*Note: spoilers for both movies throughout*
Renown Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki (now once again un-retired) need only show off a couple of his highly merchandised characters to get instant recognition worldwide: Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and other friendly figures are prevalent movie characters that tout the Studio Ghibli logo.
Yet two very different princesses, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1985), and Princess Mononoke (1997), are not so easily understood as icons of a forward-thinking environmentalist theme that is the undercurrent of many of Miyazaki’s movies.
I recently watched Nausicaa, created before Studio Ghibli’s founding and the catalyst behind it, and was surprised at how despite its dated look, it had a tightly controlled narration. It became an instant favorite of mine. It seemed to parallel the themes of Princess Mononoke, which I watched two years prior at a movie screening of the same club (East Asian Literature Society, of which I am an e-board member). After Nausicaa, some of my friends expressed a preference towards it over Princess Mononoke’s more ambivalent elements. The debate online, depending on their preferences for Miyazaki’s movies, seemed to favor Mononoke. Looking at them side by side, while both appear to have the same message of environmental protection, there are some key differences in their tales and character motivations that make them both worthy of their own films.
The setting for Nausicaa is post-apocalyptic, where Nausicaa is princess of the Valley of Wind, one of the few rural villages that lay untouched by both the toxic, polluted jungle, and the reaches of the power-hungry empires. The world-building is expansive, as it travels between the civilized village, cities, and the untouched depths of the natural jungle.
In the course of the film, Nausicaa establishes an affinity with the mutant insect guardians of the forest, as well as appealing to the reason of the leaders of the two kingdoms, Tolmekia and Pejite. In the war between them, the advanced technology and armies attempt to lay waste both to each other and to the toxic jungle. In a sense, it seems anti-industrialization, or at least gets at how easily the greatest cities man can build can be absorbed overnight into the jungle.
Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, is a feudal Japan era on the brink of attaining new and dangerous Western war weaponry. Lady Eboshi of Irontown is an effective and liberating leader to the social outcasts she commands, yet values the town’s progress over the natural environment that suffers for it.
The forests are pictured as wild, deep, mystical, and in a realm apart from humans, who have come to destroy them. The animal tribes are losing their homes and turning into enraged monsters from the wounds of the new technology of musket balls/bullets, going so far as to and cursing those that touch it (Ashitaka) and destroying the land, metaphorical of the spreading effects killing would have.
The characters, a key aspect and driving force, help direct the two movies down their differing veins of theme and plot.
Nausicaa is a princess that is grounded in her principles and beliefs. She instinctively is able to love and accept the deadly, mutant Ohms and other ghastly bugs, preemptively knowing their nature was to protect their own and their forest even before she found out what they were protecting. The way she was brought up was to be sure of herself and put others first, so she is already a character who knows herself and has the selfless, somewhat idealized (heroically, not princess-y) but expected traits of her status. She doesn’t have what Mononoke’s characters do, which is dynamic character arcs and reactions to the events they witness that help them reevaluate their guiding morals, so some would argue that she is not well-developed. Rather, she has already developed to a stage beyond them, and while the way she sees the world is changed with exposure to it, her overall sense of self and her conviction does not waver.
Her first priority is first to her people (asking the inhabitants of the Valley of the Wind to surrender for their safety, despite knowing the intentions of the conquering army), then to the forest and the natural order. After her father’s death provoked her to kill, she vowed to never give in to anger again, and offers mercy and assistance to the enemy – for better or worse results. Some of the enemy, though still humanized in their characterization, do not respond to her appeal towards better nature, and stubbornly believes destroying the poison forests would help mankind – and their kingdoms would be best to do it by conquering the world. Here is an example of how Miyazaki films tend to show how positions of power warp people’s intentions and cause them to fall into the vices of pride and narrow-minded goals. Nausicaa’s overarching theme, however, is still that the forests are able to slowly recover the Earth’s original purity through natural processes. Below the toxic jungle, they are able to draw clean water and undo the human’s pollution (whether this makes scientific sense, we will excuse as the fantasy and hope of the 1980’s). Time and time again, humans come to burn the forests in hopes of ridding the land of its poisons, but they are defeated by the Ohms, who guard the forests, and their work actually causes the poison to spread faster. They don’t realize that the forests are healing themselves over time, and their importance is worth far more than the lives of changing kingdoms.
