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  • Writer's pictureRKPROST

Dominant and Emergent Discourses in Ecocinema

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hayao Miyazaki directed the 1997 Japanese anime Princess Mononoke, Steven Soderbergh directed the 2000 docudrama Erin Brockovich, and Alastair Fothergill produced the 2006 documentary Planet Earth. The texts share a unifying theme that if humans do not diminish their impact on the environment in the present, the planet will be depleted of its resources to sustain future generations. Although they engage in this overarching message about environmentalism, the films are positioned differently along the continuum of dominant and emergent discourses. The documentary and docudrama promote conservationist and environmental human rights ideas, which fall under the dominant ideology along the spectrum from a Western standpoint. However, the Japanese anime supports non-intervention and preservationist ideologies, which Westerner’s perceive as an emergent discourse. A compare and contrast of narrative structure, codes of content, and technical representation in each film justifies their placement along the ideological spectrum from a Western point of view and reveals how each text motivates the audience to make environmentally conscious decisions.

To further investigate how these films present their ideologies, one must consider the historical and national contexts of these texts. Organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Science Foundation conducted research on the environment as the country moved into the 21st century. Findings from these 2001 reports provided evidence “that human activity is driving destabilizing changes in the climate” (“Top Green Stories of the ‘00s”). Because of these statistics concerning the environment, the public jumped on the “going green” bandwagon. Prominent celebrities and politicians like Al Gore endorsed the green issue and pushed for legislation. At the 1997 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly for the Overall Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of Agenda 21, Prime Minister of Japan, Ryutaro Hashimoto, proposed an environmental cooperation initiative. Since this proposition, Japan continues “prioritizing sustainable economic growth through the development of economic and social foundations” to address environmental issues (Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

With these growing environmental concerns during the late 1990s and early 2000s, conservationism became the mainstream wing of environmentalism. Many advocates of conservationism as the dominant ideology perceive sustainable development as “practical, pragmatic and realistic, and are therefore the most effective form of environmental restoration” (Ingram 13). Moreover, environmental human rights focus on maintaining a healthy environment to ensure people are fully participating and contributing members of society. Many people place environmental concerns within the context of the economy. Therefore this dominant ideology relies on the necessity of human intervention to utilize the Earth’s resources, but simultaneously issue a balance. Although these dominant discourses exist, from a Western perspective, preservationism is an emergent discourse. A preservationist wants to keep the wilderness a spiritual place separate from being used by humans. In Japan, this discourse is dominant because the culture stresses the importance of “interconnectedness with sentient and non-sentient beings,” but it is emergent in the United States because the country is coming up to speed with environmental awareness (Mumcu and Yilmaz 1064). After considering different discourses as well as the historical and national context of these films, narrative structure aids in placing the texts along the ideological spectrum.

The formulaic hero’s journey narrative structure is a convention Princess Mononoke and Erin Brockovich share. Both narratives encourage emotional involvement and identification with the main character because the story is told from the protagonist’s point of view. Princess Mononoke is about a time period after a diseased boar rampages through Ashitaka’s village and infects him with a demonic curse. He searches for a cure and finds himself caught in the middle of an ideological conflict between Lady Aboshi, the leader of Irontown, and the forest spirits led by wolves and Princess Mononoke as the two parties struggle to settle the dispute. Erin Brockovich is about a legal clerk who comes across medical records among real estate files. She takes it upon herself to further investigate the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) company cover-up regarding poisonous water, which ultimately leads to a settlement. The focus on the individual prompts the audience to desire character growth rather than confront the environmental problem behind the inciting incident, which provoked the protagonist to embark on the hero’s journey.

Japanese animator and director of Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki, “insists that one has to understand the direction of social change to be able to create stories that capture an era with the power to amaze and inspire” (Bigelow, 71). Princess Mononoke is a narrative fantasy, which aligns with preservationist and radical anti-environmental ideas. It centers on a conflict between forest spirits who want to stop humans from interfering with nature and an iron mining company, which disregards the environment as they exploit its resources. The audience expects Ashitaka, the protagonist, to choose a side and view the story from his perspective. However, the point of view switches throughout the duration of the film allowing the audience to align with a character positioned as the mediator of the two extremes. This differs from Erin Brockovich, which is people-centric and follows a very standard narrative structure. This text argues humans only care about the environment when it directly impacts them in some way. The film parallels this idea by having the audience track Erin’s character development in relation to the water pollution legal case, rather than the intricacies of a law suit’s infrastructure.

