From Big Eyes to Big Trees: How the yasashii in anime heralds the way to a better tomorrow
October 26, 2004
Japan is the only country to have experienced a nuclear attack, giving it insight as to what a post-nuclear apocalyptic world would be. It is no wonder then that in their pop culture the issue of what could precipitate another apocalypse has been continually addressed and readdressed. One possible forerunner to such a catastrophe is Mankind’s over-reliance on the technology it has created, the idea of technology getting dangerously out of control. While Japan is one of the foremost producers of technological innovations and derives much global success from this endeavor, there is still tremendous doubt within its culture as to the appropriateness of turning over one’s life to such machinery (Napier, 2002). One cultural text in which this dialectical tension plays out is anime, and in particular, a subset of anime that looks at the relationship between Nature and technology, and what should be Mankind’s relationship to both.
Lamarre (2002) theorizes that limited animation, the common aesthetic for anime, has led narratives to explore the line between man and machine: because if anything can be made to either appear to be alive or move in such a “jittery” way as to appear to be not truly alive, not truly human, but more machine, then how are Man and Machine different? The limited budget of many, especially earlier, anime animators led to “shortcuts” that became aesthetically known as the “anime-ic” style: less real, fluid animation is used to show more action, resulting in a somewhat haltering movement of people and animals, which essentially reduces them to the appearance of automatons. Animators, instead of making slight adjustments to some object, frame by frame, to give the appearance of life to an inanimate object, this same animated object can be given a less fluid and hence less realistic appearance of life by skipping frames or sliding the object across the background.
Lamarre (2004) argues that director Miyazaki Hayao’s work is a challenge to this aesthetic, as he employs a “weightlessness” animation style to explore what should be Man’s relationship to technology and to Nature. Miyazaki, according to Lamarre, feels humans should only use technology at a minimum. Lamarre analyzes Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa) as an example of how this “weightlessness” aesthetic, a more organic and smooth animation style, lends itself to the overall theme of the film.
While Lamarre’s analysis of weightlessness adds an interesting dimension to understanding the film’s narrative, it cannot be easily applied to other films whose narratives examine this dialectical tension, or even to another Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime). The film Legend of Windaria Chronicle (Windaria Senki Densetsu) depicts a post-apocalyptic world and what must be Nature’s role in it. The television series Blue Seed deals with the struggle between Nature and technology, which leads to an apocalyptic showdown that only one person can avert. However, an element that does run through all of these examples is the idea that a yasashii, who embodies the preferred relationship of Man to both Nature and technology, will be the hero needed to avert the natural apocalypse. According to Drazin (2003), “Yasashii people are ‘warm, without a hint of evil and malice, pure in their hearts’…” (p. 118), someone who is gentle, meek and kindly. Such a gentle spirit, when connected to Nature narratively and visually, heralds the path others must take for a better tomorrow.
In Windaria, there are three lands. The land of Isa is a white, clean city on a lake that controls all the water supply for the darker, arid land of Paro. To visually heighten their difference, Isa is constantly bathed in sunlight with white seagulls riding the updrafts, while Paro is always in shadows (the English translation calls it the Shadowlands), with black crows massing like dark clouds over the city. In between these kingdoms is the Valley, a green agrarian land where people pray to a tremendous tree. The backgrounds of the Valley are at times drawn with lines and details so crisp that individual leaves are apparent, drawing the focus away from the humans in the foreground.
But the main image of the Valley is the Tree of Life, which is first introduced to the audience by a still shot where the camera pans up until the canopy spills out of the frame, giving a great sense of its immensity before it is even seen in comparison to real humans. The Tree serves as the central image in the film to which humans are supposed to be connected, as the Valley folk are seen meeting under it when they discuss the side they should take in the war between Isa and Paro. The character who is most connected to the tree should be the yasashii to whom the fate of the world is resigned to.
This character should be embodied in Izu, the male lead who attempts to prevent the war between Isa and Paro because it could destroy the Valley. However, Izu is corrupted by Paro to flood Isa to stop the war. This end does not come until after the two sides battle in the Valley, killing Malin, Izu’s wife. Both sides use technology in their weaponry, only the Isa soldiers have crossbows and balloon airships, while the Paro soldiers have guns and tanks. It is inevitable then that Paro would be victorious, perhaps even without Izu destroying Isa. Metaphorically speaking, technological progress defeated the more Nature-minded kingdom of Isa. However, Nature has not been defeated, because even after the battle, the Tree and the land itself has remained relatively unharmed, as Izu notes after his return.
