The world we live in, is a terrible place.
Our planet is dying and our resources are dwindling, even as we to quote Greta Thunberg, remain wrapped up in “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” We elect fascists into power, plunging our world into political chaos. Despite all our pretensions to refinement, we still judge, rape and kill on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, religion and class and attempt to justify it on the basis of science or some other pretext. Despite our promises to remain inclusive and diverse, women, people of color, indigenous folk, the queer community and other minorities, still live in constant fear, often denied their basic rights, their narratives either appropriated or invisibilized. Children are starving to death and our Eco-systems are being poisoned, while our world-leaders bicker and make preparations for war.
At such a point, it becomes relevant to ask, what can art do for this world, if it can, at all, do anything? What kind of stories are we telling ourselves, to reflect and perhaps change our reality? Can we even tell stories that are both positive and truthful, to bring about social change? If yes, how? The answer, one can suppose, lies in constantly questioning, challenging and re-defining the boundaries of the normative. We need to rethink the way we tell our stories, the way we define our relationships- both with other humans and with the environment- and the way we imagine the future of our civilization. As Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli reminds us in his films, we must see “with eyes unclouded by hate.”
In one of Miyazaki’s early films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the protagonist Nausicaa, vehemently pleads with the warring factions to rethink their actions. Of all the people, she alone ventures into the toxic jungle, with the hope of understanding it and aims to restore what human violence and carelessness, had destroyed. The scene near the finale, where the soldiers use a wounded baby Ohm as bait, for their own selfish ends, where Nausicaa attempts to sacrifice herself to save it, is harrowing to watch, because it reminds us of just how complicit we are in the destruction of the world.
Princess Mononoke (1997) in a similar vein, highlights the need to cooperate and co-exist. San, a child of the forest who is raised by wolves, feels immense hatred for the humans which is entirely justified. Yet she chooses to trust Ashitaka, who had thwarted her attempt to kill Lady Eboshi, the ruler of the mining colony that was responsible for the continuous destruction of the forest, and together they manage to restore balance.
Yet contrary to Hollywood expectations, the two characters San and Ashitaka, unlikely heroes in their own way, do not fall in love. What is unique, is the way the film doesn’t impose the inherent superiority of nature over humanity, but emphasizes on the need for inter-dependence between the two, and thus San with her wild and unabashed femininity and Ashitaka, who embodies a form of emotional masculinity as opposed to toxic masculinity sustained by patriarchy, represent the need for trust, vulnerability and cooperation, that must not remain exclusive to heterosexual unions, but be the foundation of all our relationships.
Women in Miyazaki’s films as the director himself states are “self-sufficient” and do not need a “savior.” Rather what they need is a “friend” or a “supporter” and the relationship between the two sexes need not culminate in a romance but instead “mutually inspire each other to live.” It forces the audience to rethink the illusions of romance and true love, as packaged and embellished by western heteronormativity and capitalism and encourages them to conceive of all human relationships as being equally vital, founded on love and with the capacity to heal and for positive social transformation.
Spirited Away (2001) is too structured on similar lines, even as it offers a scathing critique of human greed and consumer culture, particularly in the scene where a young child watches her parents eat unattended food and get turned into pigs, even as she is left alone, alienated and in danger. Only Yesterday (1991) is a lyrical and meditative journey into a woman’s childhood, and highlights how a non-judgmental approach to our own personal past as well as our historical past, can offer wisdom on how to live the present in a more meaningful way. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) tells a wholesome story of two sisters discovering benevolent spirits, without prioritizing on traditional dramatic conflict, reminding us that films, like real-life do not need to be sustained by a series of struggles or unresolved tension.
And Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is almost a wish-fulfillment fantasy where a young witch leaves her home for the city and settles into a comfortable job that she secures with her own talents. And instead of dismissing it on the grounds of the film being a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it is important to acknowledge that the idyllic and safe world that the film portrays is the future that feminists are trying all over the world to actualize, and unless we imagine such positive narratives, we cannot replace the toxic truths circulated by patriarchy and other power structures.
In fact, the films remind us that it is our capacity to imagine that is our greatest weapon. Positive narratives, despite being justifiably criticized on grounds of being idealistic, unrealistic or escapist, are nevertheless important, as it provides a map on which we can imagine a better future and rewrite our own histories, to include the voices of the silenced and the oppressed. Positive stories provide a way out of the existential despair that characterizes modernity, not by promising a happy ending, but by teaching us that it is the only thing worth doing, our only chance at sustaining life.
As noted fantasy writer Neil Gaiman once said, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” The children Sheeta and Pazu in Castle in the Sky (1986) know this instinctively. They have witnessed untold horrors, yet unlike the adults who are usually evil or comfortably passive, they aren’t paralyzed to act. They aren’t afraid to risk and they aren’t afraid to sacrifice. The unwavering trust that characterizes their bond and their power of imagination, together galvanizes them into action.
It is what we precisely need to save the world.