Studio Ghibli’s films have inspired some introspection so far, but upon further inspection there is a very serious issue that preoccupies the studio’s middle cannon: that is fascism, and the portrayal of fascism in Studio Ghibli’s films. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), Porco Rosso (1992), Pom Poko (1994), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) all feature elements of fascism, some more pronounced than others.
Specifically, ultra-nationalism and fascism cross contaminate between one another, or the presence of one is usually symptomatic of the prominence of the other. The depiction of fascism is not outright concerning. After all, film creators are right to meditate on heavy subjects, or depict evil for the sake of discussion. The Great Dictator, memorable for Charlie Chaplin’s performance as a Hitler stand-in was filmed prior to the US entering WW2. It depicts fascism’s grandeur and energy, but also its folly and devastating consequences. Charlie Chaplin’s impassioned appeal against the wrongs of fascism concludes the film.
Studio Ghibli’s use of fascism is married with the pastoral in Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle. In these instances, while the fictional analogue to European powers in Howl’s Moving Castle are cascading violence and destruction across the countryside, allusions to the early 20th century rise of nationalism, which precipitated WWI, are dealt with ambiguously. Colors are warm and bright, not somber and grey. Brotherly affinity to the conflict is espoused much in the same way depictions of allied forces are in WWII films, where shell shocked heroes return from war and rouse support from their fellow citizens to aid them. While Hayao Miyazaki films do not voice outright support of fascism and nationalism, the conflicts are depicted as shared experiences that involve all citizens. Though, depicted in the aftermath of WWI, Porco Rosso does not condemn the consolidation of Italy, or Italy’s burgeoning national identity. Rather Porco, the films anthropomorphic antagonist practices non-involvement by being his own man and abstains from being tied to the nation in favor of being a bounty hunter. WWII is mentioned at the film’s conclusion in passing, but nothing suggests that Italy was an aggressor in the conflict. Fascism is present and fills the scenes with the excitement of unification, but it isn’t memorialized either positively or negatively. It’s present, it happened, and the protagonists follow through with the hero’s journey.
Where fascism is not directly referenced in the studio’s work, the opposition between Eastern and Western civilization is implied, namely in Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke. Westernization is commonly associated with technology, or industrialization specifically. When the US forced Japan to begin trading goods, it was the beginning of the end for traditional Japanese traditions that gave way to European existentialism and individualism. The use of technology to desecrate the natural landscape of Japan is discussed in each film, but focuses on the transition from Shinto Animism to concrete and steel Atheism. Though passively addressed in Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke features an apostate monk and an industrialist literally hunting and murdering ancient forest spirits in attempt to mine iron, the building block of the industrial revolution. Again, like Howl’s Moving Castle and Porco Rosso, the citizens are complicit in but absolved of their involvement. The tanuki kill humans in the process of retaking their land and feel little, if no remorse. Likewise, the civilians of Irontown are equally complicit, and are not vilified for their involvement in destroying the forest. Lady Eboshi, the town’s de facto warlord and arms manufacturer, is seemingly absolved of her crimes in one scene where the film’s protagonist, Ashitaka, discovers a leper colony within Irontown and learns that Eboshi had taken them in, recognizing their ailment as a disease and not a curse from the divine. Still, Irontown’s role in destroying the forest is changing the cultural landscape of Japan (which the film is purportedly set in the Muromachi period). Furthermore, Western elements of technology and gun-powder supplant traditional forms of combat developed by the samurai. The overall message of the film then is clear: Western intervention into the Japanese cultural milieu is encouraging spiritual apostasy and not good for the people of Japan who have been seduced by foreign aid and wealth.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky are two films produced in the ’80s preoccupied with the arms race, which at the time dominated pop-culture in both Eastern and Western civilization. Both films condemn weapons of mass destruction and typify them as the heralds to worldwide devastation. This of course has direct implications with the history of Japan, being the first and only nation to have suffered a tactical nuclear strike, and so it is hardly surprising that the films advocate disarmament (Castle in the Sky) should the world suffer the consequences (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). Unlike the previous films, these films do decry the effects of fascism, though with a twist: fascism is resorted to to sustain the nation’s way of life and is the product of a nation’s self-preservation. This is the case in Nausicaa, wherein the Tolmekian Empire, a rapidly expanding nation resurrects giant, mobile bio-weapons to preserve their way of life against a rapidly encroaching poisonous, fungal growth. The Tolmekians wreak havoc and only precipitate more violence dispatching enraged insects to demolish their national rivals. Clearly a very advanced foreign force that attacks and devastates other kingdoms with weapons of mass destruction is meant to characterize, and criticize, the United States’ development of the Nuclear bomb and it’s use on Japan’s native soil. This analogy breaks down though because of Japan’s unprovoked first strike against the US, it’s expansively aggressive island hopping campaign against US and lesser island powers, and crimes against humanity concerning the Chinese and American POWs. The US’s development and use of the atomic bomb was both defensive and offensive in nature, a means to end the war and subvert any fanaticism that could be encouraged by the emperor. Castle in the Sky, continues this line and depicts a war-like, Caucasian aggressor seeking after the massive power of a floating air fortress called Laputa. Though the soldier’s attire invokes the imagery of German WWI soldiers (or even Soviet Russians), the Springfield rifles and early 20th century attire is characteristic of British and American agents.
