Feminism, Pacifism & Environmentalism: The Messages of Hayao Miyazaki

hayao_miyazaki_princessThe hardest part of writing about the great Hayao Miyazaki is coming up with new superlatives to describe his body of work. How many times can you say “brilliant” or “genius” without sounding redundant? With the exception of Walt Disney, no animator in history has maintained the level of consistent excellence that the masterful Miyazaki has achieved.

Having started out in the sixties an as animator of such forgettable fare as Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, and paying his dues as a writer for anime TV shows like Future Boy Conan and Lupin the Third, Hayao Miyazaki worked his way up over the next twenty years to be the predominant animator of Japan.

His first feature film as writer/director was Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a successful cinematic adaptation of the popular TV series. However, as much fun as this film is, it isn’t really representative of Miyazaki’s future works. His legend really started with his next film.

There are three dominant themes in the films of Hayao Miyazaki; female empowerment, pacifism and a cautionary environmental message. Aside from that, there is also the trademark image of flight, which to Miyazaki represents freedom and attaining new heights. We see these themes start to crystallize during his second directorial project.


Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) was his first genuine masterpiece and set the Miyazaki formula in stone. The main character, as would become the norm from here on in the great animator’s oeuvre, is a young girl. Princess Nausicaa is the prototype for all that would follow her. The story takes place 1,000 years after a devastating war has destroyed civilization, and the pollution-induced Sea of Corruption is covering the globe. Colossal insects called Ohumu roam this contaminated landscape. One of the few remaining places on Earth which isn’t toxic is Nausicaa’s home, the Valley of the Wind. The valley survives due to a freak geological and meteorological happenstance that causes constant winds which keep out the poisons in the air. Outside the valley, other pockets of survivors continue the useless war, looking for ancient weapons to gain supremacy.      

When the hostile forces of the Tolmekian Empire come to the Valley looking for a lost super weapon, Nausicaa’s father is killed. But Princess Nausicaa can’t give in to thoughts of revenge. Now that she is ruler, she has to be an example for the world. Nausicaa alone seems to see the necessity of compassion, tolerance and understand. When the Tolmekian’s disturb the fragile new balance of the ravaged world, the giant Ohumu go on the warpath, and in herds, they are unstoppable. Only Nausicaa, a strong yet innocent girl who is truly in love with everything that lives, can make the peace between the humans and the rampaging beasts, even if it means dying in the process.

Themes: All the hallmarks that would become standard for a Miyazaki film are present in Nausicaa. We have a coming-of-age for the strong yet innocent young female heroine. There’s an anti-violence message, via the self destructive actions of the Tolmekian Empire. And there’s a strong ecological warning in the form of the fearsome Ohumu of what happens when man’s interference causes nature to shift out of balance. Plus, we have joyous images of flight as Nausicaa soars through the skies, looking down like a peaceful guardian of her toxic world.


Miyazaki’s next project is not quite as the brilliantly realized as Nausicaa, but it’s an excellent follow-up none-the-less. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986) is beautifully conceived and drawn, showing us a world where gravity can be ignored and cities fly. Laputa gives us our second oeuvre heroine, Sheeta. When we first meet Sheeta, she is being held captive in an airship by a mysterious police force. When pirates attack, she jumps ship but lands safely due to the levitation stone in her necklace which lets her float gracefully to Earth. There she meets orphaned teenage miner Pazu, who has long dreamed of completing his father’s quest to find the legendary sky city of Laputa. It turns out that Sheeta is a descendant of the royal line of Laputa. The ambitious Muska (Himself a descendent of the Laputa’s royalty) steals the levitation stone which guides him to Laputa, where he seizes control of Laputa’s weapon’s systems which will enable him to rule the world. Sheeta and Pazu join forces on a globe traveling/sky soaring adventure to save the Earth.

