The much-loved 1997 film Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli, is a profound entryway into understanding modern humanity’s hunger for our ancient roots in nature and animistic spirituality through the lens of one culture, Japan. The culture of the “land of the rising sun”, as it is famously called, began as every culture did: foraging hunter-gatherers arrived in their current homeland in a seemingly mythological age of long ago, a time when the earth was ruled by pristine wilderness and the land enchanted by the spirits of animals undomesticated by humans. Though this legacy is, in part, a somewhat nostalgic and simplified view of humanity’s “primitive” past, it is nevertheless important to honor the spiritual, cultural and psychological meaning of this pan-human yearning for communion with the ancient spirits of the wild.
Princess Mononoke explores these dynamics well. Japan is, today, one of the most technologically advanced, democratic, modernized, and industrialized of the world powers and has become a poster child for Asian success in the global market. Yet Japan retains a living link to it’s ancient roots, particularly through the beautiful animistic religion of Shinto, wherein a rich cosmology of nature-spirits called kami interact constantly with the human world through an innate aliveness perceived in all of existence. This offers a unique opportunity to study the relationship between a modernized country and it’s animist origins, a relationship which is sometimes harder to discern in Western countries where Abrahamic religion and subsequent Enlightenment-era thought have largely obscured most clear signs of continuously intact “earth-based” spirituality and culture. But Japan, like every other modern country, has itself passed through an era of rapid and alarmingly destructive deforestation and destruction of nonhuman lifeforms. The country has since increasingly come to realize it’s spiritual lifeline in nature as well as it’s practical need to conserve natural “resources”.
There is a difference between seeing nature as innately alive and animate with feeling and worth in it’s own right, as opposed to merely a dead object which we harvest to put on shelves at our whim, for our exclusive disposable use. Japan, a country which is 75% forested mountains, now officially preserves 5.4% of its total land area as protected national parks (there’s room for improvement, compared to New Zealand, for example, which protects 11.5% of its land, but this is progress nonetheless) (Knight, 2015). Increasingly the Japanese people feel, along with much of the developed world, a growing desire to be in relationship with the spirits of the land as their ancestors were. Communities are discovering the need to dial down the unhealthy consumerist excesses of modern life which pull a dull smog over the senses, contributing to depression, suicide and emotional isolation.
And so we see that nature and culture are not and need not be separate: the origins of human culture were, in fact, inseparable from their sacred surroundings in the earth. The modern yearning to rediscover that connection is necessary for the wellbeing of the whole world. In the words of Motohisa Yamakage, author of The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart, “It is important, therefore, for the Japanese people to rediscover their spiritual essence and their cultural roots, and to make these a force for the good of humanity as a whole.” (Yamakage, 2006)
Princess Mononoke opens with a scene of trouble in paradise. A giant boar the size of a house, one of the myriad kami, has become crazed with possession and rampages into attack on a small feudal Japanese village. Prince Ashitaka, the story’s protagonist, fights the boar-god, and defeats it, but only after the demon’s poison wraps around his right arm in the struggle, wounding him severely with an unnatural curse. The medicine woman of the village emerges after the boar is fallen to bless the animal-god and ask its forgiveness for whatever grudge it bears against humans. But the boar is full of rage, and dies swearing that the humans will suffer as it has suffered. The people of the village hold a council and decide that the village is no longer safe with the curse upon Prince Ashitaka’s arm in their midst. He is then sent away, regretfully, to discover a cure that may save him as well as an explanation for the violent unrest of such a formidable kami.
Ashitaka journeys a while and encounters a wandering monk, Jiko-bo, who tells him that he can help him find the Great Forest Spirit, Shishigami, who can save him. They wander together and come upon the settlement of Iron Town, a place commandeered by Lady Eboshi, who is at war with the forest and all it’s spirits over the iron it contains. She desires to decapitate the mountains and the Great Forest Spirit with them so that her metal-making endeavors will not be restrained by the needs or limits of nature. With the head of Shishigami in her hands, she would present it to the emperor of Japan in exchange for his protection and support, and her supposed immortality, or so the legend goes. But the Wolf Clan and their adopted human, San (Princess Mononoke herself), are throwing all their efforts at stopping the works of Iron Town. San is furious that her forest is being destroyed.
