Princess Mononoke: Strife

(If you missed my previous Miyazaki essay click HERE!)

There are many themes one can latch onto or sink one’s teeth into when analyzing and writing about Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film. Ecology, industrialization, the destruction of innocence, love transcending boundaries, humans as natural beings, Shinto, inclusiveness of outcastes, out-sourcing labor, the destructive nature of human beings, and so on. But most of the themes relate to a more central one that encompasses facets of them all.

The young protagonist of Princess Mononoke is Prince Ashitaka, the last of royal bloodline for the Emishi people, an ancient native Japanese peoples supposedly related to the Jomon people: Japan’s earliest natives. When a warped, demonic being enters Ashitaka’s village, he takes up the challenge of protecting his people and defeating the shadowy creature. But in the process, the creature- revealed to be a large boar poisoned by a bullet from mankind’s unholy technology- lays a curse upon his right arm (the one that made contact with the beast). The fight left a cursed burn mark on Ashitaka’s arm that is spreading quickly and will kill him when it reaches his heart. His village leaders advise him to leave his home to find a cure and to never return again unless he can do so. They are distraught because, as their last prince of the historical royal bloodline, he is the last hope for the proliferation of their culture, their peoples, and their ways of life. What’s more is that the incident signals that a conflict has emerged between the technological prowess of the Yamato peoples (who produced the bullet lodged into the boar) and the natural order of things. The actions of the Yamato peoples are in such conflict with nature that they bode evil consequences for their peaceful, hunter-gatherer neighbors like the Emishi and Ainu tribes.

As Ashitaka travels through the land on his way to western Japan and the hope of a cure for his curse, he finds samurai attacking women and children in a defenseless town. The samurai see him passing by and try to attack him too, but Ashitaka’s demon arm is skilled in self-preservation, and we all know that the best defense is a good offense. The arm goes to work and aims his bow perfectly. Arrows fly and decapitate samurai, remove limbs, and make extra-ordinary curve and bank shots. The samurai who represent the feudal present of late Muromachi Japan destroy old ways of life as they spread the influence of their Daimyo or Shogun leaders and force peasants into farming jobs to increase the wealth of said Daimyo and Shogun. The arm is in this case, the head biting its own tail. Just as the gun and bullet represent the negative externalities of unfettered consumption of natural resources and destruction of habitats through expansion and progress, the curse represents a form of nature fighting back against its newest pestilence: humans. Thus, Ashitaka’s malady, created unwittingly by the new industrialists, kills those (the samurai) who would spread their fiefdoms and allow for the gathering of more resources at the expense of the natural world.

Later, Ashitaka will enter a virgin forest where Kodama, protector spirits of the forest, will follow him and his red Lechwe, Yakul: a wild beast whose spirit was courted by Ashitaka to be his friend and travelling companion. He finds a number of injured and dead men who were attacked by the wolf god Moro while trying to transport supplies through the forest. Ashitaka carries the injured men to the nearest town, Irontown, a new industrial settlement created and run by Lady Eboshi to harvest the surrounding iron sands for war production of muskets. Eboshi strives against the natural forces who fight to reclaim their lands that she clear-cutted for resource removal. They have a desire to rest upon their foundations while Eboshi has a desire to found a new city, thereby setting up a the fundamental dispute in the film.

The wolf god Moro and her daughters (including her adopted human daughter San, the titular Princess Mononoke, or beast princess) fight the human beings constantly to limit their destruction of the forest. During the film, other creatures display their hatreds and fight back as well. The blind boar god Okkoto gathers all regional bands of warring boars, bands them together, and tries to destroy the human settlement at Irontown to no avail. The weapons and technological prowess of humans are enough to produce power far beyond their frail bodies and to overcome the stronger, more ancient and rooted boars. In the film, we find ape gods who distrust the humans and would destroy them and consume their flesh if given the opportunity. But they still retain their natural wisdom (tied to their rootedness in sacred space), while the rootlessness of the boars has made them increasingly into boors.

The fights- though set in an idyllic Japanese past and featuring samurai, Daimyo, ninja, and conflicts between the Shinto Japanese spirit of nature veneration and a move toward technological modernity- are at bottom conflicts over the course of history to come. The strife established in the film is that definitive version of strife whereby the conflicts arise over fundamental differences in world-view, and not just over resources or honor as in more traditional jidaigeki. Lady Eboshi not only wants to create a new city that prizes diversity and opportunity for all, including social outcastes, the diseased, women of ill-repute, and women in general (in a pre-modern patriarchal setting), but she wants to make money for herself in the process and in this, dons all the vestments of capitalist excess and immorality. Both in how she exploits those who could find work nowhere else and destroys the natural world for her own ill-gotten gain, while managing to produce nothing beneficial to the world and only war-machines and apparatuses to strengthen the arm of the state and cause death and destruction on unprecedented scales. Her figure as the capitalist archetype is so materialistic and immoral that she would go so far as to even send hunting parties to seek out and destroy the Daidarabotchi Skinwalker God of the Forest to gain his head as a prize for the Emperor of Japan and secure an ‘in’ with the court.

Some have pointed out that this film is about confrontation before. And that should be sufficiently obvious. But critics blabber on consistently about how the conflict is morally ambiguous. A human culture that must support itself and grow even at the expense of the natural world. A natural world whose wisdom is vast and whose spirit is tangible, but on which can oscillate between serenity and severe viciousness on a dime. But the ambiguity is not so balanced as all this. The true conflict is that of two fundamentally opposed worldviews: living with nature and treating all beings as if they had moral worth or destroying that nature to benefit only oneself and a small group of others at the expense of nature and of humanity. This strife has been a constant conflict for our species and its ancestors for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, but it need not be so. And occasionally we need a fable cloaked in memory and nostalgia to show us just what we have lost already.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Spirited Away!]

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