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Before Cameron’s Avatar: Princess Mononoke

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts who owed their allegiances to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and of demons…”

– Introduction of Princess Mononoke

I consider Princess Mononoke, a film by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, to be one of the best environmental movie in history. Inspired by the tumultuous Muromachi era in Japanese history, Princess Mononoke explores the relationship between humans and nature in all its complex and tragic facets. Unlike many other environmental films but like so many of Miyazaki’s works, Mononoke does away with clear-cut dichotomies of good and bad; characters act with understandable motivations. Most of them are capable of change and in some cases, even redemption. The film’s unusual conclusion stresses the need for acceptance, integration, and reconciliation, even in the face of horrifying, unforgivable, and unforgettable tragedies.

I’m not sure I can capture all of the nuances and complexities of Princess Mononoke; I’ll provide a lengthier synopsis than usual, but the film is an epic in every sense of the word and really should to be experienced in its entirety. I will try my best to focus on some of the more intriguing themes and significant ideas I found throughout the movie.

Synopsis

Cursed by the corrupted boar-god Nago, the young warrior-prince Ashitaka is exiled from his isolated tribe and travels west in search of a cure. On his journey, he sees the brutal state of the world outside his village. He sees humans killing each other over land, food, and gold. Jigo, an opportunistic emperor’s aide, takes an interest in the young man’s affliction and points Ashitaka towards Irontown, a prosperous mining town, as a possible source of his curse. Once there, Ashitaka encounters Lady Eboshi, a strong leader dedicated to protecting her people from neighbouring hostile forest spirits and warlords with the use of iron guns, a new and deadly technology. Lady Eboshi confesses that it was her guns that drove the boar-god to madness. She is sorry for the suffering she has caused Ashitaka, but does not apologize for her desire to destroy the forest spirits. She believes that out of the forest’s destruction she can build a better world for her people.

As Ashitaka turns to leave, wolf gods led by a wolf-raised human girl named San, assault Irontown. San is fuelled by hatred and wants to kill Eboshi for her wanton destruction of the forest. Taken by the wolf girl’s beauty, Ashitaka intervenes to stop the two and attempts to leave with San, but is accidentally shot. San saves him by taking him deep within the woods and appealing to the Great Forest Spirit. He is healed, but his curse remains.

Meanwhile, the conflicts between Irontown, foreign troops, and the forest spirit come to a head. The forces of nature decide to launch one final attack on the humans to drive them out of the forest. Jigo, arriving with the Emperor’s army, demands that Eboshi capture the head of the Great Forest Spirit, reputed to have powers of immortality. Eboshi surmises correctly that Jigo wants to lure her away from Irontown and capture in her absence. Nevertheless, she complies with the order because of her desire destroy the Great Forest Spirit.

Both Ashitaka and San are trapped in these conflicts even as they try to prevent further bloodshed.  The battle between forest spirits and humans ends in a bloodbath as both sides nearly annihilate each other. Jigo’s troops attack Irontown, but are held off by the townspeople. Eboshi succeeds in slaying the Great Forest Spirit and delivering the head to Jigo, but loses an arm in the process. The headless god wanders in search of his head, spreading death to anything it touches. Most of Jigo’s troops, the forest, and Irontown are destroyed. Finally, Ashitaka and San return the head back to the Forest Spirit, and it disappears.

When the sun comes up, the surrounding wastelands begin to turn green with sprouting plants. Ashitaka sees that his curse has been lifted. San departs for the forest. Although she cares for Ashitaka, she cannot forgive the actions of humans. Ashitaka accepts her response and promises to visit her. Jigo retreats, empty-handed. Eboshi, humbled by her losses and the events that unfolded, sends for Ashitaka to thank him, and promises to rebuild Irontown in a better way. The story ends with a shot of new trees growing on top of the dead ones, signifying that even amongst immense death and destruction, there is life and rebirth.

The Deities of Mononoke

“I think one of the biggest draws of Mononoke lies in the fact that nature and its struggle for survival against the seemingly unstoppable technical progress of humanity is embodied by gods in the form of beasts. These beasts give the struggle and the anger a face. The boars, the wolves, the apes, they all are afraid and they all have their way of reacting to the encroaching human habitations thatfell their trees and hunt them down.”

