We forget that most men have long been extraordinarily good to women, even sacrificing their lives for women and children and other men. That’s what Honor, Chivalry, and being a Gentleman has always been about. A man deserves respect for his sacrifices and his commitment to defend women, children, and his fellow men by putting himself between those he loves and whatever threatens them. Instead of attacking masculinity, we should be rejoicing in the miracle of these our days when both men and women are less likely to die young and tragically or live in unending toil. We are more likely to grow old in marriage together with a shot at more civilized, prosperous and nonviolent lives of wellness, and feminism deserves zero credit for that triumph; technology and men and women working together made that happen. Men are full of deep wisdom, a loving fire and an irresistible masculine beauty and lovableness which women crave, no matter how arrogantly they condemn their own desires.
A little while ago, I was speaking with a friend about the racial tension issues surrounding the 2016 election in my country, the United States of America. He reacted strongly to the national tension by veering further “left” politically than me, whereas I have become more cautiously moderate. In this conversation I expressed my anguish about becoming separated from beloved friends over these divided politics, especially friends like him. We were talking about the issue of perceived “whiteness” in America, and he felt strongly that White people might be historically redeemed by wiping away this stain of self-identified “whiteness” by no longer identifying as “white”, but instead by reclaiming their roots as ethnically Dutch, Irish, Norwegian, French, Russian, Italian, and so forth. I told him why I take issue with this: “Tell me,” I said, “which am I? Am I French or German or Danish? Am I Scottish or Swedish or English? I do not know which section of my DNA is more worthy of my recognition, in order to be pardoned from a cultural guilt which I have no responsibility in creating.” By trying to uplift the cultural experiences of non-white Americans, he was ignoring and devaluing his own simultaneous reality that White people in America tend to identity as White for a very good reason. They do not belong to only one of these disparate ethnic European groups, but an ancestral admixture of many of them. The story of gradually becoming White in America was not some sinisterly ordained plot worked out in advance from the Mayflower. It was a multi-century, organically evolving experience of blending into a new cultural group of pan-European American people, which eventually resulted in us having only one box to check on the census: “White/ Caucasian”. This blending of ancestries was not some malicious conspiracy to make all ancestrally European people immediately the top of the social hierarchy, though this happened for a multi-generational period due to being the majority population with its own set of complicated values and age-old human problems. This is a story of a people’s multi-generational diaspora, and it isn’t very remarkably different from every other migration story in the history of humanity.
I want to participate in my own ethnic European-American “tribe” the same way other tribes are openly permitted to do so in my country without all the shame and blame to follow. At the same time, I do not accept any supremacist attitudes from anyone, regardless of their “race”. I put the word “race” in scare quotes because I follow the scientific conclusion that there is no biological evidence for the distinct categories we call “races”. There are varying genetics, haplogroups, phenotypes, and distinctive cultures, all of which result in the many ethnic groups of the world, but there is no evidence in reality for such a thing as “race”. Looking at this desire to wholly belong to and participate in the communal life of a human tribe, I view my own need for this cultural identity and cohesion through the same evolutionary and anthropological lens that applies to all in our Human species. I place my own pan-European and American ancestry within that global, million-year-old Hominid story.
Part of the ongoing problem of colonialism’s legacy is that the “privileged” groups tend to unconsciously feel that they will only ever have their privilege to identity with, or else their utter shame and self-hatred in response to it. They forget their own normal humanity that holds the same needs for a semblance of peaceful cohesion as does any other ethnic group. A healthy ancestrally European identity could begin as one which does not assume the blank slate of normalcy for all that is culturally “white”, while marginalizing all non-white people as the Other. Instead, it would claim the beauty and humanity of its Western ancestry, influenced by many peoples over many centuries, while acknowledging the parallel normalcy of everyone else’s accomplishments and subsequent centrism in their own ancestry.
One of the ironies of the politically “progressive” White-guilt complex is the blindness to it’s own ability to be so deeply self-critical as a group of self-identified White people. If White people were so hopelessly irredeemable for the sins of history, we wouldn’t be repenting on our knees through the desert in sackcloth and ashes like we are. The alarming part of this is not a peoples’ willingness to be self-critical, but rather a peoples’ willingness to eagerly self-destruct their own culture in hopes of redeeming itself through a sacrificial offering. The sick religious connotations I draw are intentional. The proclamations on the part of white people who wish to culturally beat themselves and their progeny into submission in reparations to people with more melanin in their skin is sadistic, unacceptably emotionally self-mutilating and will never change the past. It will only put a stain on the wellness and relationships of the generations of the future, whatever their skin colors.
