Part of what has made Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki one of the most loved and influential filmmakers of all time is his attention to environmental concerns. Flowing out of a broad Shintōistic worldview, Miyazaki gives us countless memorable snapshots of a world where nature, man and the gods can prosper when in harmony or wither when not. This paper attempts to articulate Miyazaki’s environmental philosophy, and then critique it from a Christian point of view.

Hayao Miyazaki, known as the “Walt Disney of Japan,” has produced blockbuster after blockbuster for nearly three decades. In fact, two of his movies, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, have been, at different times, the highest grossing films in Japan, and even 30 years after its initial release, one cannot pass through a Japanese airport without being bombarded by My Neighbor Totoro merchandise. Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man and former head honcho at Marvel, maintains that Miyazaki is “Japan’s leading cult figure to fans of manga (comic books) and anime (animated films),” and this is no small praise given that these are multi-billion dollar industries.1 Moreover, Miyazaki’s fame is far from being limited to Japan: in 2006, he was voted one of the most influential Asians of the past 60 years, and in 2005, he was listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, which, of course, includes men and women from across the globe.

On top of memorable characters interacting in charming, rural settings, part of what makes Miyazaki’s stories so appealing is that they have a moral and philosophical depth, though this depth is subtle and flows naturally, often unconsciously, from Miyazaki’s larger Shintōistic worldview: “I did not deliberately try to deliver any educational ideologies or messages to the audiences,” Miyazaki tells us, in many ways echoing what C. S. Lewis said about The Chronicles of Narnia2 and J. R. R. Tolkien said about The Lord of the Rings.3 “If they really exist in my works, they are only revealing themselves naturally.”4 Prima facie, it seems one could argue that all the best works of fantasy have a philosophical and moral depth in their very fabric, but this is hardly the point I want to argue here. Rather, my interest in this paper is to explore, celebrate, but also critically evaluate in light of my own Christian worldview, Miyazaki’s Shintō environmental philosophy.

But first, a few words about the structure of this paper. Environmental philosophy has to do with the critical study of concepts defining relations between human beings and their non-human environment. Environmental ethics, a major component of environmental philosophy, addresses the normative significance of these relations. To put it more simply (and loosely): environmental philosophy mostly has to do with reality assumptions or beliefs pertaining to the nature of, and relations between, humans, animals, plants and so on, while environmental ethics has to do with value assumptions or beliefs having to do with how the things that exist in nature should interact. Thus, in the first section of this paper, I will begin by extrapolating and critiquing Miyazaki’s reality assumptions, and then, in the next section, move on to do the same with his general value assumptions, before, in the final sections, concluding with analyses of more particular topics related to his environmental value assumptions, such as the role of technology in nature, pollution and climate change.

“The Earth Speaks to Us All”

While disputed, Shintō should probably be viewed as a monistic religion, meaning that there is one, and only one, reality; though, of course, within this reality there are many apparent differences. So although Shintō speaks about differentia such as “spiritual” and “material” and “animate” and “inanimate,” these differences are neither metaphysically absolute nor are the relations between them absolutely severable: “the material,” Shintō philosopher Thomas Kasulis tells us, “never exists without some relation to the spiritual.”5 In this way, Shintō is also a form of animism because it espouses that spirits or kami are interdependent and intimately connected with the entire material world, including humans. Moreover, Shintō teaches that all things—from the spirits, to humans, to animals, to plants, to stones—can have value independent of humans’ assigning them such: “It is a conceit, to the Japanese mind,” religious scholar Brian Bocking argues, “to think that humans have superior rights over other kinds of beings.”6

And all of this can be seen quite clearly throughout Miyazaki’s corpus. Consider three examples. The first is from Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, wherein the unity and interdependence between inanimate rocks and animated kami is evident in Uncle Pom’s comments to Sheeta, “These rocks are my friends. … The earth speaks to all of us. If we listen, we can understand.” The second example is from Princess Mononoke, where a forest whose material trees have spirits or akudama is “a sign that the forest is a healthy one.” And the third example is from Ponyo on a Cliff, which assumes the same type of interdependence described in the previous examples, though this time between water and kami; thus, the Sea Goddess tells the fish-sorcerer Fujimoto, “We are, after all, made of bubbles;” moreover, when she describes “the beautiful ocean” as being “full of magic,” she is not speaking poetically, but rather is referring to the mixture of kami and matter. Consequently, in all three cases, there is both interdependence between the spiritual and material, and a strong sense that even lowly things like rocks, water and trees, which are inextricably linked to kami, can have great value.

