{Essay} Mononoke

~ essay on the 1997 Hayao Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke.

Princess Mononoke was the first Miyazaki film I saw, and it remains my favorite. It carries the same spectacle as a high art action movie but with the gravitas, character, and message of literature. And it’s an anime movie! {Who am I kidding? Manga is literature.} Miyazaki crafts a beautiful and ambiguous tale, brought ever more to life by its detailed animation and the idea at its heart ~ the conflict between Man and nature. The question presented in Ashitaka’s, San’s, Eboshi’s and Jigo’s tale (which is just as relevant to us today as it ever was) ~ Can we ever learn to coexist with our world and alongside all of its non-human beings?

In this essay, I wish to discuss the major themes of the film and what makes it so vital as a work of art. {As if it needs me to say anything … I just want to!}

The Force of Nature

At its core, Princess Mononoke is a story about Man’s encroachment into the forest. With all of its mystery, its grandeur, its power, the forest becomes a check, and a reckoning, to humanity’s coming enterprises. ‘The forest’ here being the collective aspects of nature in play within the tale. Some human communities of this world enter into it more peacefully and more respectfully {Ashitaka’s people} than others {Lady Eboshi and her Iron Town}. Regardless of how aggressively invasive humans wade into the tree lines and mountain ranges of the wilderness to harvest them of their value, these communities must contend with the natural world and the {sometimes lethally dangerous} beasts within it.

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At the very start of the journey, when the cursed, ‘demonic,’ boar emerges from the trees near Ashitaka’s settlement and attacks him, threatening to destroy his community — we see that there are sometimes dire consequences to building our homes upon the frontiers of the wilds. Wild animals live within their instincts, and while they generally stick to their own lands, they will defend their territory fiercely — and to the death — given their livelihood is threatened. Just like humans. And yet, the truth of the demon-boar’s origin is tragic and a form of self-recursive violence from Man upon Man. Its rage and its pain were the direct result of an iron bullet fired from a rifle, by a human, in an entirely different community. Lady Eboshi, in defense of her own frontier home, killed regiments of charging boars with her newly fashioned and superior weaponry, a defensible and reasonable action. Yet it directly resulted in the later rampage landscapes away and curse laid down upon our young hero’s arm. The whole sequence conveys well the far-reaching consequences of Eboshi’s rising operation across the lands, and more effectively, the horrors which may be unleashed from within the forest spawning out of Man’s violent arms reaching its shores.

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This is because the forest is alive, and it is a force to be reckoned with. The forest, the beasts which call it home, and the spirit which guides its balanced presence within the world — they are ‘forces of nature.’ A force of nature — we use the phrase to mean something that is beyond us, something powerful and unstoppable that occurs within nature. A hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake, black holes out in space. Collections of destructive chaos. They are cosmic forces, unconcerned with our existence or the existence of anything in their way. They are mysterious, beautiful even, and benign, given you are not on their path. But who is say what the path of a force of nature will be? No one and nothing.

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The forest striking out at the humans and the beasts living within it, and even the plants sprawling over its folds in the land can be seen as a kind of defense. In this world, when Eboshi and Ashitaka and San and the others within the human community’s conflicts intersect with the forest and pollute it with our engines and bullets, the forces of nature mount a defense in the form of a curse. Given the power humans have come to bear upon the lands, in the uprooting of the trees faster than they can replenish and the vast mining activities rumbling the mountains, the power of the forest’s reprisal can be seen as an act of balancing. In the world as we know it, it’s a physical law that there is an equal and opposite reaction to all forces at work. In Miyazaki’s mythic world, there is an equivalent calculus between the actions of humans and the reactions of nature.

Midway through the film, there is a point where the wolf Moro {voiced by Gillian Anderson, one of my favorite actresses ever} tells the boar Okkoto {voiced by Keith David, another legend and voice of The Arbiter}, two so-named Gods of the forest themselves by the humans, that the spirit of the forest has sole dominion over the realms of life and death.

The forest spirit gives life and takes it away. The realms of life and death are his alone.

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And so, the forest, and in an ascended sense ~ the forces of nature within it and around it ~ are resources which wield life and death in equal measure, bearing them down upon all when the time and place demand it. Nature, seen from a wider lense, is nothing else but a long-standing and forceful balance upon the world. Man risks his own livelihood when he upsets it so.

