshi begins exploiting the forest in order to provide for the iron-forging settlement she leads. Clashes ensue between Lady Eboshi and the angered gods, several of whom are killed by her forces. To make matters worse, each fallen deity transforms into a mad demon who then takes life indiscriminately.
A young man named Ashitaka fends off one of these monsters when it attacks his village. In doing so a fatal curse is placed on him by The Forest Spirit, “the heart of the forest… [who] gives life and takes life away” (Gaiman, 1999). Lady Eboshi later becomes involved in a plan to behead this god. This endeavour is led by Jigo, a monk who commands riflemen under the emperor’s control. Supposedly, the head of the Forest Spirit will grant its owner immortality.
On his search for the Forest Spirit, Ashitaka crosses paths with Jigo, Lady Eboshi, and San: a human girl abandoned at birth and raised by wolf deities. Through her, we learn of a full–scale war that is waging between gods and humans. After being exposed to all sides of the conflict, Ashitaka’s mission shifts from saving himself to restoring peace amongst man and nature.
Well… now that that’s out of the way, let’s get right into this analysis.
The Importance of Morally Balanced Characters
The characters in an environmental commentary are extremely important, as they represent different perspectives on the issue. However, these characters are often typecast as solely “good” or “evil” and their personalities are exaggerated to fill those roles. As a result, viewers are presented with an irredeemable antagonist who can ultimately be blamed for all of the problems in the story. This weakens the impact the film as it separates the audience from the environmental issues being discussed. If provided with a scapegoat, viewers will be less likely to consider their own contributions to the problem.
The Lorax is guilty of portraying antagonists in exactly this fashion. Although society is depicted as wasteful and contentedly ignorant of the damage it causes, it is always shown to be at the mercy of O’Hare: a tyrannical corporate giant who deliberately pollutes the atmosphere in order to profit from the sale of clean air. He has the city in the palm of his hand and will suppress any environmentally concerned citizen who threatens his power.
The Lorax’s use of camera angles and colour makes it clear that you are meant to rally against this character. As you can see above, the very first shot we see of him is a low angle shot. This immediately portrays him as an intimidating figure and is further amplified by the fact that his actual face is not initially seen. He is a looming and omnipotent presence flying in his giant blimp and, to exaggerate this even more, he is also placed against a stormy backdrop.
This use of low angles and dark colours continues throughout the film. Characters and audience members alike are always left looking up in fear at O’Hare and the items associated with him.
Although the villain in Wall·E is not directly connected to the film’s environmental theme, its presence alone could distract the audience from the underlying message. The role is filled by a robot named Auto who attempts to keep humans from returning to earth even after life becomes sustainable on it once more. He strives to keep other characters under his control and, in being an external obstacle, the sense of personal responsibility in the audience is lessened. As in The Lorax, Auto is portrayed looking down at the viewers and surrounded by a dark backdrop.
From the outset “Miyazaki insisted that the Princess Mononoke characters not be drawn as heroes and villains” (Wilner, 1999) on the grounds that “this film was not meant to judge good and evil. Both… are inside human beings. That is how the world is” (Tokuma Shoten, 1998).
Lady Eboshi upsets the balance of nature but she only does so to serve her people, many of whom are lepers, outcasts, and others abandoned by their tribes. “She is ruthless, but acts out of a genuine compassion; her people are unswervingly loyal to her not out of fear, but respect” (Townsend, 1999). Jigo sees the world as inevitably cruel, selfish and controlled by authority. A place where people should seize opportunities that benefit them. “He operates on what is advantageous and disadvantageous… [and] His stance is that he has no choice but to follow orders” (CineFront, 1997). The emperor himself is only ever mentioned in dialogue. We are never certain of his motives or intentions, so it is unfair to even label him as a villain.
Besides humanizing the antagonists, Miyazaki also adds flaws to the protagonists. San and the gods are occasionally rash, violent and unwilling to be reasoned with. Ashitaka’s curse causes him to overreact at times. This balance of virtues and flaws makes the characters realistic and allows the audience to identify more deeply with them, helping to connect viewers with the issue as well as give them a more balanced perspective.