Themes: This time our heroine shares her cathartic trials with a male partner, but Sheeta is no shrinking violet. She is forceful and determined, keeping a brave face even when confronted with Muska’a formidable robot warriors. Muska represents the forces of war and violence that must be overcome for the good of the world. And as usual, the antagonist is undone by the innocence and courage of our young heroes, rather than by violence. The flying city of Laputa is representative of the natural world, which humans see as nothing more than something to be exploited without risk of consequence. And the film is replete with many scenes of flight, some beautiful and contemplative, while others are comical, such as those featuring the comically inept steampunk pirates.


My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is one of the all-time great family films and ranks among Miyazaki’s finest animation masterpieces. This is a beautifully crafted fable set basically in the real world but in a special place where fantasy rubs elbows with reality and mystical creatures walk the woods. Whereas his two previous films were full of a mythology vital to the story, this one works within the simplicity of a quiet suburb. This is a bright and life affirming celebration of those childhood days when anything seemed possible.

 In Totoro, we get not one but two very young protagonists. Our tale takes place sometime in the early 1960s, when sisters Satsuki and Mei move to a house in the country, along with their father Professor Kuskabe. They’ve relocated to be closer to the girl’s mother who is a long term patient in sanitarium. Dad lectures at the University by day and spends his evenings visiting his wife. The girls are left in the care of a housekeeper who pays little attention to them, so the girls spend their time exploring the vast, beautiful forest that borders the rear of their home. It is there that the girls meet the magical forest creatures known as the Totoros, benign spirits who can’t be seen by jaded adult eyes. The children form a bond with the Totoros, fully accepting their existence.

We see the adult world through the eyes of the children and it seems confusing, even threatening. The Totoros act like friends and guardians who the girls can turn to for help. For instance, when the sisters are waiting at the bus stop for their father to return and he doesn’t show up, it becomes dark and rainy, frightening the two girls. The Totoros appear protectively, even supplying an umbrella, waiting alongside the girls until their father finally arrives.  Later, when Mei sets off alone to go see her mother and gets lost, the Totoros show up in a magical Cat Bus and ferry her to safety.

 Themes: The sister’s coming-of-age journey is not as dramatic as the life and death situations of the earlier films. The conflicts are internal. The girls have to deal with a sick mother, an often absent father and the lonely isolation of their new country home, so far away from the city life they are familiar with. These girls show a different kind of bravery than earlier Miyazaki heroines, which is no less admirable. The Totoros represent the forest which is a haven for the girls. When the rest of the world seems too frightening, the girls flee to the serenity of the woods. The Totoros symbolize Miyazaki’s view of nature as a spiritual, magical place. And as usual, there is a lovely scene of flying, when the Cat Bus swoops over the countryside taking Mei to see their mother. The only Miyazaki hallmark missing from this film is the anti-violence message.


The next project was Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), a pre-Harry Potter tale of a young witch learning the ropes and coming of age. Like Totoro, this takes place in the real world, although its Miyazaki’s dreamlike fairy tale versions of an idyllic small town in Europe.

As part of a ritual that marks the coming of adulthood, a witch has to leave home on her 13th birthday and survive in the world alone for one year. Kiki sets off on her broomstick with her black cat Jiji and finds a small, quiet harbor town to settle in. Since flying is her only real talent (Skill-wise, she’s more Ron than Hermione) she starts her own delivery service, supplied with tasty goodies by the friendly local bakery owner who befriends her. Kiki not only has to get used to this new culture and run her little business, she also has the usual problems of a teenage girl. She’s socially awkward and is petrified by the presence of the boy she is attracted to, and wonders if he likes her too. She goes through a crisis of faith when she doubts she’ll be either a good witch or a good non-witch. With some support from her friends, she learns that whatever skills a person has, it’s their human qualities that make them special.   

