Eco-Anime: Six Movies with Ecological Themes, Tropes, and Messages

  

When Ronald Regan saw the famous TV movie The Day After, which is about people surviving nuclear war on the United States, it was said to have had such a profound impact on him that it lessened somewhat his macho posturing about military action towards the Soviet Union. It’s rare that movies can be said to have had such a direct effect upon the course of socio-political policy. Usually the effects are more indirect as a certain structure of feeling finds its way into cultural consciousness, which is then reflected in the kinds of subjects writers and directors choose to cover and subsequently make films about. 

A decade and a half into the 21st century, the new topic of global concern is not so much nuclear war as ecological collapse due to anthropogenic climate change, brought about through the use of fossil fuels for energy; and the potential resource wars over water, petroleum, and even living space should it get so severe. It can’t be a coincidence that we’ve been seeing a lot of movies and media as of late with post-apocalyptic themes about survival in societies that have been built back up after some kind of civilisational collapse. Though in most cases ecology is an issue that’s only alluded to than directly referenced – from Interstellar, to the Hunger Games, to The Maze Runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Book of Eli; not to mention the copious amount of post-civilisation television and video games, from The Walking Dead to the Fallout franchise.

Not so in the long history of anime (Japanese animation), in which ecological themes and tropes have been a salient feature for several decades. Perhaps due to seeing the ecocidal/genocidal effects of nuclear weaponry, perhaps due to coming from a culture which blends the ancient withthe modern and the natural with the technological, along with many other factors, green concerns have been a recurring concern in Japanese animated filmmaking from its beginnings under the legendary Osamu Tezuka to the maverick works of Hayao Miyazaki.

While the track record of American animated features dealing with the environment is somewhat sketchy – from the preachy Ferngully, to the intelligent and nuanced Wall E, to the abominable Lorax – anime tends to consistently deliver green narratives which instil an environmental awareness in the audience without beating them over the head with it. It’s strengths also lie in viewing the roots of anti-ecological consequences in systemic structures (states, militaries, corporations) rather than individual consumer behaviours, which seems to be the main focus of green animated movies in the west; emphasising personal guilt over the need for structural changes.

From the birth of the modern ecology movement in the 1960s to the present, there has grown a division into two rough poles with, on one hand, primitivists – who believe we ought to abandon all technology and return to a hunter-gatherer way of life – and, on the other hand, futurists – who believe we can use technology in an environmentally responsible way to liberate both ourselves and the natural world from hardship, with most greens being somewhere in the middle.

The relative scope of eco-anime films which tackle environmental issues and themes could also be broken down roughly into two camps: eco-fantasy and eco-futurism. The former tends to be more lighthearted, and deals with humanity’s relationship to nature in a whimsical and imaginative way. The latter tends to be more dark and grim, depicting the negative consequences of human folly in our effect on the natural world.

While the parallels between primitivism/eco-fantasy and futurism/eco-futurism don’t perfectly align, they share enough in common that thematic resonances exist between them when it comes to viewing the expression of ecological consciousness in feature films. 

I want to start with optimistic visions from the 1980s and 1990s – which emphasise small-scale and general concern for the environment rather than systemic change – followed by movies that depict ecological catastrophe and the “revenge of nature” upon humanity, and conclude with a film which mixes apocalyptic imagery with a more optimistic outlook on the potential for humans to live in harmony with nature instead of dominating it.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Even without the relevant connection to ecology and other themes, Hayao Miyzaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a delightful children’s adventure story, blending the works of Jonathan Swift with high adventure fiction from the early twentieth century and swashbuckling action movies from the 1930s – it’s also noteworthy for being one of the first cinematic examples of the genre now called steampunk.

The story concerns two teenagers, Sheeta and Pazu, in an alternate-history version of Europe, where steam-power has given birth to airships instead of sea-ships, as they search for the legendary city of Laputa, said to contain the ruins of a lost civilisation. They are pursued by the villainous (aesthetically fascist) Muska and the military, who wish to conquer the lost city for its treasures and weaponry.

While its plot is a little on the simpler side relative to Miyazaki’s other works, with Muska in particular being a somewhat cartoonishly evil villain in comparison to his more nuanced antagonists, it doesn’t try to be anything other than a fun family adventure film with implied messages about militarism and the necessity about having a connection to the natural world.

