Environmentalism in Manga and Anime

In Western news stories, Japan and the environment usually only come up together in one form: Japan is ruining the environment. Japan is hunting endangered whales; Japan is overfishing depleted fishing stocks; Japan has walled up the last of its wild rivers; Japan is building up all its wild areas.

All these accusations are, unfortunately, true to some large degree. Even in anime, all too often what we see are images that point to a continuation of the current trend: metal and concrete mega-cities, like those in the anime Dominion, Akira, Gunnm, or in Bubblegum Crisis, or any of the other hard science-fiction worlds. Not a pleasant picture --- and in fact, in those "cyberpunk"-ish stories, the world is not a pleasant place to be in, in general.

But, running through other works is a thread of a different hue. Listen closely, and a different voice is heard --- the voice of dissent, the voice protesting the loss of green spaces and clean waters and open air.

Where has this voice come from? I'm not quite qualified to say for sure, but I can guess. Some of it is obvious: people who are tired of seeing tranquil forests razed, or seeing their favorite beach turned into a concrete nightmare (such as in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan); people who read the news and hear of oil spills and extinctions and pollution problems. But another aspect is surely the traditional sense of Taoism that runs deep in Japanese culture. Taoism was the primary influence for ancient Asian paintings depicting humans and their habitations as mere tiny decorations on sweeping mountain vistas. Shintoism, along with traditional Chinese beliefs, helped add the concept of spirits and deities residing in trees and rocks and even household items. The sum of these philosophis suggests that humans should work within nature --- and this belief can be seen reflected in even some of today's modern manga.

Whatever the reason, though, the environmentalist call comes up loud and clear in many places.

Perhaps the best example is in the works of the father of manga himself, Tezuka Osamu. Some are familiar with his Jungle Taitei series ("Kimba the White Lion"). But Tezuka's fondness for animals and wildlife extends beyond the children's story. If we look at Black Jack (of Black Jack), we see a maverick, unlicensed, brilliant surgeon who charges ridiculous fees for his work. What does the normally cold-hearted Black Jack use the vast sums of money for? The bulk of it goes toward buying small, pristine islands, to save them from human encroachment and development. Black Jack also regularly finds himself giving free surgery to wild animals of all sorts --- and oddly enough, the animals usually find a way to pay him back.

Doraemon is, as many know, one of the classics in children's manga. Kids who have grown up with Doraemon have grown up with many lectures hidden in the stories: be kind to others, don't be greedy, don't be a megalomaniac, and, yes, don't destroy the environment. In as early as 1974 appeared one example, the episode "Wolf Family." Nobita and Doraemon seek to help hunters who want to find (and kill) the fabled (and recently extinct) Japanese wolf, based on a report that the wolves had been seen nearby. Doraemon transforms Nobita into a wolf to help in the search. The wolves find Nobita and accept him as family, and Nobita learns of their difficult life, of how they lived peacefully before the humans came and began exterminating them. Upon returning to human form, Nobita changes his mind; he no longer wants to hunt the wolves, and would rather protect them. The series Doraemon continued on with other occasional stories of this type, ranging from an effort to save a zoo elephant sentenced to death by the WWII Japanese military, to an effort to relocate a number of extinct animals to a safe haven, to a later story in which Nobita and Doraemon help save a tree, who in turn helps save the earth.

The 70's and 80's had other environmental supporters, too. Almost as if in answer to accusations about Japanese callousness toward dolphins and whales, I can even point to a 1980 or 1981 episode of the TV anime series Gold Lightan, in which our heroes communicate with a dolphin with whom they become friends. Dolphins, at least to that anime writer, were not a fisherman's foe, to be simply slaughtered en masse. And here's an interesting side note: The 80's far-future SF manga Chojin Locke at one point ventures into the topic of weaning people away from automation and computers. While not quite environmentalist, this story seems almost to represent a backlash against technology --- yes, even in technophile, mecha-crazy Japan.

More recent manga have continued the legacy of environmental sympathy and awareness. Seed, which often highlighted different aspects of ecology, ran in Business Jump. Ushio To Tora touched on the theme in a story in which a family of magical weasels seeks revenge for the destruction of their forest home; 2 of them wind up becoming friends of our hero. Even in Ghost Sweeper Mikami, our money-grubbing, ghost-busting heroine Mikami finds herself siding with the plight of her target: a bakeneko (monster/demon cat) who is trying to raise a young child away from people --- but whose last wild home is being threatened by development. Mikami herself seems fond of the clean water and natural beauty of the untouched forest, and understands the irony that she had been hired to help destroy it.

