A Social Anarchist Take on Captain America: Civil War

A Social Anarchist Take on Captain America: Civil War

First of all, after the colossal disappointment that was Batman v Superman, Civil War is a welcome antidote to the residue of “stank” left over from Zack Snyder’s too-dark and meandering neocon mess of a superhero film. This movie proves to be just as good as the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, and if counted as an Avengers movie (which it sort of is) it’s easily the best one. Well-paced, brilliant integration of practical and digital effects, and with just the right blend of increasing darkness and tension-breaking levity; which the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) needs at this maturing stage in its development.  

(Also, Black Panther? Sploosh) 

Watching Civil War as a social anarchist however reveals a number of interesting points which probably wouldn’t be apparent to the liberals and centrists this movie was made by and for. Many fans will likely deride this analysis as yet another case of “social justice warriors” reading politics into everything, to which I say: the politics are already there, most just mistake tacit support for the dominant ideology with the lack of an ideology.

To start with, the conflict itself which forms the basis for the split in the Avengers. The tension which emerges from our team of superheroes (or “enhanceds” to use the MCU’s lingo), over whether they should be able to act autonomously or be subject to legal authority, was interesting from the inception but was handled appallingly in the original comics. Both sides ended up looking bad because of the lack of coordination between writers, and Iron Man – designated the official party in the right – ended up becoming a total fascist and throwing anyone who disagreed with him in inter-dimensional gulags.

Here however, the issue is handled with a surprising degree of thoughtfulness for a summer blockbuster. Rather than one side of the debate being deemed the de facto “good guys”, we get a fair hearing from both sides, with each airing legitimate pros and cons of their respective positions. The pro-reg side are shown to have a point with regard to the lack of oversight they face relative to the amount of damage they’re capable of causing; and have caused. The anti-reg side on the other hand are correct in questioning the implications of being told what to do by people who don’t know the situation as well as they do, and the possibility of being forced to do something horrible if ordered to by an external authority.

Here, the movie also makes the split more than just ideological, as there’s now also the element of behind-the-scenes manipulation by a third party.

It’s also nice for the MCU to finally address the facts that:

1) the Avengers have caused untold destruction with few actual consequences on their end,

2) they operate on their own authority from within the US and routinely ignore the territorial sovereignty of other nations, and

3) there does seem to have been a correlative increase in the amount of potentially Earth-destroying incidents since they showed up.

But what is a social anarchist to make of all this?

Well, anyone of an anarchistic sensibility would agree that Steve (Captain America) makes a good point about the United Nations being made up of “people with agendas”. He’s seen how SHIELD was infiltrated by the fascistic Hydra and is presumably worried about something very similar happening to a superficially protection-based institution. The Avengers could indeed be ordered to do something awful by the UN, like being forced to use their superpowers to crush resistance movements the world’s major states disagree with. Who’s to decide if a force of socialist revolutionaries in Wakanda are “terrorists” or freedom fighters? The X-Men aren’t part of the MCU, but I’d agree with a sentiment once expressed by Wolverine about terrorists merely being “what the big armies call the little armies”.

So would an anarchist then side with Cap and his team of underground rebels on the issue of superheroes being allowed to act autonomously? Not quite.

In the world of the MCU, the Avengers are the human equivalent of nuclear warheads. They are “weapons of mass destruction” personified. The statist United Nations is hardly a form of public oversight which actually represents “the public”. Rather, it represents the interests of each nation-state’s governing classes. But still, the fact that superheroes, with their capacity for destruction, can act without being in any way accountable or controllable by the ordinary people they allegedly aspire to protect is a huge problem.

Yes, one could argue that their powers make them a necessity in the context of a planet now routinely under attack from alien and inter-dimensional threats. Though that’s not the only function they serve. In the second Avengers movie, where the team is shown to have been at their jobs for a few years, it’s mentioned that they’ve spent a lot of their time taking down “arms dealers” – a very non-superhuman problem. But isn’t it worth asking (at the risk of sounding like Britta from Community), what are they dealing arms for in the first place?

You see, the MCU is set in an alternative timeline where things are, for the most part, exactly like they are in this timeline – but with the addition of superheroes (and Hell’s Kitchen not being gentrified). So then there still exists an authoritarian capitalist state system, draining the planet dry for its natural resources and waging imperialist wars to feed the ever-growing beast of capital accumulation and statist power-lust – but, again, with superheroes.