In contrast to these films, Planet Earth is an episodic expository documentary. The documentary presents the dominant ideology to its viewers by showing places and creatures from various environmental habitats in need of conservation due to human impact. The film comprises of many separate narratives each told through the perspective of one subject. Each snapshot of a subject’s endeavors relates to the overall theme of the particular episode such as “Invasive Species,” “Deserts,” or “Deep Ocean,” but also to the series as a whole. One can view a portion of the documentary outside of the whole because it is not required for one to have watched previous parts to understand the individual piece. Planet Earth also has reflexive documentary codes of convention. The film calls attention to its construction because a few producers and filmmakers appear within the documentary to share their personal experience capturing the images, yet they do not question the validity of the images they filmed. Additionally, the documentary shows the submarine and other video equipment responsible for capturing the underwater footage. The narrative structure of each text conveys the explicit meaning using codes of content.

The explicit meaning from each film is that the environment sustains life. Instead of animal versus human, Erin Brockovich’s code of content is a corporate self-interest toward the environment against environmental human rights. The audience spends the most time developing an emotional connection with Erin making the environmental concern “conform to Hollywood’s commercial interest in anthropocentric, human interest stories” (Ingram 10). The docudrama exposes the viewer to Erin’s tricky balance between her home life struggles and her sense of societal contribution in her work life. As a legal clerk, she makes the PG&E case personal by forming deep and trusting relationships with her clients as she learns about the illness, pain, and death caused by the chromium in the water. According to a 2006 poll conducted by Gallup, “A majority say they worry a great deal about pollution of drinking water (54%), contamination of soil and water by toxic waste (52%) and pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (51%)” (Carroll). This 2000 docudrama based on true events validates the water pollution concerns and shows the work being done to protect and reinforce the dominant ideology of environmental human rights to lessen the fears. Although humans cannot restore the PG&E plaintiff’s health before the chromium, the company can do their best to rebuild structures using more environmentally friendly and sustainable policies moving forward. Because water is a necessity to sustain life, the tainted water not only impacts the health of humans but the surrounding land and animals, which depend upon it as well.

Miyazaki bases his ideology about nature on “bringing spirit and matter together… [and the] ancient Shinto notions of human interconnectedness” (Mumcu and Yilmaz 1064). Princess Mononoke fits into the late 1990s historical time period and Miyazaki’s discourse. Its environmental narrative focuses on the Japanese society’s attitude toward preservation and “living in harmony with nature” (Mumcu and Yilmaz 1065). In the movie, Princess Mononoke says, “Even if all the trees return, the forest will never be the same. The forest spirit is dead” (Princess Mononoke). The climax of the movie in which Lady Eboshi shoots the head off of the forest spirit, is the event catalyst behind the forest’s destruction. As the great forest spirit staggers about in search of its head, an inescapable black ooze consumes the land. This scene supports the emergent discourse because the destruction of Irontown would not have occurred if the humans refrained from meddling with the environment. Additionally, the scene signifies the forest, or rather the environment as a whole, gives and takes life away. If humans disrespect and kill the environment, the environment will do the same onto humans.

Planet Earth endorses the dominant ideology of conservationism through its explicit meaning. The narrator poses questions followed by a series of interviews with scientists who respond with their varying perspectives. For example, each biologist has their own take on the future of the environment if habitat loss and species extinction continue at its current rate. The scientists use second person pronouns to directly address the audience. They emphasize and remind viewers of the fact they share the planet with shrinking habitats and dwindling species populations. The human disruption of the environment will lead to an ecosystem imbalance and the loss of plant and animal life. Because of these codes of content expressed in the documentary, it reveals the implied meaning that humans should be more environmentally conscious.

This implicit meaning links all three films together, but each one uses different codes of technical representation to evoke an audience response toward environmentalism. Both Princess Mononoke and Erin Brockovich employ fade in/out transitions to signify a passage of time. The chronological narrative demonstrates how daily events build upon each other over time similar to how people’s minimal, yet continuous damage to the environment builds up over time. The documentary, however, uses fast and slow motion to alter the passing of time. For example, a time lapse of a magnificent sun rise in a compressed time frame to shows beauty as a slow, but an ever-changing process. The temporal relationships stress the importance of acting in the present from both a conservationist and preservationist standpoint. On one hand, the manipulation of time prompts the viewer to lessen their interaction with nature. On the other hand, it makes an argument to immediately support sustainable development efforts.

Unique to Erin Brockovich is the use of nondiegetic on-screen text denoting a time passage. For instance, a fade from black, in addition to the words “nine months later” on screen, signifies a greater leap forward in time. The conclusion of the film also uses the non-diegetic text. According to the on-screen words at the end of Erin Brockovich, “The settlement awarded to the plaintiffs in the case of Hinkley vs. PG&E was the largest in a direct-action lawsuit in United States history” (Erin Brockovich). The director, Steven Soderbergh, chooses to convey the aftermath and results of the lawsuit using nondiegetic on-screen text. During the time period Soderbergh produced Erin Brockovich, casting giant box office star, Julia Roberts, as the lead brought more attention to the film. The movie depicts a corporate response to an environmental health problem and the legal process to obtain justice for those negatively impacted. However, it raises questions about whether the film is really about the case or a story focusing on a big movie star who plays a woman experiencing personal growth throughout a legal battle, which happens to concern the environment. If the answer is the ladder, then the on-screen text downplays the closure of the case and reinforces Erin’s character resolution.