From a Christian point of view, there is much to be admired, and yet much wrong, with Miyazaki’s Shintōistic metaphysics. On the one hand, Christians should reject Miyazaki’s apparent monism since their confessions declare the absolute distinction between God the Creator and His creation. On the other hand, Christians can certainly appreciate, especially in this age dominated by metaphysical materialism, Miyazaki’s emphasis on the spiritual permeating all things; indeed, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, the two prominent Christian writers I mentioned earlier, wrote with great relish about—and even a secret desire for7—contact with God-created dryads, river spirits, ents, talking eagles, aliens, and the like, and even discounting these, most Christians affirm, and celebrate, the immersion of God and angelic beings in the realm of matter and man. Or again, while most Christians will not accept Miyazaki’s blurred ontological boundaries between spirits and matter, Christians may find Miyazaki’s vision a helpful corrective in that although God is Spirit and man is a spirit, man’s spirit is still a created thing and in this way is more like his material body than either are to God’s unique nature: in other words, the distinction between spirit and body, though real, is not quite as strong as Christians often think it is. Finally, while most Christians cannot follow Miyazaki’s “land ethic,” which sees man as simply a part of nature (more or less an equal to any biological or abiological thing),8 Christians can learn a lot from Miyazaki’s insistence both that human culture is deeply intertwined with the natural world and that all things, even inanimate objects, can have great value.

“Back Then, Man and Beast Lived in Harmony”

Shintō seems to maintain that although everything belongs to the same reality, there are internal distinctions, including normative ones or ones having to do with value assumptions—both ethical and aesthetic. Nevertheless, because Shintō is monistic, it denies, for instance, any notion of a universal moral law: absolute principles of right and wrong have no place in Shintō since these would presuppose something outside of the monistic whole that can judge the rightness or wrongness of a particular action within. This denial, it must be noted, should include the denial of any intrinsic or absolute value for anything since if there is no absolute Value-Giver or Source, no absolute or intrinsic value can be spoken of. And while Shintō theorists do sometimes talk (inconsistently) about the intrinsic value of things, more typically, they embrace a form of cultural relativism, which, in a nutshell, states that morality and value judgements are relative to the group, nation, culture, or those on the “inside” (uchi) of a particular unit. Right and wrong, therefore, mean something like “what helps and harms the group,” and since Shintō’s aesthetics overlap with its ethics, “help” is equivalent to “beautiful” and “harm” to “ugly.” Thus, it is not surprising that Shintō puts an enormous amount of emphasis on the rightness and beauty of group harmony, where a group readily, and typically, includes the biological, abiological and spiritual.

One of the consequences of this is that things such as snakes, while often harmful to the human part of a group, are not considered harmful or bad as such. Indeed, in terms of a given uchi group (and not just the humans within the group), destructive creatures can promote benefit to the larger in-group, and in this sense can be seen as valuable. For Shintō philosophers it is a serious error to see “benefit” as a mere synonym for “benefit to human beings.” However, despite the relative potential good that harmful creatures can wreak upon a given group, not all destruction is beneficial to a group. Thus, Shintō tends to see death and disease as generally promoting more harm to a group than benefit, and so stresses purification rituals to remove apparent harmful contagion.9 However, Shintō does not speak, as Abrahamic religions often do, as if death and disease as such were objectively bad.