– Fellow WordPress blogger Alex’s Princess Mononoke analysis

The depiction of nature in Mononoke is based on the animistic deities of Shintoism; they serve as guardians of the forest. All are threatened by human encroachment, but each exhibits a different temperament and reacts differently to the situation. Moro, the main wolf god and San’s mother, is resigned to the inevitable destruction of the forest, choosing to save her energy only to exact revenge on Lady Eboshi. Okkoto, a stubborn boar god, decides to charge head-on into a trap and go out in a final blaze of glory. The ape tribe tries desperately to reforest the barren landscape but is driven off by the guns of Irontown.

Princess Mononoke Great Forest Spirit Life and Death

All of these guardians owe their allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, a deer-like deity with a human face. It is the ultimate arbiter: With one step it can breathe life, while with another it can take it away. The Great Forest Spirit appears indifferent to the plight of man and creature alike. To me, it represents one of the most fascinating fictional manifestations of nature I have come across. Like nature, the Great Forest Spirit’s motivations are completely mysterious and utterly incomprehensible. Awe, wonder, fear, otherness: These elements are all conveyed beautifully through this strange chimera of a creature.

Princess Mononoke anthropomorphizes nature, but it is done with a purpose: To relate the viewer to nature’s struggles for survival in the face of human exploitation. The humans in the movie are literally engaged in war with the forest, and we are able to see nature from the perspective of the losing side, and the fear, uncertainty and despair that is associated with it. By utilizing deities to represent nature, Princess Mononoke calls to attention how dysfunctional our relationship with the environment can become, and how out of touch the human race can be when it comes to exploitation of the natural world. By the end of the film, we understand that this mentality to win and dominate can only result in a pyrrhic victory. Miyazaki understands that to destroy nature is to destroy ourselves.

 Technological Game-Changers

Princess Mononoke Eboshi Testing Gun

Guns and iron were game-changers during the time and setting of Princess Mononoke. It is important to remember the context in which these technologies were introduced; life during these period for most was nasty, brutish, and short. Any comfort or measure of control provided by technology was embraced with open arms.  Irontown is depicted as a prosperous place in which where people can live in relative peace and prosperity, an island fortress in a sea of danger, tyranny, and injustice. But Mononoke also reveals that novel technologies can carry unintended consequences. Guns not only brought safety and independence, but also unwanted attention from other warlords. Massive amounts of trees were required to fuel the smelters to produce iron, resulting in the barren and polluted wastelands around Irontown. With newfound power comes newfound arrogance and the potential for increased destruction.

Princess Mononoke Irontown Deforestation

In the real world, technological advances have similarly shaped the course of human history. Within the last century, major advances such as in nuclear sciences, organic chemistry, and telecommunications have allowed us to do more, eat better, connect faster, and live longer, more comfortable lives. But these technologies also come with unintended side effects. We generate waste that remains harmful for millennia, create materials that disrupt biological functions, and have fundamentally altered how we interact with each other. As I mentioned in last week’s Collapse: Twilight at Easter Island, our ability to affect the world around us today is now global in magnitude. We must consider the consequences of applying novel technology carefully and conscientiously.

Lady Eboshi: Villain Redefined

Princess Mononoke Eboshi kills Gods

As I have noted earlier, the characters of Princess Mononoke are dynamic and have complex motivations; Lady Eboshi is one of the more interesting female fictional antagonists around. A revolutionary for her world and time, Eboshi is a charismatic leader who treats those under her with dignity and respect. Her efforts to help the powerless are evident throughout the movie. She houses the sick lepers and tasks them with jobs of great importance. She frees brothel girls and sets them to work in the bellows, tolerating no misogyny from the men. To her, iron and guns are symbols of empowerment and freedom; she is determined to create a society that is grounded in the equal treatment of men and women.

Miyazaki once stated in an interview that Lady Eboshi was characterized to have a traumatic past (Wikipedia). Perhaps it is because she suffered abuse at the hands of traditional society that drives her to address inequality and injustice in Irontown. This would also explain that she will not accept contingency from anyone or anything; she wants to be in full control of her own destiny and has no need for gods. With the ability to take out gods, Eboshi’s ambition drives her to dominate and subjugate nature. She believes that she is fully justified in this campaign. This is a world where nature, manifested in the forms of angry spirits, disease, and disasters, vindictively, constantly, and senselessly exact a heavy toll on humanity. What more noble deed is there than to exterminate the forest, a place full of all things non-human, wild, and dangerous for the betterment of her people and the society she wishes to create?