Erin Brockovich is based on a true story, which brings into question the historical accuracy versus entertainment aspect of the movie. By recounting a truthful event of an individual gathering signatures, petitioning, and winning a lawsuit demonstrates how one can successfully protect and advocate for human environmental rights through the legal process. This docudrama’s blend of truth and entertainment reinforces the implicit meaning because it takes enough human support to give a voice to living flora and fauna who cannot speak.

Documentarists use extreme close-ups and other cinematographic techniques in Planet Earth. The documentary uses technical strategies to persuade viewers to be more open-minded to conservation efforts. When the camera frame focuses on the face, particularly the eyes of a creature, it dramatizes and personifies the animal. By doing so, the documentarists strategically “compose stories from the imaginary point-of-view of individual animals themselves, rendered sympathetic and human-like in their psychological motivations and emotions” (Ingram 70). This establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the animal with the hopes of generating a call to action to promote animal welfare. Documentarists also use aerial tracking shots of the landscape to evoke “nostalgia for the cult of pristine nature” from the audience (Ingram 29).

Showing images of nature without humans is one tactic the documentary uses to persuade viewers to keep it that way. However, this is a “relatively obtrusive camera movement which draws attention to the processes of cinematic mediation.” (Ingram 31). Establishing shots contradict the images of nature uncontaminated by human presence and advocates for conservationism. Therefore, the audience is more aware of the documentary as a construction of reality because the production team must enter the wilderness to capture the appearance of nature and will inevitably profit from the success of the film (31). Furthermore, extreme long shots present awe-inspiring places, which may be lost without sustainable development.

While Planet Earth represents reality, Princess Mononoke is an animated fantasy. Miyazaki uses the artistic liberty associated with animation to make the background landscape its own character within the space of the film. For instance, the attention to detail of the “…gentle ripple of healing pristine water, the twinkle on a butterfly’s wings, and the quiet passage of deer visible in distant rays of sun filtering through the canopy,” raise awareness to the environment as an all-encompassing and interconnected life system (Bigelow qtd. in Mumcu and Yilmaz 1066). He frames “the environment as something the characters interact with: it can be grown, felt, listened to, and it acts on its own terms” (Starosielski 155). By doing so, Miyazaki puts the environmental social issue at the forefront rather than the narrative convention of Ashitaka’s character development. For example, “In the background art of the forests, the ancient trees dominate the frame, dwarfing the humans and stretching on endlessly upward” (Martin). This spatial relationship between characters and background establish the fact people are visitors, therefore emphasizing coexistence and non-intervention discourses. Although Miyazaki imagines the places, the animated medium allows for more creative expression to provide “story images that can make [the audience] feel nature’s beauty and life force” (Ang 69).

The technical representation of animation in conjunction with a simplified narrative structure is the strategy Princess Mononoke uses to convey its implicit meaning and call its audience to action. Traditionally, animation is thought to appeal only to the youth. For instance, “Miyazaki’s overriding objective in working in the fantasy genre is to speak to the reality of the viewer, particularly children, in a way that helps them to understand their relationship to the world around them” (Bigelow 69). This film accomplishes its goal to appeal to children because of its colorful landscapes and whimsical creatures, but it also instills values of environmental awareness in people at a young age. Furthermore, the implied meaning reaches adults who have greater power to push for less interference with nature and reinforce this message to their children.

Conservationism and preservationism are both dominant ideologies in their respective geographic regions. The countries these texts originate from impact one’s perspective on the discourses the films present. Through a person-centric lens, both Erin Brockovich and the Planet Earth documentary showcase one’s degree of environmental consciousness and the dominant ideology of conservationism in the lives of ordinary citizens of America and Europe only when the effects are relevant to them. In contrast, Princess Mononoke uses a biocentric lens to present the struggle of achieving a harmonious relationship with nature, which upholds Japan’s dominant ideology of preservationism. While the West perceives preservationism as an emergent discourse, it is dominant in Japan because the policy perspective, culture, and values of the country one views a text in shifts the discourses’ position along the ideological spectrum.

Princess Mononoke, Erin Brockovich, and Planet Earth deal with conservationism, preservationism, and the human impact on the environment. The placement of these three films along the ideological spectrum is justified by means of an analysis of similar and different ways the texts convey their explicit and implicit meanings through narrative structure, codes of content, and technical representation. While all three texts construct an ideology around environmentalism, each one engages with the same issue distinct from one another.

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