Now once again all of this is evident, in one form or another, in Miyazaki’s work, and to demonstrate this, I would again like to consider three examples. The first is from Ponyo. Near the beginning of the movie, Lisa, one of the heroines, strongly denounces pesticides, apparently on the grounds that such do too much harm to their group of man-and-nature. The pesticides—though obviously invented by humans in a broad sense—represent a kind of soto (“outside”) invader to the group that threaten the flourishing and harmony of the group. Miyazaki should not be taken to be saying that pesticides or manmade objects are objectively bad; however, Miyazaki certainly thinks they can do more group-harm than good, and in this way he reflects basic Shintōistic beliefs. Looking at this from another perspective, from another scene in the movie, we find the hero, Sōsuke, feeding some ham to a goldfish named Ponyo, who in turn licks a wound that Sōsuke had sustained. The boy’s wound mysteriously heals, causing many, especially among Western audiences, to wonder what the significance of this is. But for one who understands Miyazaki’s Shintō environmental philosophy, the message is clear: when people, exemplified by Sōsuke, and nature, exemplified by Ponyo, live in helpful harmony, healing and happiness for the group is the result.

The second example of Miyazaki’s Shintō value assumptions is in My Neighbor Totoro. The story begins with a father and his two young daughters moving to the countryside to be near the wife and mother, who is staying in a local hospital. In the new house the family moves into the two young girls see some susuwatari or dust spirits. An old woman who comes to help clean the house mentions that when she was a young girl, she also saw the spirits, but no longer. Later the two girls again meet more spirits invisible to adults, among them the great tree spirit, Totoro, and his Catbus. Now from a Western point of view, these invisible spirits can easily be misunderstood: Westerners may be tempted to see the spirits as wonderful but unreal figments of the girls’ youthful imagination. However, from a Shintō perspective, the spirits invisible to the adults are not at all unreal. Indeed, that children can see them and adults cannot indicates that Miyazaki’s children (much like the children in Lewis’s Narnia) see the world, or at least the world they occupy, as it is and ought to be seen—as a harmony of the visible and invisible, the spiritual and material; and that adults (similar again to Uncle Andrew in Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew) largely view the spirits as unreal is a sign of their ignorance, which can lead to human injustice against the natural world of which they are a part. Miyazaki’s point, then, is that adults need to recover the vision of children—the vision of persons in tune with spirit and nature—in order to do justice to both nature and themselves.

The final example of Miyazaki’s value assumptions can be found in Princess Mononoke, which begins with the following narration:

Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts that owed their allegiance to the great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.

This reference to a golden age when things lived in harmony is, of course, the Shintō ideal, and the film’s central theme has to do with how this harmony has been disrupted and how it can be restored. Thus, following the narration we hear about greedy humans who have slashed and burned a particular forest in order to mine iron beneath it. Subsequently, the kami of the forest, in the form of large beasts, attacked the narrow-minded humans. However, one such beast, a giant boar, was shot and eventually killed, but not before becoming enraged to the point of disrupting another—though this time a peaceful—human settlement. As a result, we are shown that when one element in a particular group disrupts another, this disruption becomes systemic throughout the larger group or whole; indeed, Lady Eboshi, the leader of the humans who cut down the trees simply for human benefit, is said to have “a demon inside” her, but the giant boar who attacked the innocent human settlement is also referred to as “a demon.” The only way to undo this demonic work and restore the larger group harmony—between the two human settlements and the connecting, spirit-filled forest—is to expand each group’s sense of what constitutes the uchi group. Miyazaki would have us follow the example of the hero, Ashitaka, who tries to get everyone to understand the importance of a harmonious, larger group by saying, “What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace.”

Christians, once again, will likely both agree and disagree with Miyazaki’s Shintō value assumptions. For instance, Christians tend to insist that all things obtain their value and rights because God, who created them, is identical with all absolute values and indeed with all perfections: hence God does not simply make a flower beautiful because He knows about beauty, but rather because He is Beauty itself; God does not say that this person should respect that person’s rights because He knows about ethics and rights, but rather because Goodness is one of His properties. Christians, therefore, should have a problem with Miyazaki’s cultural relativism.