Some contemporary people of European ancestry are trying to creatively re-envision an ethnic identity not automatically tied up in the colonial slaughter of the past five hundred years as their founding mythology. It is appropriate to acknowledge the pain of the victims of colonial history without relegating our own European ethnic heritage to the two worst options: either crippling, self-hating ancestral guilt or inexcusable White supremacist ideology. Neither of these can ever be healthy and I look forward to the future demise of each.
We do damage to upcoming generations when we give them only the consistently despairing accounts of history, without pairing them with the equally true and powerful stories of inter-ethnic friendship, cooperation and acculturation to each other. To only speak exclusively of historical despair –hoping to heal the wounds of history by emotionally flogging the children of the future– only perpetuates conflicts that do not belong to the future. Each of us are born to be the living recipients of history, and so we are the ones qualified to talk back to it. The greatest wisdom of the elders should be to let their warfare die with them.
“And where are the fancy ideas about Western vanity now, the arrogance of persons and the limits of individualism?
Be careful how fast you dispose of the individual self and its pretensions. If the self is no longer inviolable, evil will violate it. And who will there be to judge that this is wrong?
I remain a child of the West, and a grateful one…. This small self is the gift, and burden, I have, and am. It is the self who goes out into the world to see how the others live. It is the same self who calls murder, murder.”
–Todd Gitlin, A Skull In Varanasi, A Head in Baghdad
People don’t get married now for the same reasons they did so historically. Marriage used to be about family alliances, sharing resources, surviving in an uncertain world that was, paradoxically, more familiar to its inhabitants than ours is to us (pre-20th century history changed slowly). Now, the world is relatively much safer: enemy clans, the plague and the scourges of winter starvation are unlikely to raze your village to the ground –and we don’t even have villages now, for that matter (we talk a lot about “community” because most of us don’t really have it.) Love mattered back in the day, but this was only one factor among many others determining a marriage, and depending on the culture and time it may not have been considered at all. Now, we marry only for love, yet a lot of couples can’t trust each other to get married because we now have more unprecedented relationship problems than we know what to do with. Marrying for any other reason than love would be socially unacceptable, but love seems harder to come by, though we are more free. Marriage used to be obligatory, but somehow love could be found. Even the unmarried –celibate religious dedicants, widows and spinsters– found the love of God and each other. A good marriage founded the economics of the home. Now the economics of marriage are afloat on the sea of chaos. Everybody is expected to support themselves, including mothers who hold down full time “jobs” while their serious labor at home as mother or housekeeper is invisible and devalued to anyone outside of the family. Oh, but we’re supposed to want to “have it all”, right?
Let’s sympathize in both directions. Modern people justifiably value privacy and choice, but we can take a tip from the ancestors’ very realistic need to have marriage be a communal, public bond for survival’s sake. It was the time when vital resources and basic security were procured through such alliances. Good-hearted parents often attempted to arrange the most compatible match between a young woman and man, taking into consideration personality, attraction and consent. History is not entirely heartless. Yet, even in blind marriages many couples grew to love each other deeply, devotedly, and with tremendous cohesion. I maintain that the word “institution” to describe marriage is and always has been far too heartless a word: nobody goes to bed with an institution every night, even if the marriage was strictly, nonconsensually arranged. There’s still a human relationship there, and it could mean anything to the people inside it. Even in the most old-fashioned, patriarchal, public, communally arranged marriages, human beings are still human beings with feelings. Personal affection and attraction develop between a couple so that the marriage becomes intimate and private to them, even if that emotional bond wasn’t there initially at the marriage ceremony. Death and divorce are and always have been mourned not for the loss of an institution, but for the loss of someone you were intimately bonded with. We moderns can take a lesson in love and commitment, here. And conservative pundits can take a lesson when they talk about marriage being a glorified legal institution of times past, because they’re still missing the huge point that marriage will ultimately always be personal. Every culture has it’s love poetry.
