The film industry has a difficult time defending its environmental stance, particularly if the production has an intended message of sustainability. Like any other business there is a common goal – to make money. Balancing this with a supposed green message leaves ample opportunity for criticism. The production of a single film is costly to the environment, so how can films be justified? Flying in the face of such considerations are some notable figureheads whose respective films leave a vital environmental message. But does the watching world glean anything from them?
The highly revered Studio Ghibli has championed environmental practices for decades. The Japanese animation giants are lead by their brilliant director Hayao Miyazaki, who has spearheaded the environmental cause and made it a major theme in all his features. For those unaware of the name, their films are hardly minor events; 2008’s Ponyo broke all box-office records in Japan, and 2001’s Spirited Away won an Oscar. The company’s most recent effort Arrietty (2010 – a take on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers) deals with the environmental impact of humans once again. The diminutive protagonists must battle with the tumultuous human world, a fight for survival with existential qualities. In other works the studio’s version of unchecked capitalism rears up in contention to the natural world and the result is chaos. Spirited Away and 1997’s seminal Princess Mononoke focus on the greed of antagonists; their lust for personal fortune is at the cost of the environment. In the former, giant Spirits are infected with vast rubbish heaps and must cleanse themselves in traditional Japanese bath houses, whilst in the latter an industrial iron works threatens to overrun the local environment. The animal kingdom unifies to bring about a cessation of these destructive events.
These films, whilst providing the whimsical escapism Star Wars or any other Hollywood blockbuster manages with aplomb, carry a very clear message of environmentalism already being practiced (in certain respects) in their native Japan. Their efforts went largely unnoticed in the West for decades, with cinemas in Europe and beyond only running the genre extensively after the success of Spirited Away ten years ago. Other efforts followed and their popularity increased, with Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and then Ponyo gaining critical and commercial acclaim. Both overtly suggest the need to acquire a common goal and embrace what is most important to us – the well-being of the planet. But herein lies the problem with the intended good of Studio Ghibli’s films. This message, whilst appropriate, has done little for the environment. It begs the questions; are the actual generators of the ‘threat’ to the climate – industry, politicians – watching anyway? And are not the hugely energy consuming costs of producing the film alone a vast, and consequently a hypocritical, drain on the Earth’s resources? So how can films justify an eco friendly demand from the watching world?
One answer lies in the most influential environmentalism film – Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Released in 2006 to commercial and critical acclaim (it won two Oscars) the documentary is Gore’s presentation of the statistics he feels provide the destructive truth of climate change. Its impact was such that it prompted an immediate response from America’s right-wing climate change deniers, who were keen to deride the film’s message. Despite their efforts it has been so persuasive it is now used in political agendas, and is an increasingly common education tool in schools across America. Although it was fortuitously timed with the public’s awareness of environmental issues, Gore had championed environmental causes for decades. His prescience, and perseverance, has paid off and he has since been hailed as something of a folk hero. Others have attempted to follow in his steps. Leaping onto the bandwagon were a variety of international stars; Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary The 11th Hour was ultimately released to DVD on recycled cardboard, although it lacked the acclaim and drive of Gore’s effort. 2011’s The Cove has just won a Best Documentary Oscar and details mercury pollution in the Earth’s oceans along with over fishing. Similar efforts are bound to follow.
These films are still up against immense opposition, the naysayers determined to ridicule a most pressing cause, and it is this denial that vindicates their existence. The industry can be a commercial voice of reason, a form of widespread distribution for the environmental cause. Although Al Gore can rest on his laurels, and his publishers can enjoy the $48 million profit garnered, a generation of school children will grow up with a very clear message in mind. Studio Ghibli and their ilk are a challenge to the uninitiated and an example of how raising awareness through film can make a mighty difference.
Alex Morris works for Office Kitten in Manchester where he writes, researches and blogs about business issues.