Moreover, while Christians will probably agree with Miyazaki that ethics are not anthropocentric (consider, for example, Lewis’s arguments for why the family dog may be in heaven10), most Christians will reject Miyazaki’s ontological egalitarianism in favor of some form of ontological hierarchy, wherein God is at the top of the chain, humans are below Him, and the rest of nature is below humans. While Miyazaki’s philosophy could allow for equality between a human, an animal, a tree and even a rock, Christian philosophy—whether or not embracing a rigorous Neoplatonic Chain of Being—will surely insist that a human’s worth is neither equal to, or above, God’s worth, nor equal to, or below, a mere animals’. For Christians, since God has endowed all things, or most things, with a set nature, there will often be not only a correct aesthetic response, but more importantly a correct ethical response, due to each thing. Thus, while Christians should find Miyazaki’s desire for harmony inspirational, especially in regard to the fantastical visions of his child protagonists, the Christian vision of shalom is that of a harmony in hierarchy—a grand ballroom dance, rather than a constellation of equals.

Finally, most Christians will also point out a logical tension in Miyazaki’s philosophy, namely, how, if most things are kami-filled and a kind of egalitarianism between entities is implied, can Miyazaki justify the violence of one thing against another in some of the ways he does. For instance, it is not hard to depict Sōsuke and Ponyo achieving harmony through mutual kindness but it is another thing to say how the pig, who was butchered to produce the ham that Sōsuke fed to Ponyo, can feel harmony in the grand scheme of things when it was killed for the sake of another. Christianity, of course, can say that while all things can have value in virtue of God creating them, not all things deserve equal consideration. For instance, because God created pigs, they could be understood to have value in and of themselves and, as such, humans should not abuse them for sport nor fail to appreciate the beauty proper to the pig (the pig-ness, if you will); however, Christians will also say that it is legitimate to treat the pig as a means to satisfy human hunger—that bacon, as Peter’s vision made clear, is a God-sanctioned thing. Indeed, a Christian Old Earth Creationist or Theistic Evolutionist, for example, might justify God’s allowing millions of years of animal suffering and death before the creation of the first man on the grounds that humans may gain something as simple as the sense of the sublime and the vastness of God-the-Creator that comes through experiencing genuine antiquity. But certainly, for Miyazaki, this sort of human-first way of thinking would count as demonic.

“This Time, We’ll Build a Better Town”

Although many Westerners, informed by some vague knowledge of Shintō (and perhaps Daoism and Buddhism), tend to think of Japan as an environmentally-concerned nation, this is not quite right. For example, in a 1989 United Nations Environment Programme survey, Japan had the lowest level of concern for, and awareness of, environmental issues among both the policy makers and the public out of the 14 countries surveyed; Japan also had the lowest percentage of people who believed they should contribute time and money to environmental groups, where environmental groups are globally-concerned organizations.11 Japan’s transition from a forest-hunter culture to a rice-cultivating culture started the process of man’s distancing himself from nature and this distancing was widened after Japan opened its borders to the West more than 100 years ago. Consequently, Miyazaki is not a lone voice when he says, “Our children, surrounded by high-tech machines and shallow industrial products, are rapidly losing their roots”—cultural roots, to be sure, but also literal roots: man’s place in nature.12 Human technology is often considered the culprit behind man’s distancing himself from nature. Most forms of Shintō, for example, have great mistrust toward technology, often (wrongly) seeing it as a “Western” thing. Indeed, Shintō’s distrust of technology (not to mention its egalitarianism) is often praised by eco-feminists, who link man’s oppression of the earth with man’s oppression of women. And although many have found Miyazaki to share these concerns, it is not quite as simple as that.

On the one hand, Miyazaki’s stories often show how technology leads to terrible consequences; for instance, the castle-city of Laputa in Laputa has weaponry that could enslave the entire world, and the human-engineered Giant Warriors in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind nearly destroyed human civilization. Moreover, most of Miyazaki’s protagonists are young girls—young, because they still see the world holistically and harmoniously, and girls, so eco-feminists say, because they are more likely than men or boys to emphasize care for, and equality among, all things. Yet on the other hand, Miyazaki is famous for his love of certain technologies, such as airplanes (Porco Rosso) and buildings from the past 60 years (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and it is not obviously true that he thought girls, more than boys, were capable of caring for the world: for instance, although Nausicaä is the environmental heroine of Nausicaä, Ashitaka is the environmental hero of Princess Mononoke. According to Miyazaki, then, the abuse of technology (and gender)—not technology (or gender) itself—is the problem.

