Rehabilitation after environmental apocalypses: Miyakazi’s meditations in Nausica√§ and Princess Mononoke

By Georgia Yew

From forest spirits, mythical insects and castles in the sky to a girl who lives among wolves, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have attained critical acclaim by bringing alive captivating tales through Japanese anime. By repeatedly integrating themes of ecology, the environment and politics, Miyazaki ensures the continued resonance of his works. This, as highlighted by Gwendolyn Morgan, is no coincidence but Miyazaki‚Äôs conscious attempt to uphold Japanese cultural values.[1] Specifically, she connects Shinto notions of spirituality with apocalyptic narratives to analyse mankind‚Äôs relationship to nature in two seminal texts, Nausica√§ of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997).[2] In the former, Nausica√§, a princess, is the protagonist who gets entangled in a power struggle with competing kingdoms as they attempt to eradicate the vast Toxic Jungle populated by giant mutant insects that threaten human existence.[3] In the latter, the film depicts an intense conflict between the gods of a forest and human communities that consume its resources.

Given the strong similarities in themes, it is unsurprising that both films are often analysed together as Morgan does. Yet for all these similarities, there are clear differences that have important implications on their final outlooks. While some of these differences are immediately apparent, such as the films‚Äô settings, the most important distinction lies in the seemingly minor fact that Nausica√§ is placed in a post-apocalyptic setting whereas Princess Mononoke depicts one apocalyptic event. To be certain, both films deal with an impending environmental apocalypse where nature threatens to eradicate human existence. Nevertheless, this distinction results in important differences in the quality and stability of mankind‚Äôs recovery following the environmental apocalypse. 

“the most important distinction lies in the seemingly minor fact that Nausica√§ is placed in a post-apocalyptic setting whereas Princess Mononoke depicts one environmental apocalypse”


Consequently, this raises two important questions: firstly, why would these different settings matter to the film and secondly, how do they inform two ostensibly similar but manifestly different visions of rehabilitation? I posit that despite the optimism for the future as reflected in both films, they present critically different outlooks on mankind‚Äôs recovery after the apocalypse. While Princess Mononoke presents a stable departure from the past in a symbolic rebirth with nature retaking the land following the apocalypse, Nausica√§ projects a hopeful although uncertain post-apocalyptic vision. These distinctions are further nuanced by distinctively Japanese elements such as the medium of anime and aforementioned notions of spirituality derived from Shintoism. Ultimately, differences in Japanese eschatological narratives set out different prospects of rehabilitation which extend to a social critique of Japan‚Äôs relationship with the environment.

The final scene of Nausicaä where a seedling grows in the toxic jungle

Resolving the apocalypse

Before exploring portrayals of rehabilitation following an apocalypse, it is crucial to examine how the environmental apocalypse came about and was averted or resolved in the first place. In both films, Miyazaki portrays the apocalypse as one triggered by human acts of aggression and sustained by mankind‚Äôs destructive relationship with the natural world. In Nausica√§, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world resulting from the Ceramic Wars that arose a thousand years ago which had led to the decimation of nature and most of mankind. It also accounts for the constant threat of an ever-expanding Toxic Jungle filled with noxious air and huge dangerous insects. While the trauma of the past weighs heavily on the present, humans are depicted to make the same gravely mistaken choices about confronting environmental threats to their existence. In Nausica√§, two rival kingdoms attempt to obliterate the giant insects in an attempt to guarantee humanity‚Äôs survival. Likewise, in Princess Mononoke, Lady Eboshi triggers the apocalypse by shooting off the head of the Forest Spirit which bleeds an ooze that kills anything in its path. This act is a political-charged decision to secure the Emperor‚Äôs military support in return for the god’s head. In doing so, she disregards nature as a sacred entity and reflects the exploitative nature of human actions. Together, both films are heavily critical of the antagonists who deploy coercive means to exploit or gain mastery over nature which leads to the apocalypse.  