Izu is not the yasashii, until he returns home and meets with the ghost of the true yasashii, Malin. Malin was shown as the one actually praying for protection from the Tree. She has a constant companion in a little animal, a cross of a squirrel and a cat. She only leaves the Valley once, to attend the market in Isa. After saying goodbye to Izu, her body disappears into a red spirit in the shape of a bird that flies away to “Enlightenment.” Izu gives chase, but Nature prevents him from following by tripping him and causing him to fall into a pond before he is stopped by a cliff overlooking the lake. Alone, Izu returns to the Tree and climbs it, as his thoughts reveal his new goal in life, to see Windaria be reborn, as this is the only path to Enlightenment. As he cries, prostrate on a great branch of the Tree, he is seen from above, as light shines through the canopy, dancing around him. This shot then dissolves into a picture of the Tree from a distance, which pulls back further to show it fully in frame and drenched in sunlight. With these two images, Izu is finally one with the tree. At the end, only after losing his love and the story’s yasashii, Izu finally understands the connection to Nature that is necessary to bring about a peaceful and fruitful future.
Windaria contains more of what Lamarre (2002) calls limited animation. There are many still shots employed, where movement is obtained by moving the camera, such as the pans and pull backs to examine the Tree, and rarely does any extensive action or human movement occur. In this film, the dialectical tension between Nature and technological progress is not nearly as prevalent or imposing as Lamarre would say Miyazaki attempts; there is no apparent attempt by any auteur to show the dialectical theme through any animation technique that is not typical to the rest of the art form.
Blue Seed moves slightly away from this technique, where a showdown between the spirits of Nature and the technology of Mankind threatens to destroy modern Japan. This television series employs more action, more fluid movements, but still has a number of still shots manipulated as discussed previously, such as showing the plants overrunning the major Japanese cities, or the throngs of Japanese celebrating at the end. Again, there is no auteur to speak through the art, but like Windaria, there is a yasashii who is connected to Nature.
Blue Seed tells the story of Momiji and the team of Japanese assigned to protect her and Japan from the Aragami, a race of sentient plant monsters who are lead by Momiji’s twin sister, Kaede, to bring Lord Susanoo back to Japan, ushering in a new era where plants will rule the land. Kaede wants to restore Japan to a vegetation state because she hates how modern Japanese have forgotten how to live in peace with Nature. She believes turning Japan green again, going back to a cleaner world, would bring hope to a land in despair. Momiji and her friends attempt to stop the Aragami with the latest technology, but in the end their technology fails, and it is up to Momiji to restore a level of spirituality to the Japanese that causes them to be happy in the face of fear, to accept the plants instead of rejecting them; that is, Momiji’s ultimate job was to have the Japanese remember the necessity to live with Nature, lest Nature’s fury destroy them. In the end, the Aragami and Lord Susanoo are defeated, and all that is left is a large cherry tree left in downtown Tokyo, blossoming with hope for a renewed relationship between Man and Nature.
In this story, the main character and the yasashii are one and the same. While Momiji is not a terribly active character, rarely aggressive and often reliant on her male protector, Kusanagi, she is a very gentle soul who is willing to sacrifice her life, and actually does, to ensure that Japan is saved. Her connection to Nature is not as strong as Malin’s, but Momiji is from a long line of Kushinada, who throughout time are responsible for keeping the balance of Man and Nature. She also has a mitama, the blue seed, which allows her to sense when an Aragami is nearby; she is one of few that can touch an active mitama and not be turned into an Aragami. Thus she is given circuitous connections to Nature, which is added to during the final episodes where she performs what appears to be a Shinto rite to stop Kaede and Lord Susanoo. It is the song she sings, heard in the hearts of the Japanese, that stops the deadly spread of the mitama. Momiji’s connection is then not only to Nature, but to the hearts of Japan as well. She embodies the true spirit of Japan, and when this spirit, the wrong path with Nature is abandoned, and hope for a better tomorrow is born. Again, as with Windaria, a better tomorrow can only be achieved when Nature and Man are together in peace.
In Princess Mononoke, a similar theme drives the plot; however, this film, being a Miyazaki, displays more of the fluid animation style Lamarre (2002) discussed. But it is not the weightlessness that connects his animation style to the narrative in Mononoke: it is actually how grounded the main characters are visually to Nature. In the film, a mining town is threatening to destroy the forest of the shishigami, the Great Forest Spirit, a god who is responsible for the life and death of the great forest of Japan. The animal gods wage a war with the humans, and this war results in one boar god, Naga, being injured by an iron bullet and turning into a demon. As a demon, he rampages through the countryside, turning any vegetation he touches into a pile of decay. In this form he attacks Prince Ashitaka’s quiet farming hamlet, ultimately giving Ashitaka a curse that will kill him. But while Naga’s passage destroys the woods, the audience’s first view of Ashitaka is on his red elk mount as he moves swiftly through the woods. Moreso, Ashitaka is hidden behind foliage as bright sunlight sparkles through to him. Thus, our introduction to Ashitaka is that he is one with the forest, almost to the point of visually blending with it, being one with Nature.
This view of Ashitaka remains with him throughout the movie. His mount, Nakul, is a red elk who is loyal to the point of not leaving his master after suffering an injury, and who appears to have almost a psychic link with Ashitaka, a link which extends to the wolves as he spends time with them. He is unafraid and trusting of the kodama, the tree spirits, who he politely asks to help him through the forest. He understands, when first coming across the still, dark green, almost ethereal marsh of the shishigami, how magical it is without anyone telling him.
