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Fantasy and Studio Ghibli – Part One: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”

HAYAO MIYAZAKI by C3nmtI am a huge fan of Studio Ghibli animation. Its films are famous for their meticulous detail, beautifully-paced exposition and subtle handling of difficult themes. But what I’d like to talk about in these two articles is the way Studio Ghibli uses fantasy. Here, fantasy means more than Hollywood monsters or bits of mythology mashed up in a big-budget melting pot. Fantasy in Studio Ghibli is a glorious celebration of childhood imagination that captures all the wonders and dangers of growing up in an imbalanced world.

My first article for Fantasy-Faction touched on my own experience of growing up surrounded by fantasy books, and the ways in which they helped me relate to my environment. The fantasy in Studio Ghibli is imbued with the same transitional power. These films build a bridge between childhood and adulthood, seamlessly blending childish delight with adolescent doubt. The Ghibli titles that achieve this most successfully are – unsurprisingly – those directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. In this first part, I’ll be taking a thematic approach in order to look at one of fantasy’s major themes: man vs nature, a conflict explored across the genre from The Lord of the Rings to Avatar.

“To see with eyes unclouded by hate”: Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä

Mononoke Hime by studiomukuWhile the battle between man and nature features to some extent in every Miyazaki film, these titles make it central to the plot. At heart, this is a conflict between progress and preservation. Ever since the dawn of civilisation, humans have sought to govern their environment, a desire that has resulted in the extinction of species, the destruction of rare habitats and natural disasters caused directly or indirectly by our continued interference with the earth. Asserting control over nature is part of the greater attempt to control our lives and – more poignantly – our deaths. And it’s this struggle that Miyazaki conveys so powerfully in Princess Mononoke.

The film’s narrator sets up a classic scenario: once man and beast dwelt in harmony. Nature’s gods ruled over the forest and life thrived. But man grew greedy; we developed technology to better exploit the natural world, thereby upsetting the balance. Using shocking imagery, Miyazaki reveals just how much power mankind has gained over the forest’s animal divinities. Ashitaka, the film’s hero, belongs to a small, fading people, who openly symbolise an obsolete way of life. The dying curse of a mad god pulls him unwillingly into the story and he embarks on a journey to discover the truth behind the iron bullet that corrupted the god and turned him into a demon.

Princess Mononoke by AlectorFencerMiyazaki employs many recognisable fantasy tropes: Ashitaka’s heroic quest unfolds against an epic backdrop; he has a mount with whom he can communicate; a traumatic event forces him to seek his destiny. And his cursed arm (while slowly killing him) grants a really cool special ability: it powers up his arrows so that they’re capable of amputating limbs at long distance. While gushing blood from what would normally be a fatal chest wound, he single-handedly opens Irontown’s massive gate while carrying the wolf girl, San, on his shoulder.

Princess Mononoke contains the most graphic violence of any Ghibli film I’ve seen thus far. Add to that the brilliant character of Lady Eboshi, who employs ex-brothel girls to work the bellows in her Irontown, and you begin to see just how far this film pushes the boundaries of animation. Eboshi could be called the story’s antagonist, but this is Miyazaki and characters are never so clear-cut. Her nemesis, San, was raised by the wolf god and stands for everything Eboshi wants to eliminate. Ashitaka strikes the perfect balance between the two women: he loves the forest in the form of San, and yet he remains friend to the people of Irontown, seeing what San refuses to: that the old order must give way to new.

NAUSICA by OnDadoorIt’s difficult to go into depth about Princess Mononoke without giving away spoilers. So I’ll simply urge you to watch it and move on to another film that shares these themes: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Technically this isn’t a Studio Ghibli film as it was made before the Studio was formed, but since it’s a Miyazaki masterpiece, I’m going to overlook that detail.

Imbalance in the physical world again sits at the heart of this film. Like Ashitaka, Nausicaä too has a destiny that involves restoring the bond between man and nature. We’re introduced to a post-apocalyptic society: the result of a war called the Seven Days of Fire, which turned the world into a toxic jungle. This is the kind of future warned against in Princess Mononoke.

nausicaa by burariNausicaä holds royal status among her people. She has an animal companion whose trust she has earned, and her story unfolds against the same backdrop of ongoing conflict as Ashitaka’s does. Depressingly, humans have learned nothing from the lessons of the past. Instead of seeking to mend the rift with the jungle and its fantastical insects, they resurrect a terrible weapon with which to burn it. Like Ashitaka, Nausicaä must pit herself against the folly of her own race, while retaining a healthy respect for the jungle that could kill her. She possesses no ‘special’ powers other than her courage, selflessness and her ability to see beyond humanity’s fear and greed to a better world…which I guess are special powers after all.

“The world cannot live without love”: Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The third film I’d like to mention in part one of this article is Laputa. It shares some aspects of Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä, but the story and the history against which it is set play out differently. Again there’s a suggestion that human society has suffered some sort of apocalypse: due to an unspecified disaster, the advanced technology that enabled cities to fly has been lost and humans are forced to return to lives on the ground. However, as in Nausicaä’s world, humanity still has military vehicles. It also has a developed economy, an army and a modern system of government. Miyazaki’s love of airships is very apparent here and there are pirates.

Castle in the sky by YaphleenThe fabled, lost city motif calls Atlantis to mind, and Miyazaki’s Laputa is a poignant interpretation of the myth. Loneliness permeates the city’s empty halls. The complex technology in its deepest levels continues to function, untouched by its makers’ hands. And here comes the classic Ghibli preoccupation with nature: on the top tier is a rambling garden, still growing while the city’s buildings fall in ruins. The child heroes of the film, Sheeta and Pazu, discover a lonely robot whose job it is to tend the garden. There’s a haunting sadness to this scene and one cannot help but wonder at the irony of an inorganic being caring for a site of nature neglected by humans.

Although the film initially comes across as aimed at a slightly younger audience, there are moments of violence to equal those in Mononoke, notably the antagonist Muska shooting off Sheeta’s plaits and his henchmen opening fire on Pazu. Miyazaki never pulls his punches in moments such as these; having grown up on a comfy diet of Disney, I found the children’s peril startlingly real.

Laputa by Thierry MartinThe film’s ending is somewhat ambiguous in that it’s unclear what has actually been achieved or resolved. Skirting around spoilers, Laputa represents the irreclaimable past, a golden age that is no more. The children’s heroism belongs to the new world, which, although technologically inferior, is burgeoning with life and hope because its technologically inferior. Unlike much of Disney’s fairy-tale fare, Miyazaki’s films are never about winning or losing; they’re about striving for understanding: a far more difficult and elusive aim.

In the second part of this article, I’ll discuss the more tangible fantasy elements of Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Title image by OnDadoor.

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3 Comments

  1. […] the first part of this series, I took a look at the earlier Ghibli films – Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke and […]

  2. […] the first part of this series, I took a look at the earlier Ghibli films – Nausicaä, Princess […]

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