An antidote or resolution to the crisis is hence achieved when humans seek to repair and respect nature instead. This is seen from Nausica√§ where a wave of enraged giant insects known as Ohms is only placated when Nausica√§ rescues and returns the injured baby Ohm in sacrificing her life.[4] Similarly, the ooze from the forest god that killed everything only stops when San and Ashitaka return its decapitated head which restores nature to its original form. This speaks to Morgan‚Äôs point on the Shinto tenet of purification where there is ‚Äúan apocalyptic cleansing of the land and a return to purity‚ÄĚ.[5] Altogether, Miyazaki mounts a strong criticism of mankind‚Äôs irreverence towards nature by presenting the apocalypse as a direct result of human actions and correspondingly, one that can only be resolved when wrongs are righted and nature is appeased. Interestingly, Morgan presents the environmental apocalypse in both films as uniquely Japanese from its underlying ‚ÄúShinto values that ‚Äú[appeal] to [the audience‚Äôs] spiritual connection with nature‚ÄĚ.[6]

Nausicaä lies on the ground dead as the ohms begin to heal her

Apocalypse versus post-apocalypse?

At this juncture, it is clear that the central plot point of both films revolves around the potential apocalypse which results in great destruction and change. Yet the film, Nausica√§, is further complicated by its post-apocalyptic setting where humanity had been bombed back to an agrarian state. Here, the post-apocalypse takes on a temporal understanding as the period following a large scale disaster where civilisation has been destroyed or regressed to a more primitive stage. This difference between the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives is significant and lies in its function of situating oneself in history according to Connor Pitteti.[7] Where apocalyptic narratives give a clear idea of a coherent process of historical development in which upheavals trigger transitions between the different world systems, post-apocalyptic narratives tend to describe continuities from the past into the present and future that blurs temporal distinctions. To this end, apocalyptic narratives tend to evoke a sense of consonance, that is to give the impression that historical time is governed by a definite structure that helps to locate and make sense of otherwise chaotic events. 

Kushana beheads the deer god which releases ooze that kills anything in its path

Implications of different eschatological narratives on rehabilitation 

These different eschatological narrative modes critically shape the films‚Äô outlooks on rehabilitation following the apocalypse. Rehabilitation in this context refers to the complex process of restoring human societies to health in the physical sense as well as spiritual sense of living in harmony with nature. Both films conclude on a hopeful note suggesting the possibility of re-growth and recovery: in Nausica√§, a young sapling sprouts during the last scene of the film in the Toxic Jungle that is unable to produce clean and uncontaminated life while in Princess Mononoke, nature is shown to reclaim industrial lands destroyed during the apocalypse. This idea is emphasised by Lady Eboshi‚Äôs vow to rebuild Iron Town in a better way that would avoid contaminating and exploiting nature as it did before. 

Despite these similarly positive outlooks, different visions of the future emerge. For one, Nausica√§ takes on a much more sombre tone as the concept of rehabilitation is destabilised. In this sense, rehabilitation is neither complete nor guaranteed as mankind continues to struggle for survival in a hostile environment. There is no easy recovery here for the dawning threat of the Toxic Jungle remains ever-present and more importantly, the potential for man‚Äôs folly to incite yet another apocalypse is never fully eliminated. Even if a sapling grows in the toxic jungle that is thought to be hostile to any life, the question of whether the process of purification will be fast enough hangs in the air. Here, the post-apocalyptic narrative mode is constructive in confronting the complexities of present challenges that assume an unresolved and open character. It is clear that certain continuities blur clear distinctions between the past and present, thereby insisting on the continued responsibility to care for nature while building a better future.

Meanwhile, Princess Mononoke presents a more optimistic and stable vision of rebirth where there is a decisive departure from past mistakes. This idea is symbolically represented by greenery reclaiming the scorched land and the appearance of a kodama (forest spirit).[8] This idea of starting over again is advanced with the apocalypse demarcating the move from the past to the future. For Princess Mononoke, rehabilitation is more stable in its linear historical progression in comparison to the rather cyclical and disrupted one of Nausica√§. Altogether, Miyazaki effectively presents different visions of rehabilitation through separate eschatological narratives. 