What follows from here is the conflict between the animal clans of the forest as their anxiety is heightened due to the tension put upon them by humans; the wolves, boars, monkeys, and more cannot agree about how to combat this destruction. At the same time, Eboshi catches Shishigami at the one vulnerable moment when he turns into his Nightwalker form, a majestic deer-man figure who is so large that he towers even over the mountains. She decapitates him: poison pours forth from the body of the creature who was to be the eternal lifeblood of the mountains themselves. The corruption flows through the grieving forest, killing many kodama,the numerous small and childlike ghostly kami who populate the sacred groves. The monk, Jiko-bo, becomes a traitor and steals the god’s head from Eboshi for himself, but San and Ashitaka pursue him into Iron Town to retrieve it. Shishigami’s head is returned, and eventually harmony is restored to the sacred wild. Ashitaka’s curse from the boar’s attack is lifted, and the mother-wolf of the Wolf Clan bites of Lady Eboshi’s arm. Humbled, she accepts the lesson of respecting nature, and Ashitaka helps rebuild Iron Town with the understanding of the need to live in harmony with the earth. The forest recovers.
It will appear obvious to those in tune with the environmental movement, and especially the growing popularity of nature-based spirituality, that Princess Mononoke is a spiritual and environmental epic. Japan’s origins dwell in the mystery of the earth: the islands of the nation are said to have been created by the sun goddess, Amaterasu, along with the ill-fated lovers Izanami and Izanagi. Izanami is a rather Lillith-type character, in particular: unlike the shining and admirable Amaterasu, she becomes the goddess of death, the Dark Mother and ruler of the underworld after she dies giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi, her lover, parts ways with her once she becomes the goddess of death, vowing to give life to more humans than Izanami devours. Creation stories such as these signify an awareness on the part of ancient peoples of the power of nature to be both live-giving and death-bringing, both gentle and fierce, but always powerful beyond comprehension. This belief in the intermixed goodness and unpredictability of the natural and spiritual worlds is reflected clearly in the first part of Princess Mononoke when the old medicine woman speaks a prayer of honor and forgiveness over the body of the rage-filled boar.
The first people to arrive in Japan probably set foot on the islands around 40,000 years ago, though the exact phenotype or culture of this ancient group is unknown. We do know, however, that the Jomon people were the indigenous group of the islands that are recognizable today, the minority Ainu population being their closest living successors. The Yayoi people, originators of the current dominant group comprising 98% of Japanese people, probably arrived from the Korean peninsula around 300 BCE It was around this time that rice farming also took hold in Japan, as the knowledge of it arrived with the Yayoi. This allowed the people to settle down into fixed villages with storages of rice, no longer reliant on hunting and gathering for subsistence. A population boom soon followed, and many of the Jomon group are thought to have been either assimilated or defeated. Not long after, written language was imported from China, what is now known as the kanji script of Chinese characters altered to fit the Japanese language. With both writing and agriculture, Japan soon became a more complex, hierarchical society (Dolan, 1994).
The story of Princess Mononoke takes place during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1568 CE) during the deterioration of the medieval social system. It is significant because the era marks the onset of the societal transition in Japan from an agricultural society to a nation increasingly unified, militarized and urbanized. The realm of the gods was felt to be at odds with this new direction society seemed to be heading in. Shinto, a religion native to the country and older than time itself, saw the mountains and forests as sacred, mountains in particular having long been ascended in reverence throughout Japanese history as a means to attaining spiritual purification. Now, the mountains were seen as selfishly withholding the treasure of their iron ore, instead of enchanting the people with their spiritual treasure that was the beloved kami. The relationship of the people to their mountains and forests was suddenly warped, strained, and severely tested (Wright, 2004).