Today, we are at the beginning of something with marriage. Our private choice of who we marry and when, without our family’s input, need be no less sacred, sincere or meaningful than the public commitment of yesteryear. We are not lacking dignity just because we don’t enter into marriage to get more cattle and a dowry. That being said, we’re in the middle of a whirlwind of struggling to redefine marriage at a deeper level than just an unstable emotional whim without ultimate purpose, a natural side-effect of new freedoms in marriage that comes with the territory of inventing whole-cloth a completely new culture of courtship. We are shaken by divorce, which is sometimes necessary but always anguish. We are struggling to re-sanctify marriage not as an exclusively patriarchal or heteronormative “institution”, but something no less serious or deeply sacred in it’s dawning expansiveness, its inclusivity to new ways of being.
The problem with our secular culture is not that many of us don’t believe in a particular deity or participate in public worship. The problem is that we have laughed off the entire deeper concept of sacredness in society altogether, which is dangerously throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is what triggers many conservatives who are against gay marriage. Though we rightly advocate for the freedom to marry our beloveds of whatever gender, societally we’ve forgotten the religious imagination which sanctifies this most intimate of human relationships, the sexual bond between people. Now, our task as a changing society is to bless, with whatever framework of ultimate meaning, devotion and beauty we can imagine, the sincere bonds forming between people. This will restore interconnectedness, community, purpose, belonging and a new cultural tradition. We grieve the absence of these parts of a functioning culture, leading some to question all personal freedom in unhelpful ways.
It is the mark of a healthy mind to be able to respect other peoples’ choices, within reason, while maintaining a different standard for one’s own life. Though we have differing values within an overarching culture, we all need a framework by which to live. We are in the midst of redefining multiple frameworks by which we may live, and the change can feel dizzying. Rapid change causes discord between people of different views, because there is a fear of losing touch with the anchoring foundations of our history that feel so essential to life. Liberals, while they work for a more humane world, can come to respect this need to be anchored to a cultural past. Though marriage is now a private matter, it is still impossible to engage in anything as consequential as marriage without affecting other people. The life the couple chooses to share together may be what matters most, but the success or failure of a marriage still greatly affects the the other people who are close to the married couple. American society is in search of equilibrium.
Photo by BhaktiCreative. Public Domain. Pixabay.com
There are, typically, seven dimension of wellness according to health researchers on the topic. They are Emotional, Environmental, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social and Spiritual. I’ve added Financial, so we’ll call it eight areas of wellness, here. I did some brainstorming as to what improvements can be made for our mainstream modern culture in each of these areas. These are rough notes, and will doubtless leave out important issues in each area. But this is what came to mind, food for thought. Please, respectfully add your opinion in the comments section as to what you would like to see improved in each area.
All this being said, I’d like to note that I think there’s a lot to our modern culture which is just fine and isn’t in urgent need of changing. We’re really good at at fulfilling due process of law, attaining high literacy rates, getting rid of Polio, abolishing slavery, not burning people alive at the stake, etc. So this is not meant to be an overwhelmingly negative critique. America, my modernized country from where I write and am most influenced by, is a country which is relatively very comfortable with change, even among conservative people. I am proud of this. Change is expected and is written into our cultural life together. Sometimes I think we actually need more of the healthy kind of stability (ie, everybody please stop bitching about Christmas trees and how people feel about them being in public. This is not worth arguing about.) But I critique my country because I love it and I believe in its worth. I intend my critique to be in a good spirit of uplifting and righting that which I love.
Areas of wellness, room for improvements and the challenges that hold us back:
Improvements: More openness, transparency, and respect for the actual emotional inner lives of real people, ourselves included. Good communication. Better compassion and service for the mentally ill, in particular widespread chronic depression and anxiety as a common ailment which too many are afraid to openly claim or discuss. Ceasing an alarming trend of public shaming via the internet, which increases rabid mob mentality and isolates recipients of attacks.
Challenges: Depression, social isolation, self-loathing from trauma or social stigma.
Improvements: Spending soulful time in wild or green spaces. Prioritizing nature education and a personal human-nature relationship with efforts at conservation. Being careful to not emphasize death and destruction of the environment above what good there still is, where success and resilience reign (children especially are sensitive to too much of an alarmist dying-earth message in education). Having a sense of identity, belonging and responsibility for where you live, connected to your land. Recognizing the deep aliveness and spiritual power of the animal, plant and nonhuman world, and our proud natural relationship to them. Increasing understanding between “creationists” and “evolutionists”; there is not a strict division, one can be both in a broad mind.