Now the abuse of technology often occurs as the result of human greed. People are greedy for money and so, loving themselves inordinately and giving no regard to sustainability, they pillage the Earth of its resources. A corrupt form of industry is the result, and this industry thrives on selling its products—often things that people do not really need—to a shallow public, who is unaware, or worse, unconcerned, that the products they are consuming are the fruits of injustice.

There are, of course, numerous examples of Miyazaki critiquing this very structure. Consider Princess Mononoke. Despite being aware that by killing the Forest Spirit, he will destroy all life in the forest, Jingo sets out to do this very thing in hopes of receiving a sizable reward from the emperor, who thinks that by consuming the Forest Spirit he will attain immortality. Or again, Lady Eboshi and her people indiscriminately slash and burn the forest because they have their eyes set on one thing: the iron beneath the trees, which, for them, translates into cold, hard cash. Both Jingo and Eboshi see nature only as a means to their own ends, and the means to their ends entail the abuse of technology (bullets to kill innocent animals), a corrupt industry (profiting through destroying the innocent) and an uncritical consumer (the emperor and those who buy Eboshi’s iron do not care where their products came from).

By stressing the intrinsic value of all things and harmony amongst them, Miyazaki is saying, and Christians (especially the Lewises and Tolkiens of the world) will largely agree, that, first, people need to re-mythologize the world; for instance, we need to remember that trees grow because of spiritual causes: for Miyazaki, Totoro’s Shintō norito or prayer helps the acorn to sprout and for Christians, the Word of God causes all nature not only to be, but to continue to be. Second, by re-mythologizing the world, we will then be in a better position to see the value of all things, which in turn will prevent us, as consumers, from buying products that are the results of injustice—we will not be like Chihiro’s parents in Spirited Away, who consume the food of the gods, which is a metaphor for abusing the natural world, and are thus turned into pigs. And finally, by refusing to be shallow consumers, we will help put a stop to corrupt industry and thus the abuse of technology. If we can do all these things, we might conclude as Ashitaka does at the end of Princess Mononoke, “This time, we’ll build a better town”—this is to say, a town, a product of technology, not built on injustice and dissonance.

“He Has a Thorn in His Side”

According to 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul claims that after seeing a vision of heaven, he was given “a thorn in [his] flesh” to keep him from becoming arrogant. Whatever this thorn may have been, we may assume that it was good insofar as it prevented a greater evil (physical pain is not as bad as sin); however, we can also be sure that the pain caused by this thorn was not good in and of itself. And something like this may be true for Miyazaki as well.

In the DVD commentary of Spirited Away, Miyazaki explains how just before he started work on Spirited Away he became particularly aware of water pollution after helping clean a polluted river near his home.13 Subsequently, water pollution became a major theme in Spirited Away (as it would again in Ponyo), though once again, Miyazaki’s Shintō environmental philosophy has a much wider understanding of water pollution than most other philosophies.

For instance, near the beginning of the story, a “stink spirit” comes to the spirit-bathhouse where Chihiro, the heroine, is working. The spirit, we are told, “has a thorn in his side,” which is meant both literally and figuratively: the spirit has something sticking out of it and this thing definitely seems to be a burden. Being the good natured (and good-for-nature) girl that she is, Chihiro bathes the stink spirit, who, after multiple washes, is freed from the “ton of junk” that had been collected on him; subsequently, the spirit is revealed to be a river spirit who—recalling that in Shintō, spirit and matter are interconnected—was polluted by human carelessness. Grateful, the river spirit gives Chihiro some magical medicine that will, as we find out later, heal whoever eats it.

What is significant here, however, is the Shintō environmental philosophy functioning behind all this, namely, the idea of purification. In Shintō, as I mentioned before, purification, particularly purification by water, is strongly emphasized. The idea here is that Chihiro, a young girl who understands and loves the harmony between spirits and matter, sees the spirit behind the stink and purifies him with water, which literally bathes the spirit but which metaphorically shows humans treating the kami-matter of the natural world with respect, the result of which is happiness for the river and happiness for Chihiro. Salvation, water and ecology are thus all linked.