Miyazaki makes sure that the duality of his characters is amplified through the use of contrasting costume design and lighting. The scene in which we are first introduced to Lady Eboshi is set in a shady and overcast part of the forest which has recently been destroyed by her troops. She is almost completely covered by a dark cloak and she wears a jingasa that casts a sinister shadow over her face.
When Lady Eboshi takes Ashitaka to the hostel where she tends to the lepers, the tone surrounding her character changes completely. The scene is set in a torchlight room, giving her face a soft glow. Under her dark cloak, Lady Eboshi is shown to be wearing a kimono adorned with bright yellows. Under her jingasa is a bright pink bow. As the audience becomes aware of Lady Eboshi’s compassionate side, they are able to visualize it through the change in her physical appearance.
The same visual contrast is also employed when portraying the gods, such as the ape deities. Typically they take the form of regular animals.
However, when vengeful thoughts fill their minds their appearance changes. There is a scene in which the ape gods discuss the morbid lengths to which they are willing to go in order to drive the humans away. This scene is shot at night, with the gods being practically silhouettes in the darkness. Their only colourful feature is their piercing red eyes.
Miyazaki also angles his shots in a way which suggests that audience members should not be invested in one side more than any other. When two characters with opposite principles are seen together they are both framed at eye level with each other. The angle is always parallel to the ground, so neither character has more or less of a presence. This is exemplified in the duel between San and Lady Eboshi.
Both fill equal parts of the screen. Despite the considerable difference in their heights, neither have their heads tilted significantly. Both appear to be looking at each other eye to eye. The camera angle is parallel to the ground so neither character is emphasized by looking up or down on the other. This provides a visual sense of equality which is further demonstrated later in the fight.
Here, Miyazaki uses two consecutive eye line matches to briefly put us in the perspective of Lady Eboshi as San is about to attack, then into the perspective of San as she lunges at Eboshi and misses. Both shots are framed at shoulder level of the characters, both of which are looking directly into the camera and thus directly at each other. Their eyes are positioned at the exact same height on screen, further alluding that they’re standing face to face. The audience is shown that neither character is greater or more righteous than the other, but rather that they are simply two people defending what they believe in.
The Importance of a Sustained Message
When writing an environmental commentary, a direct message must be sustained throughout the narrative. Otherwise, by the end of the film, audience members might not be sure what it is. Even worse, some screenwriters may add a conclusion to their films which doesn’t relate to the initial environmental message, thus having viewers lose sight of it. Unfortunately, this is the case with Wall·E.
The film begins as a cautionary tale about overconsumption and unsustainable waste management, leading to the unsustainability of human life on Earth. The plot begins centuries after an ecological apocalypse when humans continue to survive on a spaceship galaxies away. These humans are portrayed as lazy, greedy and fixated on a computer screen. They are completely oblivious to their surroundings. This provides a social commentary on how our modern consumerist lifestyle is ultimately unsustainable.
The ship’s captain is eventually given a plant from Earth and he learns that life can be sustained there once again. While watering it, the captain states, “you just needed someone to look after you, that’s all” (Stanton, 2008). It is at this point that the focus shifts away from the film’s main idea. Rather than linking it all back to characters’ consumerist lifestyles, the captain merely states, “we need to go back” (Stanton, 2008). From there onwards, all that matters is that the humans take back what is theirs. No one on the ship is ever shown to actively try and change their ways. In fact, on the flight back to earth, most of them are separated from their screens inadvertently. This could have been rectified with a scene depicting the humans adapting to their back home, explicitly putting in an effort to fix the problems with themselves. Unfortunately, as soon as the ship lands, the film is essentially over. The issue with this is illustrated in one of the final shots: a backwards-tracking wide shot with deep focus.
