Earth Week Excerpts: From “Of Robots and River Spirits: Environmentalism in Western and Eastern Animation,” by Paolo Jasa

April 25, 2012

The movie opens with several shots of deep space as the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from the stage musical Hello, Dolly! The camera then pans over a computer-generated version of Earth. At this angle, it’s obvious that it’s the very same world we know and love, but it’s tinged in a sickly green. Suddenly, the camera zooms in rapidly, past an atmosphere littered with decaying, abandoned satellites and other space debris and through clouds also tinged with green. The camera slows, flying through what looks like an eerie mountainous landscape. Mountains not made of rock, but of garbage. Garbage piled higher than the desolate buildings around it, outnumbering and dwarfing the skyscrapers that stand alongside them. It is here that the audience is introduced to the almost silent, eponymous protagonist of the film, whose sole purpose is to continually process garbage into small cubes and stack them into the ever-growing monoliths of waste seen in the beginning of the film. The protagonist is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class, colloquially known in the movie’s universe as WALL-E. To some, the subtle yet undeniable environmental message of the movie feels a little heavy-handed. However, the message is nothing new to the medium; countless other films, animated or otherwise, have handled similar environmental themes with varying degrees of success. Take for example, the opening of the film Kaze no Tani no Naushika, or, as localized in the West, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: after the opening credits that show her world’s violent history, the young, female protagonist Nausicaä touches down on the sands next to the Toxic Jungle to collect specimens of various flora and fauna. However, the poisonous spores that soon fill the sky, rendering her unable to leave the forest until they clear, stop her progress. The environmental message here is incredibly subtle, and is not readily apparent until much, much later in the film.

The two animated films carry similar thematic messages and thematic elements, and they even cater to a similar audience, yet their exact messages are different. In fact, the environmental messages that the films made by Disney, a studio based in the United States, make are markedly different from those made by Studio Ghibli, a studio based in the East; distinct ideological mores are at play here that are exemplified by either company, but may extend to several others in the medium. I believe that the inherent difference in the portrayal of environmental messages is based on the cultural biases of either company’s home countries, as seen in the animated works of Disney, and its subsidiary Pixar, versus Studio Ghibli, specifically those of its star auteur Hayao Miyazaki. . . .

Like WALL-E, the West believes that only by giving a helping hand can one save the environment. However, like Nausicaä, . . . the East believe[s] that a sense of harmony and balance with nature must be achieved and maintained in order to preserve it.

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