Moreover, the gift that the river spirit gave Chihiro allows her to heal her dying friend Haku, who is also significant to the theme of water pollution. Haku had forgotten his true name and hence had forgotten who he really was. However, with some support from Chihiro (the true Shintō philosopher) Haku remembers that he is the spirit of the Kohaku River, and he had forgotten his name because the river no longer exists. The river, we learn, no longer exists because of human development, thus showing how disregard for nature, in these cases, water, leads to misery, though not only for nature but also for humans since without Haku’s help, Chihiro would never have been able to save her parents and return to her own world.

Consequently, helping to clean local rivers may be painful like a thorn in the flesh, but this pain ought to motivate people—Shintōists and Christians alike—to take action to prevent greater pain, which, in this case, is worldwide water pollution and massive ecological disharmony.

“The Atmosphere Is Saturated with Anger”

The final environmental issue or inter-related issues I want to address in regard to Miyazaki’s Shintō philosophy is climate change and air pollution. This inter-related issue is addressed in many of Miyazaki’s works, though three in particular are worth analyzing.

In Totoro, the wife and mother of the hero and heroines of the story is sent to a hospital in the countryside to recover from tuberculosis. Although it is not explicitly stated, we may reasonably infer that, among other things, the air quality in the countryside is much better (in general and for one’s health) than that of the city. Moreover, to show that climate change and air pollution are central to the story, we are immediately shown that the family, who has moved to be near the wife and mother, have moved to a house situated under a giant camphor tree, which, importantly has a shimenawa or sacred rope tied around it, indicating that it is a kami, and indeed one with the god of the forest, Totoro. The significance of this for a Shintōistic reading of climate change cannot be ignored. Trees play a crucial role in purifying the air: they take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen, not only allowing all life to breathe, but also preventing the buildup of extreme heat in our atmosphere. By explicitly showing the giant camphor tree to be a kami, Miyazaki once again links spiritual harmony and physical health since by respecting the tree-god, the family enjoys not only physical health in terms of breathable air and mild climate but also spiritual peace.

Ponyo is another Miyazaki story which has to do with air pollution, though in it, this theme is deeply linked with water pollution. In a nutshell, the fish-sorcerer Fujimoto complains about “the human’s air and water [being] so filthy,” and so tries to develop a magical device that will bring “the time of filthy humans [to an] end.” Fujimoto’s plot, however, fails because the heroine, Ponyo, accidentally unleashes and destroys the half-finished device. The story ends with Fujimoto realizing, through the mutual love of Ponyo (a fish) and Sōsuke (a human), that the solution to human pollution—here we may say air pollution—is not necessarily the destruction of all humans, but rather proper sympathy between the whole of nature: if Sōsuke can love Ponyo and vice versa, then there is hope that together they can reverse harmful climate trends.

Yet more than both Totoro and PonyoNausicaä (both the manga, written by Miyazaki, and the film, directed by Miyazaki) is the most complete expression of Miyazaki’s views on air pollution and climate change. The film begins with a narration, in many ways similar to the one in Princess Mononoke: “A thousand years has passed since the collapse of industrial civilization. A cloud of toxins spread, threatening the survival of the human race.” Our first reaction to this intro is to feel sorry for the humans; however, as the story progresses we start to see that civilization was destroyed by the humans themselves, for they were the ones who created the Giant Warriors, who sparked the “Seven Days of Fire,” which incinerated most of the Earth and its forests. It is not hard to see the Giant Warriors as metaphors for atomic bombs; nevertheless, this detail is not that important. What is important is that the Giant Warriors, and behind them, the humans, had polluted most of the planet: “Who,” Nausicaä rhetorically asks, “could have polluted the entire Earth?”

