UN SDGS: Studio Ghibli Tells Stories with a Mind to Foster Environmentalism & Sustainability Goals

[Eleanor Duggan, Osaka YMCA International School, Japan]

Stories have powers to connect, to enlighten, to entertain, and to educate people. Storytellers play an important role in bridging the authors and the readers. Studio Ghibli’s ingenuity leads to many popular stories that are reflective of the world we are living in. Moreover, it is a marvellous storyteller and interpreter that presents stories with new perspectives. 

As a child, I watched and read many Ghibli’s movies and books because, not only did they introduce me to dynamite worlds where human and nature coexist harmoniously, but also the atypical (often short hair) girls are almost always the leading characters! As an adult, I realise those stories are more than mere magic and courageous adventures. There are elements of environmentalism, peace, and feminism that forced us to reconsider the way we live. 

March 2021 is the 10th anniversary of the 311 earthquake disaster in Japan. Many people retold the stories of that day. One should never forget that the power of nature provides life that nourishes us yet that the same power can easily destroy us if we don’t respect our mother nature. 


Kiki’s Delivery Service: Picture Book by Hayao Miyazaki (2006) / Translated by Naoko Amemiya / Japanese edition
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (1985) / Translated by Emily Balistrieri (2020) / Upper primary novel

Kiki is a witch-in-training and she must depart for a new city where she is able to provide service or assistance to complete her training. Jiji, her talking cat, is her only companion. During the pandemic, many people realised living alone can be challenging and often lonely. Therefore, depression became one of the major mental health problems (Panchal et al.) Though it didn’t point out clearly, Kiki indeed demonstrated some symptoms of a mild depression after she lost her flying power and her ability to understand Jiji. 

It is a lovely story about courage and friendship. Kiki finally overcame her depression with kind support from her caring friends. It stresses the importance of self-care, staying connected, and patience when one of our loved friends or family members is showing symptoms of depression.


Spirited Away: Picture Book by Hayao Miyazaki (2002) / Japanese edition

On their way to their new house, Chihiro and her parents stumbled into a spiritual town where both her parents were transformed into pigs due to their greed. To free her parents and to return to her old life, Chihiro started to work in a bathhouse where she met ghosts, gods, spirits, and other creatures. 

The River Spirit who wasn’t a popular guest due to his filthy look, but was once again able to present himself as a respected godly spirit after Chihiro scrubbed off all the garbage and waste for him. The River Spirit represents the rivers and our nature that are polluted by humans. Only by changing the way we treat our nature can we have our pleasant environment.


The Secret World of Arrietty: Picture Book by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2012) / Japanese edition

The Borrowers live under the floorboard and their existence must be kept secret from humans.  They rely on “borrowing” daily supplies from humans to live. Arrietty, a Borrower girl, was spotted by Shawn who became her friend. The Borrowers are in danger after they are discovered by adults and the two friends must work together to save Arrietty’s family and the Borrower’s fate. 

The Borrowers cherish, reuse, and recycle all materials, no matter how small. The items they “borrow” are usually unwanted scraps or items that humans see as trash. By contrast with the Borrowers, humans waste and throw away usable items without much care. We are in a way similar to the Borrowers who take resources from the world surrounding them. However, we do not realise these valuable natural resources may be used up one day.


Princess Mononoke: Picture Book by Hayao Miyazaki (2017) / Japanese edition: part 1, part 2)
Princess Mononoke: The First Story by Hayao Miyazaki (1980/1993) / original created by Miyazaki in 1980 while he was first conceptualizing the landmark animated film

Ashitaka who was cursed by a boar god left home in search of the cure to his curse and was caught in a fight between Princess Mononoke, the protector of the forest, and Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Iron Town who wants to drive all the gods away to make iron.  

It is a story about the relationship between humans and nature and implies how we create climate change. We selfishly destroy the natural world for our own development that leads to countless nature disasters, such as wildfires, floods, landslides, and earthquakes. Still, people often underestimate the omnipresent power of nature that we are not able to control.


Pom Poko by Isao Takahata (1994) / Japanese edition

The Raccoons of the Tama Hills are losing their homes because of the rapid development of the human world that invades their habitat. It is more and more challenging to survive without shelters and food that they decide to fight against the humans by performing the ancient art of transformation. 

