It’s a shame, really, that the mere mention of “environmentalist themes” is generally guaranteed to elicit groans, sighs and eye-rolls from many a movie buff. You’d expect such messages would be difficult to rail against. Surely, no feeling human being would actually desire the antithesis--movies that somehow promote deforestation, pollution and the various scaly heads of anti-conservationism.
So the problem, most times, is the delivery. That’s what turns moviegoers off--not the message, per se.
Granted, it’s real tough to get nuanced about complicated issues when you’re trying to tell an entertaining story in an economic runtime. Because of that, environmentalist messages can run condescendingly obvious, at best, and hypocritically misanthropic, at worst. These allegories can exude an off-putting loathing for mankind, depicting industrialists almost uniformly as cackling super-villains from Captain Planet’s rogue's gallery--ogres who go out of their way to pollute for simple gratification, not reasonable profit motives. They can get so anxious about eliciting sympathy for wild creatures that they conveniently overlook the uglier sides of nature. You know, like how that cute ‘n cuddly cartoon fox kind-of has to be a predator, in reality.
And this is all put forth while the vast amounts of paper, plastic and assorted toxic chemicals needed to produce film are, of course, overlooked.
Ghibli’s newest film, The Secret World of Arrietty, is getting a wide release this week. Even though it wouldn’t at first seem like an environmentalist movie--it’s about humans’ coexistence with other humans (albeit little ones)--the flick actually continues the animation studio’s style of addressing these aforementioned themes with maturity and even keel. By no coincidence, that coincides with the tendency of studio founder and figurehead, Hayao Miyazaki, to rarely ever feature outright villains in his movies.
This has been the case since Ghibli’s first (semi-unofficial) effort, 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, a post-Apocalyptic epic set in an irradiated landscape long since melted by the catastrophic "Seven Days of Fire." The crux of the plot involves one feudalistic kingdom provoking the wrath of mutant giants from the poisoned “Sea of Corruption” into annihilating another kingdom.
Not only is the antagonist kingdom not wholly reprehensible for their actions, not only is real peace eventually brokered between all the parties at the end (even the guilty ones,) but the flick also pulls off the startling feet of actually finding beauty in a nuclear wasteland. Salvation is found when the titular princess Nausicaä reaches out to these mutant giants; and they aren't cute and cuddly critters, but monstrous, colossal mites with pinchers and tentacles. Her respect for them isn't borne of trite obsequiousness, but a very sober understanding of their danger. They'll respect you if you respect them, sure--but if you don't, they're liable to wipe you off the face of this cursed Earth.
Princess Mononoke handles another feudal conflict (one that's actually in Japan’s feudal era, this time) with a philosophy reflective of its saintly protagonist, Prince Ahistaka. That is, point a knife at your own chest if you’re going to point a knife in accusation at any one else’s.
The plot follows Ashitaka as he sets out into the country to find the humans who made an iron bullet that wounded a great boar god and turned it into a demon whose rage-fueled curse subsequently infected our prince. Of the numerous layers of gray morality that manifest during his quest, the most relevant comes when he finds his culprit in the Lady Eboshi, an antagonist embodying industry in both its best and worst hues.
Yes, Eboshi forged the bullet, and yes, she’s tearing down the forest, but the bloodthirsty animal gods she battles against aren't totally pitiable, either. They have an adopted human girl in their pack, the princess San, who's vowed to assassinate Eboshi in the same terms one would normally hear from a mob enforcer in a gangland turf war. What's more, Eboshi is actually an commendable philanthropist, giving dignity, employment and sanctuary to reformed prostitutes and ostracized lepers she's rescued for her business. And Ashitaka himself experiences ambivalence in his own curse--a pollution of the body that grants him spectacular powers in battle even as it kills him slowly.
All of this complexity adds up to a multi-sided conflict of environmental issues where no participants are without fault, nor without merit. It's a cooler-headed, and vastly preferable, alternative to the glut of hysterical, overly-simplified binary conflicts we typically find in this sub-genre.
Finally, we come to the Secret World of Arrietty, which can rather easily be argued as another environmentalist fantasy in the Ghibli tradition. If the adoration of nature demonstrated in nearly every cel weren't enough, then the fact the tiny borrowers may as well be little talking mice would certainly push it squarely underneath this particular umbrella. The danger of house cats and crows isn't ignored, of course, and between these creatures and the humans (or "beings" as they're called,) cooperation must again be found and respect must again be established. Man’s presence does threaten the borrower’s lifestyle, but it's not out of his malice, but simply out of his naturally-insatiable curiosity. The housekeeper antagonist can't even really be faulted for her brusque treatment of the borrowers--she's honestly only a discussion or two away from amending her behavior.
More importantly, the Secret World of Arrietty doesn't gets its environmentalist message across by forcing one point-of-view on the audience as the previously-criticized examples do. Rather, like the best Ghibli features, it guides the viewer through multiple perspectives of a conflict and, by doing so, encourages them to see things from angles other than their own.
That's a much more mature, and effective, way to argue a point.