Nature retakes the landscape in Nausicaä after the apocalypse

The distinctions between ideas of rehabilitation and the accompanying critique on mankind‚Äôs dysfunctional relationship with nature are reflective of the changes in Japan‚Äôs orientation towards the environment from the 1980s to 90s which are rooted in broader socio-economic developments. They can be examined on two levels: that of tangible policy instruments and political discourse. Within the decade between the release of Nausica√§ and Princess Mononoke, Japan effectively transitioned from a period of unprecedented economic growth to the Lost Decades brought by a collapse of the asset price bubble.

Notably, these broad developments were intimately connected to shifts in Japan‚Äôs approach towards the environment. In the 1980s, Japan was strongly criticised for their disregard for environmentally damaging practices such as deforestation and over-exploitation of natural resources.[9] A marked shift in their environmental policies and reputation came in the early 1990s when a global climate change division was set up and Japan organised the Kyoto Conference in 1997.[10] 

Meanwhile, political processes of constructing the image of Japan as a leader in environmentalism and deliberate forgetfulness were underway. One key example is the development of a ‚ÄúShinto environmentalist paradigm‚ÄĚ which present Shinto as a nature religion containing ‚Äúancient ecological knowledge on how to live in harmonious coexistence with nature‚ÄĚ.[11] This narrative that Morgan unwittingly contributes arises from political machinations meant to present Japan as a global leader in environmental matters.

Such shifts are reflected in the two films: severe criticism and environmental issues underpinning 1980s Japan mirror the tampered optimism of Nausica√§whereas a wider celebration of Japanese environmentalism in the 1990s aligns with the difficult but clearly positive outlook of Princess Mononoke. Admittedly, while post-apocalyptic narratives normally appear after the ‚Äėsimpler‚Äô apocalyptic narratives, an inversion of this trend does not discredit the important implication these different eschatological modes have in the films.


Conclusion

In conclusion, this article identified the function and distinctions between two eschatological narrative modes and elucidated their necessary impact on ideas of rehabilitation following apocalypses. Ultimately, Nausica√§ and Princess Mononoke eschew the traditional mode of futuristic speculation and present an optimistic post-apocalypse outlook (post-post-apocalypse in the case of Nausica√§). Nevertheless, the difference which lies in their articulation of a break or continuity in the past translates into distinct messages on rehabilitation. This is highly insightful when placed against shifts in Japan‚Äôs orientation towards the environment from a position of receiving intense criticism over their lack of attention to environmental degradation in the 1980s when Nausica√§ was produced to being lauded as an international environmental leader by the 1990s when Princess Mononoke was released. 


[1] Gwendolyn Morgan, ‚ÄúCreatures in Crisis: Apocalyptic Environmental Visions in Miyazaki‚Äôs Nausica√§ of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke,‚ÄĚ Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 172.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] The Toxic Jungle here is also referred to as the Sea of Corruption. They are both terms for the jungle inhabited by giant mutant insects and filled with poisonous air that keeps expanding in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Nausica√§ of the Valley of the Wind. 

[4] The giant Ohms are generally portrayed as calm and generally harmless insects who can get enraged when attacked or threatened. This would lead to a stampede that often devastates communities of humans as an injured insect sends out signals attracting many others. 

[5] Morgan, ‚ÄúCreatures in Crisis,‚ÄĚ 175. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Connor Pitetti, ‚ÄúLes usages de la fin du monde : L‚Äôapocalypse et la post-apocalypse en tant que modes narratifs,‚ÄĚ ReS Futurae, no. 16 (October 2019): 20. [The uses of the end of the world: the apocalypse and the post-apocalypse as narrative modes]

[8] The presence of kodamas is a sign of a healthy forest. 

[9] Miranda A. Schreurs, ‚ÄúAssessing Japan’s Role as a Global Environmental Leader,‚ÄĚ Policy and Society 23, no. 1 (2004): 88.

[10] Ibid, 101. 

[11] Aike P. Rots, ‚ÄúSacred Forests, Sacred Nation: The Shinto Environmentalist Paradigm and the Rediscovery of ‚ÄėChinju no Mori‚Äô,‚ÄĚ Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2015, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2015): 213.