Tsunderin: After the confusing, unemotional mess that was Nausicaa and with a whole roster of films now under his belt, Miyazaki decided to try his hand at another, more ‘user friendly’ environmental film—which was probably needed more than ever due to Pom Poko. Indeed, the ten year hiatus of sorts was beneficial because it helped Miyazaki learn to zero in on his message, bring it out, and not hit people over the head with it. For these reasons, as well as the gorgeous art, Princess Mononoke is considered a masterpiece, even transcending the cultural barrier—Mononoke is much more Japanese in feel than, say, Porco Rosso or even Nausicaa—so much so that it’s even gotten its own musical. But what is it about Mononoke that has captured so much of the world?
The story starts in ancient Japan, in the village of Emishi, which is reeling from a recent demon attack. Its prince, Ashitaka, has managed to slay said demon, but in return he finds that his arm has been cursed. This curse is a double-edged sword: due to it he has become inhumanly strong. However, he will die (within the year, as the movie seems to imply). All is not lost; the villagers tell Ashitaka that if he returns to the land of the demon’s origin he may find a cure. Seeing this as his only option, Ashitaka self-exiles himself and ventures forth.
On his travels Ashitaka receives another tip: if he can find the Great Forest Spirit, the deer god, he could receive the actual help he needs rather than relying on what could be unreliable man-made cures. Though it would have been simple, albeit foolish, to go off and search for the deer god, his quest is put on hold when he comes across two injured men. Without hesitation, he takes them back to their home village, Irontown, but not before seeing a pack of wolves, of which one of the members is actually a human girl. Ignored by the pack, he returns on his way to Irontown.
Once there, he discovers that Irontown does its best to live up to its name and it’s a name that the manufacturer of the town, Lady Eboshi, carries with pride. To make the town, Eboshi admits to have clearing many acres of forest and also monopolizing the ironsand to create iron in an effort to protect the town against the ravaging gods of the forests and plains. However unbeneficial for the environment this may be, it’s also helpful because many people have been given jobs and a new chance at life they may not have otherwise had due to the industry that has been created. Eboshi also knows of San, the wolf-girl, whom she calls ‘Princess Mononoke’. She says that due to being raised by the wolf god, San carries a hatred for humans and is unremorseful about slaughtering them. With uncanny timing—or in what could be a weekly, or even daily event—San slips into Irontown in an attempt to assassinate Eboshi. However, Ashitaka takes the brunt of San’s attack and knocks both of the warring women out. Unfortunately, despite his efforts to keep the town at peace, he is shot by a villager before he can return San to the forest.
When San awakens, she desires only to kill him, but in seeing that he means no harm, she brings him to the forest to heal him instead. Only when the deer god turns his gaze upon the ailing prince does San attempt to trust him.
Meanwhile, Irontown is getting ravaged by a furious boar god that is trying to save the remaining forestlands and Eboshi heads out to take on the deer god in the midst of all the chaos. The boar god is corrupted by a gunshot wound while Eboshi manages to decapitate the deer god. Once its head is removed, however, corruption begins spilling out across the land, killing everything it touches. Only when San and Ashitaka return the creature’s head does the land heal, as well as Ashitaka’s cursed arm.
Seeing the harm she has done and being thankful to the prince who saved her life, Eboshi vows to rebuild her village in a more respectful manner to the gods that surround her. Ashitaka takes it upon himself to remain in Irontown, to help the progress and keep things under control. As for San, though she can see some of the good in humanity, she still harbors a great hatred for it and opts to remain in the forest.
MadameAce: Probably one of the reasons that Princess Mononoke has such a powerful message is that it shows both sides of the argument. It has more of a balance than something like Pom Poko does. I couldn’t stand Pom Poko, and I know that it didn’t help that the movie felt the need to beat me over the head with some environmental statement. The problem with that is that people like me, the ones who don’t really care about the environment, have no use or love for a story that only talks down to us for not agreeing with the message, when we are probably the ones the story should be trying to teach.