Princess Mononoke has two main characters, the cursed, exiled Prince Ashitaka, and the wild, wolf-bred San (or Mononoke). Both stand for very different things, but can’t be taken completely as symbols for where they come from. However much San relates to nature and the animals, she cannot deny her humanness. Her sympathy also is not able to reach the boar or monkey tribes, who still choose how they act themselves; there is a disjointed separation of clans within nature itself, unlike the idea that they are a whole, orderly entity that the Forest Spirit protects. The boar clan, for example, was just as foolhardy and bent towards war as the humans. Ashitaka, on the other hand, is described by Miyazaki as not the conventional hero, but a “melancholic boy who has a fate” and also stated that Ashitaka’s curse “is similar to the lives of people [at the time].” He does not stand for the people either, because his journey brought him to stop the killing of the boars and a way to lift the curse upon people by reconciling with nature. Yet upon seeing Irontown, he is impressed by the community of acceptance and improvement they have. Both have a connecting factor of exile from their origins, and are torn between siding with both factions in their identifications. Ashitaka’s earnestness in seeking a possible peace and harmony influences Mononoke to realize she values life over killing, if harmony can be reached.
What the two stand together for then, is not only the “protection of the environment” motif, but stopping the larger, conquering army that seeks a profit-driven campaign against the weak.
Although the industrialization of Lady Eboshi was pictured as destructive, there are many gray areas where the audience is meant to sympathize with both sides. The movie exists to show there isn’t a black and white divide in life, that nature is “good” and humanity inherently “bad”. The two concepts exist beyond human’s categorizations. Even the armies are humanized as real people who care about protecting the people they love over fighting. The message isn’t as simple as “don’t kill animals or the Forest Spirit for profit”, but that humans must learn to cooperate within their own society and learn to coexist in harmony with nature. Lady Eboshi’s industry, if bent with consideration and respect to nature and helping people equally instead of war (though protection against higher powers was necessary), would be the best halfway point.
The contrast between Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke is not only the themes, but how they are reached. Many of my friends complained that both conclusions “got nowhere”, because while momentarily stopped, the “evil” leaders were not effectively changed. Miyazaki knows that humanity is not so easily changed, that sometimes protecting and trusting in nature and letting the natural processes continue is the only method that is left to us. Kingdoms and armies are depicted as transient and hive-minded, and require a grand act of selflessness to recall the individuals their humanity. The nebulous nature of the Forest Spirit’s Night Walker form and the ferocity and blindness of the Ohms portrays nature not in alliance with human’s ideas of morality, but one that is to be respected for their power as well as beauty. This rather transcendentalist view does not necessarily place humans into irrelevancy, because each film emphasizes compassion in the face of cruelty, where it is much easier to give into anger and the use of force. Kushana (the Tolmekian commander) is no Lady Eboshi – she is not guided by principles such as valuing human or natural life, and her slight encounter with Nausicaa’s mercy shows no promise of truly moving her. This is realistic and not pessimistic, because Nausicaa’s actions give way to the reformation of others (like Asbel), a younger generation.
Nausicaa directly addresses how humans should not touch nature, and she herself straightforwardly takes action to correct the wrongs with a cast of minor characters that are touched by her efforts. Mononoke’s San and Ashitaka struggle with finding their own balance of identification while they try to rein in the more powerful but misguided forces at work. Both films show mankind’s mistakes, but ultimately use the characters’ guiding principles to protect humans from nature’s retribution, with the promise that they will strive to protect nature from humans.
This, for lack of better words, essay ended up being long enough without even going into the many other subtleties Miyazaki expresses in art direction, character interaction, and other concrete examples. Still, I want to reach an understanding for myself about how I felt towards both films and what they achieve, using what they intended to address. In the end, I love both works and the ability of an entertaining, beautiful film in a fantasy setting to reach out to so many people across national borders and get a message across that is not easy to swallow.