It is a delightful book to read, but please do not overlook the message that we need to be more considerate of other living things that share the same planet with us. Deforestation is a serious problem that causes irreversible damage and imbalance of nature. When it comes to climate change, deforestation also “adds carbon dioxide to the air and removes the ability to absorb existing carbon dioxide” (“Deforestation and Its Effect on the Planet”).


Ponyo: A Picture Book by Hayao Miyazaki (2009) / Japanese edition

Ponyo is a curious goldfish who travels away from home under the sea and makes friends with Sosuke, a boy who found and rescued her from a glass jar. Through their adventures, we discover Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto’s past and the reason he forbids his daughter to stay with humans. Ponyo accidentally releases her father’s magical power that imbalances nature. 

The beautiful illustrations bring us into the world that connects both land and ocean. Sosuke represents the nature of part of us that wants to protect the ocean (Ponyo) and that it is important to connect with nature. Though the ocean has its ability to heal,  Fujimoto reminds us that it is also the fact that our oceans are heavily polluted by humans and life below water is in danger.


My Neighbor Totoro: Picture Book by Hayao Miyazaki (2005) / Japanese edition

The two sisters, Sasuki and Mei, moved into a new house that’s surrounded by nature. The curious girls soon discover many mysterious spirits, including the Forest Spirit, Totoro, who introduced them to a magical world only can be seen by children. 

My first encounter with Miyazaki is through Totoro. The beautiful scenes of nature remind us our Mother Earth is kind, patient, and uncomplaining. She has the ability to heal as long as we are not blinded by greed and bottomless desire. Connecting with nature helps us find the true self that sees the beauty of our world.


Howl’s Moving Castle: Picture Book by Diana Wynne Jones, adapted by Hayao Miyazaki (2005) / Japanese edition
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) / Middle grade/YA novel

Sophie Hatter is cursed to live in the body of an old lady, and her only chance to break the curse is to live with a powerful wizard, Howl, in his walking castle. Sophie encounter many interesting characters on her quest during the war. Eventually, she not only releases herself form the curse, but also saves Howl and his companion. 

It is a beautiful story that hints the possibility of the harmonious coexistence of human, technology and nature (for example, the moving castle that is half built and half alive). Furthermore, it also discusses the pointlessness of wars which make the powerless suffer the most. The only way to live in  perfect harmony is to start to care for and respect those around us, regardless they are our family and friends or our natural surroundings.


Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Vols. 1-7) by Hayao Miyazaki / Translated by David Lewis & Toren Smith (2012) / Japanese edition

Princess Nausicaa is the ruler of the Valley of the Wind, the last fortress on Earth after a global war that destroyed civilization. People in the Valley of the Wind and Princess Nausicaa must fight to make others work together to share the remaining natural resources.

It is very clear that Miyazaki tries to point out that we will not live in peace if we do not try to solve conflicts that are caused by conflict of interests, clash of culture or religions, and respect for nature. Princess Nausicaa is trying to make people understand that, but they are blinded by their own greed and selfishness. Only by working together, it is possible to live in a utopia.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

ATIKARN, T., et al. “Top 5 Ghibli Studio Movies with Its Hidden Message.” Media & Society, 23 Mar. 2020, https://mediaandsociety.org/top-5-ghibli-studio-movies-with-its-hidden-message/.

“Deforestation and Its Effect on the Planet.” Environment, 7 Feb. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/deforestation.

“How to Help a Depressed Friend: 15 Do’s and Don’ts.” Healthline, 29 May 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-help-a-depressed-friend.

Panchal, Nirmita, et al. “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.” KFF, 10 Feb. 2021, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.

Social Development for Sustainable Development | DISD. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/2030agenda-sdgs.html/.


Eleanor Duggan is a passionate children’s book reader, a storytelling enchantress, an aspiring globetrotter, a part-time book crafter, and an impassioned foodie who is a cooking disaster. She is more known as an international school teacher-librarian and the IASL Regional Director for East Asia. She is a Taiwanese with a Belgian soul and is currently enjoying her life in Osaka, Japan, with her daughter, husband, and their 2 one of a kind cats. You may find her via The Third Culture Librarian or eleanor-duggan@oyis.org


Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books that relate to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goals together.

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