As a result of the pollution caused during the Seven Days of Fire, the Earth as a whole sought to heal itself, in much the same manner as James Lovelock’s Gaia, which depicts the Earth as an intelligent, self-regulating organism.14 The Earth causes forests to grow and the trees in the forest absorb the harmful toxins present in the soil and atmosphere. The Earth then generates massive bugs and, most especially, poisonous toxins, to prevent humans from destroying the trees. Thus, although the toxins and insects appear to be hostile to humans, they are, in fact, protecting not only nature but also humans from themselves: the Earth, as a massive Shintō kami, seeks internal harmony, though as I mentioned before, sometimes harmony requires the destruction of detrimental components.

Nausicaä, the heroine of the story, represents Miyazaki’s Shintō environmental philosophy. Although she does not revile technology, she has learned to adapt her technology to nature: she flies a “mehve” or glider, which represents flowing or gliding with nature (“she flies,” we are told, “as the wind does”), and her village, the Valley of the Wind, is powered by environmentally-friendly windmills. Nausicaä is not afraid of nature (hence, she confidently explores the Toxic Jungle) and endeavours to bring about reconciliation among the giant bugs, the jungle and the humans, who, in addition to their war against nature, also war amongst themselves. Moreover, when one of the Giant Warriors is unearthed and reconditioned in order to destroy the Toxic Jungle, “The entire atmosphere is saturated with anger,” which, of course, is a potent expression of Miyazaki’s belief that the very atmosphere itself is not a valueless thing that humans can use as they like, but is kami-filled and thus capable of anger toward antagonistic elements.

Christians will probably not agree with some of these more extreme views, such as the monistic tendency to see the Earth as a single organism or Miyazaki’s “not entirely joking” preference for mass genocide if there were no other way to stop human pollution.15 However, Miyazaki’s ability to visualize the pain of the Earth’s atmosphere, to depict the interdependence of all things, and to hint at the way the world could be through paradisiacal microcosmic villages is often more compelling than even the best arguments of eco-theologians and philosophers.

“A Call to a Nativist Past”?

Jonathan Anderson has argued that “theologically oriented criticism” of film is typically of three sorts: criticism of films dealing with “universal human concerns,” criticism of films by an artist of a specific faith or philosophy, and criticism of films with overt references to particular religious symbols.16 While not necessarily entailed to all, or any, of these, it is certainly true that most theologically or philosophically oriented criticism of film tends to give preference to dialogue over atmosphere, and abstracted, analytic engagement (or disengagement as it were) over a kind of quiet listening and learning from the complex event—the interplay of music, graphics, editing, mise-en-scène, and so on—that constitutes the film. C. S. Lewis, who I have quoted frequently throughout, believes that stories, particularly fantasy stories—which certainly fit Miyazaki’s narratives—possess

the power to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not only concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experiences. … They can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’ can add to it.17

And Paul Tillich, Michael Bird and Robert Johnson, among others, would further remind us of the value of reversing the hermeneutic flow of theology-to-art to art-to-theology, allowing film viewers, in our case, to experience as much as to understand a film.18 My point here is that inherent in any examination and critique of film—especially in one that seeks to unveil an implicit philosophy—lies the risk of oversimplifying or even distorting a film and perhaps missing, as Lewis says, some valuable “experience.” Since arguably what makes Miyazaki films so great are precisely their portrayal of the spiritual, the liminal and the awesome (in the old sense of the word), this paper would not be adequate if it were not to acknowledge its limits and limited concern. Indeed, this paper should be read neither as a judgement on Miyazaki’s films as such nor as a critique of Miyazaki’s ability as a filmmaker. Similar to the way that “Burtonesque” both meaningfully describes Tim Burton’s films of social outcasts, upside-down worlds, and gothic hues, and yet forever remains an analytic description of a romantic, ethereal aesthetic, so, too, does “Miyazakiesque” both describe charming countrysides, nefarious technology and pure-hearted child protagonists, and yet does not do full justice to Miyazaki’s frequent preference for emotional imagery over clear plot. My intention in this paper, to be short, has not been to “murder” Miyazaki’s films by “dissecting” them—as Wordsworth might charge me—but to render a service by uncovering and critiquing Miyazaki’s Shintō environmental philosophy as best I can. Thus, I would lament—as a fan of Miyazaki—if the reader were to neglect Miyazaki’s greatest gift to the world, including to Christians, which is his ability—through charming land- and city-scapes, and nostalgia for a (real or imagined) harmonious past—to stir the human heart with wonder and longing. Perhaps—and perhaps only after this—might we look to Miyazaki’s work not so much as “a call to a nativist [Shintō] past,”19 as Hiroshi Yamanaka would have it, but a call for all human beings—Shintōists, Christians and others—to find common ground in order to promote the common good, which certainly includes a healthy environment.

