In every Studio Ghibli film runs an undercurrent of socialist ideology. It is not the most perfect utterance of such ideology, nor the most complete. But it is aesthetically beautiful, emotionally engaging and extremely popular. Where it is most compelling (and most obvious) are in films concerned with the environment — Princess Mononoke (2001) and Pom Poko (1994) in particular.
Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko are for older fans of Ghibli, bleaker than the much beloved Totoro or Howl’s Moving Castle (though not nearly as bleak as Grave of the Fireflies, which is the source of much trauma). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata respectively, they are remarkable for the way in which they establish environmentalism and workers rights as inextricably linked, or at the very least able to be understood in tandem with one another.
This is most poignantly represented in the sympathetic treatment of worker characters in Mononoke. As the human and natural worlds come into conflict, we are encouraged to view the human characters of a mining settlement (Irontown) with empathy, even as their actions cause further harm to the nearby forest, and the gods and animals that dwell within.
Our understanding reflects that of Ashitaka’s, an Emishi prince seeking a cure within the forest for his cursed arm. The earliest scenes of the film, where Ashitaka witnesses the massacre of a village as he tracks the origin of his curse to Irontown, informs our knowledge of the world that Irontown is embedded in. Their actions are easily understood in the context of this world, where their material conditions leave them little choice than to mine iron and produce weapons for the ominous #girlboss figure of Lady Eboshi.
Lady Eboshi is revered by her workers, particularly the women, and this too is understandable. The women of irontown, liberated by Eboshi from their positions as sex slaves, find comfort and safety within the walls of irontown, even as they work extreme hours of manual labour for their new master. So too do the lepers that construct weapons for the lady, and the men that occupy positions within her armed guard. Though their work frequently places them at risk of physical and moral harm, the film does not assign fault to them on an individual level, rather seeing them as victims of the same forces of militarist violence (which can easily be analogised to colonial capitalism even if unintended) that drives the desecration of sacred land.
Eboshi herself is a strangely sympathetic figure, seemingly motivated by both a desire for wealth and power and, at times, out of genuine concern for the workers of Irontown. Though this seems a contradiction of the socialist ethos of the film, it actually furthers it — rather than directing fault at the individual, we are encouraged to view the oppressive system they act within as the ultimate enemy.
Interestingly, not all human characters are afforded the same clemency, specifically the soldiers and mercenaries that enact violence upon villagers and the forest. These characters act as agents of the same system as Eboshi, and though they aren’t exactly sympathetic characters, none assume the role of a singular antagonist either. Jiko Bo, who seeks to decapitate the spirit of the forest and sell its head to the emperor, is perhaps the closest thing to an antagonist within Princess Mononoke — but even he is acting to serve a greater, institutional evil.
Pom Poko is similar in this respect, with no real singular antagonist within the narrative of the film. It too is about conflict between the human and natural worlds, as a development outside Tokyo clears masses of the forest that a number of shapeshifting tanuki (raccoon dogs) call home. In Pom Poko, it is very clear that the ultimate enemy is the New Tama development, not the humans that live and work there.
It’s the more explicitly political of the two films, and easier to understand as such, being set in the late 1990’s. As human settlement further encroaches on their habitat, the tanuki stage a resistance effort not unlike those performed by environmental activists in real life. Using their shape-shifting powers, they carry out a series of operations to halt the development, culminating in a grand haunting of the nearby human settlement that is ultimately unsuccessful.
Throughout the film, individual humans are portrayed as foolish and ignorant, rather than as malicious. Too distracted by the realities of modern life, they have forgotten the significance of the environment around them, with much of the tanuki’s strategy relying on reminding them of its importance (and also scaring them away). Though the tanuki take great delight in terrorising the humans working and living in the development through their pranks and hauntings, they express great remorse when three humans are killed in an early action and focus their efforts on non-violence thereafter.
The Tanuki certainly resent the humans for the effects of their actions on their lives, but again, never in an individual sense — they seem to understand that there is a greater force at play. By benefit of Pom Poko being set in its contemporary context, it’s much more obvious to audiences that this greater force is in fact capitalism, and that the Tanuki are conducting something of an anti-capitalist uprising.
Pom Poko is one of the more radical releases from Ghibli, as well as (in this writer’s humble opinion) one of the most entertaining. Its anti-capitalist undertones are aided by its humour, as well as the fact that it is, for want of a better phrase, extremely wacky. The anti-capitalism of Pom Poko isn’t even an undertone, per se — the politics of the film are on display for all to engage with, forming a central part of the narrative.
This is not to say that Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke are politically perfect — far from it. Both are infected with the hint of liberalism that plagues all of Ghibli, as well as by Hayao Miyazaki’s own pacifist politics. They are also limited in some respects by their pessimistic outlook. Though both films end on something of a positive note — the forest regrows, the tanuki survive — there is so much compromise involved that it hardly feels that way at all. Surely, in a world where demons and gods live among mankind, we can imagine that things won’t always be terrible?
Really, Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke needn’t be politically perfect. As far as media go, they remain an important tool in imparting some modicum of socialist values to those that watch them, which is good enough for me.