Studio Ghibli and the Eco-Fantasy
an article by Uma Biswas-Whittaker
Dear Asian Youth,
The first time I saw a Studio Ghibli movie was during my primary school’s film club. I was eight years old at the time and had no idea what to expect when a teacher began to play Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001). I was instantly captivated by the beauty of the animation and felt a connection with the protagonist, Chihiro. An inquisitive and whiny child? She and I were one and the same! But then, around twelve minutes in, Chihiro’s parents turned into massive pigs, and I -- along with a few of the other younger children in the film club -- screamed. That night, I made sure to be on my best behaviour around my mum, praying that she wouldn’t encounter the same fate and that I wouldn’t need to rescue her from the spirit world.
Until I was about eleven, I avoided Studio Ghibli films, but one day my sister showed me “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and I adored it. Were all the Studio Ghibli films about multifaceted young girls who come into contact with powerful spirits? My sister soon convinced me to watch “Spirited Away” in its entirety, and I was hooked. Since then, my comfort movies have been Studio Ghibli films. Whether it was an epic adventure like “Castle in the Sky” (1986) or something a little more domestic but equally magical like “Ponyo” (2008), Studio Ghibli’s signature animation and musical scores are enchanting, the plots enthralling, and the characters believable in their unbelievable settings. I especially loved “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004). A tax-evading, anti-war, androgynous wizard? Did I want to date Howl or be Howl? The jury’s still out on that one.
At eighteen, I love these films even more than I did when I was younger. It’s partly because I’m no longer afraid of the more scary concepts in these films, but mostly because of nostalgia. It’s being whisked back to that same feeling I had when I was eleven, absorbed in different magical worlds which felt so much larger than my own. To quote Sophie in “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “It all seems so familiar yet I know I’ve never been here before. I feel so at home.”
During exam season this year, I repeatedly watched “Arrietty” (2010) in the evenings to relax. The film follows Arrietty, a borrower who lives with her parents beneath a large house in the countryside. Monika Gobaira, in her analysis of Studio Ghibli’s allure, notes that the films “make magic out of the most ordinary moments,” and this is certainly true of “Arrietty”. It’s calming to watch Arrietty simply wander through a garden or hang her washing. Around day five of the exam week, I started wondering what it was about this film that made me come back to it every night, rather than any of the other films I loved. Perhaps the stakes in “Howl’s Moving Castle” were too high for my brain to process at that time, and slice-of-life films like “Ocean Waves” (1993) were not fantastical enough. I realised that I was so fixated on “Arrietty” because it is a continuously optimistic ecological fantasy. In “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke” (1997), we see nature under fire and must wait for its magical resolution once human wars have ended. In “Arrietty”, however, nature is unthreatened as far as we can tell. Indeed, Sho, a young boy who befriends Arrietty, travels to his grandmother’s house, with its magnificent, dream-like garden, for rest and tranquility.
It’s no wonder that Studio Ghibli films have a renewed appeal to young people when our generation is growing up during the new wave of global climate activism. More and more young people are raising awareness about the climate crisis, speaking about how it has affected them and their families, donating to environmental causes around the world, and demanding that their representatives combat these issues with more than empty promises. Corporations put much of the onus on consumers to make eco-friendly choices (it was British Petroleum that popularised the concept of the individual “carbon footprint” ), rather than taking responsibility for the tonnes of waste and fumes they produce. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of global emissions since 1988, but we have yet to see a reduction in global emissions despite companies claiming to commit to a greener agenda.[3&4] Resultantly, individuals have become accustomed to environmental anxiety and guilt. It is true that we all have our part to play, but the average person should obviously not be held to a higher standard of accountability than oil giants or politicians who fly to environmental summits in private jets.
So which young person wouldn’t yearn a little for escapism in a fantasy world with a hopeful ending? In 2020, environmental anxiety and a desire for escapism during a global pandemic manifested itself in different trends: for example, the increasing popularity of the “cottagecore” aesthetic. In their discussion of the aesthetic, Didi Aphra says that cottagecore “is a rural life romanticized. Think cottages in the woods, gardening, [...] baking bread, sustainability.” It’s understandable why this might seem especially appealing to those locked down in cities during the pandemic. Turn to sub-genres of cottagecore such as “witchcore” and “fairycore”, and you’ll find cottages and forests with a more explicit magical touch, maybe some ancient scrolls and nature spirits here or there. Something out of a Studio Ghibli film.
But whose rural life is being romanticised? If we were to try to live this fantasy, whose land becomes the pastoral backdrop? In their article, “Cottagecore, colonialism and the far-right”, Claire Ollivain notes that this “fantasy of escaping to an idyllic life on a farm has roots in the cultural division of the urban and the rural”, which has often been weaponised by the far-right and colonial regimes around the world. Ollivain writes that this fantasy “carries with it the colonial assumption that land is “up for grabs””, and that “it is important that we are aware of its historical precedents and how it might be weaponised by the far-right, particularly given the rise of eco-fascist rhetoric in recent years.”
In the article, Ollivain says that the cottagecore aesthetic evokes memories of watching Studio Ghibli films, which prompted me to reassess my own infatuation with animated eco-fantasies. Studio Ghibli films, though, often examine and challenge the utopic eco-fantasy, inviting viewers to face realities of environmental destruction through its magical epics. In “Princess Mononoke”, for example, we first meet the protagonist, Ashitaka, as he rides through lush green fields, which he must defend against a demon. This demon, born from a ball of iron, consumes and kills a nature god and Ashitaka. From its beginning, the film highlights the damaging impact of industrialisation on both nature and humans. “Howl’s Moving Castle” also presents us with stunning natural landscapes threatened by humans. There are shots of flowery fields, tranquil lakes and towering mountains, but these scenes are disturbed by warships, reminding the audience of the man-made destruction looming over nature. Howl is disgusted by the loss of life and destruction of land on both sides, and rightfully places blame on the ruling class -- royalty, their advisors, and politicians. As I stated previously, Howl’s sentiments about environmental responsibility are relevant to our world too. In 2015, research by Oxfam showed that the richest 10% of the world population are responsible for around half of all carbon emissions, while the poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions but are the worst affected by the climate crisis.
I am thankful that both “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” have optimistic endings, where nature is magically healed. Rewatching these films has ultimately felt therapeutic because they are so hopeful. In the past year and a half, when everybody’s lives were changed, I have found some solace in revisiting these small snippets of my childhood and early adolescence. Most importantly, though, these films have encouraged me to face my own environmental anxieties rather than running from them, and think about what I can do to better protect the planet.
– Uma Biswas-Whittaker
1: Monika Gobaira. “Why Studio Ghibli Movies Feel Like a Dream.” Youtube. 9th July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRrZb-YRWxg
2: Mark Kaufman. “The Carbon Footprint Sham.” Mashable. https://mashable.com/feature/carbon-footprint-pr-campaign-sham/?europe=true
3: Tess Riley, “Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says.” Guardian. 10th July 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change
4: Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser, “CO2 emissions.” Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions
5: Didi Aphra, “Cultural Erasure in Cottagecore.” https://didiaphra.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/cultural-erasure-in-cottagecore/
6: Claire Ollivain, “Cottagecore, colonialism and the far-right.” Honi Soit. https://honisoit.com/2020/09/cottagecore-colonialism-and-the-far-right/
7: Simon Hernandez-Arthur et. al, “World’s richest 10% produce half of carbon emissions while poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth.” Oxfam. 2nd December 2015. https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/worlds-richest-10-produce-half-carbon-emissions-while-poorest-35-billion-account
Editors: Simran G, Joyce P, Maddy M-B
Cover Photo Source: Sister Geeks