On a visit to her grandparents' home in the country, toddler Miyori wanders into the woods where she meets the many forest spirits that dwell there. Led by the majestically golden glowing tree goddess Ipponzakura, the spirits reveal they have been waiting for Miyori and that the forest is hers. Ten years later, with her parents separated, Miyori (Yuu Aoi) returns to live with her Granny (Etsuko Ichihara) and Grandpa. Though Miyori is warmly welcomed by local kids, having been bullied before has made her staunchly self-reliant and reluctant to make friends. Nor does she believe in forest spirits anymore, until a walk in the woods reunites her with Bokuriko the shape-shifting tree sprite (Aya Takashima), Moguri the monster that sucks out bad dreams with its long snout, and sagely, moustachioed fox-like Nego-ji. Miyori soon learns she has been chosen to succeed her granny as guardian of the forest.
There is a lot about Miyori’s Forest that is derivative of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, which is no surprise given it marks the directing debut of Nizo Yamamoto, veteran art director on some of Studio Ghibli’s greatest films. The troubled young heroine seeking answers in the world of spirits obviously evokes Spirited Away (2001), the forest setting with its cuddly collection of friendly forest sprites plus inclusion of a feisty little boy who shares a love/hate relationship with Miyori recalls My Neighbour Totoro (1988), the conflict between nature and mankind’s endless desire for progress comes from Princess Mononoke (1997) (towards the end, Miyori even dons an animal skin outfit resembling that worn by Mononoke’s heroine San) while the finale wherein Miyori rallies an army of giant monsters and spirits is almost exactly the same as the climax of Pom Poko (1994), directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata.
What elevates this above mere brazen imitation is the smart and sensitive script written by Satoku Okudera, who penned the outstanding Summer Wars (2010) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). Okudera draws Miyori as a surprisingly outspoken and intuitive child and probes the psychological after-effects of her parents’ failed marriage with affecting clarity and realism. The plot paints a profound picture of a child alienated from both her self-involved parents and snotty Toko peers, at times blaming herself or else lashing out at others. At first Miyori refuses to make friends with the local kids or accept her role as protector of the spirit populace, but gradually warms to both and gains a sense of self-empowerment by embracing community. First, she rescues her schoolyard rival Daisuke from a man-hating ghost woman who has also been bullying the forest spirits. Apparently, dead people and forest spirits don’t get along. Who knew? Later, the children discover a big company plan on flooding the forest to build a dam. Miyori concocts a plan to locate a rare golden eagle, thus ensuring the region will fall under government protection as a haven for an endangered species. Unfortunately, the gun-toting company men have their own plans.
The fact is anime have been addressing environmental issues even before Hayao Miyazaki scored an international hit with Princess Mononoke. Most were sincere although the poorer examples are marred by occasional preachiness or worse, cynical sloganeering. Some were even produced as PR exercises by major corporations whose own environmental track records were less than inspiring. Miyori’s Forest may bear a plot that is something of a patchwork quilt but weaves a clear message about environmental responsibility. The film makes no bones about the fact that human beings are responsible for whether a forest lives or dies, right from the moment Miyori is told the forest is “hers.” There is a beautifully drawn sequence wherein Ipponzakura lets Miyori experience “the circle of water.” She is transformed into minerals flowing under the earth, through the sea and across the skies. As a feature length special made for Japanese television, the animation is not quite as fluid as that of a major movie, but the visuals remain evocative of traditional folklore with a remarkable painterly quality. Monster fans will delight in Miyori’s eye-catching menagerie, including such memorable characters as Washirashi the know-it-all house spirit and Fukurin Nagizani the spirit of the wind whom our heroine catches using a magic lasso. And although the finale has been done before, it remains fun to watch monsters scare the wits out of forest-wrecking corporate clowns.