The Beautiful Environmentalism of Studio Ghibli

The Beautiful Environmentalism of Studio Ghibli

17 Feb 2021

An excursion into the magical world of Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli.

It’s Sunday evening and you’re cosying up to watch a good movie or TV show. Deciding what to watch can be surprisingly daunting, but you can’t go far wrong with something from the Studio Ghibli oeuvre. If you’re not sure who they are- they are the people behind movies Spirited Away, Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro. They’re often referred to as the Pixar or Disney of Japan, and in some ways that’s true.

Like their American counterparts, Ghibli are master storytellers and animators, favouring gorgeous hand drawings over CGI. Their films are visually compelling, showing their animators’ great mastery and attention to detail. Using immersive realism, they make us feel that the worlds depicted in them are real and tangible, even though they are fictional and unrealistic. Their movies are for children, but also deal with adult themes and philosophical concepts and, like a lot of good art, are subtly suffused with strong moral messages and warnings. They can have you laughing one minute and dabbing your eyes with a tissue the next.

Hayao Miyazaki and Shinto

The studio was founded in 1985 by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished animators. A creative genius, he wrote and directed nearly all of their most popular movies. His storytelling takes a lot from the indigenous Japanese religion, Shinto. In Shinto, nature takes the form of gods or spirits (kami). 

Hayao Miyazaki

Through mutual respect and understanding, the aim is to ensure a harmonious relationship between humans and these spirits and thus with the natural world. There are several Miyazaki’s films that bring to life the environmentalism within Shinto.

Shinto Shrine - Common Site in Japan

A Shinto shrine, a common site in Japan

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Apparently, this is one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s favourite movies and, given the actor’s environmental activism, it’s easy to understand why. A warning if you have kids: it is one of the most grown-up and unsettling of Studio Ghibli’s stories.

Prince Ashitaka is wounded protecting his village from a spirit that has been turned evil as a result of a conflict with men. He manages to kill it, but the spirit puts a curse on him before it dies. In an attempt to heal himself and undo the curse before it’s too late, he goes on a quest to a faraway land where he gets caught up in a war between forest spirits and the humans of Iron Town, who are destroying the forest to fuel their growing industry.

princess mononoke and prince ashitaka

Princess Mononoke and Prince Ashitaka

Rather than environmentalists, the mayor of Iron Town—the talented and ambitious Lady Eboshi—has to fight wolves, wild boars and monkeys, as well as the wild Princess Mononoke herself, who was raised by wolves and hates humankind (there’s a greedy local warlord too, but we’ll not go into that). It’s up to the Prince Ashitaka to try and broker peace between the two factions and demonstrate that they can coexist peacefully. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s quite spectacular!

This movie beautifully portrays the struggle between nature and human civilization. Miyazaki uses the characters of Princess Mononoke and the Forest Spirit to symbolise the power of nature, while the industrialised Iron Town and its inhabitants represent the human greed for resources. The conflict between the two sides is inevitable as humans cut down trees and mine resources, leading to environmental degradation and destruction of the forest. The duality of the Forest Spirit who, at night, transforms from a deer into a Night Walker shows us the duality of nature which has the power to bring life or take it away, depending how we treat it. The movie highlights the importance of protecting the natural world, and the need for humans to find a balance between development and preservation of the environment. 

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away (2001)

The most famous of Ghibli’s films, Spirited Away was picked up by Disney in the US and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (beating Ice Age!). It was one of Japan’s highest grossing movies for many years after being released.

The movie follows a story of a young, slightly spoilt 10-year-old girl called Chihiro. While moving to a new town, her father takes a wrong turn and they end up in an abandoned amusement park. When they stumble upon a restaurant stacked with food, and with no staff, her parents decide to stay and eat, while Chihiro decides to explore the area. She finds a bathhouse where she meets and befriends a boy named Haku. She soon finds that her parents have turned into pigs, that the amusement park is inhabited by spirits and demons and that they are trapped in this strange world. She discovers that the only way to save herself and her parents is to work at the bathhouse, which is frequented by the spirits. It is quite a marvellous place full of interesting characters: frogs, birds, strange little coal creatures, the odd radish, as well as a masked spirit called No-Face.

