'Princess Mononoke': revisiting Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic

This year marks the silver jubilee of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). The plot has been told and retold so often that instead of studying the story again, it may be more rewarding to explore, or at least guess at, the layers of meaning in Miyazaki’s film. Especially how he wields myth and motif to deliver an enduring icon of cinema, not just of the anime world. 

Princess opens with the narrator’s sober lines: 

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirit 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 allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.”

Nature and man, not Nature vs. Man

Look closely at Miyazaki’s principal characters.

It’s possible to see Ashitaka (last Prince of Emishi Village), San (Princess Mononoke or Wolf Girl) and Lady Eboshi (of Iron Town) as three sides of the same prism. Different impulses, first ambling in from opposing starting points, then racing up toward the same fate-crushing summit. Reconciling, but without merging or erasing their distinct planes, their separate identities. Yet Miyazaki is clear: all three are human impulses, signifying man’s capacity to be many things at once, surprising others and, on occasion, himself. 

San and Eboshi represent two extremes. 

San symbolises the extreme avatar of the native, the forest dweller, the tribe. Or today’s militant environmentalist who seems to love clouds, rocks, animals and trees more than humans. Remember San’s cry? "I’d do anything to get you humans out of my forest… I hate all humans!"

Not quite as insufferable as a modern-day militant’s rant on repeat, but frighteningly close. 

Eboshi symbolises both the perverse humanist and compassionate capitalist; is soft toward destitutes, lepers and prostitutes, but resolutely exploitative of Nature -- earth’s ore; a dress rehearsal for bigger things. She’s the one who shelters lepers as “human”, even as the world hates and fears them. And it is with more than a bit of hope she says that, once the Forest Spirit and the wolves are killed, “San will become human again.” 

Eboshi’s contempt looks like it's reserved for animals or plants whom she sees as sub-human; to be tamed and enjoyed, as in her beloved garden.

Ashitaka, the chosen or anointed one in his village, symbolises a middle ground, who tries to talk unifying sense into these warring extremes. First driven by self-preservation (to lift a fatal curse), he later grows beyond himself, to protect and defend entire strangers, no longer only those from Emishi. If he’s tired of being asked “whose side are you on?” Ashitaka doesn’t show it -- Miyazaki’s prescient rebuke to identity politics of our day.

Miyazaki’s stunning, hand-drawn portraits of mountains, rivers, lakes and giant trees imply that his sympathies lie with Nature, not man. It’s why Ashitaka’s choice at the end to leave Nature and return to mankind seems contradictory. It only seems that way. 

Ashitaka gives the forest its rightful place. However, he doesn’t indulge his fondness for San and linger in his newfound comfort zone. Instead he returns to Iron Town, to rebuild and rehabilitate mankind, while promising to stay connected to the forest, to San and her kind. 

Miyazaki’s forest, then, appears to be a journey rather than a destination, a path to paradise rather than Paradise itself, a vehicle toward self-discovery. The forest’s silences, sounds and secrets may re-centre him when he wanders far from himself. He may visit the forest now and then to rejuvenate, but he’s meant to live with his own, not with beasts.

A new Adam, a new Eden

Princess explores how good, evil and pragmatism in-between, all struggle for primacy in man. It’s up to him to decide which will win. 

Many refer to Miyazaki’s Shinto influences, but there’s more than a smattering of the Biblical too.

Emishi Village represents man’s “old self” which he must leave, “never to return”. It is an Eden of sorts, where he’s first blessed (with perfect life, health, joy) then “cursed and sent out” (to suffer sickness, pain, death). 

The forest represents a proving ground where he must test his values, “see with eyes unclouded by hate”. A Biblical “forty years in the desert”, as it were. 

Iron Town represents the real world that man must wrestle with, and where he might harness humanity to heal rather than harm. 

But this promised land will not flow with milk and honey unless he sanctifies his time in the wilderness, unless he cleanses body, mind and spirit so as to realise his purpose as benevolent master of Iron Town and friend to the forest. He’s meant not to hunt for and find another Eden (all decked up and ready for him, as Emishi was) but to create a new Eden wherever he is, wherever he goes; making it virtuous by virtue of his being there, going there. 

Miyazaki’s New Adam (Ashitaka, as saviour to the forest) sets right the legacy of disorder left behind by the Old Adam (Ashitaka, as outcast from Emishi). Ashitaka starts to restore this order of things between Creator and creature by returning the decapitated head to its desolate owner, the divine Forest Spirit. Ashitaka insists: “Human hands must return it!”