The problem with Steve and Co., fearful of being commanded by “people with agendas”, is they see their own autonomous initiatives to protect people from threats – superpowered and not – as being value-neutral. After all, surely taking down “bad guys” isn’t political. It’s just the good thing to do in a very commonsensical way. This however reveals something telling about statist ideology: it doesn’t see itself as ideological. 

Let’s take the purely superpowered threats out of the equation for a moment. What is making these so-called “bad guys” act in the way they do in the first place? Arms dealing and non-state terrorism are both connected to the global drug trade, itself a result of the prohibition of recreational drugs in almost every state. If drugs were decriminalised worldwide, then the Avengers would have considerably fewer arms dealers and terrorists to go after.

What about the pimps, drug dealers, wife-beaters, and gangsters Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage beat up? You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart leftist to consider that most are a product of a cocktail of factors related to economic inequality. New York doesn’t look the way it does in the Marvel TV series for no reason. It probably suffered the same brutalising effects of neoliberal economics the real New York did in the 1970s and 1980s; making class hierarchies even more stratified, breeding unemployment and resentment, and leaving organised crime looking like a viable alternative to legitimate (capitalist/statist) employment. Not to mention the psychological effects of this stratification which turn people into violent abusers and drug-addicts in the first place. Somehow, it’s hard to picture Daredevil taking place in Oslo, where the problems of economic insecurity and class stratification aren’t as horrendous.

Superheroes, with regard to non-superpowered problems, aren’t merely neutral do-gooder protectors of the people. By never challenging the systemic problems which give rise to the criminals they knock into walls, they are, effectively, upholders of a deeply hierarchical and authoritarian set of social relations on a national (American) and international scale.

Captain America is right to be cautious about “people with agendas” telling him and his allies to use their superpowers for nefarious purposes, but he’s unable to see that he has an unrecognised set of agendas himself. Maybe due to political and economic naïveté, but still.

In many ways he was more on the mark during The Winter Soldier, where he opposed the illegitimate freedom-restricting acts undertaken by SHIELD, even before they turned out to be secretly run by a bunch of Nazis-not-Nazis.

You see, there already is just such a freedom-restricting institution in both this world and the MCU: it’s called the global state system and capitalist economy. Built on a legacy of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and ecocide, from a social anarchist perspective the best thing superheroes could do, if they’re going to exist at all, would be to use their enhanced abilities to help inspire a planetary popular uprising against capitalist-statism – then use their powers constructively to help build a post-scarcity economy of the commons. This would effectively eliminate about 90% of the things they beat people up for. 

Tony Stark could probably use his resources and technical know-how to create a giant supercomputer capable of fully-automating almost all human labour and provide an abundance of needs-fulfilling products for the whole planet, rendering even money unnecessary; like a version of Ultron used for universal well-being instead of destruction. Instead, he uses everything at his disposal to protect his own property and power, and to “privatise world peace” in his own hands.

Civil War’s very own writer Mark Millar (on a better day) even wrote a Superman comic imagining what it would be like if Supes was born on a collective farm in the Soviet Union, becoming a pawn of Stalinism and later a totalitarian dictator in his own right. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson likewise wrote Steelheart, a novel in which superheroes become the new ruling class over ordinary humans instead of the benevolent protectors of them.

Willing or unwilling, superheroes have long history of being the enforcers of centralised mechanisms of power, reconstituting the status-quo and by extension protecting the powerful against the disempowered.

This isn’t to say that superheroes themselves are an inherently capitalist or statist or authoritarian concept. Don’t forget, Superman’s first villains weren’t mad scientists or aliens, but corrupt businessmen and slumlords. V, from V for Vendetta, is the rare example of an anarchist superhero who fights for popular liberation and an autonomous self-organised social order. Even in the real world, many ordinary people don superhero suits in a symbolic fashion to feed the homeless or take care of their communities.

Just as they can be tools of the capitalist state system, they can also be champions of the oppressed. It depends on what purpose they end up serving.

Though if a team of genuinely social anarchist superheroes ever popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s likely the Avengers would be dispatched to get rid of them before they could pose a threat to the interests of the global state system; eventually being thrown in one of Tony’s space gulags. While our (A)vengers and the rest of the superhuman crew would likely end up on the same side in the event of extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional attack, this would only be for the same reason the anarchists teamed up with liberals and Marxists in Italy to get rid of the fascist occupation. While Iron Man and his posse are busy firing electro-blasts at poor people, the anarchists would be trying to destroy poverty through superhuman and super-legal means.

(And *spoilers* this isn’t even getting into the fact that Stark himself is clearly an unstable mess of a human being. Seriously Tony, we know he killed your parents and you’re obviously upset, but what part of “he was under fucking mind-control and had no choice” is not clear to you?)

