Reconciling Technology and Nature in Princess Mononoke
Hayao Miyazaki’s films offer a critique of the role of media technology in contemporary culture, specifically in their relation to the natural world. In Miyazaki’s 1997 feature-length film, Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime in Japanese), we see social critiques and criticisms of technological advancement, but rarely is there ever a simple message of good versus evil. Mononoke-hime blurs the lines of this dichotomy both within the narrative and visual language of the film. The forest gods (kami), the Great Forest Spirit (shishigami), nature itself, and the characters San, Lady Eboshi, Moro, and Ashitaka all embody both good and bad aspects, which leave the viewer unsure of who to ‘root’ for. Moro, Nago, and Okkoto are all kami—ancient gods of the forest—who protect and depend on it; Ashitaka is the hero, attempting to navigate between the warring factions of animals and humans; San is the ‘Princess Mononoke’, a human child raised by Moro, the wolf god; Lady Eboshi is the war profiteer who runs Tataraba (Iron Town), decimating the local environment while providing a home for those ostracized by traditional society; and the Great Forest Spirit (shishigami, literally ‘deer god’) who can both give life and take it away. By examining the cinematic elements (such as the human characters, gods and spirits, and visual imagery) as well as the inspiration and influence behind the film, we can better understand the message of Mononoke-hime. Miyazaki uses both the actions of the characters and the visual cinematography to suggest that traditional hegemony of right versus wrong are not so simple—as Ashitaka says, “What I want is for the forest and the humans to live in peace.”
Hayao Miyazaki grew up in Japan during and after the Second World War, where his family was in the fortunate financial position to move out of Tokyo’s city centre and continue manufacturing airplane rudders. This early experience in life led Miyazaki to become a pacifist, and internalize a lot of guilt regarding war. Miyazaki’s films are well-known for not sanitizing important issues, especially for younger viewers, regarding environmental depletion, the horrors of war, loss of innocence, and society’s enslavement to commodity fetishism. His feature-length films, particularly Mononoke-hime simultaneously mix the darker side of life with elating sense of humanity. In Miyazaki’s words, Mononoke-hime is “a lush tapestry woven in an age ‘when gods walked the earth’ … in such times ‘an epic battle wages between the encroachment of civilization of man and the gods of the forest’” (Napier, 122). Cavallaro claims the appeal of a Miyazaki film is the globally relevant central themes which cross cultural boundaries. In Miyazaki’s work, there are two sides to every issue; each element—nature, gods, characters—has both virtues and flaws which are intertwined within them. Smith and Parson argue that “Princess Mononoke challenges social norms, requires child viewers to weigh complex questions, and demands a critical and intellectual engagement with the issues at stake without comfortable resolution in ways that invite what educationalists call ‘transformational learning’ as part of the filmic experience. This presentation of complexity is located in the multiple dynamics of the aesthetics and characterization” (36). Mononoke-hime embodies both the utopian and pragmatic views of environment versus technology, but the ending offers no clear consolatory message only provisional closure of learning how to respect and honour other people and the natural world.
Napier, quoting John Belton, states that films “assist audiences in negotiating major changes in identity; they carry them across difficult periods of cultural transition.” Shinto beliefs, folklore, and mythology are important influences in Mononoke-hime, which is set in Japan during the Muromachi period (1333-1568). The 14th century was very important in Japanese history; it is typically seen as the apex of Japanese high culture where the ruling samurai class became refined and literate. Miyazaki’s ‘hero’ is Ashitaka, a descendant of the royal family of the Emishi, an ethnic group who “kept their independence from the Yamato regime (the Japanese Emperor’s government) for a long time, but were finally defeated by the first Shogun at the end of the 8th century,” were supposedly assimilated and their culture destroyed (“FAQ”, TeamGhiblink). Miyazaki has the last of the Emishi secretly living in Japan’s northern countryside. The viewer is first introduced to Ashitaka as he tries to stop a demon god from attacking the village. Ashitaka eventually kills the demon, but suffers the touch of the cursed beast and thus embarks on a quest to lift his curse and see with “eyes unclouded by hate”—makoro no kokoro in Japanese, which means pure(makoro) heart/mind(kokoro) (Bigelow, 63). The significance of using a supposedly dead ethnic culture and the age of the samurai is an attempt to subvert traditional conventions regarding Japanese history. During the Muromachi period, people changed their value system from gods to money (Napier; Bigelow), signified in the film by the way the natural world and the spirit world are butting heads instead of existing together in the same world. Mononoke-hime does not sentimentalize Japanese history, it was a time of great transition often glorified in history books and Miyazaki is using the ‘history as vision’ (Napier, 237) mixing fact and fiction to examine it. Shortly after Ashitaka sets off on his quest, he witnesses samurai and an army violently attacking a village, a depiction which is contrary to typical visions of noble samurai. Napier quotes Miyazaki stating that it is a “story of the marginals of history” (233) including many women, outcasts, non-ethnic Japanese, and ancient gods (kami) in order to dispel false beliefs about Japanese culture and provide a meditation on Japanese history.