As it pans back, the audience sees a post-apocalyptic skyline in the background and consumer waste strewn about the foreground. Viewers are not meant to focus on either, but rather only on the plants that are sprouting. Similarly, so much emphasis is placed on the opportunity to return to Earth that viewers no longer have to consider why they left in the first place. Life is sustainable, but it is doubtful that humans in their current state will, in fact, be able to sustain it. Ultimately, an incomplete resolution is offered and the environmental commentary becomes secondary.
Miyazaki learned the importance of being direct with one’s message through his experience with fan reactions to My Neighbor Totoro: a film following two young sisters who move to the countryside. In a TIFF interview, Miyazaki was asked to discuss the relationship between Totoro and Mononoke. He answered, “I take the exact same approach in both films, which is that there is an invisible world… and that we cannot live ignoring the invisible world… When we made Totoro, I made it so that I could encourage little children to walk out into the woods… Instead, I get letters from them telling me the dozens of times that they’ve watched the film, which means they’re sitting in front of their television sets” (Townsend, 1999).
As a result, there is a major difference between how Miyazaki’s two films get their environmental message across. While “Totoro was a gentle reminder of the world outside, Princess Mononoke serves as a warning” (Townsend, 1999). The contrast is demonstrated by each film’s use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
Many of the scenes in Totoro are montage-esque with images of childhood shown alongside a prominent soundtrack, minimal dialogue and no ambient noise.
When there is too heavy an emphasis on sounds that do not exist in the movie’s world, those watching it could potentially lose focus on the subject matter. In the case of a powerful soundtrack, viewers may be so swept up in the emotion of a scene that they do not pay enough attention to the scene itself. In Totoro’s opening we see the family driving through a forested path to their new home.
The heartwarming soundtrack in this scene brilliantly rekindles long lost feelings of innocence, and the focus on childhood is sustained for the entire film. As a result, the environment becomes an afterthought in the audience’s mind. If establishing an appreciation for the natural world was Miyazaki main goal(,) then perhaps it would have been more effective to initially emphasize the diegetic sounds of the forest.
Princess Mononoke, with its sustained and unwavering theme of commensalism between humans and nature, ensures that the audience remains focussed on the messages being presented. Following Ashitaka’s curse, the village elder introduces the idea that human action is disturbing the natural balance.
This dialogue sets the stage for the entire narrative, and every concept discussed in Mononoke builds on what is established here. During this scene, the only sound that can be heard besides the characters’ voices is the crackling torch in the background. This minimal use of only diegetic sound pulls the audience into the scene and focusses their attention on what’s being said. With the elder’s words in mind, viewers are more likely to pick up on the messages later on and remain focused on the film’s environmental commentary.
The Importance of Holistically Portraying Problems and Solutions
It is also important for an environmental commentary to not be oversimplified. If the film provides too narrow a perspective, there is no way for the audience to fully understand the issue or to come to a solution of any merit. Miyazaki has stated, “people who live in our modern times… have a sense that ‘the world can’t be understood by a simple diagram’… the more you explain it in simple terms the more suspect it becomes” (Tokuma Shoten, 1998). If audience members walk out of a film with the idea that, “bad and greedy humans pollute for no good reason; cute, dewy-eyed animals suffer… and if we just use those blue boxes and don’t cut down trees, everything will be okay” (Townsend, 1999) then something has gone wrong.
The Lorax simplifies the problem to the point where it is merely a matter of being unkind to those directly involved. In one of its most significant scenes the audience is meant to sympathize with a single tree that has been cut down.
There is a heavy zoom and a shallow focus that blurs the forest in the background. This visually conveys the narrow perspective that the film provides on environmental issues.
Princess Mononoke takes the exact opposite approach by making viewers recognize the greater impact beyond what is obvious. This is illustrated by Ashitaka’s curse, denoted across his arm. Throughout the film’s opening Ashitaka seems to be the only person harmed by overexploitation, and there are many shots of his exposed curse to bring attention back to that fact.