Themes: This film takes a step beyond Totoro, moving from childhood to early teens. Kiki has no enemies (except perhaps an often ungrateful clientele) but like the girls from Totoro, she has to deal with more familiar challenges. Self doubt, social anxiety, being far from home and finding her true vocation in life are difficult enough challenges to tax even a witch. The pristine sunlit seaside town is an all-too-perfect hamlet where kindly locals welcome visitors and a witch can fit in with normal people. Even the cat Jiji makes friends with a kindly old dog who protects him from a bratty child. The juxtaposition between the sea and sky represent the emotional “shore” where Kiki finds herself, between childhood and adulthood. The love of flying is more apparent in this film than in any previous one. Like Miyazaki, Kiki sees the skies as the representation of freedom. It’s the only place where she has any control of her own destiny. The anti-violence message is once again absent but will return in the following film.


Porco Rosso (1992) is unique in the Miyazaki oeuvre because the lead character is an adult male, albeit with the head of a pig. The film was envisioned by Miyazaki as a fable aimed at grown people who had forgotten their youthful aspirations. The point is that even if life didn’t work out as they expected and they never achieved the dreams of their youth, it wasn’t too late to be true to their innermost selves.

The film is set in the Adriatic of the 1920s, where former WW1 pilots work as mercenaries to protect ships from aerial pirates. The best of these pilots is Marco, alias the Crimson Pig (AKA Porco Rosso). Marco was once a handsome man who has basically cursed himself with guilt and transformed into a pig-man. Luckily for him, no one seems to mind or even notice.

Marco lives alone on an island, listening for work on the radio. When sky pirates attack, the formidable pig pilot rushes to the rescue, with money as his motivation. The balance is shifted when a rival American pilot named Curtis comes along and damages Marco’s plane in an ambush. Marco takes his beloved plane to Milan for repairs where he meets Fio, daughter of Marco’s old mechanic. Fio herself is a mechanical prodigy at 17 and helps renovate Marco’s plane for a rematch with Curtis. Fio herself ends up becoming the prize in the two pilot’s final duel.

Theme: Fio, although a supporting character, fits into the mold of the typical Miyazaki heroine. She is young, spirited and resourceful. As for Marco, his plight is the reverse of what we usually get in a Miyazaki movie. He isn’t facing an uncertain future, but is instead living in the past. He needs to overcome his own guilt just as much as he has to overcome Curtis. There’s a “Beauty & the Beast” quality to the tale, since Marco carries a torch for a woman he can’t be with. The ant-violence message is back in force here. Aside from all the pirates and aerial battles, the movie takes place at a time and place when fascism was on the rise. But while the pacifist message is back, the ecological message is conspicuously absent. This is one of the few films of the Miyazaki oeuvre that does not make an environmental statement. And in no other Miyazaki film (except perhaps Kiki) is flight such a vital part of the plot. Planes, pilots and dogfights fill the movie’s running time.


Next up is Princess Mononoke (1997) a mega-hit that became the highest grossing film of any genre in Japanese history. It also won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the Japanese Oscars. This film has the strongest environmental theme of any Miyazaki film, except for Nausicaa.

The story is set in medieval Japan. As in Laputa, our heroine shares protagonist duties a male counterpart. While fighting an animal-turned-demon, Prince Ashitaka receives a wound that infects him with evil and gives him super strength. It is also slowly killing him. Finding out that the creature’s rage was caused by an iron pellet, he goes in search of the object’s creator, hoping to find a cure. The iron ball came from Lady Eboshi and the workers of Iron Town, who have been encroaching on the habitat of the forest Gods with their hunting and industrial expansion.

Along the way, Ashitaka meets San, a Tarzan-like girl who was raised by the wolf-God Moro and her pack of white wolves. San and Eboshi have a long animosity and each would like to kill the other. Ashitaka realizes that hate is poisoning the whole region and turning animal Gods into crazed demons. He has to broker a peace between man and nature before the Great Forest God gets involved. If the Forest God is killed it will unbalance nature forever…which is exactly what happens.

