From ‘Princess Mononoke’ To ‘My Neighbor Totoro’: Hayao Miyazaki, Environmental Activist (Joe and Megan)

In light of the worsening conflict between humans and the environment, films directed by Hayao Miyazaki are once again becoming increasingly popular, due to his successful addressing of themes regarding nature that resonate throughout his films. This article unravels the ways in which Miyazaki portrays his idealized form of nature through his films and how they relate to society today.

Most of the films discussed in the article were released in the 1990s into the 2000s. Taking into consideration that during that time frame it was the height of the Japanese economic miracle; which allowed the recovery and blooming success of the economic growth in Japan post World War II and the end of the cold war. The shift towards a more consumer society may have neglected some of the environmental ethics that were once part of the pre-industrial era. This unintended consequence has made the film director, Miyazaki, to resent this notion and reflect upon it in his films. 

Miyazaki’s depiction of nature is that it is a vibrant, magnificent, and supreme place that has not been affected by industrialization and human inventions. Nature in Miyazaki’s films features a utopian environment which is “…in accordance with the nostalgic, bucolic associations of the furusato metaphor”, representing his (and Japanese’s) desire for a more peaceful, untainted natural setting, reminiscent of the bygone days (Kirby 2011, pg 80). 

Furthermore, Miyazaki’s rejection of technology in his films also resonates with the idea of satoyama, where he portrays a more “…idyllic agrarian past when Japan was less urbanized and industrialized and the countryside was a more scenic and peaceful place.” (Knight 2010, pg 436). The portrait of nature in Miyazaki’s films as a “surreal”, “exuberant, sublime illustration of the natural world” implicates that the nature Miyazaki has imagined is not nature in its original state but in its idealized state (Pougin 2019, pg 1).  

Moreover, this idealized representation of nature gives insight into what could be lost and ruined if the lack of respect between humankind and nature is continued. In his film, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, nature becomes this scary place in order to protect itself from the pollution and ravage by human innovations. The environment is personified in order to highlight that it is a powerful force rather than something that can be disrespected and neglected. In order to resolve the conflicts between the two relationships, Miyazaki makes it clear that in order to so “…we must learn to live with mutual respect” (Pougin 2019, pg 1). Any conflict starts with a misunderstanding and disrespect from both sides and as such in order to resolve it, mutual respect and understanding are the first steps.  

The themes of nature in his films also deal with the idea of ‘kami’, divine spirits that take a random physical form, true to the notion that “…nature in Japan is understood holistically and spiritually” (Kalland and Asquith, 1997, pg 19). Miyazaki not only includes the natural world “as a whole…its landscape, weather, light, plants, water, wind…” but also fills it with symbols and spiritual meaning in his films — like the animal gods in Princess Mononoke and the spirit Totoro in My Neighbour Totoro, whose roles are to protect the natural environment they live in (Pougin 2019, pg 1). With these ideas, Miyazaki promotes the idea of the forest as a sacred place, encouraging viewers, young and old, to appreciate and protect nature. 

Miyazaki’s advocacy of the environment through his films creates an image of how Japan lives up to the reputation of their love for nature and the environment. However, despite the article identifying Miyazaki as an “environmental activist”, with these ideals of nature recurring throughout his movies; Miyazaki’s view of nature is reflective of his position as one of the more “elite” classes of people whose livelihood does not depend on nature itself. The nature Miyazaki is prizing is one that is highly romanticized and is not an accurate portrayal of what nature actually is. Unfortunately, it is the products and aesthetic of the elite and popular culture that reaches audiences globally and locally, creating the imagined idea to foreigners and to Japanese themselves that Japan is a “green” nation (Kalland and Asquith, 1997). From portraying nature as an almost utopian environment and incorporating the Japanese culture and religion into his films, Miyazaki has surfaced pressing concerns about nature and also critics of his work. Nevertheless, through the popular and accessible medium of animation, he ultimately exposes the world, including the younger generation, to such concerns leading to a better understanding of the environmental crisis facing the world today.

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Asquith, P. J., & Kalland, A. (1997). Japanese images of nature: cultural perspectives. London: Curzon Press.

Kirby, P. W. (2011). Troubled natures: waste, environment, Japan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Knight, C. (2010). The Discourse of “Encultured Nature” in Japan: The Concept of Satoyama and its Role in 21st- Century Nature Conservation. Asian Studies Review, 43, 421–441.

Pougin, E. (2019, June 25). From ‘Princess Mononoke’ To ‘My Neighbor Totoro’: Hayao Miyazaki, Environmental Activist. Retrieved from


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