Ashitaka is depicted physically and intuitively connected to Nature, at least the peaceful aspect usually associated with plants. San, on the other hand, is connected to the vengeful, animalistic side of Nature. She is first seen wearing wolf fur as a cloak, a wolf’s muzzle mask, and clutching the fur of the wolf she rides; in all appearances, she is a wolf, to the point where when Ashitaka first sees her, she is sucking out blood from a wound her “mother,” the wolf god Moro, has sustained in battle. San does not converse with the kodama, she talks to animals. Her moves are sudden, lightning-fast, like any predator striking at its prey, approaching the weightlessness of Castle but more tied to the physical laws of that world. She even chews food to feed to Ashitaka after he sustains a mortal wound, like a mother bird.
Although one is connected to plants, and the other animals, they are in a sense both yasashii. It may appear that Ashitaka should be the only candidate, as he is depicted as the gentlest of the pair, constantly wondering why humans and the forest can’t just live together. He embodies the idea of love over hate, which he tries to teach to San and the humans of the mining town. As for San, it is true her path throughout the movie is dictated by hate. However, where Ashitaka does not want to fight but kills in self-defense, San wants to kill but never succeeds to do so. San is never shown actually succeeding in expressing her anger, and as her exposure to Ashitaka continues, she tempers her ways, to the point where Ashitaka prevents her from killing the mistress of the mining town, Lady Eboshi, who has killed Moro.
Calling them both the yasashii heroes of the film makes perfect sense considering they both prevent the apocalypse. After Lady Eboshi shoots off the head of the shishigami, the forest spirit turns into an amorphous dark spirit of death, whose touch causes the forest to decay, much like Naga’s touch had done. The deadly spirit is set loose upon the land; without its head, it will mindlessly destroy all life. Ashitaka and San together return its head, not only averting apocalypse but restoring the ravaged landscape to a verdant green, as the dying spirit’s body washes away the death it and the humans had wrought.
By their working together, the two yasashii have restored hope to the land, as one miner remarks “I didn’t know the Forest Spirit made the flowers grow.” Where once Man lived in ignorance of the truth of Nature, and thus in opposition, they now have a chance for a better tomorrow, which Ashitaka plans to show them as he vows to work with the miners to rebuild their town. However, San cannot live with the humans, and returns to her forest wilderness, to which Ashitaka vows to visit from time to time. In the end, the future must be to live in harmony with a more peaceful Nature, as embodied within Ashitaka, while not forgetting that Nature has its wild side that must be respected, as embodied with San.
Overall, it is the courage and sacrifice of the yasashii in the face of the ultimate natural disaster that shows to the rest of us how Man’s relationship to both Nature and Technology must be to ensure this type of apocalypse does not occur. In Legend of Windaria Chronicle, the hero learns how to reach such enlightenment only after losing everything he cherished, everything except for Nature, which is shown just as strong and vibrant as it was before the war, the only true constant thing with which to place one’s faith. In Blue Seed, the heroine sacrifices herself to reinvigorate a modern Japan to remember its roots, literally and metaphorically, to restore Nature to its true self as they themselves learn what should be their relationship with it. In Princess Mononoke, the hero and heroine, each embodying an aspect of Nature, work together to save Mankind from its own follies, restoring the land to its verdant wealth and promising to show the humans what is the right way to live with the forest and the animals.
While Lamarre’s (2002) analysis of the specific animation technique employed in Castle in the Sky, in relation to its plot, cannot be truly applied to the other anime mentioned in this essay, his thesis on how the technique of limited animation led to the rise of certain narratives does has some validity in examining how all the mentioned anime deal with a similar theme. However, this theme could be influenced just as much by the history of Japan having gone through a nuclear attack, or when their agrarian society met the industrial Western world. This dialectical tension did not originate because of the animation style chosen in anime, but the technique does aid the critical examination of the society creating and sustaining this visual culture. Also, it provides an interesting point of comparison between Japanese and American animation, where the only Hollywood animation to deal with this issue have been Ferngully and Captain Planet and the Planeteers, both of which rely heavily on conventional Disney-esque animation styles and hero versus villain plots. By comparison, the anime seem more mature, less preachy, and perhaps this is the most important aspect derived from limited animation. If less money is spent on the animation, then more needs to be spent on the story to disguise this failing. In this way, Lamarre’s discussion has a solid connection to the nature of the discussed anime, for it is within their stories that the true depths of the dialectical tension can be explored.
Drazen, P. (2003). Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.
Lamarre, T. (2002). From animation to anime: drawing movements and moving drawings. Japan Forum, 14 (2), p. 329-367.
Miyazaki, H. (1997). Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime). Studio Ghibli.
Napier, S. (2001). Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York, NY: Palgrave.
Napier, S. (2002). When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, reality and terminal identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. Science Fiction Studies, 29, p. 418-435.
Takada, Y. (1994). Blue Seed. TV Tokyo.
Yuyama, K. & Inomata, M. (1986). Legend of Windaria Chronicle (Windaria Senki Densetsu). Kaname Pro.