Princess Mononoke and Metaphorical Depiction of War
Princess Mononoke is a 1997 Japanese film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki that was later released in America in 1999. It was the highest grossing film of all-time in Japan until Titanic was released there later that same year. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi tribe when … a disturbing sausage demon corrupts a pig lord of unusual size and attempts to destroy their village. Ashitaka bravely defends his people, killing the demon, but not before it ensnares his arm and bestows upon him a deadly curse. The village’s ‘wise woman’ attempts to ease the suffering of the demon and … that doesn’t go so hot.
“Oh, nameless god of rage and hate, I bow before you. Pass on in peace and bear us no hatred.” His name was actually Nago, but that’s neither here nor there, because then this porcine demonlord responds: “Disgusting little creatures. Soon, all of you will feel my hate, and suffer as I have suffered.” And then the self-cleaning demon Febreezes away, leaving only the fresh scent of a Slammin’ Sour Cream and Onion Yankee Candle. The wise woman then reveals the fate of the cursed Ashitaka. ot But he can rise and meet his fate, by traveling west and stopping the evil that is growing within, and corrupting, their land. The charge placed upon this young man to defend his village once more, even though he is already fated to die, is palpable. And with that, as our story begins. Our hero, Ashitaka, who was told there might be a cure out west, which works out because he’s already banished so … his decision is pretty much made for him. Princess Mononoke takes place during the Japanese Muromachi Era, which lasted from 1336 to 1573, and was a period of great industrial upheaval. Just prior to this era was the dismantling of imperial rule known as the Kenmu Restoration(1333 to 1336), which was actually intending to do the opposite and restore imperial rule, but failed. During the Muromachi Era, Japan traded wood, ore, sulfur, even swords with the Ming Dynasty. And this is important to this story because a central argument of this movie is what that boom did to the lands these villages reside on. A quote from Miyazaki himself:
“The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it – I know it is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed for it, in life and in politics, is hopeless.” Nago is a corrupted god (which the humans have blame in); Jigo is probably the closest thing the film has to an actual, bad person and he shelters and feeds our hero in Act 1, not as a trick, out of kindness; Lady Eboshi made a haven for those marginalized by society and puts them to work. No villains. Only viewpoints. This is why the wise woman does not blame Nago when he attacks them, but simply tries to ease his passing. It does not combat the root problem. In his mind, evil is a byproduct of many flawed actions and ideals, and even though that evil must be dealt with, the blame does not fall onto the victim. It falls onto the village. Nago had a tiny piece of metal, lodged deeply within his body, that has corrupted him. Evil is a concept that is not shunned in the film, but it is given a root of existence that is not generally the fault of the being that it happened to. It’s actually quite a pragmatic outlook considering that Nago and Ashitaka are both destroyed by a single ball of metal that is never really given a reason for existing. Everything that happens in this movie can be traced back to this opening scene. Because our actions and ideals have unintended consequences and sometimes that consequence is evil. You must deal with it, swiftly, but you are also responsible for it and to it, as a product of your environment. Metals are made by people, not spirits and forest deities. Evil is not created in a vacuum. If people are a product of their environment, then the people of that environment bear some of the blame.
Sometimes the symbolism isn’t just “be good to nature.” Because, as Hayao said earlier about evil, it only exists when you maintain the right conditions to make it. And both the forest and the humans cause their own substantively-diverse versions of evil to exist. But that street goes both ways. Humans not taking proper care of their environment and using it responsibly at the turn into an industrial age, causes the forest to create greater dangers and awaken some gnarly-ass forest gods, which in turn causes the humans to create the conditions for a person like Lady Eboshi, an industrialist and leader of Irontown, who accepts the job of continuingly clearing the forest of these dangers, which in turn causes the forest gods like Nago to be corrupted, therefore corrupting Ashitaka, which in turn claims the lives of some – the cycle doesn’t end. It’s a give and take. The humans have to give a little, and not push their interests so far into the forests that the entire ecosystem collapses, therefore killing plant and human alike. And nature has to give a little, as humans are a newer idea in the world than, you know, f***in trees, who had like 90 billion years to figure their shit out. Both sides take turns giving, until they reach a workable equilibrium. The humans declaring war on the forest spirit is basically like a person declaring war on their own lungs. Nature can’t go to war with humanity because that’s a war that nature loses. That’s a war that nature’s literally losing right now in real life, but I mean, humans need nature to survive and, you know, like breathe and eat and stuff. So, you have to find a way to live together. And this is especially hard when the worlds of nature and man, as in this film, are inching ever-closer to mutually assured-destruction. Because, as it turns out, when you kill nature, it kills you right back.
So, when Miyazaki and the film go out of their way to show you that these two sides are not involved in a simple argument with one of the most fascinating juxtapositions of all time, we get our first big scene between Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi and we learn why her rise to power was done with such ease. As it turns out, the industry of war is super profitable, and she managed to put everyone to work, including the brothel girls and lepers. Who by all accounts, love their job and are happy with their lot in life, surely far better than most of the portrayals of lepers in films that I’ve seen. Marginalized people flock to her because she makes these people matter in an archaic system that simply does not allow them to flourish, only struggle. Because this movie has no villain. simply has people that are “cursed for an absurd reason.” Eboshi is like this because she’s a product of her environment. She is a boon to her people. She provides them security and livelihood. Which is extra complicated for Ashitaka now because the only entity that can cure him just had all-out war declared on it by a venture capitalist. Or more succinctly, the situation has created the conditions for evil to exist because they are all now in perpetual escalation toward an apocalyptic demise.
Our opposing forces prepare for war. And the conflict escalates to large scale violence. Outside of the horrendously wounded that this film does not shy away from—omff—too many weird blood stuffs. Actors in this conflict begin dying, and all those causalities do is fuel the war machine driving the whole thing. And Ashitaka fails to convince Lady Eboshi to actually go back and defend the people she swore up and down the entire film that she actually cared about. But oops, guess not. She goes on after the forest spirit, letting her people die, and the conflict kinda literally starts devouring those involved regardless of which side they’re On. And then Eboshi shoots the forest spirit through the brain queso, and pretty much everyone starts going down. The situation grows so bad so instantly after the death of the forest spirit, you end up wanting the peaceful solution. In a situation where the conditions to create evil were met, evil is created. And Eboshi kills the forest spirit. Which was assuredly the only thing keeping them from certain and instantaneous doom. Even at the end, Son is still fighting, but fighting against Ashitaka, as the world collapses around them, for no other reason than Hey, don’t kill the thing you live on, idiot. Fight less. Talk more. Say sorry sometimes.
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Princess Mononoke is a 1997 Japanese film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki that was later released in America in 1999. It was the highest grossing film of all-time in […]