Anime, TV & Film

The Environmental Messages in Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli Movies

Environmental Messages in Studio Ghibli
🔖 7 min read

You’ve no doubt heard of Studio Ghibli and their remarkable movies such as “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. One of the main reasons why people love these movies is because they are imaginative and full of heart, which makes them relatable to both children and adults. However, what you might not know is that Studio Ghibli’s movies often have environmental messages hidden in them. In fact, many of their films focus on environmentalism and nature preservation.

Not wanting to bombard the audience, Miyazaki was subtle in conveying heavy topics related to the environment and ecological system through the use of children in his animations.

There is no doubt that everyone is aware of the current worldwide environmental issues we face today and Miyazaki attempted to provide a way and a hope for his viewers to see what they could do when facing eco issues. It is important for us to listen to these messages now more than ever as climate change has become an issue that affects us all.

Let’s dive into some of the Ghibli films to discover the environmental messages behind his most influential films! All these films encourage viewers to take a look at the environmental problems surrounding them and try their best in attempting to take action, protect and preserve the natural world around us!

All about Studio Ghibli

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Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio that was established in 1985 by several founders and directors, namely Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma. Hayao Miyazaki coined the name, Studio Ghibli, as he was mainly inspired by a surveillance aircraft during World War II that was called “Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli”.

The first Ghibli movie was released in 1986, which was the film called “Castle in the Sky”. It was then followed by the “Grave of the Fireflies”. Although both films were good, it wasn’t until “My Neighbor Totoro” came out that the mascot of Studio Ghibli became Totoro.

Miyazaki and his Ecological Storytelling

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Hayao Miyazaki is one of the founders of Studio Ghibli and produced many of the well-known films that raised ecological awareness to audiences. A diverse range of viewers love Studio Ghibli films, and the meanings and tales behind the movies can be appreciated by anyone, die-hard Ghibli fans love to dig further into the nuances of the characters and scenes.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

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Nausicaä of the valley and the wind shares a message of the passion and perseverance of the people living in the Valley as they struggle to restore the connection humans have with nature on Earth.

The Story

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The story centres on Nausicaä, who discovers the deadly and poisonous world known as the Sea of Corruption or Rotwood. A world no humans would be able to live in without a “Shohki mask” to protect them from the toxic gas termed “miasma” that fills the atmosphere.

What makes the Rotwood hazardous and intolerable to live in is the belief that it was produced by mankinds’ previous pollution and waste. And it grows due to the mutant insects that inhabit it spreading the spores that produce the poisonous air and conquering numerous regions nearby.

After discovering the Sea of Corruption, Nausicaä falls in love with new flora she’s never seen. She starts collecting the spores that had caused the “miasma” and brings them to her hidden Garden Lab, unknown to the residents of the Valley of the Wind.

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The Environmental Message

Studio Ghibli made use of Nausicaä to extend to its audience how a young girl is able to feel the connection of the world with the environment and its significance to us. 

In her Garden Lab, Nausicaä treats the spores as normal plants from her village, taking excellent care of them, which leads her to the conclusion that keeping the plants healthy with clean water and decent soil does not produce “miasma”.

Nausicaä gives us inspiration and hope that it is still possible for us to take action and preserve the environment even if it is progressively dying from our poor own decisions.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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My Neighbor Totoro begins in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture, where Satsuki and Mei, two young daughters of a university professor, have recently moved into an old house close to the hospital where their mother is being treated.

The Story

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Satsuki and Mei begin to see soot spirits known as Sootballs in the house. Soon, Sootballs start appearing everywhere, formed by the dust inside abandoned houses.

When Mei wanders outside her house she meets a small version of Totoro in the grass which she chases after towards a hollow forest, discovering Totoro sleeping.

The Environmental Message

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Totoro was a character designed by Miyazaki to represent a giant forest spirit without any emotion. Totoro resembles a rabbit-like creature who protects and keeps the forest safe and far away from danger. Miyazaki wanted a character that was emotionless and did not show any sentiments that could expose its inner thoughts.

My Neighbor Totoro encourages young children to discover their love of nature by running through it, just like Mei and Satsuki. Miyazaki hoped that children would grow up to be forest spirits like Totoro, who would preserve their environment when it was threatened.