The cinematic style of Miyazaki aids this subversion of traditional archetypes and icons. Animé and manga are common forms of storytelling in Japan. In manga and other comic-book forms, each page or frame shows the reader something; Animé adds movement to this concept, often panning across a stationary character to convey an emotion (Cavallaro). “Miyazaki’s films situate us in the space of the narrative in the way comic books tend to do, presenting highly detailed tapestries of images wherein the prioritizing of certain elements over others does not preclude the viewer’s freedom to focus on an apparently peripheral element and process the visuals on that basis” (Cavallaro, 10). While Miyazaki’s style of animation conforms to animé principles, his stories and particularly his protagonists, do not conform to such conventions (Brophy, qtd in Napier; qtd in Cavallaro). This is particularly apparent in his treatment of female characters as young heroines, not simply shōjo—literally “little female”—characterized by a cute, young girl, age 12 or 13, in a transitional stage between infancy and maturity, which is common in many animé. Miyazaki subverts the shōjo in many of his films, particularly with San in Mononoke-hime; instead of depicting San as a helpless, defenseless young girl, she is a strong, independent, courageous warrior. The first time we see San her face is covered in blood from trying to suck the poison out of Moro, and she defiantly confronts Ashitaka, telling him to “go away”. Yet as the film goes on, we see San’s softer side and she grows to trust Ashitaka, dressing his wounds and taking him to the shishigami to be healed. This co-existence of values within San’s character gives her depth and three-dimensionality that is also visible in many other characters.
In Mononoke-hime, nature is depicted as “beautiful, sacred, and awesome, but it is also vengeful and brutally frightening” (Napier, 244). The shishigami, or Great Forest Spirit in the English translation of Princess Mononoke, has the power to both gives life and takes it away and is unconcerned with any larger moral implications (Napier). The Great Forest Spirit is classed as a yōkai, a supernatural creature from Japanes e folklore that possesses animal-like characteristics and can shape shift; During the day shishigami (lit. deer god in Japanese) resembles a deer (shishi) whose mere touch of a hoof brings life to the forest floor, and at dusk it changes into the Night Walker, a giant Japanese mythological creature called Daidarabotchi. The other great gods of the forest, kami, are subject to shishigami’s rule, but still hold great power within themselves, being greatly amplified in size and strength and commanding the other beasts of their order. Moro is the wolf god, a mother of two wolf pups, and the adopted mother of San (san means ‘three’ in Japanese; she is the third child of Moro). The wolves, boars, and apes of the forest also at odds with each other, some even have angry destructive plans. The animals of the forest and the kami of the spirit world are not these perfect, all-knowing, all-seeing, beautiful creatures: Okkoto, the ancient boar god, is drawn with goo in his blind eyes and spittle flying from between tusks; Moro, the wolf god, has sharp teeth, a wide and wicked grin, and an even sharper tongue; and Nago, the boar god who was wounded by the iron bullet, was consumed by his rage and hatred and became the demon that cursed Ashitaka. However, we see a duality of beauty and ferocity in the animals too. For example, Moro often speaks of biting the “gun woman’s head off” and crunching human bones, but she also showed compassion for the baby thrown at her feet, raising the child as one of her own, her “ugly, furless, beautiful child”. The apes also have both good and bad elements. Seen as pests by Lady Eboshi, the apes come out at night and plant trees, trying to re-grow the mountainside that Eboshi and Tataraba have destroyed. Yet when San brings a wounded Ashitaka back into the forest, the apes demand for her to “hand over the human” because they want to eat his flesh to gain his power. San is outraged, “when did apes start to eat the flesh of men?” and advises them to keep planting trees and put their trust in shishigami. San begins to understand Ashitaka’s message of compromise and coexistence, and also chastises the boars for wanting to kill all the humans in a kamikaze-style attack. However, the boars, particularly Okkoto, the blind and ancient god of the boars, will not listen to reason—that the death of the boars will not solve the problem—even when San tries to warn Okkoto that the set-up is a trap. These events in the film not only depict San’s change in temperament, but they also illustrate the darker side of the spirit world’s battle and Ashitaka’s belief that anger and hatred will not solve anything.