Love as Action

One of my favorite aspects of Princess Mononoke is how it subverts and elevates the classical love story between two young people. In Ashitaka, we have our prototypical hero, who embarks on his journey, burdened with life or death stakes and instilled with a moral purpose. Then in San, we have our masked, mysterious ‘princess’ of the wilderness, who first appears as a potential antagonist, sucking and spitting blood out of the bullet wound of her giant wolf companion. I think there is no more legendary introduction to a character — the titular character of the film — than this moment. ~

The characteristics of each are intriguing, so too are the choices they make. You have to respect Ashitaka’s heart of gold and his utter fearlessness in absolutely directing his course toward what he believes to be right. Ashitaka is a warrior and survivalist, caretaker of animals and protector of his people. He is Link x Captain America. Throughout the events of the film, he must explore and come to negotiate a complex war between his own species, the god-like beasts of the land he respects out of admiration, fear or some mix, and the woman he is coming to love. From the jump, Ashitaka fights for peace between all, no matter how impossible that might seem. Regardless of his own self-interest, or what seems to be possible upon his entry into the embroiling conflicts, he seeks to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.” He is a hero worthy of the name.

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San is the ‘princess of the forest’ by the words of the folk of Iron Town. But as her role and character are revealed, the audience comes to understand that her existence is much more complicated than that bestowed title might indicate. She fights for the forest and appears to be one with it, leading its graceful arbiters in the wolves into guerrilla attacks upon the expeditionaries of Iron Town. And yet, we understand she is on one sense alone in the world. She lives apart from humanity, in the savage realm of the animals, yet she is human. As Moro tells a crestfallen Ashitaka, years ago her parents abandoned her to the wolves to save their own lives and instead of eating her, they raised her as their own. This secured her place among them, even as she was not one of them. Moro painfully explains that ~ “Now my poor, ugly, beautiful girl is neither human nor wolf.”

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Equally pained but hopeful is Ashitaka’s response to Moro’s grievances against his path to share his life with her: We might find a way to live.

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This is the essence of their companionship and their romance through this tale ~ that of sharing their lives utterly with one another. Their love is borne of action. In the midst of life and death circumstances, they take daring actions to save one another throughout the film. Ashitaka risks his own life to protect San against Eboshi and the Iron Town militia, even while she herself attacks him in a confusion. He does so because she is beautiful. Not strictly in the aesthetic sense, but in that she is a human being, whom lives within the wilderness among the beasts, and she fights for what she believes in, just as anyone else would. He admires her from afar and seeks her out, not only because he believes she might play a role in helping him — but also because of that beauty. San saves Ashitaka not just out of gratitude for his own aid, but from her view of his actions — of trying to speak reason into the people of Iron Town and his attempts in the fight for a reckoning to humanity’s continued reckless and destructive march into the forest. Her intuition tells her that he is good; we know she is right.

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San and Ashitaka help each other, they do share their lives. Two heroes, fighting together unto the same cause, to continue living gracefully within a harsh world trying its hand at recovering. And by the end, their continued companionship is assured. It may not even become the romance that we’ve come to expect from these kinds of fairy tales. But there’s real interdependence to it, and trust. Their love is borne in the action of shared experience, and is thus indestructible.

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It’s over. Everything is over. The forest is dead. // Nothing is over. The two of us are still alive.”

Man v. Beast v. Fate

The essential conflict in Princess Mononoke is existential for all parties involved. It is a war for life itself. Man versus Beast. Or put more truthfully, Man versus everything else {including itself}. It is All-versus-All. With the advent of advanced technology and the necessary resource sacrifices this industriousness will bring, the stakes are elevating before our eyes for Man and for beast. Man being the rising party, full of beings long ago separated via evolution, and fast forgetting their past coexistence, in the harmony before consciousness gifted ambitions … and guns.

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In this tale, there is much talk of curses and fate and the natural cycles of life, death and rebirth. The forest produces this effect; from out of its rampant, evergreen density and under its sprawling canopy, there is an effervescent kind of spirituality engendered into all that walk into its spell. Ashitaka certainly experiences it; San lives and breathes it. There is beautiful power within these lands and a duality to their effects. Light and darkness spawn from this spirituality; life and death, blessings and curses, “Gods and Demons.” Nature is full of paradoxes, and they are reflected within the harsh, efficient continuity of its vital cycles.