Theme: In Mononoke, the female lead is not the peacemaker, as is usually the case. San has to overcome her own hatred of the humans who are destroying the forest. Her journey is as much internal as it is external. After meeting Ashitaka, she starts realize that violence will not solve the problem, which is of course the film’s pacifist message. The conflict between the industrialists of Iron town and the Animal spirits of the forest represents the timeless struggle of man vs. nature. Miyazaki resists the temptation to make Eboshi and the people of Iron town one dimensional villains. Most of the people of Iron town are likable and even Eboshi is noble in her own way. The only Miyazaki hallmark missing from this film is the trademark flying scenes.


His next project was the wonderful childhood fable Spirited Away (2001). The film combines the childlike simplicity and coming-of-age drama that we saw in Totoro and Kiki with the otherworldly surrealism of Nausicaa, Laputa and Mononoke. Spirited Away broke all the records set by Mononoke, and also won the Japanese best picture award. Additionally, it won the American Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Our latest heroine, Chihiro, is a modern Alice (in Wonderland) or Dorothy (In Oz), a normal young girl who travels unwillingly to a strange land. Chihiro is unhappy when she and her family move to a new neighborhood. She is afraid of meeting new people and attending a new school. Her parents are distracted by what appears to be an amusement park, except it’s oddly lacking any other visitors. Eating some food there, her parents are transformed into pigs (Recalling the transformation of Marco in Porco Rosso) and Chihiro finds that the strange park is now cut off from the real world by a large body of water. She is alone in a strange place (exactly what she feared when moving to her new town) and must figure out how to change her parents back to normal and get home.

The once empty park-turned-island is now bustling with all manner of supernatural creatures. Chihiro gets a job working at a bath house for spirits, run by wicked witch Yubaba, who wants to trap Chihiro there forever by stealing her memories. Chihiro finds several allies including a river-turned-dragon-turned-boy named Haku and Yubaba’s benign sister Zeniba. With their help, she outwits Yubaba, ends the curse on her parents and finds her way home.

Themes: Chihiro’s quest is not only to make the transition from girl to young woman; she must also overcome her fear of the unknown. Like most other Miyazaki heroines, she wins the day by using her compassion and trusting her friends, rather than by using force. There isn’t much fighting in this film, except for the mystic rivalry between Yubaba and Zeniba, which almost kills Haku. Even Yubaba’s son becomes a pawn in the pointless feud. As for the environment, in this case, it is represented by the ever expanding sea that surrounds the bath house. It starts out like a river and ends up an ocean, representing the distance Chihiro feels between her old world and her new ones. (Not just the divide between the bath house and the real world, but also between her new neighborhood and her old one.) Haku, himself, was once a river, and he becomes Chihiro’s first love. Nature, in this case, symbolizes the unknown, (which starts out as Chihiro’s biggest fear but she overcomes it) and the object of her innocent love. As for flight, it’s not as prominent here as in some previous films, although both Haku and Yubaba do transform themselves into flying creatures. Here, it’s a train that travels over the water’s surface which represents freedom and escape.


The penultimate entry in the Miyazaki oeuvre is the underrated Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) which sent the strongest anti-war message of them all. Miyazaki was motivated to make this film as a direct commentary on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the exception of Mononoke, this is Miyazaki’s darkest film.

This time, our young heroine is Sofi, a shy, plain looking young woman who spends her days working in a haberdashery and dreaming of a better life she doesn’t think she deserves. She is full of self-doubt. Sofi dresses and acts far older than she really is.

A war is under way in the small nation Sofi calls home, and sorcerers are being used as weapons of mass destruction. Sofi has a run-in with the most notorious of wizards, Howl, who lives in a walking castle, powered by a fire demon. When Howl saves Sofi from the henchmen of the Witch of the Wastes, the temperamental Witch casts a spell on young Sofi, turning her physically into the old lady she always felt like. Sofi seeks help from Howl, who is dealing with his own crisis of courage. Howl doesn’t want to fight in the war, but the powers-that-be aren’t going to let him off the hook that easy. When he can no longer avoid combat, Howl starts transforming into a demonic war bird (Once again the symbolism of transformation becomes important to the story) and only Sofi’s love can save his soul.