The film opens in the lush valleys of what seems to be alternate-history Wales, where people are visibly poor materially but still full of vitality, then transitions to the high-tech surroundings of the military of this world, which contains unpleasantly rustic browns, greys, and an aura of aggressive uniformity. These two aesthetics are smashed together when our characters, good and evil, arrive in Laputa, a former technological hegemon which has been taken over by flora and fauna. This is something Muska finds “filthy” and disgusting as he rips through vines to acquire control of the city’s weapons of mass destruction.

Sheeta’s ancestral connection to the city comes into play towards the end as it becomes apparent to Muska that he cannot become this world’s ruler without her. Threatening her at gunpoint, Laputa’s decaying technological might comes into play as it becomes apparent that it was once the head of a great empire which collapsed due to its disconnection from the Earth, in both a figurative and literal sense.

Ultimately, while the film’s ecological message is covert, rather than overt, it is coded to the audience in a remarkably mature fashion for a nominally child-centric movie, making links between statism, war, militarism, and inevitable ecocide.

Pom Poko

Written and directed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata, the filmmaker behind one of anime’s most renowned cinematic gems, the World War II tragedy Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko focuses on a group of anthropomorphic Tanuki (raccoon-dogs indigenous to Japan) as they wage a guerrilla war against humans developing on their habitat.

The film has a lot of colourful and creative imagery depicted through the magical Tanuki’s ability to transform into humans and monsters to scare the humans off, and also a lot of black comedy which will probably fly over children’s heads.

Story wise, the film takes place over the course of a couple of seasons as the Tanuki try various campaigns and strategies to keep the humans away from their land and stop them destroying their homes. Part of the charm of the film is watching the anthropomorphised animals mimic human habits yet acting very much like one would expect real animals to act if they could speak. That is, in a not so rational and enlightened way.

The more militaristic section of the Tanuki has similarities to radical environmental groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, performing acts of strategic sabotage and property damage in their fight against human encroachment. And, interestingly for a family film, not only has the Tanuki commit actual murder at points, but laugh hysterically about it afterwards.

Unusually for an animated family film that deals with green issues – which was released at around the same time as the similarly themed Ferngully: The Last Rainforest – the film actually grows more somber and bleak as it goes on, as the Tanuki gradually run out of options and are slowly faced with death due to starvation. It confronts the characters with tough choices to which there are no easy answers, even from the audience’s perspective. Do they go out blazing in an anti-human rampage rather than accept slow death from starvation? Attempt to find another less habitable home? Should the few Tanuki who can magically transform try to assimilate into the human world leaving their weaker comrades to an uncertain fate?

The film is overall a bit too heavy handed in its depiction of human-nature conflict. It even ends with one of the Tanuki characters speaking directly to the children watching the film about treating the environment responsibly. But in other ways it makes for a surprisingly mature story about how there isn’t always an easy answer to the question of human versus ecological survival.

Princess Mononoke

In another Miyazaki entry, this time of a far darker and more adult nature, Ashitaka, a young man infected with a curse given to him by a forrest god, must abandon his tribe and search the lands of medieval Japan in search of some kind of cure. The god was driven mad by some kind of spiritual infection said to be caused by the progressive human ravaging of the forrest, as many bands of humans are determined to conquer nature and her spirits so that industrialisation and the march of progress may continue.

Along the way, in this 2 ½ hour epic, Ashitaka encounters forrest spirits, corrupt monks, soldiers who want to cut his head off, a town lead by an ambitious woman of mixed morals, and a girl raised by wolf gods after having been abandoned by her human parents, who has turned against her own species to become a warrior for the forests: Princess Mononoke, who gives the film its title.

This movie is generally considered Miyazaki’s magnum opus in a career chock full of masterpieces. It’s not difficult to see why, as almost every character is fascinating, complex, and well-developed; the animation and direction is nothing short of breathtaking, even by today’s standards; and its plot of a war between humanity and (anthropomorphised) nature itself manages to be multi-faceted and avoids painting either side as fully right or wrong in their dispute.

It would normally be expected in a pro-ecology film for nature to be depicted as virtuous and humanity as villainous. Though the picture Miyazaki paints is more complicated than that.