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Perhaps the most salient paradox to this story is Man itself. Man is borne of nature, and forever a part of its folds. And yet, he now resides out of its reaches. There are consequences to this separation. The collective memory of our time and our struggle within the wilderness must be maintained and cultivated from generation to generation, lest it be forgotten. This film conveys how much Man has forgotten about his spiritual connection to the land and the world around us with the appearance of the kodama. The cute little tree spirits, click-clacking and fading in and out of sight from Ashitaka and Kohruku’s journey through the forest, produce two vastly different effects in the individuals from two different cultural upbringings. Kohruku, freshly rescued from his near-death experience fighting the animal guardians of the forest, is terrified of the creatures and thinks they are nothing more than omens signaling their coming death. Ashitaka on the other hand, understands the beings as peaceful, even wise and potentially helpful to their travails within the wood. One seeks to commune with the spirits of the forest, and try to better understand their presence, while the other only fears something that he does not understand. Each are reacting to the unknown in more and less productive ways. But perhaps more importantly, each individual is interacting with an aspect of the nature world while carrying varying levels of weight upon their conscience concerning this other world. Kohruku’s fear can be seen as rational, once we understand what his community in Iron Town has been doing to the land and its creatures. He is rational to inherently believe these forces to be vengeant toward his kind; he is a human and is familiar with feelings of vengeance.

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A significant part of ancient Japanese culture, and bearing its influence upon all of Miyazaki’s work, is the concept of kami. In Shinto, they are the spirits of the universe, the hidden, holy powers within the natural world all around us. They can be considered as ancestors, and can be found in all places, living {trees} and ‘dead’ {rocks} things included. This through-line of a kind of spirituality to all things and all places contributed to the cultural environment of the Japanese people, and the immense respect — and responsibility — they carry with them at all times for the world around them. Given there is a spark of life, and of some kind of lived experience, in anything and everything, one’s perspective would naturally shift concerning their interactions in this Kami-rich world.

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And so, for Ashitaka and San, for Jigo, for Lady Eboshi and the people of Iron Town, there are varying levels of love, respect and awe carried forth from their run-ins with the forest, its beasts and its spirits. Out of peaceful communing and violent warring with its protectors and denizens, the lands respond in kind to create these experiences for the humans rediscovering their age-old connections to the forces of nature.

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But we understand that the war between Man and the forces of the forest can be seen as rational in more than one sense. The wilderness is a killer; the big cats of the jungle, the wolves, even the boars, are our potential predators. Man seeks security from the many death-dealers found within the forest and the inscrutable forces of the natural world, behind walls and fire, and in the realms of tools and technology. Man fights against the All using his reason and his empathy. Human beings, all the corruption and the avarice aside, hold an ingenuity and a cooperative spirit amongst their own to trump all the rest of the beings of the world combined.

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Self-interest governs Man just as it does the animal kingdom. Moro condemns Ashitaka for his human crime of thinking only of himself. And yet, animals are even more culpable for such short-sighted and instinctual self-interested ’thinking.’ The difference comes in their lack of an expanding consciousness, and of the ambition afforded, towards the ends of carving out a world for themselves beyond their natural outfitting. The history and evolution of Man is a constant reaching beyond his grasp, going further, faster, higher — as far as our imagination wills us to be. As Albert Camus aptly stated:

Man is the only creature who refused to be what he is.

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Whereas the beasts of the wilderness must continually find ways to survive within nature’s unforgiving passages, Man elevates himself above it all, thriving with a mastery of the elements and the many swords and shields they can provide. To compete, and ultimately try to win against our competitors and our environment, Man built for themselves claws, wings and the killing breaths of fire; as a self-created, self-determined dragon in the wilds, Man becomes alpha. Moro and Okkoto and the ape tribes must restlessly find new places to migrate toward or be wiped out. Lady Eboshi and her rifles threaten not only to dominate the armies of the wilds, but also any challenging armies of men to her throne.

Insatiable and ever-improving our arts for more secure living, we move further out into the wilds, encroaching upon the natural world’s stores and resources, harvesting them and taking them into our advantage. Tree-cutting and mountain mining provide Iron Town with the resources it needs to operate and to continue expanding and supporting its populace. All of this occurs to the disadvantage — and death — of the beasts and the environment itself. Holding no special connection or rational reason to reform their ways within this cyclical condition, Man continues his progression unabated, with the whole world at his liberty.