This soon changes. When they first meet, Jigo shares a meal with Ashitaka in a decimated village. Jigo explains that there was a “flood or a landslide or a fire” (Gaiman, 1999), with the implication that the damage was a result of overexploitation. Jigo laments the village’s fate by proclaiming, “everybody’s dead… and nobody cares… you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world” (Gaiman, 1999). It is here that the audience realizes that Ashitaka’s misfortune makes up only a small fraction of the issue as a whole and that environmental problems cannot be viewed in isolation. The scene is cleverly edited to emphasize this.
As the conversation comes to a close Ashitaka hands Jigo his bowl. This starts out as a POV shot from Jigo’s perspective and it is expected that Ashitaka’s arm will appear on screen once again.
However, it cuts to a wide profile of Jigo as he grabs the bowl, now positioned off camera. This subtly underlines the fact that the viewer’s focus is now meant to shift away from Ashitaka’s curse and to the greater problem facing the world.
The Lorax treats its solutions as simplistically as it approaches its problems. The story’s conflict essentially is resolved when the protagonist reveals to the public the horrors of deforestation, then plants a tree. This immediately convinces every person to give up a lifestyle to which they had been accustomed for many years. Furthermore, the “smog, trash and chemicals” (Renaud, 2012) mentioned earlier in the film are supposedly no longer an issue either. Once again, this scene illustrates the isolated viewpoint through a prominent close-up shot with shallow focus on the single seed used to solve everything.
Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, presents its solutions in the same holistic way it approaches its problems. There is no specific solution put forth as there is no single problem. However, Ashitaka’s goal to re-establish a system whereby “humans and the forest can live together” (Gaiman, 1999) is arguably enough of a solution to get people thinking. It provides the sound argument that perhaps a developed society and a sustained environment are not mutually exclusive and that perhaps finding a middle ground between the two would be the best use of our efforts.
The concept of balance is visualized through wide shots containing Ashitaka, which are abundant throughout the film. He is shown wearing manmade clothes and weapons but, at the same time, he is always paired with his elk companion. He is frequently shown against the scenery of the forest. Occasionally the background is a lush natural space divided by black ore or polluted water, both associated with Eboshi and human development in general.
The Importance of Seeking Conservation over Intervention
In order for an environmental commentary to have a meaningful impact, it must show that there is hope yet to change the course. However, viewers cannot believe that human intervention will always rectify preventable issues or that in time the earth will simply restore itself to an unaltered state of former splendour.
Miyazaki came to understand this after releasing his first environmental film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Its plot revolves around a post-apocalyptic world in which a forest known as The Sea of Decay absorbs the pollution from the water and soil and releases it into the atmosphere (Buena Vista, 2005). Miyazaki explains that, “the Sea of Decay was supposed to have been created by humans a thousand years earlier to cleanse the environment. But… no one could have any forecast what would actually happen” (Miyazaki, 1994). This effectively shows the danger of humans attempting to take on the role of nature despite our limited understanding of how the world works. As Miyazaki put it, “when we think we can predict something, we’re really just revealing our own arrogance” (Miyazaki, 1994).
However, the validity The Sea of Decay’s message is flawed by the fact that nature is shown to be cleansing the earth from underground and thus cleaning up after the humans. In an interview six years after Nausicaa’s release, Miyazaki admitted, “the idea that nature is always gentle and will give birth to something like the Sea of Decay in order to restore an environment polluted by humans is a total lie. And… cling[ing] to such a saccharine worldview is a big problem” (Miyazaki, 1994).
The final shot in Nausicaa visually represents where its message falls flat. It starts as a wide shot overlooking the pristine soils beneath The Sea of Decay, harkening back to the somewhat questionable idea that nature can simply purify itself. It then zooms in onto a tree planted by the protagonist Nausicaa, implied by her helmet left beside it. This goes against the initial warning of the film, as it shows that the environmental issue is once again resolved by a human attempting to rebuild an artificial ecosystem.