Ashitaka subscribes to Shinto (lit. ‘way of the gods’) beliefs in that kami and humans co-exist and share the world but as the rising action of the film continue to the climax, we see him growing more distraught and overcome by his curse. In the opening scenes, we learn that his curse will slowly consume him until he resembles the demon boar (tatarigami, translated to’ vengeful demon’ (Bigelow, 62)) he killed. Napier believes that the curse is a metaphor for the absurdity of life (121); Ashitaka got the curse by defending his village from an attacker, but it is seen as a heinous crime for a human to kill a god. It is for this reason he was forced to cut his hair (a symbol of his status, cultural identity, and achievement) and he is now dead to the people of his community. Ashitaka is forced to leave with his faithful steed and friend, Yakkul, a rare red elk, with whom he shares a special bond uncommon among other humans (save for San). Ashitaka takes the iron musket ball found lodged in Nago’s poisoned body and travels west to seek out the origin of this foul curse. His journey leads him to Tataraba (Iron Town) and the conflict between nature and humans taking place. Through the course of the film, Ashitaka’s personal burden of the curse raging within him is paralleled with the conflict of the forest. When curse flairs up, his arm swarms with tentacles like Nago had and the anger and hatred within fuels his strength. In one of the early scenes we see him draw an arrow and release as the tentacles pulsate on his arm. The arrow slices the head clear off the other man in an almost comical gesture. Also, his right arm attempts to commit actions Ashitaka does not condone, such as when he learns of Lady Eboshi’s desire to destroy the kami of the forest and he has to fight his right arm from drawing his sword to kill her. This duality rages within Ashitaka, and in fact is never fully resolved during the film as Miyazaki avoided a tidying-up, happy-go-lucky ending.
Lady Eboshi is probably the most blatant depiction of both good and evil, in addition to subverting traditional gender roles. Eboshi created Tataraba (Iron Town in the English translation) located in the Izumo area, Shimane Prefecture (Mayumi et. al) and is depicted as a brown landscape with a large imposing fortress, contrasting sharply with the pristine forest (Pike, 159). Eboshi runs a successful business extracting ore from the mountainside and creating iron weaponry in the forge, but viewers see the bellows of Tataraba pumping out charcoal smoke, and the clear-cut mountainside to fuel the fires. The depictions of Lady Eboshi’s fixation on getting the head of the Great Forest Spirit which will turn the kami into “stupid beasts once again”, despite the possible destruction of Tataraba, is a clear criticism of society’s commodity fetishism. However, Tataraba has given hundreds of men and women a home, job, and community, and Lady Eboshi has also taken in many of society’s outcasts. When touring Ashitaka around Tataraba, Lady Eboshi explains how many of the women there had been working in brothels before she brought them to Tataraba, and she provided a home for lepers, whose rotting flesh she washed and bandaged. The people of Tataraba are fiercely loyal and incredible appreciative of Lady Eboshi, showing their dedication to protect their home against invasion and aligning themselves against San and the kami of the forest. As we can see, while it is easy to criticism Lady Eboshi for her destruction of the environment, she is also providing a life for many ostracized individuals who may otherwise be set aside.
