Edited by Arnav Diwan
Princess Mononoke is a 1997 Ghibli animation film that had become the highest grossing film of Japan, until Titanic came out. The landslide domestic success and the universal appeal of this film can be attributed to its honest and all-embracing depictions of human nature. While the world that these characters inhabit is arguably at a distance from ours, their conflicts within themselves and with the world are something that everyone can identify with.
This film progresses through the point of view of Ashitaka, a young village boy travelling in the search of a cure to a demonic boar curse. He finds himself in the middle of an ongoing war between the forest gods and the inhabitants of Irontown, a mining colony. Here, he meets San, referred to as the ‘Mononoke’ by the inhabitants of Irontown. The word Mononoke literally translates to a ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost.’ In Japanese folklore, Mononoke is a mysterious and natural force that can possess humans. San occupies the medial space between the encroaching humans destroying nature and the forest gods maintaining it. She sustains the central theme of “man at war with nature” till the end of the film.
Director Miyazaki criticizes the post WWII industrialization of Japan through Princess Mononoke. After the war, Japan had moved away from Shintoism, its oldest religion, which placed man’s connection with nature at its core. The focus on capitalisation that led to a departure from traditional ways of life and moral paradigms is criticized through the presence of Shinto gods in the film. Apart from the focal forest spirit, the presence of kodama (forest spirits that appear as faint orbs of light) in the film is derived from Shintoism. Kodama were believed to be the signs of a healthy forest. Throughout the story, these creatures appear, disappear and reappear with the ebb and flow of the forest’s viability.
In Shinto, nature doesn’t exist for humanity to conquer, nature begets us and is sacred. Thus the right way of life is in accordance with how nature works. As opposed to other Miyazaki films where nature is a nurturing force, this film asserts that nature can clap back when humans take the destruction beyond a limit. This is carried out through the character of the Shishigami -a being that both gives life and takes it away. Nature isn’t dependent on humans to be its keepers and that human greed is bound to be met by man’s own destruction. Miyazaki’s criticism of our modern world can be summed up in his quote, “In the past, humans hesitated when they took lives, even non-human lives. But society has changed, and they no longer feel that way. As humans grew stronger, I think that they became quite arrogant, losing the sorrow of ‘we have no other choice.’ I think that in the essence of human civilization, we have the desire to become rich without limit, by taking the lives of other creatures.” This message is especially profound considering that the current climate crisis we find ourselves in is almost prophesied by this 1997 film. In that way, it has stood the test of time and its message is even more urgent now that it was at the time of its release.
Another remarkable feature of the film is that San, Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi are all morally grey characters. There is no absolute certainty in the way we can judge them. Their motives appear respectable but the way they carry out their aspirations in relation to others is questionable. There isn’t a clear demarcation between good and evil. Miyazaki himself has backed this approach by saying “This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.” The film doesn’t create individual villains or evildoers but recognizes ‘evil’ as a product of an environment. It is a consequence of various factors and not something that arises out of a vacuum. This portrayal can also be read as an allusion to the focus on individual perpetrators in a capitalist/industrialist society that masks systemic causes for ‘crime.’
The rivalry between San and Lady Eboshi is not emergent from their differences but because they happen to stand at the two ends of the central conflict. The wolf god attacks the villagers to protect the forest yet takes pity on baby San and raises her as her third child (San means ‘three’ among other things.) Lady Eboshi is relentlessly cruel to the forest creatures and is set out to destroy the gods yet she builds Irontown for brothel women and lepers to give them a chance at a dignified existence. Prince Ashitaka, despite being compassionate and wise, ends up with a grievous curse. Through these polarities, Miyazaki not only moves away from traditional forms of storytelling but also throws light on the complexity of human morals, fate and character.
The indirect commentary on disabled and sexulaised bodies is another exceptional feature of this film. By portraying the social abandon that lepers face in Japan and the taboos and exploitation that the sex workers are met with, Miyazaki provides deeper insight into how industrialization creates a social system based on vast exclusions. However, even with the creation of Irontown, the hegemony of certain people and the hierarchical division of power persists. Critics and academics have likened Eboshi to a monarch who only uses the labour of the people to further her own ambitions. This builds on the complexity of the worlds created by Miyazaki and all the internal contradictions and layers that they have, reflecting our own world with all of its proliferative meanings.
The film doesn’t end with a complete resolution of all conflict, there is a great deal of violence and destruction that comes to be. This acknowledgement of life being in a constant state of becoming and unbecoming is in line with the real world. The ending establishes that human existence is inseparable from conflict but also provides hope for a chance at less grievous conflict through coexistence. Miyazaki doesn’t seek to create a fairy tale ending for the characters but a lesson that helps them to be better people moving onward.
This is a concise exploration of the ways in which Princess Mononoke is intriguing, compelling and timeless. A lot more can be said about each frame in the film, the genius of the animation and the finesse of the soundtrack. But this is just a short attempt to delve deeper into what this film does and why that is subversive and provocative.