Princess Mononoke also conveys the idea that unexpected consequences may arise when humanity places itself above nature, and this is symbolized by the unpredictable actions of the resurrected gods. What stands the film apart from Nausicaa, however, is the fact that gods are also used to illustrate that not all human damage can be undone. Lady Eboshi successfully decapitates the Forest Spirit, but with its last breath, the deity begins to cleanse the earth and restart the cycle of life. Ashitaka and San return the spirit’s head in reconciliation. Once again whole the spirit spares the lives of whoever it can, but that which was taken returns to the earth.
However, some damage is permanent: all the gods who were killed remain dead, including The Forest Spirit; the old forest is destroyed; Ashitaka’s curse has been lifted but a scar remains. When faced with such a loss Lady Eboshi realizes the error of her ways and, upon being given a second chance, she vows to do things differently.
This is summarized beautifully in the film’s final shot (figure 19). It starts off showing the audience the remains of the old forest; however, the audience can see new plants growing out of it. The shot then pans down to the forest floor where a single kodama spirit is seen, “a sign [that the] forest is healthy” (Gaiman, 1999). Despite being wiped out completely during the climax, these spirits still manage to rise from the ashes.
This ultimately leaves viewers with the message that, no matter what, life in some form will be sustained on Earth. The continuation of human life, however, is left up to us. As Miyazaki put it, “nature repeatedly regenerates itself. What’s more important is what humans learn from this process” (Tokuma Shoten, 1998). Some damage may be irreversible but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost and “even amidst hatred and carnage, life is still worth living” (Toho, 1997).
The narrative of Princess Mononoke goes well beyond what is typically addressed in environmentally centered films, and that is what makes it so effective. All sides of the issue are shown in a fair light which allows viewers consider their own perspectives and responsibilities. The environmental message is sustained throughout the film. Problems and solutions are presented in a way which does not simplify the issue and makes the viewers consider the big picture. The pitfalls of human intervention, and the fact that not all damage can be reversed, are communicated without destroying hope. What is more is that Miyazaki utilizes filmic techniques to convey these messages even more powerfully. These techniques include the use of framing, colour and costume, eye line matching, use of sound and use of shot editing.
Miyazaki Hayao, “Fourty-four questions on Princess Mononoke for Director Hayao Miyazaki from International Journalists at the Berlin International Film Festival”. Tokuma Shoten 10 Jun. 1998. Print.
Miyazaki, Hayao. “Living and the Environment”. Asahi Shinbunsha. 20 Jul. 1994. Print.
Miyazaki, Hayao. “On Directing Princess Mononoke”. Interview with Cine Front Jul. 1997. Print.
Miyazaki, Hayao. “Princess Mononoke Proposal”. Toho. 12 Jul. 1997. Print.
Wilner, Norman. “No good and bad guys in Princess Mononoke”. The Toronto Star 2 Nov. 1999. Print.
Townsend, Emru. “Princess Mononoke – nature is presented in both its glory and fury in Hayao Miyazaki’s epic”. The Critical Eye. 5×5 Media, Nov. 1999. 25 Aug. 2014. Web. <http://5x5media.com/eye/film/mononoke.php>
Hageman, Ryan. “Japanese Movie Poster: Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli. 1997”. Poster. Gurafiku Tumblr. 2011. 27 Sept. 2015. Web. <http://gurafiku.tumblr.com/post/6071832295/japanese-movie-poster-princess-mononoke-studio>
Princess Mononoke. Dir. Miyazaki, Hayao. Tran. Gaiman, Neil. Studio Ghibli, Jap. 1997 Eng. 1999. Film.
My Neighbor Totoro. Dir. Miyazaki, Hayao. Tran. Tokuma Shoten. Studio Ghibli, Jap. 1988 Eng. 1993. Film.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Dir. Miyazaki, Hayao. Tran. Buena Vista. Studio Ghibli, Jap. 1984 Eng. 2005. Film.
Wall·E. Dir. Stanton, Andrew. Disney Pixar, 2008. Film.
The Lorax. Dir. Renaud, Chris; Blada, Kyle. Illumination Entertainment, 2012. Film.