Modernization, spirituality and gender are three anthropological themes of particular note in the film. Japan has traditionally been a country highly suspicious of outsiders, and perhaps for good reason at times in their past: they knew of the strength of China and the Mongols and wished to hold them at bay. Later, upon meeting Europeans, they realized they did not want to end up another version of the colonized Philippines, hence the subsequent and dizzyingly rapid modernization. But this response only shows that influence from the outside world to some degree is inevitable. Japan experienced a first major shift in religious thought with the introduction of Buddhism to the islands in 538 CE. Shinto, the indigenous religion of the land, had not as yet so much as a name for itself, as there was not enough of anything that wasn’t nature to distinguish itself from. Shinto was forced to adapt to this new religion’s more complex, ethereal doctrines which emphasized transcending or overcoming nature more than connecting intimately with it. The sudden need to see nature as something other, separated out from the rest of life, was a major shift in worldview. Shinto adopted the Buddhist practice of building large temples and establishing an ordered priesthood. The nation adjusted, as well, to new monetary systems of accounting and foreign trade with the mainland inevitably brought along with Buddhism. Princess Mononoke follows the trail of these changes continuing to play out socially hundreds of years later in the lives of common Japanese people of small towns and villages who were likely not literate, and so retained a more “primitive” lifestyle compared to the day-to-day baseline of the Emperor’s court where the influence was most clearly felt. The Muromachi period was the turning point when the Pandora’s box of modernization began for the whole of Japanese society, not just the elite, brining along with it all the complicated advantages and losses that modernization involves.
The role of women in Princess Mononoke, and many of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies overall, is of interest to understanding the historical and evolving place of women in Japan. Many contemporary Japanese animations portray women as cute, weak and passive, but Miyazaki’s female characters have long been more dynamic and real than the infantilized schoolgirl trope. In Mononoke, the main female protagonist, San, who is Mononoke herself, is a wild human who is extremely capable of defending herself, her homeland and her animal family. Prince Ashitaka (who, as the main male protagonist, is in fact not hyper-masculinized to the point of unfeeling, macho brutality) recognizes that he finds her beautiful, and the story suggests that they form an intimate partnership after the film’s conclusion, but this romance is in no way definitive of San’s character or purpose at all in the story. Ashitaka demonstrates impeccable respect toward San’s strict boundaries and dislike of other humans, allowing her time to decide to trust him as she sees fit. Their eventual romance is a sweet afterthought, and a very natural one, but it is not the defining quality of San’s female role. Their partnership is of importance more because it grows upon the foundation of striving together for justice toward the forest, and their romance is secondary to the story in which neither male or female partner is overly sexualized or defined by their romantic interest. San is, as well, visually presented not as a “sexy” character but as a very natural “tomboy” type, with no particular emphasis on her body’s sexuality. Unlike it would be in many anime films, she is not given a large bust, large sparkly eyes or anything else absurd to her role as a forest creature.
Chizuko Ueno, a household name in Japan who is one of the best known contemporary feminist critiques of Asian patriarchal culture, asserts that the stereotypical image of the submissive Japanese woman is a more recent invention in Japanese history which grew upon the rapid urbanization of the country and was imposed by the hierarchical values of the elite. Harkening back to the legend of Izanami, the dark mother goddess who is anything but a demure, delicate geisha and far more of an ancient creatrix of pre-civilized matriarchy, there persists to this day a buried archetype of the wild woman of Japan, uncontrolled and fierce in her natural power (this is a good thing). As Schnell and Hashimoto write in the The University of Iowa’s article Revitalizing Japanese Folklore, we can see how Miyazaki’s portrayal of a different kind of female character demonstrates a search for Japan’s feminine and natural roots:
Folklore is particularly adept at supplying “the people’s” point of view. As sociologist Chizuko Ueno… has noted, “historical research based on written texts often ends up being about the ruling class and its ideology.” Folklorists, therefore, with their emphasis on fieldwork and oral tradition, must preserve what historians gloss over or ignore—the attitudes and experiences of peasants, fishermen, wage laborers, and small entrepreneurs (in other words, the vast majority of the population). Ueno herself relies heavily on… documentation of pre-industrial village life in challenging the “traditional” image of Japanese women as being subservient. Her work demonstrates that much of the subordination occurred with the transition to an urban-industrial context, when the values of the elite samurai were adopted by (or imposed upon) the masses (Hashimoto & Schnell. 2003).
