Disney and Hayao Miyazaki Children’s Films: A Comparison

With the recent birthday of legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, I felt inspired to write about him and his influence as an artist whose children anime films call for mindful awareness to ethical and environmental issues caused by human society. Although Western filmmakers do call human moral conduct into question through their narratives, they tend to structure their central conflict in a way that downplays the broader issue at hand, and allow the evil character or act to be recognized and extinguished fairly easily, usually through means of violence. In his anime films, Miyazaki encourages young viewers to sympathize with both sides of morality, forcing them to come to difficult ethical decisions on their own, hoping to make a strong point about a greater societal problem. This article aims to highlight some meaningful moments in both Disney and Miyazaki films in order to illustrate these proposed differences.

Western filmmakers rarely dare to problematize the interplay between nature and humanity to the same degree that Miyazaki does. He purposefully “supernaturalizes” nature in order to create unfamiliar, alternate visual experiences for his viewers, promoting his idea that although nature is wild, it is something that can be cultivated and tamed. In his anime films, he demonstrates that the natural world coexists with civilization and vice versa – something that humans often fail to acknowledge and appreciate.

In Miyazaki films, protagonist human characters are humble and open-minded, and do not approach nature exclusively on their terms, but rather strive to reach a point of mutual understanding and peace. On the other hand, Western children’s films tend to portray conflict between a primitive, exteriorized natural world and a more civilized, interior human world. For example, in Disney’s Pocahontas, the Native American princess protagonist does have woodland creature friends, but only ones whose real-life counterparts would be scavenging for food and serve as prey to other animals. Because these animals are considered harmless in the real world, this friendship between nature and human is not pushing any boundaries, as it is clear throughout the film that Pocahontas belongs to the human world. In Disney’s The Jungle Book, the young jungle boy Mowgli has much fiercer animal companions, such as a panther and a bear, but they too believe he belongs to the human world. Additionally, his main conflict is not with people, who he unites with by the end of the film, but rather with wild predators such as the tiger or snake. Although characters like Pocahontas and Mowgli are marginalized for being integrated with the animal world, they are ultimately understood to belong to human society throughout their narrative.

Another difference between Western and Miyazaki films is the structure of their conflict. Miyazaki usually creates a villain who represents a greater societal problem that the hero or heroes are fighting against. His heroes usually have a more difficult time extinguishing the evil act, and they usually end up rescuing the villain rather than slaying him. Disney films such as Peter Pan and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves both call for a revaluation of power and morality like Miyazaki’s films, but they allow evil to be found and destroyed more conveniently. A villain’s careless cruelty usually leads to their demise, and the fall of the evil character brings immediate relief and resolve. Disney’s structure lends the idea that a threat can be easily localized and torn out by the roots. Contrarily, Miyazaki’s structure serves to remind viewers that ridding the world of one immoral figure, or even an army of them, only perpetuates violence and does not ultimately stop that evil from rising again or continuing to exist in a broader context.

For example, in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, gunmaker Lady Eboshi creates lethal weapons in order to wipeout the forest and the wolves that live there in order to develop the land and become rich. Although Lady Eboshi is a single antagonist, she serves as a symptom of society rather than its sole manifestation, and represents the greater issue of environmental destruction caused by corporate culture. In one of the most dramatic scenes of Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, young viewers learn that even some of the most terrifying of creatures have been injured by the human world. A “Stink God” enters a bathhouse looking to be cleansed, and the main protagonist Chihiro must treat the spirit with reverence. The spirit turns out to be a River God who had been contaminated up by human pollution. This scene serves as not only as an example of Miyazaki’s heroes defying taboos by approaching even the most unpleasant entities with acceptance, but also as another example of human moral conduct causing harm to the natural world.

Contrarily, Disney films tend to downplay their broader context. Keeping with the example of Pocahontas, the greater problem of the American government’s eradication of native peoples is distracted by catchy musical numbers and talking animals. But Miyazaki does not grant his viewers this solace, and rather encourages them to feel sympathy towards antagonistic characters, allowing them to reason with both sides of morality. He also suggests that there are gray areas in moral conduct, and allows mistakes to be made by even the most kind-hearted, passionate characters, further forcing young viewers to come to tough ethical decisions on their own.

Both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away depict how human progress can bring tragedy and danger to the natural world and to the young people who must grow up and live with those undesired consequences. But at the same time, his films demonstrate the need for human faith, courage, and drive to go against the status quo and defy odds all odds.



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