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  • Animated Nature:Aesthetics, Ethics, and Empathy in Miyazaki Hayao’s Ecophilosophy
  • Pamela Gossin (bio)

Writers, artists, and game-designers often use world building to engage the dilemmas of real life on this planet and offer unique aesthetic perspectives on questions of ecological responsibility, sustainability, nonviolence, and social justice.1 Master animator and manga artist Miyazaki Hayao is a master world builder. In Miyazakiworld, his aesthetic of nature combines and recombines with his ethic of nature and human nature to offer us intriguing possibilities for the human imagination of the environment, our relationship to it, and empathetic action within it.2

Throughout his long career, Miyazaki has drawn—both literally and figuratively—intricate imagined worlds, at once beautiful and fragile in their complexity. The natural settings of his animation and manga are so effectively realized that a significant portion of his audience, ironically, has had a difficult time seeing the forest for the trees.3 Focusing on the environmental “message” and ecological themes of some of his early films, many promptly identified Nausicaä as an “eco-warrior princess” and the artist himself as an “environmentalist.” Miyazaki adamantly resists such labels and his reasons for doing so are complicated. [End Page 209]

While the imagery, characterization, and plot lines of many of Miyazaki’s works are obviously and directly influenced by his knowledge of nature and ecology, he has learned the hard way how quickly an artist’s work can be turned to the purposes of politics and rapidly reduced to a slogan. In the 1980s, the film version of Nausicaä “wound up becoming the flag-bearer for the ecology movement” in Japan (as one interviewer put it), and since then Miyazaki has seen his audiences’ tendency to find simplistic take-away lessons in his films that detract from the greater aesthetic vision he intended to express through those works.4 Finding himself uncomfortably at the center of such inconvenient and unintended consequences, he now avoids making public statements about his environmental views that might result in being “brand[ed] … with the government-approved Eco Mark.”5

Miyazaki’s views about the environment reflect a deep synthesis of his artistic and aesthetic philosophy along with his ethical, social, and political values. He and Studio Ghibli cofounder, Takahata Isao, insist that they do not consciously set out to make “message” films, eco-friendly or otherwise.6 To do so would violate their deeply held convictions about the organic nature of the film-making process. A film made with a specific grand theme like “the fate of mankind” or an overt eco-purpose would be, Miyazaki put it, “like a big fat dried-up log, propped upright. What we need [as a scenario for our screenplay] is a living thing, with strong roots, a solid trunk, and branches.”7

Within Miyazaki’s ecological aesthetic, a film comes into being, grows, and changes through a natural process of artistic imagination and evolution.8 Integrating his personal philosophy and worldview across scales of existence, from the local set of his daily life to the world stage of his films, he has learned to accept a certain organic messiness and to trust the creativity of his unconscious mind (which he describes as existing somewhere in the imaginative space above his head), so that he can experience “[being] made by [his] film” (emphasis added), rather than the other way around.9

And, there is a deeper message embedded in his metaphor. Art is not only an organic process for Miyazaki, it is a living being, an organism. He does not impose environmental views or ecological values upon his animation. He does not need to; his films are a natural part of who he is, what he thinks, believes, and breathes. Through his conscious and unconscious artistic mind, his efforts take root and grow into sustainable works of art. His resistance [End Page 210] to the political and social connotations of an “environmentalist” label and their negative consequences for his art, then, may stem from the extent to which he embraces and advocates for the ethics and values of an “aesthetic ecophilosopher” instead.


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