How Studio Ghibli Makes Us Love Life | Hayao Miyazaki’s Environmentalism, Pacifism & Realism


Have you ever watched a Studio Ghibli film and thought, “Damn, life is really beautiful”? Like your depression and cynicism were, for a moment, swept away? I personally call this the ‘Ghibli effect’: a sense of love and longing for life and the world we live in that is often difficult to describe. This is especially true of Hayao Miyazaki’s works like Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbour Totoro, with their whimsical storylines, devastatingly beautiful settings and magical elements. I credit this ‘effect’ to Miyazaki’s distinct attention to detail and his philosophies of environmentalism, pacifism and realism. First up, environmentalism. In almost all of Miyazaki’s films, nature is not just an idyllic backdrop. It is also an active participant in his stories. In My Neighbour Totoro, the guardian spirits take care of the girls just like the other villagers. And in Princess Mononoke, the wolves and boars are personified: we see their pain and suffering and hear their condemnation of humans for the destruction of their home. Miyazaki paints nature to be an enchanting and living subject (pun very much intended), worthy of being protected and loved. Nature is complex, and Miyazaki’s works reflect this element. The environment the characters are in are often much too impressive for humans to comprehend, contain or control. The trees in Princess Mononoke, for example, tower over the humans in a disquieting way. All attempts to harness the powerful force of nature in the film also fail spectacularly. But Miyazaki also shows us that if humans learn to coexist harmoniously with their environments, nature is also majestic and full of wonder, like Totoro comforting the girls in their times of need and the awe-inspiring paradise of Laputa. Ghibli’s world is also often seen through the eyes of children, thus we feel a certain quality of innocence and nostalgia for undisturbed nature. To children, nature is a playground, filled with endless possibilities for adventure and mischief. Miyazaki’s love of nature makes us love nature, and we feel that love so acutely through his capturing of the smallest and most insignificant details, like the movement of water or the way flowers bend in the wind. My first Ghibli film was Spirited Away, and my absolute favourite scene was the river god/spirit scene. During a press conference in 2001, Miyazaki explained that the scene was based on his own experiences cleaning a river near where he lived. The moment when Chihiro pulls the bicycle handle and all that trash out of the river spirit was such a satisfying one for me, which must have mirrored Miyazaki’s feelings after cleaning the river. That sigh of relief that the river spirit expressed really touched my younger self, and made me long for a cleaner, more beautiful world. And in many ways, Miyazaki inspires us by creating ideal worlds where human consumption and environment preservation are in balance. Miyazaki’s protagonists are eco-conscious, many of whom work to heal the planet. Even when there is pollution and the exploitation of precious, sacred nature for human greed or war, the films end with a restoration of nature. This, like the river spirit scene, brings us joy and relief. Second, pacifism. Unlike many Western films that glamourise violence, Miyazaki cautions against the destruction and suffering it can cause. In Princess Mononoke and The Wind Rises, we see how the common people bear the brunt of the consequences of war. The latter, in particular, was rather controversial in Japan for its strong pacifist undertones. And of course, when Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Annual Academy Awards, Miyazaki did not attend because “The Academy congratulates Hayao Miyazaki and accepts this on his behalf. Thank you so much.” Miyazaki instead advocates for peace. His characters choose the more difficult and self-sacrificial path for the ‘greater good’. He also makes it a point to humanise his ‘villains’ by showing that the good vs. evil narrative of both film and war is fundamentally flawed: there are always two sides to every story. Yubaba in Spirited Away is a loving mother and Madam Sullivan in Howl’s Moving Castle eventually helps to end the war. Miyazaki’s non-violent and empathetic philosophy to life again teaches us to view the world with incorrupt and more moral eyes. Finally, realism. No matter how far-fetched Ghibli’s worlds may seem, they always feel tactile and real. This is due to the animators’ keen sense of detail. In animation, every object, subject and setting has an intention and contributes to the world that the animators are trying to build. And Ghibli animators excel in creating believable societies and characters. Take, for example, the bathhouse in Spirited Away. There is a distinct hierarchy and system in this world, and the different characters have different jobs. Chihiro is also a relatable and realistic ten-year-old. She has tantrums and scares easily, sometimes she can be kind, and at others, quite wilful. Miyazaki states, “There’s a scene in which Chihiro doesn’t react when her father calls her name. It’s only after the second time he calls that she replies. That’s what many girls are like these days… It was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl, not someone who could fly or do something impossible. Just a girl you can encounter anywhere in Japan.” As a child, Chihiro’s realistic transformation to become a better, more mature version of herself really did inspire me. This realism may be credited to Miyazaki’s famous technique of animating without scripts; the animators work on the stories as they develop. “He essentially writes in pictures, and, and, even he isn’t sure where it’s going to go when he starts. This makes his art imitate life more accurately, and each scene is as important to the story as the next. Another technique that I really love is ‘emptiness’, or ma, as Miyazaki calls it. It’s when a character looks into the distance, or sighs, or reflects. It’s a quality often missing in Western films, which fill these moments with music or action, but one that creates the je ne sais quois that makes us love Ghibli so much. It is in these small moments when we see the characters’ growth, reflect on the stories ourselves, and appreciate the little things in life. This is one of my favourite moments from Kiki’s Delivery Service: Kiki is silent, but so much is communicated to the audience. The naïve, bright Kiki struggles with growing up and finding acceptance. The immersive realism of Ghibli’s worlds almost always contributes to a sense of positivity and hope. We are encouraged to strive for fulfilment and happiness by improving ourselves just like Miyazaki’s protagonists. This is why after watching Howl’s Moving Castle, you may be eager to start a new adventure or after watching The Wind Rises, throw yourself into pursuing a dream. Ghibli films are—as the Internet calls them—‘pure and wholesome’. Besides the three philosophies that I have mentioned, Miyazaki is also a strong feminist and promotes relationships and families based on trust. No matter what age you are or where you’re from, these films are impossible not to love. They challenge us to be better and help us notice the beauty and magic in our lives that we forget or take for granted: colourful towns, flower-specked meadows, freshly baked bread, love, friendship and all the adventures that have yet to begin.