Nature is shown to be a world of balance and harmony, unjustly being destroyed by human action; but also rigid and stubborn in its inability to compromise or accept necessary change. Humanity – as represented in the industrial dwelling of Iron Town, led by the ambiguous Lady Eboshi – is shown to be violent and reckless; but also a force of creativity and vitality. And Lady Eboshi herself, who in any other film would probably be the designated villain, is shown to be at once ecocidal and myopic, but also a woman who built a thriving community of social outcasts – prostitutes, runaway soldiers, lepers – when the rest of society denied them even basic humanity. 

So in a sense, the film plays out as a battle between the best of a flawed humanity versus the worst of a benevolent nature over the contested territory of living space, with Ashitaka being caught between both worlds, who (as a member of an indigenous tribe excluded from Japanese society) having localities to neither, ends up getting caught in the middle; attacking and defending both sides at various points depending on the situation.

In the end, as expected, balance between forrest and town is achieved through the cooperation of Ashitaka and Mononoke, with each being children caught between worlds, and therefore the best bridges between them. As a dark but ultimately hopeful example of eco-fantasy, it gives its viewers interesting points to contemplate around the subject of human dealings with nature in the name of “progress”, and whether a progress that involves increasing the vitality of humans by decreasing the vitality of nature is really a progress worth having.

Now to turn attention away from the positive imaginings of eco-fantasy to the dark visions of eco-futurism.

Blue Submarine No. 6

The story of this mini-series, recut into a two-hour movie, concerns a once-respected scientist called Zorndyke who became convinced that humanity was a blight upon the Earth. He subsequently genetically-engineered several species of sapient post-human marine species intended to wipe out the human population. Submarine pilot Hayami and assistant Mayumi team up to defend the existing humans and defeat Zorndyke.
 

Aside from the dark and increasingly relevant eco subject matter, Blue Submarine No. 6 was one of the first anime features to extensively blend 2D cell animation with 3D computer animation, and while not that sophisticated by today’s standards, marks a turning point in technical terms for anime as a medium. It came out the same year as Gary Goldman and Don Bluth’s Titan A. E., an underrated science-fiction animated film which also blended traditional 2D characters with mobile 3D backgrounds.

This is a rare film where eco-collapse has been brought about through conscious effort rather than as an unintentional side effect. While Zorndyke is only alluded to early on in the film, made out by most characters to be some kind of demented sociopath, he is eventually depicted onscreen as a soft-spoken, cerebral, and almost gentle character. While his literally genocidal project is depicted as a step too far, Zorndyke still comes across as a villain with a point. Less Doctor Moreau – which, with his creation of humanoid animals, may seem like the best comparison – and more Doctor Frankenstein in the original novel by Marry Shelly.

A major plot-point is Mayumi seeking revenge upon Zorndyke for the deaths of her parents, with the film building up to a final confrontation between the two. Yet, when she finally meets him face-to-face and is presented with the opportunity of killing him, she cannot take it. Upon hearing the explanation for his actions, she finds herself simultaneously unable to agree with his anti-human philosophy, yet also unable to see him as nothing but a brutal villain worthy of death.

Throughout, Hayami has several encounters with one of Zorndyke’s marine soldiers, forming a sort of non-verbal bond as they save each other’s lives once each, coming to recognise a mutual “humanity” in one another. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Hayami briefly reflects on what the world might be like post-humanity, “for us death, but for you, a utopia”.

The final scene of Zorndyke’s funeral is ambivalent. Whether humanity can live in peace with the Earth’s new nonhuman inhabitants is left up in the air. It is something to mournfully contemplate as we ask, if Zorndyke was correct in his assessment of the human species’s capacity for destruction, what alternative can there be for both people and the planet?

Origin: Spirits of the Past

Personally, while I can see where this anti-humanist sentiment is coming from, and can appreciate it for asking interesting questions in the context of some films, I’m not at all sympathetic too it. Mainly because it treats “humanity” as a homogenous entity instead of the diverse multitude it is, stratified along state and class lines. To imply that humanity as a whole bears collective responsibility for environmental devastation is to effectively say a poor child in the slums of Lagos is as responsible for ecocide as the CEO of Exxon Mobil, simply because both are members of the homo sapiens species.

For that reason and others, I find myself more drawn to the worldview of films like Origin: Spirits of the Past.