Challenges: Cultural disconnection/severance from the primal, nonhuman, wild world. “Nature Deficit Disorder” in kids and adults alike. Too much time inside, in artificial surroundings. Disconnect with the body.
Improvements: Becoming financially literate. Strong comprehensive financial education of teens and young adults. Decreasing reliance on credit and debt. Values of simple living: balancing needs and wants. Concurrently, respecting natural desire for material items in moderation without cultural shame of this desire, which feeds a psychological complex of obsession over materialism without fulfillment. Economic justice for affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and absolute respect for service workers, working parents, visibility and gratitude for the invisible people who clean our buildings every night. Adopting an attitude of “We are all in this together as Americans”. Honoring “hard work” without glorifying strenuous, exploitative labor at the cost of economic justice and basic restful wellness.
Challenges: Overwhelming debt, high cost of college, money-shame. Inexcusable lack of financial education for citizens.
Improvements: Finding real delight in learning, discovering that knowledge is often a greater joy than mere entertainment. Discovery of the inner and outer worlds of human life. Integrating the emotional and intellectual components of the full range of thought. Pursuing truth and wisdom.
Challenges: Rigid academia. Divorce between the emotional and intellectual. Lack of empathy in intellectual culture. Bad experiences with school turning people off from their own intelligence or potential. Biased, narrow measurements of intelligence.
Improvements: Connection with economic justice for working people. Knowing that what you do for money does not define who you are. Fair and meaningful labor options. Organizing fellow workers and demanding more time off and better working conditions.
Challenges: Oppressive, systemic problems in work culture/history that affect us all. chronic overwork, lack of sleep, lack of childcare for working parents. Lack of social mobility, low pay and unequal pay discrimination. Not feeling free to be authentic self in work culture.
Improvements: Think of “exercise” as not separate from the rest of life, not a punishment; self-regulated, less boot-camp ideology, which is unsustainable. Pacing ourselves. Embodiment and delight in our physical selves. Allowing yourself to rest when you need, eat food when you need, move when you need, piss when you need, touch when you need, run when you need. Do not sit all day. Awareness and Vitality.
Challenges: Furniture culture, sitting too much, even while I’m writing this and a part of me would rather be outside with my eyes on the marvelous movement of clouds across the bright, big sky instead of glazed on a computer (but I’m here because reasons). Being conditioned as kids to think of exercise as a punishment or a task inflicted on you externally, instead of internally-driven. Despair, disembodiment, devaluing the body’s aliveness.
Improvements: Grasping the spirit of “I am because we are.” –African traditional saying. Intact cultural identity. Connection to greater human story. Going outside yourself. Having a supportive village-style community. Having an intimate spouse/life partner or finding fulfillment as a single person. Interconnected social identity with one another, an end to self-segregation.
Challenges: Too much individualism. Not enough restorative alone time may exhaust what time is spent with others if it is not quality time. Confusing the difference between in-person and online relationships.
Improvements: Seeing the Divine presence in all places, the “Imago Dei”. Sing songs that give you power in the middle of the chest. Understand the poetic and prophetic. Gratitude. Go into the forest. Listen for the voice of Wisdom and Beauty, knowing you are not estranged from it. Play with God. Delight in the World.
Challenges: Fundamentalism, including both conservatives’ textual literalism and liberals’ rejection/belittling of all that is imaginal, metaphorical or mysterious. Loss of imagination, dulled inner vision, numbed awareness of natural magic innate in the world. Rejecting the nonhuman world. Not remembering or paying attention to the pull of the heart.
I recently wrote about four of my favorite globally-minded films: Whale Rider; Osama; Of Gods and Men; and Avatar. “Movies have a powerful effect on the global culture of our time, both reflecting and shaping our world. Each of the following award-winning films speak to important issues in our global society today. They are recommended to anyone who would know greater empathy for our increasingly interconnected times.”
Read the article here, “Four films for the times — global culture in cinema”:http://showcase.tempestamedia.com/four-films-for-the-times-global-culture-in-cinema-aid-21874/
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
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