Miyazaki sends the message urging youngsters to consider picking up acorns and replanting them to demonstrate how precious and vital nature is to us. In the film, Totoro gives acorns to Mei and Satsuki so that they could replant them. As a reward, Totoro exchanges their kind act of planting with an umbrella!

Princess Mononoke (1997)

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As a child, Princess Mononoke (also known as San) was raised by wolves in the wild, which shaped her perception of the world around her. Set during the late Muromachi period of Japan, in the Izumo region, which is bordered by an oak forest, and the Tatara ironworks.

The Story

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Ashitaka, a young prince, is banished from the Emishi village for attempting to defend his people from a demon that appears to attack them. Unexpectedly, the monster he shot down was a wild boar that served as the oak forest’s guardian. As a result, Ashitaka becomes cursed, which means that if people harm an animal or anything living in the forest, they would be tormented by the forest gods.

The villagers want Ashitaka to go so that he does not spread his curse to the rest of the community. Ashitaka travels to Irontown, a mining town inhabited by humans. Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, pushes people to chop down trees and burn away the forest in order to continue mining for more iron.

Ashitaka also meets San, who lives with her wolf siblings. San wishes to assassinate Lady Eboshi in order to protect the world she lives in and the animals she considers her family. As they learn about each other’s stories, they work together to fight the conflict that exists between people outside the forest and the animals that live there.

The Environmental Message

Princess Mononoke promotes the message about the importance of the ecosystem, particularly the species that dwell in it. It urges people to avoid putting them in danger and instead to defend them. Princess Mononoke is basically a model character who is brave and passionate in her struggle against the inhabitants of Irontown who want to harm her home and family for the sake of their mining business.

Spirited Away (1991)

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In Spirited Away, a fantasy-like world exists behind the walls of a red gate connecting the world of humans with the Spirit Realm, where humans are very rarely seen.

When one enters the Spirit Realm during the day, it looks abandoned but when the sun sets, the spirits that live there begin to emerge, undertaking their usual day-to-day activities, just as they would in the human world.

The Story

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A 10-year-old girl and her parents discover an abandoned amusement park by chance. When her parents are transformed into pigs, Chihiro wanders and encounters the enigmatic Haku, who says that the park is a vacation spot for supernatural creatures that need a break from their time on Earth and that she must work there to liberate herself and her parents.

The Spirit Realm is notable for its Bathhouse which belongs to the witch, Yubaba. The bathhouse is designed with traditional Japanese bathhouse style, offering spirits a place to relax and chill at night! It would be the best place to go to after work or just before the day ends.

The Environmental Message

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When you initially watch Spirited Away, it’s not clear that the movie provides an environmental message to the audience. However, as we look closely at the scene where Chihiro was asked to clean the stink spirit, the stink spirit was actually a river spirit filled with garbage and metal scraps people discarded!

The stink spirit was filthy and stinky, making the visitors feel uneasy and unpleasant, but it served as a subtle reminder for us to be conscious of our surroundings and activities that may harm the environment.

The Story of Yanagawa Horiwari (1987)

Image Credit: IMDB

The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals is a part-animated documentary directed by Isao Takahata. Yasuyoshi Tokuma wanted to make another animated film and Miyazaki was searching for a new idea. Originally, it was going to be an animated film set in Yanagawa.

Miyazaki visited Yanagawa and was captivated by the lovely town with its canals. He believed Takahata, who served as a producer for Nausicaä, could make such a film.

On his study trip to Yanagawa, Takahata became fascinated by the town’s history, particularly the efforts of locals to preserve the long-standing canals and clean up the once-polluted waterways. Thus,  it became a live-action documentary that Miyazaki funded himself.

The founders of Studio Ghibli were greatly influenced by Tsutae Hiromatsu, who previously worked for the Yanagawa Municipal Office as he took actions to preserve Yanagawa Horiwari and prevent them from destroying it.


About Jihyun Lee

A dreamer, a wonderer and a rapper at heart. An everyday person who is curious about the world and would love to share Japanese lifestyle stories with you.

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