If humans disrupted the order, it is humans who must restore it. And it’s from Iron Town that he hopes to continue that restoration.

Miyazaki hints that man can surprise himself. First, by mastering his inner ghouls, beasts and demons (greed, selfishness, fear, pride). Second, by befriending (loving?) the good in himself and others (the gods among him) using his capacity to sacrifice, to share, to care, to recognise and rejoice in these capacities in others.  

Good has consequences -- evil too

Yes, the Great Forest Spirit/the giant Night Walker (god?) might revive you from a bullet wound or remove a scarring curse now and then. But in severing the godhead (the head of the Forest Spirit) you sever your own. Miyazaki’s dreamlike climax, of the Night Walker stumbling through the mountains, imagines what it means to first “lose your head” (lose yourself in mad conquest over others or their resources) and later to “come to your senses” (rediscover yourself and others, use resources respectfully).

What of actions and reactions: man’s and Nature’s? 

Some men may forgive other men their evil, but neither can escape the consequences. Suffering, sickness, pain, death will touch both sinner and sinned against. Nature’s choicest herbs may heal man, but (even chewed and crushed) they cannot protect him from Nature’s destructive forces -- fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, famines. Or his own -- war. 

Man may dim Nature’s fury by calibrating his exploitation of it. Sometimes he stupidly shoots iron-ore bullets into the boar’s gut, to turn it demonic. But he’s wise to keep the forest at arm’s length because it can be inimical to him. After all, it’s the forest that hosts beasts (that prey on flesh, blood and bone that man has in ample supply) and harmful seed and fruit (poisonous to touch or taste). 

As one African proverb supposedly goes: 

"No matter the economy of the jungle, a lion will never eat grass."

Naturally, blood, a symbol of life (and death), is a throbbing motif in Princess, depending on who is bleeding whom. When man oozes blood, he merely loses his vitality, his life. When Nature’s fury oozes blood, it corrupts and consumes everything and everyone it touches.

One grim exchange between San and the apes in Princess (1997) glances back at lighthearted banter in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). Apes in Princess believe that eating a “man creature” will give them power over him, just as apes in JB think that if they can “make fire” like man does, they will stay superior. In one of JB’s most delightful song sequences, ape King Louie sings I Wanna Be Like You to Rudyard Kipling’s man-cub, Mowgli: 

what I desire is man’s red fire,
to make my dream come true…
give me the power of man’s red flower,
so I can be like you.

Kipling’s fire. Miyazaki’s blood.

To Miyazaki’s 20th century sensibilities, developed worlds or “Western lands” are a source of great evil. Remember, the demon boar attacks from “the west”. Importantly, Miyazaki’s west is also, potentially, a source of great good. It’s in “the west” that Ashitaka finds the forest, its spirit, Iron Town, Eboshi, San.

True collaboration, impossible without humility

Why obsess with forests? 

Nature at its biggest, strongest, quickest, humbles man. At least it should. In forests, fragility comes easy to humans, the only species to stay utterly dependent for years. Forests embed in us a reliance on others and on Nature -- for our life, our growth, our health, our happiness. Forests teach humility. Miyazaki seems to say: “Even back in your urban jungle, make humility a habit. For humility reminds you of your fragility, your dependence. It will unite you.” A lesson for both, technologists and tree-huggers. 

Some may accuse Miyazaki of stretching his saviour motif to breaking point, but his deep belief in the transformative “power of one” is embodied in Ashitaka. Alone, against the deafening roar of the jungle on one side and booming cannons on the other, his voice of reason rings out steady, loud, clear. If he didn’t believe his lone voice could alter “fate”, he probably would have kept his counsel. 

Can one person make a difference? Miyazaki thinks so. Yet he has a soft spot for humble collaboration.

When San is beside herself with grief at seeing everything and everyone she cherishes, dying before her eyes, she says (as all alarmists or fatalists do): “It’s over. Everything’s over. The forest is dead.”

Ashitaka replies calmly: “Nothing is over. The two of us are still alive. Now, will you help me, San?” He’s less interested in accusation than in concerted action.

With a running time of 133-mins, Princess Mononoke merely looks daunting. In fact, it’s a delicate body of art that would crumble if robbed of even one organ. Joe Hisaishi’s music, for instance, creates moods, depths of feeling that the script doesn’t, or simply can’t. Takeshi Seyama’s editing and Atsushi Okui’s cinematography make the best of stillness and silence, confident in conveying meaning to the eye of the soul through the sheer force of Hayao Miyazaki’s vision.  

Of course, Princess is a movie for the ages. Mercifully, it’s also a movie for our times. 

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz


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