Themes: This is the most staunch message on the foolishness of war Miyazaki has made. The wizards are recruited to fight and they don’t even know what they’re fighting for. The ruler of the tiny county, who is so enthusiastically pro-war, is also a babbling idiot. Sofi, as is the standard for Miyazaki heroines, uses love to save the day. Sofi has to overcome her shyness and self-doubt to save not only herself and Howl, but to end the war. She continually changes her physical age throughout the film, depending on her mental state. Her doubt makes her older but her love for Howl makes her young and strong. We she first meets Howl it leads to a beautiful scene of them walking on air together. There are many flight scenes in the movie and most of them have a negative connotation concerning war, but that scene of them sky walking in unison is the most effective because it’s the first time Sofi is taken out of her comfort zone and she finds that she likes it. The only thing missing here is the usual ecological warning.


The final entry in the oeuvre is Ponyo On the Cliff by the Sea (2008), which harkens back to the child-like innocence of Totoro. Both in substance and in animation style, this is aimed mostly for younger audiences, unlike Mononoke and Howl which were both very adult in tone. Our heroine here, Ponyo, is the youngest of any Miyazaki girl. Similarly young is the boy named Sosuke who shares duties as co-hero of the movie.

Ponyo is a mystical sea being in the form of a goldfish. (The opening minutes where we see the undersea world and aquatic creatures of every type is one of the most beautiful pieces of animation to come along in years.) Her father is a mortal wizard who gave up life on the surface to marry the feminine spirit of the seven seas. Ponyo and her many sisters are kept on a tight leash by their father who is worried about the balance between the two worlds, already badly damaged by human pollution. He holds some hatred toward the humans for messing things up with their wastes. The willful Ponyo, always yearning for life beyond the limitations her father has placed on her, slips away, rides a jellyfish to the surface and her adventure begins.

Getting caught inside a discarded glass bottle, she almost dies but is found ashore and rescued by 5 year old Sosuke who keeps her as a pet, taking her to his house atop a high cliff. Soon, after healing Sosuke's cut by licking his finger, Ponyo reveals herself to be more than a mere goldfish and starts to talk to her human friend. Just as the two are developing a special bond, Ponyo's Dad comes and drags Ponyo home. But Ponyo will not be denied. She is becoming a powerful mystic. Using one of Dad's magic elixirs she transforms herself into a mortal girl, and escapes from dad again--this time bringing all her sisters in the form of huge fish--and reunites with Sosuke.

Unbeknownst to Ponyo, she has ruined the delicate balance of nature that Dad had been trying so hard to maintain. Storms and tsunamis follow. Sosuke’s mom vanishes while helping out some seniors at the old age home. The town is flooded, except for the house on the cliff where the kids are safe. Ponyo turns a toy boat into a real boat and the two children go on an adventure together across the high waters to find Sosuke's mother.

Themes: Some of the expected Miyazaki themes are seen here, but not all. Ponyo’s defiance of her father and desire to live her life on her own terms are emblematic of the typical female empowerment motif that runs through Miyazaki’s work. And her father constantly reminds us that humans have put the world out of balance with our pollution. Early on, we get several scenes of litter and waste in the sea, including the bottle Ponyo gets stuck in. However, a pacifism message is conspicuously absent here, as is any allusion to flight. This film travels downward instead of up as past films have. Much of the movie is spent under sea, and there are all manner of strange and wondrous sea creatures, even extinct ones, drifting peacefully through the sea blue oceans like birds in flight.

Few filmmakers have left a body of work as impressive and well-loved as Hayao Miyazaki. Whether or not Ponyo is his last film (and let’s hope not) he has left a legacy of though-provoking and poetic films that will certainly be remembered through the generations.

Rob Young

Robert is obsessed with movies. He has a background in advertising and a long history of freelance writing but there's nothing he loves to write about more than movies. Let him dissect a film and he's a happy man. His favorite movie stars of all time are the Marx Brothers. He hates Cheech and Chong.


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