Stink Spirit Spirited Awas

Stink Spirit. Smell level: unbearable.

river spirit

Clean, happy River Spirit

Whilst she’s there, a bothersome “stink spirit” makes an appearance and causes minor chaos. When finally calmed down and cleaned, it turns out to be a river spirit that has been polluted by people’s careless actions. As with Prince Ashitaka, Chihiro becomes a bridge between the human and spirit world, tasked with creating balance and harmony between the two.

Apart from the polluted river and the bathhouse portrayed as a place where spirits come to cleanse themselves, but also as a place full of waste, there are many other examples of environmentalism in the movie. The setting of the story itself, the abandoned amusement park, addresses the issue of destroying and polluting nature in order to build something with no lasting purpose.

Both Chihiro’s parents who overeat and turn into pigs, and the character of No-Face are used as a symbol of greed and overconsumption. No-Face’s insatiable hunger and desire for material possessions cause chaos and destruction, and it is only when he is shown kindness and compassion that he is able to return to his true self.

Through the character of Chihiro, Miyazaki emphasizes the importance of respecting the natural world and working to preserve it for future generations.

Even when environmentalism is not an obvious part of the plot, the beautiful animated worlds and creatures lovingly created by Miyazaki and Ghibli signify a respect and appreciation for the natural world and a childlike wonder for it.

Ponyo (2008)

Speaking of childlike wonder and children’s inherent curiosity towards nature, it is definitely worth mentioning the magical movie Ponyo, acclaimed for its uplifting themes and visual design. 

The film follows the story of a goldfish named Ponyo who gets trapped in a piece of trash on the beach, and then saved by a young boy named Sosuke. The boy cuts his finger, and after licking his blood in order to heal his wound, she becomes human and they fall in love. Her father Fujimoto, an underwater wizard believes his daughter has been kidnapped and starts searching for her frantically. Her father’s powerful sorcery and Ponyo’s transformation into a human cause an imbalance in the natural world. Together, Ponyo and Sosuke embark on a journey to save the world from a massive storm that threatens their seaside town. Along the way, they encounter both friendly and dangerous sea creatures, and face challenges that test their courage and loyalty. Ultimately, their determination and love for each other help them overcome obstacles and restore balance to the natural world.

The story highlights the importance of preserving and respecting nature. Ponyo's desire to become human is driven by her fascination with the human world, but also by her concern for the deteriorating state of the ocean. The film portrays the consequences of human actions on the environment, such as pollution and overfishing, which threaten the balance of the ecosystem.


The character of Fujimoto, Ponyo's father, represents the negative impact of human activities on the ocean. He is a former human who has abandoned his humanity to become a powerful sorcerer of the sea. Repulsed by humans and their trash, his misguided attempt to protect the ocean by completely isolating it from humans has caused further harm to the environment.

On the other hand, the character of Sosuke and his relationship with Ponyo symbolise the hope for a sustainable future. Sosuke's love and care for Ponyo and the ocean show the importance of human responsibility in preserving the environment. The movie emphasizes the need for humans to live in harmony with nature, respecting its balance and protecting its delicate ecosystems.

Who are our Ashitakas and Chichiros?

Unlike in Ghibli’s movies, the natural world can’t stand up for itself in the sense that it will send out troops to protect itself or come marauding through a spa. But we are beginning to feel its balance being disturbed in other ways. The Anthropocene, or age in which our actions are altering nature’s systems, is upon us.

The time to wake up and take action in order to restore the balance and preserve our Mother Earth is now. We need leaders to be strong and there are some obvious champions in the environmental movement: the Greta Thunbergs, John Kerrys and Satish Kumars. But, corny as it sounds, we all need to be Ashitakas and Chichiros if we want to save the planet for future generations.

Here are our top 10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint and live more sustainably. Also, hands up if you think we should make some special Ghibli character eco-friendly mobile cases!


We hope you found this fun and informative. If you have any views on this, or anything else you'd like to share, hit us up at [email protected].

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