The film’s antagonist, Lady Eboshi, is also not an exact image of pure evil as is often the case for antagonists in western media. She is at war with the forest and it’s kami, but she is doing so with the intention of using its resources to help many common people who have been otherwise rejected or abandoned by their communities. She takes under her wing several lepers who would have nowhere else to go, giving them shelter and work to survive. She also fosters a group of former prostitutes whose lives, in the words of the women themselves, are of a far better quality communally working the bellows and furnaces of Iron Town, unbothered by the men and given as much food as they hunger for, compared to the demeaning and disempowering brothels of their previous situations. The lives of these women stand out in the film as a further comment upon the complexity of Japanese women’s history, a legacy of subjugation and sharp divisions of social class which increased with the growing dominance of the warrior cults who came to rule the country.
Oct. 24, 1999 Los Angeles Times profile of Miyazaki, Charles Solomon, in his October 24, 1999 profile of Miyazaki in the Los Angeles times, speaks to the complexities of Eboshi’s actions as they reflect Japan’s struggles to modernize.
“Eboshi is not a straightforward villain. Like the Japanese people after World War II, the workers in Iron Town are trying to survive in a troubled world; they don’t mean to destroy their environment. ‘If you portray someone who’s evil, then you off him, what’s the point?’ Miyazaki asked. ‘It’s easy to create a villain who’s a maniacal real estate developer, then kill him and have a happy ending. But what if a really good person becomes a real estate developer?'” (Solomon, 1999)
Thus, the Japanese consciousness around the dual necessity and environmental cost of modernization is a mature one. It is able to integrate cherished Shintoist beliefs about the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of nature, culture, and life, seeing the mysterious kami in the persistent beauty of the landscape into the present day. It is able to reflect its ancient roots in its modern media art, a relationship reaching across time which other modern countries strive to do as gracefully. Japan’s collective imagination is one for the aliveness of the land, the power of the feminine and the uncertain mechanizing of the future. It is increasingly well aware -and regretful- of the loss of wilderness which modern society demands, yet it is understanding of the need to reach equilibrium with nature in order to maintain a society which is able to support itself, defend itself, and fulfill its potential on a new global scale.
Yamakage, M. (2006). The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Knight, C. (n.d.). Natural Environments, Wildlife, and Conservation in Japan. Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://japanfocus.org/-Catherine-Knight/3292
Van Zoelen, P. (2012, December 13). Hayao Miyazaki: Recovery of Japanese Cultural Values. Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://culturevisuelle.org/introtovc/archives/727
Dolan, R. (1994). Japan: A Country Study (5th ed.) (R. Worden, Ed.). Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.
Wright, L. (2004, February 3). Wonderment and Awe – the Way of the Kami. Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2004/02/03/wonderment-and-awe-the-way-of-the-kami- lucy-wright/
Hiroyuki, H., & Schnell, S. (2003). Guest Editors’ Introduction: Revitalizing Japanese Folklore. Iowa Research Online: The University of Iowa’s Institutional Repository, Department of Anthropology Publications. Asian Folklore Studies. Retrieved April 8, 2015, from http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=anthro_pubs
Solomon, C. (1999, October 24). At the Head of the Pack. Retrieved April 23, 2015, from http://articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/24/entertainment/ca-25527