In each film, then, the biggest problem is the use of fascism as imagery to support visual and philosophical conceptualization, given Japan’s involvement in WWII and dabbling in ultra-nationalism. There is no doubt that the films are preoccupied with villains that arise from fascist origins and that the protagonists are tied to traditionalism or individualism, and this allows them to rise above the nationalistic fervor that their own people give in to. But fascism in the Studio Ghibli films is the product of outside usurpers. They are representative of Western intervention, which shoulders the blame of the development of nationalism upon outside powers that have invaded a country. In the face of cultural invasion, the people of the land band together and fight back, gathering together as a unified national identity. This leads to nationalized industry and produces an increasingly militaristic cultural hegemony bent on pushing out the foreign influence. Therefore, it’s both European trade companies and the United States who are at fault for instigating Japan’s nationalism. And though Studio Ghibli’s films reflect the cultural awareness of Japan’s role in WWII as aggressors in league with Hitler, there is still lingering absolution in the role the common people played in the conflicts. Those supporting fascism are seen in neutral to positive light. Likewise, Western influence is demonized, reflecting Japan’s yearning to return to its idyllic, feudal, isolationist nature prior to encountering both Portuguese (in the 16th century) and US (19th century) trade ships. This ultimately leaves the Studio Ghibli films in an awkward position, decrying and defending in unison their involvement in fascism.
Though national tensions have eased, and perhaps even healed, since post-war occupation of Japan, there is clearly still lingering resentment towards Western Culture as seen in the Studio Ghibli canon. This only proves, however, the lasting impact cultural history has on artistic expression, and the inevitable complications which arise from war and fear. Regardless, it is troubling that fascism is depicted with such levity and without accountability to those affected by it.
I can really only speak to Miyazaki’s output, and while I don’t think all of your examples are fool proof I do find this to be a prevalent thing with Japanese film. It’s such an ingrained cultural background that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around. (Although that’s the case with a host of American movies too (coughGravitycough.) It’s like Frankenstein vs. Barugon, which casually features some Nazis in the prologue like it’s no big thing. Hero is another classically challenging example. Luckily for Ghibli I find a lot of their films lump Westerization in with a general fear of modernization, which is at least a little more relatable. Anyways, this was a good read Stuart, thanks!
I find it a little out that you consider this prevalent nationalism of in Ghibli films to be “troubling”, only because I find them to be rather positive movies overall. I think your analysis is excellent in regards to how these movies fit within the cultural landscape of Japan following WWII, but I find it hard to see the negative implications of this message in the same way that you do. It doesn’t seem to fit well within the context of individual movies. I guess that’s always the trouble when you’re analyzing a selection of films by a single studio. I don’t see these movies in the same light at all.
Still, this is a very interesting read and I appreciate a more serious look at the thematic connections between these movies which I love.
You seem to be (re)watching a lot of the Ghibli films and I hope you continue with a few more write-ups as I enjoyed them so far. I particularly liked that you first one focused on Pom Poko, one of my favourites and the one Ghibli movie I find is nearly always overlooked. It was a treat.