Cite this article
Adam Barkman, ““The Earth Speaks to Us All”: A Critical Appreciation of Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s Shintō Environmental Philosophy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:4 , 323–335


  1. Stephen King, “Hayao Miyazaki: Sensei of Animation,” Time, April 10, 2005.
  2. The editor has asked me to tell you how I came to write The Lion, the Witch and the Ward- robe. I will try, but you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books. This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a story is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it. … One thing I am sure of. All seven of my Narnia books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just a picture. The Lion all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” C. S. Lewis, “It All Began with a Picture,” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 529.
  3. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious work and Catholic work; un- consciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 172 [December 2, 1953].
  4. Hayao Miyazaki, “Miyazaki Talks About Howl’s Moving Castle,” The Hayao Miyazaki Web (accessed on May 5, 2014). Also consider what he said about Princess Mononoke: “We are not trying to solve global problems with this film.” Hayao Miyazaki, “A Statement by Hayao Miyazaki,” in “Princess Mononoke” (appendix) in Ghibli, ed. Studio Ghibli (Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 2000), 64.
  5. Thomas Kasulis, Shinto: The Way Home (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004), 16.
  6. Brian Bocking, “Japanese Religions,” in Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment, ed. Richard C. Foltz (NP: Wadsworth, 2008), 247-251.
  7. For example, “The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself; its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is … to hold communion with other living beings.” J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 116.
  8. “Land ethic” is the term that Aldo Leopold used to describe the ethic that sees people belonging to, rather than owning, the biotic community. Of course, Shintō maintained this idea long before Leopold gave it a name. See Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 237.
  9. Purification is one of the three pillars of Shintō philosophy. Indeed, save perhaps for the Abrahamic religions, no religion stresses purification from death and disease more than Shintō. See The Kojiki 1.9.
  10. In the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, Lewis argues that perhaps in the same way that Christ is in the Father, and man is in Christ, so might the family pet be in the man, and in this way attain a certain immortality. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in C. S. Lewis: Selected Books [Long Edition] (London: HarperCollins, 1999), 467-556.
  11. Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Anime: Mecha-Noids and Ai-Super-Bots (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 190-191.
  12. Hayao Miyazaki, “Fushigi no Machi no Chihiro: Kono Eiga no Nerai,” in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi o Yomu 40 no Me (Tokyo: Kinema Junpō Sha, 2001), 18-19.
  13. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, subtitled DVD (Disney, 2002).
  14. James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).3
  15. Hayao Miyazaki, quoted in “The Animated Life” by Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, January 10, 2005 com/online/content/?050117on_onlineonly01 (accessed on June 5, 2015).
  16. Jonathan Anderson, “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism,” Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils, ed. Thomas M. Crisp, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 53-79.

  17. C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego: Harcourt, 1994), 35-38.
  18. See Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich, ed. F. Forrester Church (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 103; Michael Bird, “Film as Hierophany,” in Religion in Film, eds. John May and Michael Bird (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 3-22; Robert Johnson, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
  19. Hiroshi Yamanaka, “The Utopian ‘Power to Live’: The Significance of the Miyazaki Phenomenon,” in Japanese Visual Culture, ed. Mark MacWilliams (London: M. E. Sharpe, 2008), 237-255. See also Patrick Drazen, Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation (Berkeley: Stone Bridge, 2003), 191: “Platitudes about green space may make one feel good, but at some point someone will have to actually try to preserve the Earth. The planet cannot live on pop culture alone. But at least anime can be part of the road map reminding us of where we want to go.”

Adam Barkman

Redeemer University College
Dr. Adam Barkman is Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College.