San is a fearless warrior, certainly no helpless shōjo, exhibiting a feminine duality that is apparent in her actions. Neither fully human nor wolf, San can speak with beasts of the forest and kami telepathically as well as conversing fluently with humans. While she is fighting against Eboshi and Tataraba, she is fighting to protect her home, her family of wolves, and the other beasts and kami of the forest. As a side note, the title ‘Princess Mononoke’ is actually a derogatory label from the people of Tataraba for San, mononoke is the word for evil spirits or monsters (Drazen). The so-called love story of San and Ashitaka is of an untraditional hero and heroine and the love story has an equally untraditional resolution (Drazen). In the film, this seems to parallel the non-resolution of the environment verses technology, where there is no easy ‘happy ending’. As Pike explains, “the central conflict in many of Miyazaki’s films is less about overcoming obstacles and more about returning items, people and creatures to their original habitat. Large problems often remain unsolved; it’s enough that the characters restore balance to a small segment of their animated existence” (147). In the final scenes, San and Ashitaka are saying their goodbyes and San says she cannot forgive the humans for what they did to her forest, and Ashitaka understands, saying he will go to Tataraba and help them rebuilt. Lady Eboshi has declared that they will build a new and better town, and Ashitaka will most certainly be supervising their activities. In the end, San is still neither fully wolf nor human, but she does have a newfound respect for some of them, particularly because of Ashitaka. As Drazen states, she “essentially stayed herself while changing the world around her” (276), which is quite uncommon in most animated love stories, showing yet again Miyazaki’s subversion of traditional methods of storytelling.
The apocalyptic climax of the film reinforces the notion that no simple battle between good and evil will set things right (Pike). “When you talk about plants, or an ecological system or forest, things are very easy if you decide that bad people ruined it. But that’s not what humans have been doing. It’s not bad people who are destroying forests… hard-working people have been doing it. …This is the complexity in the relationship between humans and nature. And since this is a big theme of this film, I didn’t want it to be a story about a bad guy” (Miyazaki, qtd in Napier, 124). Lady Eboshi and the monk Jiko successfully sever the head of shishigami just as it is shifting into the Night Walker form. The Great Spirit of the Forest instantly begins to spill dark ‘goo’ across the forest, killing everything it touches, as kokodama (forest sprites) start dying and falling from the trees, Ashitaka and San chase down Jiko and force him to return the head. While this ceases the immediate destruction, the act of cutting off the shishigami’s head is irreversible, and the great spirit of the forest is dead. As the Night Walker’s form tumbles to the ground, it wipes Tataraba clear from the mountainside and restores the forest, giving the people and the spirit world a second chance. As Pike believes, “The film promotes a kind of conservation/preservation of place and the innate “nature” of any given entity … one should work on solutions within the system rather than concocting radical ways to alter an environment or challenge” (162).
Ultimately, neither side wins the conflict, driving home Miyazaki’s message that technology and so-called ‘progress’ are not just going to disappear but we as a society need to respect and show courtesy to nature, both animate and inanimate (Mayami et al.). Miyazaki offers a complex cultural message of compromise regarding both environmentalism and technological progress. Using the characters and the visual techniques of animé, Mononoke-hime subverts the traditional history, aesthetics, and gender binaries of Japanese society in a world which nature is revered but technology can be neither erased nor ignored (Napier). As Napier explains, Japanese animé has a popular appeal which allows it to reach a wider audience (qtd in Pike) and can therefore address issues that would seem overly reprimanding in a live-action film. Avoiding any Westernized cinematic conventions of good versus evil, the villains have positive qualities and the heroes are flawed (Pike). Miyazaki often avoids didactic approaches to the themes in his films, and it is clear that the resolution of Mononoke-hime is just as complex as the conflict. “We are not trying to solve global problems with [Princess Mononoke]. There can be no happy ending to the war between the rampaging forest gods and humanity. But even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, there is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things exist” (Miyazaki, qtd in Napier, 123).