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Hayao Miyazaki is an Eco-warrior, but why not an animal liberationist?

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Kill the humans, save the forest.

It’s become a bit of a mantra for animal activists and eco-warriors, this jolting quote from Hayao Miyazaki’s classic movie, Princess Mononoke. For more than half a decade, Hayao Miyazaki has been producing films with strong messages about the environment, and oftentimes about the rights of the oppressed, for over a century in Japan. He’s been called the “Japanese Walt Disney,” but his films have provided ethical messages decades before Disney even gave a second thought to it. Princess Mononoke serves as a perfect example as to how he feels about environmental issues: when a growing village threatens the livelihood of a great and expansive ecosystem   in feudal Japan, animals and forest spirits come together at an attempt of totally eradicating all those who seek to harm nature.

His films contain an unapologetic (ha!) tone about how the environment is treated, and often shows us animals with human intelligence and the capability of organizing alongside, and against, humans. Miyazaki’s Japan shows little divide between the human word, and the natural world, and uses spirits and adventure to link the two. My only question is, how can he care so very much about the treatment of the natural world, yet still show shot after shot, and endless closeups, of animal bodies being eaten? It’s been rumored that during some shoots, in order to draw animal flesh properly, he would have meat brought into Studio Ghibli (where his films are produced) itself in order to properly depict it’s texture. He is a proud meat-eater, as are his characters.

In Spirited Away, the protagonist’s parents are turned into pigs and set up on the chopping block, despite the fact that there are plenty of animals within the universe of the film who are incredibly intelligent to the point of speaking with humans, so just like I wrote in my musing about Harry Potter’s world, there are some great inconsistencies throughout his films that have brought on lots of disappointment for myself as a viewer.

What I’ve learned is that Westerners have portrayed urban Japan perhaps a bit (a lot) unfairly when it comes to cuisine. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, one Japanese intern explained,  “Though Japan had a vegetable-oriented eating style in the past, food-westernization completely changed the landscape. Now meat is found everywhere and many people believe that having meat, fish and dairy products is good for their health. Therefore, it can be challenging to be a vegetarian in Japan. In a society where animal product consumption is strongly encouraged, people tend to be prejudiced against a vegetarian way of eating.” While tofu is an option in many eateries, meat tends to be served alongside it, as it isn’t necessarily viewed as a replacement. 

Why do Westerners assumes that Japan is a vegan utopia? Well, our own perceptions about Buddhism and Shintoism certainly don’t help. With Buddhism in particular, it;s assumed that there is only one way to follow it, and it’s a very singular religion. In reality, Buddhism is practiced in a variation of ways depending on where one lives geographically and how they choose to practice. Urban Dharama answers the question, “are all Buddhists vegetarians?” (vegans, in this case) quite thoroughly. I don’t agree with some writer’s assertions that there is nothing wrong with eating meat (it is morally abominable) but it does an excellent job at explaining different concepts and how they apply. For instance, there are many who believe that the act of killing the animal itself is wrong, not the consumption.

With some knowledge under my belt, I understand a bit more why veganism might not be at the forefront of Miyazaki’s films, yet Miyazaki is known as a filmmaker who defies traditional roles within his own culture, so why not the exploitation of animals? Especially with his strong focus on the environment that is critiquing a rapidly globalizing Japan, it isn’t hard to see that he breaks away often from the status quo. His film Ponyo is an excellent example of a young daughter breaking away from the rule of her father, a concept that is seen as controversial not only in Japanese culture, but the world around as we exist in a patriarchy.

Miyazaki’s films have been life changing for me, and Princess Mononoke in particular actually helped to push me in the direction of veganism. I can only hope that at this point in his career, Miyazaki continues to break away from societal norms as he always has, and examines animal rights through his magical lens.

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  • Rubens

    As a Miyazaki lover and vegan myself, this is something which I also thought about after watching his films.

    However, I found some time ago a dialogue between Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii in which Miyazaki expresses his concerns about eating fish, so I wouldn’t call him a “proud eat-meater” like you do. Here’s the excerpt of the interview in which he talks about this:

    Oshii: I think there is such a reflection. We’ve been focusing too much on humans, and animation isn’t the exception. Even when two persons are talking, probably a bird is flying over their heads, a fish is in a pond, and a dog is watching you when you look down. In my case, the eyes of animals are always on my mind.

    Miyazaki: There are many cooking programs on the television. Catch a fish, and tear it apart– very sinful. I feel like saying “stop it!” Let’s not kill, and eat the bare minimum. I’m getting to be like a monk. I guess that’s because I’m getting old. I used to watch them and think it looked tasty until recently. -laughs- But we kill too many just for fun. Is it less cruel than eating a live monkey’s brain? It’s a difference in customs, that’s all. We’d better return once more to the place where humans and earthworms are the same.

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