Her motivations reminds me of Cob, the villain in The Farthest Shore, who believed that he was above and better than nature. By not respecting and understanding the regenerative cycles of nature, both Cob and Eboshi wrought ruin upon the world. But unlike Cob, Eboshi demonstrates the capacity to learn from her mistakes. She realizes that her efforts to destroy the forest have decimated the society she worked so hard to create.  At the end of the film, she is committed to rebuilding Irontown. Only this time she heeds the wisdom of Ashitaka, someone who understands the necessity of striking a balance with the natural environment.

Jigo: Whatever It Takes

Princess Mononoke Jigo Iron Ball

A monk and an aide to the emperor, Jigo is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is amoral, opportunistic, and manipulative. He pits Eboshi against the gods of the forest and gets her to do the dirty work. He doesn’t care about the hunters and trackers under his command, leaving most of them to die in the calamity that ensues. Even after observing firsthand the destruction of his actions, he clings desperately to the prized head of the Great Forest Spirit until his own life was in jeopardy.

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde

The worst trait Jigo exhibits is one of deep cynicism. He accepts that the world is a cursed one and does nothing to alleviate the suffering around him; he only regards his own welfare. He has no use for hope because he lives off the despair of others. By the end of the movie, he is the only one who refuses to see that humans and nature must find a way to coexist, dismissing them all as fools. He does not and will not learn. Despite the relatively minor role he has, I regard Jigo as the true villain in Princess Mononoke.

San: Both Beast and Human

Princess Mononoke Bloody San

San is fuelled by hate and revenge against the humans who invade the forest. However, her encounter with Ashitaka gradually blurs the boundaries between her wolf world and the human world. Ashitaka, an outsider with a different value system than other humans, comes into her life and dispels the fear and ignorance surrounding her understanding of humans. She realizes that not all humans hate the forest, and her feelings for Ashitaka force her to acknowledge and accept that she is also human.

“Now, my poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither human nor wolf…” – Moro, speaking of San

At the conclusion of Princess Mononoke, she acknowledges her humanity but still cannot live amongst people. She does not forgive or forget Eboshi’s actions, but she does not let her revenge for Eboshi govern her future actions. She is willing to meet Ashitaka halfway and to walk a new uncertain path with him. By doing so, San begins to learn in navigating the boundaries of nature and culture, just like Ashitaka.

Ashitaka: Eyes Unclouded by Hate

Princess Mononoke Kodama Permission

As an outsider from a culture that lived in relative harmony with the natural environment for centuries, Ashitaka displays an innate respect for the forest. In one scene, he journeys deep into the forest, carrying an injured man back to Irontown. The other man, Koroku, is deeply frightened of nature and expects angry gods to exact their revenge at any moment. But Ashitaka asks for and receives guidance from the kodamas, little spirits of the forest, and is able to find a shortcut. His actions in this scene speak to the notion that it’s often easier to work with nature rather than against it. But in order to do so, there must be understanding, respect, and a willingness to learn from the non-human world.

Throughout the film, Ashitaka tries to act as the mediator between the forces of nature and man. The forest gods and the people of Irontown grow to respect him, but both groups state that he must choose a side. He tries repeatedly and desperately to convey that there are no sides, but his ideas falls on deaf ears. Only when great losses are inflicted on both sides is his message for peaceful coexistence finally heard.

Princess Mononoke Ashitaka

Ashitaka does not fully succumb to the violence that surrounds him, nor the curse that afflicts him. He understands that the source of his curse stems from hatred: The iron bullet found in Nago represents the animosity of the forest spirit had towards the human world. This corrosive hatred, physically manifested, literally ate the boar god alive, transformed it into a demon, and cursed Ashitaka. Understanding this, Ashitaka resists the virulent contagion, choosing to break free of the cycle of revenge and retribution: He chooses to see with the world with eyes unclouded by hate. This rejection of hate, coupled with the knowledge of his impending mortality, allows him to act freely. He becomes swept up by events greater than himself, but he tries his best to make the best out of a bad situation and never gives up. Watching Ashitaka, I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that in dark times “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Ashitaka does what he can with the time he is given, even in the darkest of times when all seems lost. In doing so, he exhibits Miyazaki’s central idea in many of his more profound works: “No matter how difficult it is, we must live.”

Like with many of Miyazaki’s works, Princess Mononoke explores the complicated and messy relationship between humans and nature in an unparalleled manner. There is a lot more I could write about this movie, but I think I’ll stop there for now. What did you think of the film? What other ideas and themes did you get out of it? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Next Up: One of television science fiction’s greatest hour.

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Images of Princess Mononoke © 1997 Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.