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Out of all this, some combination of rational self-interest and rage-filled vengeance dawns upon the beasts and brings them together to oppose the reign of the humans. They can see the slope of their fate oncoming. And so they throw themselves into war, knowing the likely outcome but not held back by despair. If it’s the end, they will make it a glorious end. As Okkoto says ~ Even if every one of us dies, it will be a battle the humans will never forget. Ironically, the animals take on a human trait in dignity, and hope to die well, fighting unto the last, if that is their fate.

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The human advantage in all battles against the beasts is two-fold: technology, and cruelty. “Why chop the trees down? // To make them angry, and stupid.” ~ Humanity theorizes strategic manipulations from an understanding of the enemy that the opposition cannot hope to replicate. And they win because of it.

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The whole conflict appears as zero-sum because, under the current conditions of its progression, it only ends with either the beasts perishing or the humans deciding to stop. The boars and the wolves and apes act out of desperation, fighting for their very existence; humanity acts out of material ambition, weighing the morality of our actions mostly only towards our own kind {and sometimes disregarding even this}. Our interaction with the environment and the conflicts therein, presents questions of our liberty — whether or not we can develop an ethic for cultivating the world beyond us and our imagined, insular future technologies, and if we can ever come to the point tempering our ambitions for the sake of the trees and the beasts.

Humanity craves its freedoms, but can it harbor temperance ~ and a self-induced limitation to such cravings ~ for the sake everything outside of us? {This kind of question becomes more relevant every single day}.

Given humanity cannot fully understand the coming complications and self-extincting consequences of harvesting the environment without oversight, our fate lies alongside the blasted bones of the boars. Dead and gone, just at the end of a road far more complicated, storied and foolish than any of our victims. Foolish because we held in our hands the means of rising to meet our fates, and we neglected it in favor of our unfettered appetites for more.

“You cannot alter your fate. You can, however, rise to meet it.”

In Princess Mononoke however, in this other world we are presented a tale spun from — Ashitaka and San do rise to meet fate.

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Our hero is truly gifted his curse, given how he ends up using it. ~ “Look everyone! This is what hatred looks like! Fear and anger only make it grow faster.” ~ Ashitaka, wielding the demonic strength bestowed from his curse, could choose to use it win the war against the beasts, fighting with the humans and severely lessening the blood loss from the side of his own species. But he is wise, and empathetic, and uses his newfound power to try to make peace, end the conflict, and seek coexistence between Man and beast. Our heroine awakens to her own part in the cycle of violence, a position righteously afforded her given the history of her side’s more severe losses and lesser culpability in initiating the violence. San works with Ashitaka, swallowing her pride and her desire for revenge in order to seek the better long-term outcome for all parties.

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Each is negotiating with the fate of two worlds upon their shoulders. And in the end, they do not entirely succeed. The spirit of the forest is murdered before their eyes. They almost meet their ends themselves. But they make due, fighting for their co-equal philosophy until the last, meeting upon fate’s summit hand in hand. The duo restores the spirit and allow it to rest, gone from the forest for now but its essence still residing within it and all around them. In a beautiful moment in the film’s denouement, the spirit of the forest’s death seemingly transfers to the life of the flowers that grow into the very next dawn.

Ah, I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow…” ~ Kohroku

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Their efforts seem to affect a change within their community; Ashitaka and San together start a new cycle of potential harmony between Man, beast and environment. At the stead of the forest’s new beginning, resolutions are made and mutual understandings reached. Eboshi vows to rebuild their community better, and different this time. Jigo accepts a credo of temperance upon his own Godlike ambitions. And our companion-lover-heroes in San and Ashitaka vow to continue working together to better their world, overseeing their respective lands unburdened from their solitude, free from their approaching deaths, and ready to share their lives with one another for the seasons to come.

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The ending of Princess Mononoke is beautifully ambiguous. It is awash with some mix of hope and despair, exultation and regret, a looking forward to life and looking back upon death. Just as with our own lives and the many fates of our storied histories, we rarely receive simple or happy endings, and we never gain complete resolution. So it is with this passage of this kind of transcendent tale of life itself ~ where one has to act to be able to see light, choosing to dig through darkness to uncover it, willingly bearing curses and exiles along the way toward such uncertain fates. ~

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