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism was a controversial book when it came out and is even more controversial now, though for very different reasons. It presented a revised theoretical framework for anarchism which:

  1. Painted it as a global, rather than Euro-American tradition
  2. Pointed out that syndicalism can be considered an offshoot of 1860s anarchism rather than a separate idea-set
  3. Argued that class-struggle communist anarchism was in fact the only legitimate form of anarchism.

  
This vision was lauded by many anarchists of a more class struggle orientation, criticised by those of a more intersectional and less “workerist” mind, and loathed by anarchist individualists. Though today the disputes the book sparks have taken on another far more sinister dimension.

Any future readings of this book, seminal and lauded when it came out, are inevitably going to be coloured by a giant elephant in the room: one of its co-authors, Michael Schmidt, was (arguably) exposed as a racist and Afrikaner nationalist, if not an outright fascist, who for some reason saw these beliefs as compatible with a particular brand of class struggle anarcho-syndicalism.

While his writing partner, Lucien van der Walt, remained publicly silent for several months, he used his web moniker RedandBlackWritings to defend Schmidt and argue that the evidence against him wasn’t credible. He later issued a public statement through the Anarkismo network in which he depicted himself as torn between the man he thought he knew and the double life he appeared to have lead, not sure which was the real one.

Given that at least one piece of evidence – an internal memo written under his own name which he’s confessed to writing – contains pretty overtly racist material which he hasn’t even disowned, it’s clear that if he isn’t a total fascist, he’s at least a man with extremely questionable racial politics and therefore a hindrance to the global social anarchist movement. His attempts to defend himself – posting pictures of himself with black people and pointing out that his ex-wife is Indian – have been nothing short of pathetic.

But then what of the book itself? Should it be written off completely because of the double life of one of its authors? Not necessarily.

Many respected anarchists did or advocated doing horrid things aside from their core body of work. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a vicious misogynist and racist (especially towards Jewish people), Mikhail Bakunin likewise harboured many contemptible prejudices towards Jews, Peter Kropotkin supported World War One, and so on. While these flaws are always brought up (and should be) they do not invalidate what they got right or render their contributions to anarchist thought and practice void.

The same should arguably apply to contemporary anarchist and socialist writers, though their infractions should be taken a great deal more seriously given the more socially enlightened time we live in, and thus the greater standard we should hold people to.

So how does Black Flame stand up on its own as a work of social anarchist theory?

Well, looking back, it’s actually a very flawed book.

I first read it myself a year or two after it came out and was extremely impressed with it. At the time, I was only starting to really look in depth at the large body of anarchist history and thought, and Black Flame served as a great solidification of anarchist ideas which contextualised them in light of their origins. Though even on that first reading, I regarded its picture of communist class-struggle anarchism as the “only” anarchism to be too narrow. Since then I’ve come to my own understanding of anarchism which is narrower than the “big tent” view which accepts just about any ideology that slaps “anarcho-“ onto itself as anarchist, but still wider than the ultra-strict categorisation found in Black Flame.

Having since studied a lot more of the vast literature of anarchism, reading the book again reveals a lot of downsides I didn’t notice before. For a start, their picture of communist class- struggle anarchism as the only legitimate form of anarchism isn’t even original. Stuart Christie (who introduces the book) and Albert Metzler posited the same idea in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy during the 1970s.

While its encapsulation of class struggle thinking in the late 19th and early 20th century is vast, it hardly even touches upon the multitude of fascinating anarchist theorising which developed after the Second World War, aside from a few mentions of Murray Bookchin.

And when I say “vast”, that’s both a complement and a condemnation. Because further reading revealed their scholarship (so impressive first time round) to be very wide, but not very deep. In many cases they only display a superficial understanding of the thinkers they describe, such as Emma Goldman.

With regard to people whose ideas they dismiss, their portrayals are even more shallow. This becomes especially evident with Max Stirner, whom I’m convinced the authors didn’t even bother reading, as they make errors about his thought that appear to have been picked up from second-hand misunderstandings than any serious consideration of his philosophy. They claim there was no real difference between self-described anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists in the early 20th century, but closer reading of the material reveals this to be false – with a strong disagreement over tactics (popular uprising in communes vs trade union action in workplaces) dividing them on ideological and practical grounds. Anarchist historian Robert Graham briefly takes them to task for this conflation in his recent book on the emergence of anarchism.