26 Comments

  1. Movie Betty says

    Wow, I think you’ve covered everything! The first time I saw this movie was the first time I’d seen violence and gore in animation, and it was the first Miyazaki film I experienced. I remember being turned off by it, but now it is my favorite Miyazaki movie.

    • Yes, the amount of violence in Mononoke is not the norm in Miyazaki films. I think it was quite vital to the movie though, if only to convey the senselessness of violence and bloodshed caused by hatred.

  2. Pingback: Princess Mononoke Review | luciustheninja

  3. What a beautiful review of the movie. i like the way you tied the movie storyline and characters with the Farthest Shore and Tolkien, two of my favorite books.
    A friend of mine gave me a copy of this movie several years ago and it is one of my favorite gifts ever.
    Your review is giving me the idea that I need to watch the film again with my kids, now that we are all older and can see the different nuances of the film in a new light.

    • Thanks Karen. I find that writing these posts continually bring up connections I’ve not thought of. I’ve come to recognize the underlying ideas and themes that I’ve been drawn to my whole life. Revisiting old stories and treasured stories has been quite an enjoyable process. Many obviously don’t hold up to scrutiny, but the ones that do always seem to bring up something new, something different upon closer, deeper examination. They endure.

  4. This review is amazing. I think I will have to watch this again with my 20 year old son who is an aspiring artist and is a huge fan of Miyazaki. I have always preferred Spirited Away but your wise review makes me want to watch this one again. It is a favorite of my son’s. Thank you!

    • I think Spirited Away is probably Miyazaki’s best overall movie, but I have soft spots for Nausicaa and Totoro. Mononoke’s great, but I think the Nausicaa graphic novels Miyazaki spent a decade of his life working on explore the nature/human relationship better. I’ll be looking at that in the future. 🙂

  5. Oh yes, it is a great film and it reminds me of my favorite environmental animation – Ferngully, the last rainforrest.. Also had great visuals and shaman like connection of the characters to nature. But the mother of all environmental animations would probably be Lorax 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I had fond memories of Ferngully as a kid, but I find it a little heavy-handed and simplistic in terms of its message nowadays: Man bad, nature good, a message I find extends to Cameron’s Avatar as well. I did appreciate the development of empathy in Zak’s character though.

      I haven’t seen the Lorax, only read the book, so I can’t comment on the themes and ideas conveyed in that.

      Mononoke, on the other hand, goes beyond good and evil to explore the tensions between human and nature to create a ultimately tragic story with no easy resolution. I think I’m drawn to that complexity first and foremost.

  6. I just realized that I have never thanked you for the lovely shout-out here! So: thank you very much.
    And let me add my voice to the choir: Wonderful review!

  7. Hi Isaac, fantastic review!

    One of my favourite Ghibli films, easily. I love the way the Forest Spirit is animated in the climax – and I definitely agree with you about Eboshi, it’s great to see villains with dimension.

    What I also love about the charactarisation, is the way that, as in many Miyazaki films, the hero uses kindness and is willing to sacrifice things for others – it’s in that respect that Ashitaka reminds me of Nausicaa or Sen a bit.

    Looking forward to seeing more on Ghibli from your blog!

    • You can’t beat hate with hate – I think that’s a core idea of Princess Mononoke. It’s easy to succumb to revenge (both gods and humans do it in the movie), but that only causes immense pain and destruction. One’s freedom to choose is wasted, bounded to ideals that do not adapt. Miyazaki seems to say that the path forward to change, freedom, and healing is to live, no matter how difficult and impossible it may sometimes seem. Some, like Ashitaka understand it from the outset. Some, like Eboshi, learn it late and at great cost; others, like Jigo, never learn at all.

      Thanks for reading.

      • I agree, definitely!
        Yes, Jigo will never learn and it’s part of what makes Eboshi so effective, she does learn/change as a character.

        Looking forward to the next Miyazaki?

        • I’m not sure. I think as a storyteller he peaked at Spirited Away because I haven’t seen anything of his hit that height since. I haven’t seen Ponyo though.

  8. I am, but it’s also an adaptation – so I guess I won’t be able to wholly judge his storytelling in that film as resting on his shoulders perhaps?
    I think Ponyo was wonderful but a little flawed for me, in terms of character development – or maybe Ponyo herself, she just bugged me a little, her values were perhaps too inhuman?

  9. I’m actually more intrigued by Takahata’s Little Bamboo Cutter. I know very little about either project though, so I can’t really get too too excited until I see them.

  10. Pingback: PRINCESS MONONOKE | FOREST.A EN

  11. Pingback: 11 Films that Will Inspire Your Love of Nature

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