By: Michelle Angkasa
There are poignant scenes in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Okja, and Jurassic Park where the human characters physically confront the consequences of their destruction of nature. Whether it is the residents of the Valley of the Wind desperately trying to save their burning forest, the parade attendees watching the graphic video of Okja’s rape, or Tim and Lex desperately hiding from the velociraptors, the characters in these films must come face to face with nature they’ve provoked to its worst.
These films expound upon themes of biocentrism, depict animal exploitation for human gain, and illustrate the devastating consequences of not establishing harmony with nature. The animal characters are portrayed as complex and just as capable of pain and love as the humans, and it is in exploring that relationship that these films really shine. From friend to foe to feared, the human characters can be differentiated based on their staunch opinion of how the animals stand compared to the humans. However, through tribulations and conflict, they are forced to rethink their preconceived notions, and emerge from the fray with more perspective and empathy for their animal counterparts.
In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the survivors of the fictional post-apocalyptic world wage war against the toxic jungle and the fearsome bug monsters that inhabit it. Life is hard, and the human communities fight amongst themselves for control of resources in the scarce, barren terrain. Nausicaä is the princess of a small village tucked away in the valley, and takes on the responsibility of protecting her townspeople and restoring peace to the land. While the leaders of other nations spend their time attempting to wake the legendary warrior of millenia past in a bid to destroy the toxic jungle, Nausicaä grows plants and studies the poisonous wasteland. Unlike the others, Nausicaä uses her strengths of diplomacy and empathy to make peace with the jungle’s inhabitants, instead of trying to burn it down.
She perfectly exemplifies biocentrism, the belief that there is inherent value in all living things, and that humans have an obligation to preserve and aid all forms of life. In the end she learns that the bugs are not enemies, and it is Nausicaä that ends up fulfilling the prophecy that Lord Yupa, her uncle, tells her about. Through her discovery of clean water after she crash lands in the toxic jungle, Nausicaä finally realizes the truth: “Humans polluted the trees of the Wasteland. They (the bugs) came to be born in order to purify this world… Taking the Earth’s poisons into their bodies, they become pure crystals, and die… the insects are protecting those trees…”. Now with a clear mission, she takes on the mantle of the warrior and is able to establish harmony with the wilderness, not through force, but through understanding and compassion.
Hayao Miyazaki, the director and mastermind behind the immensely influential animated works created by Studio Ghibli, often incorporates themes of biocentrism into his works. In films like Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Princess Mononoke, human characters interact with animals and nature, in the spirit of the animism that is prevalent in Shintoism and Japanese culture. Flora and fauna such as fish, wolves, or forests are given distinct personalities, and are able to play with the characters and the human world.
The beauty of these films is their ability to breathe life into these natural settings, and treating them with the same level of respect and attention to detail as its human characters. Studio Ghibli films often depict how humans exploit nature and animals, but withholds explicit judgement, allowing the audience to see for themselves how disregarding the sanctity of biodiversity leads to deadly outcomes. Miyazaki was careful to let his animal characters speak for themselves, thus noticeably absent is the overblown or blatantly obvious preaching that is often employed to drive home the value of biocentrism. He lets his audience follow his protagonists as they navigate the human and natural (and inherently spiritual) worlds, and allows them to find their own unique balance between the two. As with Nausicaä, they must acknowledge how both worlds depend on each other, and their personal responsibility to protect nature.
A personal connection to animals is the impetus behind Okja, a film that is, at heart, about love between a young girl’s love and her pig. We are introduced to Mija and Okja, a genetically modified super-pig, as they forage for food in the mountainous forests around their home in South Korea. However, when Okja is forcibly taken back to New York by the Mirando Corporation, a multinational meat corporation, Mija puts her life on the line to save her best friend. It is the classic tale of one person standing up against an entire industry, further complicated by issues of animal rights and abuse. Different characters, such as Lucy Mirando, the CEO of the corporation; members of the Animal Liberation Front; and even Mija’s grandfather, all attempt to impart their will on Mija, but she fearlessly struggles against all odds to rescue Okja.
Director Bong Joon Ho skillfully pulls on the viewer’s heartstrings, creating a story that seamlessly weaves together themes of activism and self sacrifice, a narrative that could compel even the most voracious meat eater to convert to vegetarianism. His message is clear: we simply cannot ignore the fact that the meat industry is stained with the blood of the slaughter of millions of innocent lives. All the human characters in the film are aware of this, but interpret it in different ways: the Mirando Corporation executives brush it off as necessary and do not sympathize with the pigs, while the Animal Liberation Front tenaciously fights to bring down the institution.
As the audience, we are also complicit. Immediately following the post-parade chaos, Nancy – Lucy’s sister – is unperturbed. Brushing off suggestions for public media control, she retorts, “No point. They’ll hate us for a bit and then they’ll forget. If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it. I guarantee early sales will be high”. Mija’s journey brings her into the centre of this conflict, but more by coincidence than a conscious decision, as her main goal is to reunite with Okja. However, her actions and unwavering tenacity are emblematic, and hold up a mirror to the viewer, and forces us to rethink our food systems and its real costs.
Jurassic Park is another film that deals with a large corporation bending nature to its will. The InGen corporation, led by the sanguine Dr. Hammond, has succeeded in breeding dinosaurs with ancient, preserved DNA, and opens an island theme park to showcase them. Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, the paleontologists he invites to inspect the dinosaurs, are both horrified and intrigued. Though awed by the vast array of prehistoric creatures, they are doubtful of Hammond’s ability to contain them. Their prediction proves true, and culminates in some of the most iconic moments in film history, as they desperately escape from the ferocious predators. As the prescient mathematician Ian Malcolm quips, “If there’s one thing that the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free… Painfully, perhaps even dangerously”.
The show-stopping ending scene of the roaring T-rex encapsulates the motto of the theme park: “When dinosaurs ruled the earth”. The human characters in the film brazenly play with (prehistoric) fire, and get more than what they bargained for. The price they pay for underestimating the raw power of nature and its ability to thrive in any condition is steep, resulting in death and destruction. Even more illuminating is the stark difference between how characters interact with dinosaurs: when treated with respect, Dr. Grant and the kids are able to peacefully watch the Brachiosaurus graze, but the traitorous Nedry is served swift justice by a Dilophosaurus.
Though the film ends on a purposefully ambiguous note on the future of the park, several moments show how people and dinosaurs can coexist in harmony. Necessary prerequisites include strict spatial boundaries and recognition of the untameable fierce nature of the dinosaurs, two things that InGen lacks. Their only motive, as the lawyer Gennaro states, is to make money. Ultimately, the punishment for their short sighted greed is catastrophic failure.
These three films are a testament to how nature can take indiscriminate vengeance for human mistreatment, as well as speak to the beauty of personal and selfless relationships with animals. Evidently, the human characters are better off when they respect the inherent value of animal characters, and will pay dearly for not doing so. Nature in these movies is portrayed as sentient, powerful, and awe inspiring. No longer relegated to a supporting role or passive background, as it often is depicted in fiction, it is a dynamic force to be reckoned with. Only human characters with the right mix of goodness and empathy can establish harmony with nature, and thus create a better world for themselves and the animals that they love.