Also, the inclusion of Marxists like Daniel DeLeon, William Haywood, and especially James Connolly as part of “the broad anarchist tradition” is just comical. I’m Irish. I grew up learning about James Connolly since primary school and read a great bit by him in his own words since becoming a socialist. The idea that he was any kind of anarchist strikes me as one of the most ridiculous things in the whole tome. A syndicalist, yes, but come on.

The fact that the book consciously avoids painting a Eurocentric portrait of anarchism is often praised, but while the authors make mention of many anarchists and movements from the global south, they don’t really explore what they thought very much, or try to incorporate their insights into their revised anarchist framework. I wouldn’t quite call what they do tokenism, but in certain passages it can feel like it.

With regard to oppressed nationalities, they do at least portray the classical anarchists accurately in explaining how they advocated working within anti-colonial national liberation movements – trying to push them in a libertarian direction from within – rather than the simplistic rage against all forms of nationalism as one and the same you often find in anarcho-syndicalist circles today. But this is marred by an equally simplistic and class-reductionist perspective on victims of national domination by imperial powers, disagreeing with Rudolf Rocker that the popular classes from imperialist countries enjoy a slightly higher position in quality-of-life relative to colonial subjects. They seem to believe that as long as you’re working class, you aren’t in any real position of advantage to anybody else who’s working class.

Finally, there’s the chapter on race and gender. That Black Flame lumps these two distinct topics together is a problem all on its own, but let’s ignore that for now. The authors at least acknowledge gender oppression is its own unique form of hierarchy which cannot simply be reduced to exploitation by capital, but do not do the same for racial oppression. They paint one of the most puerile caricatures of white supremacy and anti-racist politics I’ve ever seen (I’ve literally seen critiques on Reddit with more nuance) before dismissing it in favour of abstract “working class” solidarity. Once again, if you’re working class, you apparently enjoy no real advantages to anyone else who’s working class. They cherry pick a few statistics showing that the most racist States in the US are also the ones with the lowest welfare for workers, expecting us to believe that this proves whites are not in fact in a structurally advantageous position relative to people of colour.

Do I even need to explain how simple-minded this is? It is conceiving of racial oppression in entirely economic terms, not even caring to consider the political, social, and psychological hierarchies which define racist societies; which inculcate in the minds of people of colour from an early age that white is the default and anyone else is a deviation from the default. And what about the grotesque treatment by the state of African-Americans? Are we supposed to believe this is just an epiphenomenon of working class exploitation by capital?

I really do want to not make this all about the authors personally, but I can’t shake the feeling that a good bit of this perspective could be informed by these two white working-class South Africans trying to convince themselves that they don’t really benefit from a system based on racial hierarchies, that it’s only their class position that disadvantages them; and that if purely economic differences were stripped away, there would be zero differences in life-chances between them and an unemployed black man from a Johannesburg township.

Despite anarchism being one of the first political traditions to support the inclusion of LGBT+ people, and to support free love and the uninhibited freedom to sexual pleasure, the issue of sexuality is never brought up. Nor are the crucial issues of ecology (despite Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus having explored them thoroughly), animal liberation, or liberatory technology. This last omission, especially for those of a solarpunk sensibility, makes the book even more dated as we look to enter an era defined by (A) an overflow of technological change, (B) an accelerating ecological crises, and the need, in turn, for social anarchists to know how to respond to both.

All in all, revisiting the work reveals it to be an attempt to create a version of anarchism that’s far too close to orthodox Marxism: class-reductionist, economistic, stuck in the golden era of proletarian socialism, and dismissive of attempts to expand revolutionary theory by incorporating struggles against other forms of hierarchy/domination into its conception of class struggle. And all of the above remains the case even if you discount the obvious personal flaws in character of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt.

If you’re an anarchist of a more workerist orientation – who sees the added focus on the fights around race, gender, sexuality, ability, and ecology to be worthy of dismissal – then reading it will likely reinforce your convictions without making your arguments for them any stronger.

Looking back, I now find it unsettling that I recommended it to so many people – even if just to debunk the idea that anarchism had no coherent set of ideas – and have to concede that those who attacked it were on firmer ground than I remembered.

So if you’re a young social anarchist who’s looking to find out more about anarchist history and theory, you can safely skip this one and lose little of value.

Instead, try checking out the following for a broader and more nuanced understanding of social anarchism as an idea-set aimed at a beginner:

– Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall

– Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein

– We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It by Robert Graham

– Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture by Jesse Cohn

– Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward

– Red Emma Speaks by Emma Goldman

– Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker

– The Anarchist FAQ (long but very comprehensive)

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.