The story kicks off through a musical montage which depicts global civilisational collapse due to an attempt at geoengineering gone wrong, which covers the world in sentient trees. Flash forward 300 years and the citizens of an area called Neutral City are caught in a conflict between a militaristic nation-state on one side, and the sentient forrest – which they have learned to live in balance with – on the other.

The finger is pointed more at militarism and statism as being responsible for environmental devastation more than some kind innate species-wide propensity towards wrecking the Earth.

As a film in-itself, Origin is aesthetically beautiful but somewhat lacking in the story and character department. At only 90 minutes, the striking world of the film makes it feel like it ought to be a lot longer, perhaps even a television series or a series of films than a self-contained feature. And in terms of the delivery of its message, it comes across as excessively preachy and unsubtle. Though as for that message’s actual content, Origin succeeds in coming close to what’s called the social ecology school of environmental thought, emphasising human-nature cooperation and balance between the two as a solution to conflict, rather than one dominating or destroying the other.

Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind

In Hayao Miyazaki’s first big film, released in the early 1980s (and boasting an egregiously dated synthesiser soundtrack), a small community of ecologically responsible people have managed to carve out a comfortable existence through renewable technology and living in peace with the Ohmu, giant insectoid creatures which roam the toxic wastelands the rest of the planet has become.

The collapse here is implied to be the result of nuclear war rather than ecological collapse – more of a Cold War theme from the 1980s – though it still has much of the same resonance today as the issues of human institutional folly causing catastrophe are similar enough to be comparable. The film could just as well be made today with implied nuclear war being replaced with implied human-cased eco-collapse without a noticeable difference.

Our plot concerns a young “princess” called Nausicca (after an ancient Phoenician goddess) as she roams the wasteland in search of materials to help her people and act as an intermediary between the various waring states which dot the still-habitable zones of the Earth. While one state in particular is determined to use ancient weapons from the “old world” (implied to be some form of atomic city-destroyer) in order to scrape the wastelands clean of the Ohmu, Nausicca is determined to find a peaceful solution.

The film is most similar overall to Miyazaki’s later epic Princess Mononoke, with Nausicaa and Ashitaka both being thrust into the role of intermediary between humanity and nature. But while Ashitaka fights against both sides in the conflict, trying to get both to see sense, Nausicaa tries to bring both sides together without recourse to violence. On that level it’s the most anti-militarist, even pacifist, of the films covered here. 

In the end, as Nausicca manages to put her own life on the line to play peacemaker between the militaristic human rulers and nuclear fauna, the audience is shown in the post-credits montage that it is indeed possible for humanity and nature to exist in harmony with one another. 

This film, though the earliest chronologically of these six, embodies all the best traits of the anime films that came after it: ecological awareness, links between ecocide and the militaristic desire to dominate nature, and the aspiration to adopt a cooperative relationship to the natural world instead of one based on hierarchy and destruction. 

Conclusion

As shown above, while western animated features continue to be hit and miss with regard to addressing issues of people and planet, anime contains a wealth of movies grabbing with green themes and leading audiences to think about their relationship as humans towards the Earth, and where possible solutions to the nature/culture divide may lie. 

With regard to both cinematic analysis and social analysis, of the most promising environmental philosophies to look into in the technological age (alluded to above) is the critical theory of social ecology.

Social ecology posits that almost all environmental problems (bar purely natural disasters) are ultimately rooted in human social problems; and those human social problems in turn stem from structuring our institutions and relations upon lines of centralised power, hierarchy, and domination. In the words of social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin “The domination of nature by man is rooted in the domination of man by man”. In other words, the ways we treat each other, through exploitation and violence, become projected onto the ways we treat nonhuman animals, flora, landscapes, and other forms of biotic life.

Perhaps the best course of action filmmakers could take would be to drop the scary visions of possible apocalypse and show bright hopeful futures in which technology has been utilised to restore balance between first nature (the organic world) and second nature (the human-crafted world). A “social ecological cinema”. And as the movies in this festival show, there’s already a lot to draw from in anime. Right now such visions are only really present in films like Origin and Nausicca, which show ecotopias within the context of post-collapse worlds. Perhaps it might be a good idea to show that such societies could be achieved while averting such a collapse in the first place.

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