Even without an explicit environmentalist theme, the subtle Eastern respect for Nature (as mentioned earlier) continues to make its presence known in modern manga. In Love, a series about a girl tennis player pretending to be a boy, our heroine hones her instincts by hunting, fishing, swimming, and generally immersing herself in pristine wilderness. The boy golfer in Dandoh!! hearkens to the wind and the trees in order to "read" the best course for the golf ball (sometimes he sees the wind personified as dragons). And many other manga, from Ao no Fuuin to Inuyasha, have scenes that take place in the open, undeveloped country, among trees and fields and streams.

Video games have also taken up the rallying cry of saving the Earth from exploitation, generally on a far grander scale. Of Nintendo or Playstation RPG games that have made it to the US, saving the world is often a matter of preserving the life-forces of the planet. Wild ARMS spoke of the draining of the protective energies of the world (framed heavily in a shamanistic, spiritual context). Final Fantasy VII follows a similar vein, condemning the greed of a company that is sucking the very life out of the planet. And why is it, one wonders, that the bad guys' headquarters are so often drawn as dreary, high-tech fortresses, while our good guys' hometowns are so often charming communities nestled in a gorgeous natural countryside? And why is it so often that remnants of ancient, fallen, highly advanced civilizations hide the key to destroying the world? These games, from Final Fantasy III(VI) to The Secret of Mana to even Illusion of Gaia, seem to subtly imply that the world might just be better off without mighty modern technology.

Perhaps the famed Miyazaki movies represent the most potent flagship of environmentalism. "Nausicaa" is among the most obvious, given that Nausicaa starts off fighting to protect the trees and creatures that are helping to restore her planet to health --- and which later save her life. But other Miyazaki films like "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" and "Mononoke Hime" ("Princess Mononke"/"Princess Ghost") also delve into environmental aspects. Perhaps one of the most impressive and symbolic scenes occurs toward the end of "Laputa," when the floating magic castle-city of Laputa, comprised of proud old stonework and ancient, deadly weapons technology, crumbles and falls away from its true core, a majestic, giant, living tree that is home to many smaller creatures. The tree floats off, free, alive, and unhindered by its previous burden of human greed.

So, where are we?

The news tells us that Japan is hardly perfect as a nation: it is, like many nations, short-sighted in its use of resources. But it is the same story elsewhere. Overdevelopment, toxic waste dumping, fertilizer run-off, exhaust emissions, over-fishing, poaching, smuggling of exotic animals --- all of these remain a problem to some degree or another all over the world. Necessary activities, like development, hunting, logging, and farming, have too often been driven more by greed than by wisdom. Japan is not unique in its blindness.

And just as with the rest of the world, Japan has its dissenters, those arguing for more care to be taken, for more thought and planning to go into our mad rush into the future. Perhaps one of the more quietly profound Doraemon stories tells of a search for insects to sing at night. Nobita's parents reminisce of evenings filled with the glorious chirping and singing of different kinds of insects. Nobita wishes he too could experience that beautiful chorus. But he and his friends live in a modern world where most of those insects have been killed off; hence, they must resort to an artificial futuristic device that can make any bug sound pretty. And they find only one bug they can find enough of to recreate the experience of previous generations ... cockroaches.

Yet, perhaps the true irony of this story lies in the fact that it is about 20 years old at this point, and there are probably even fewer singing insects now than there were in Tokyo when the story was written. Surely not all is as bad as some doomsayers have predicted, but one wonders: if we have lost so much from yesterday to today, what will be gone tomorrow? And this question must be asked not just in Japan, but throughout the rest of the world.

Where do I personally stand? It's obvious I tend to lean to the environmentalist side. I will not say development, hunting, fishing, farming (etc.) are evil. Few things are evil in and of themselves; it is the abuse of things that is evil. Many times we rush to exploit a resource without considering what the effects could be, or how best to manage the resource for long-term, not just short-term, gain.

Almost 2 decades ago, I was shocked to read a Japanese grade-school text about ecology: it showed me it was one area where the U.S. was far ahead of Japan. The text presented a shallower view of ecology to a higher grade level of children, compared to the equivalent education in a good U.S. school system. I think I learned more, earlier, in the U.S. about ecology, than I would have in Japan (ironically, at about this time I had realized the opposite was true for math studies).

I don't know what is going on today, but surely the recent surge in environment-relevant video games, manga, and anime are a sign that more and more people are starting to notice what's happening --- and are trying to wake up others, before the situation becomes much worse.

The optimists say that the Earth can recover from just about any damage we do it, given enough time. But for the generations of people that miss out in the meantime on having clean, healthy, inspiring surroundings, the loss may be incalculable.

Text copyright 1997, 2000 by Eri Izawa


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