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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Green Anime: Sustainable Cartoons are Film Classics

You might not think Japanese anime is the place to look for green themes --- but director Hiyao Miyazaki, who is a national treasure in Japan, has made environmental issues a cornerstone of his work.    Miyazaki has been directing feature length animated films for over four decades, maintaining a Spielberg-like reverential status in Japan.  His first film to cross the globe was Princess Mononoke, an epic  -- and somewhat violent -- environmental tale in which humans exploiting natural resources are implicated in the death of the forest spirit.   Humans, magical beings, giant talking boars, wolves, and many other creatures abound in a complex story in which good and evil are not as straightforward as you might think.  This is no children’s morality tale, but a classic along the lines of Tolkien's triology or any war story. Available on DVD, his lifetime's work is a treasure trove of green ideas.

In one of his most popular films, Spirited Away, Miyazaki's environmentalism invades even a magical world, where a river spirit who has been polluted must be cleansed by the heroine. This theme is repeated in the story of the river spirit Haku, whose river had been destroyed tragically by a building project.  The story begins when the heroine's parents rudely consume so much spirit food that they are turned into giant pigs, offering a not-so-subtle lesson on limitations.

Without rejecting technology, Miyazaki often mixes the natural, scientific, spiritual, and magical all in the same film.   Howl’s Moving Castle, which is based on a Diane Wynn Jones book, involves a magical moving building that grows and shrinks as the enchantment on its owner begins to shift.    Although highly critical of the destructive nature of war, Miyazaki draws flying machines, trains, and cities with a loving hand, imparting a soul into a neighborhood, a claptrap invention, or a boiler room tended by a spider-like creature pulling magical herbs out of a giant box while keeping a cadre of dustbunnies under a spell that compels them to carry coal into the boiler when needed.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the best children’s stories ever created, with its amazing cat bus and spirited young sisters.  But Totoro also incorporates a great love of nature and a deep Shinto spirit that permeates the story and offers a message about connection to the land, spirituality, family, and love without ever sinking into sentimentality or smarminess.   

Disney has been instrumental in getting Miyazaki’s films dubbed in English and distributed globally (although the earlier non-Disney version of Totorro is better).  These films are also excellent counterbalance to many mainstream offerings, as almost all of them contain strong female heroes, ordinary girls who agree to marry magical cats or break the spell on a notorious beast, strike out as a full fledged witch at age 13, and defeat flying armies bent on destroying a castle in the sky.  

Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's animation company, is an icon in Japan.  The website Ghibliworld will direct you to discussions, screenings, gossip about new films, and places where you can buy lots of Miyazaki merchandise to support your new habit, including Totorro backpacks and dustbunny pillows. And if you're ever traveling to Japan, stop in to Mitaka and see the Ghibli Museum is a delight.  You can even play on a plush downsized version of the cat bus -- but only if you're under 12.

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