Pom Poko never seems to come to terms with the other side of the argument and instead proclaims a message of “humans and cutting down trees = evil no matter the reason behind it”. Thus, the movie fails in its message.
There is a similar message in Princess Mononoke. The animals and gods don’t like that the humans in Irontown are chopping down their forest, and so they war with the humans. They kill the humans all the time. San herself has infiltrated Irontown and killed numerous people. But are they justified in such acts? The answer to this question is that they’re not. We know they’re not because we get to meet and learn about the people in Irontown. They not only need a place to live, but they also need a means of living, which results in the destruction of the forest. However, knowing that does not diminish the fact that the forest is being destroyed and that the gods, animals, and forest spirits—who are all more or less sapient—are losing their homes in order for the humans to live. So the humans are not in the right either.
By showing both sides, the movie has to address the issues and needs of both the humans and the animals, and so the movie is challenged with telling us that it’s wrong and disrespectful to destroy nature while also being aware that there are reasons behind it. In the end, Lady Eboshi goes back to rebuild Irontown, but she also vows that she will be more respectful to her surroundings. At the same time, the animals and gods are going to have to deal with the fact that the town is still there and that it’s not going anywhere. Princess Mononoke is successful here because both sides have a lesson to learn in making the situation right.
Tsunderin: Despite skillfully getting the message across in a more appropriate manner, Mononoke’s approach to visual storytelling almost got it into trouble. Again, let’s compare it to Ghibli’s earlier environmental films. Although it’s easily argued that Pom Poko is a hideously violent movie when examined closer, the violence in the film is distanced from the audience so much so that it can be difficult at times to realize that yes, actual people and animals are dying. Most of the time the bright colors and the mere fact that the tanuki are animated in such a goofy manner are enough to draw all the realism out of any fight that may be going on. Certainly Nausicaa carries a much more serious tone with its animation, but it still carries a sense of disassociation. Nausicaa had no stakes because it’s obvious that no one important to the story is going to die; the animation wasn’t at fault there. Nausicaa also only gives one side to the story. So in order to make Mononoke successful, Miyazaki had to include a serious art style that forced the audience to remain invested in the realism in the story and, most importantly, illustrated the stakes. For a story of this setting and this caliber, that meant adding blood.
Making an impact doesn’t always mean adding gore, don’t get me wrong, but in a warring setting, seeing directly the casualties of such conflict is an easily understood method of revealing the stakes. Also, when one of the subplots is specifically about blood being corrupted and the ease with which either side can be ‘cursed’—although being ‘cursed’ with a gunshot wound is much more violent—it seems only fitting that the shedding of said blood be an integral part to the plot.
The problem lies not within the animation of war, but with the then-recent localization deal and advertising. After its huge success in Japan, it would stand to reason that Disney would wish to release this to the American markets so it could replicate the success. Being a huge company, Disney had the ability to hire the best translators, the best suited localization folks, and skilled voice actors.
But because Disney is (shockingly enough) Disney, they had one thing that concerned them much more: their image. Mononoke is a violent, bloody movie dealing, in part, with misanthropy. Disney is a company best known for princesses and animated characters that are happy all the time. See the disconnect? More worried for their image than the hordes of people awaiting the stateside release of this film, Disney (under their Miramax brand) barely did any marketing for this film—and if you’ve seen the marketing they did for Spirited Away, you know what they’re capable of. Because of this, the film did rather poorly in America at first.
I think also some of Disney’s worries came from wondering if such a story so inherently Japanese in setting and mythology would even be understood or desired by a different audience. These days it’s a no-brainer; America and Japan are in love with each other’s products, it seems, but back then it was a risk. I wouldn’t say a huge risk, but a risk all the same. Luckily, Miyazaki’s storytelling and Ghibli’s animation were wonderful enough that they needn’t have worried. I’m willing to bet though, if Pom Poko was one of the first films distributed by Disney and their related brands, the battle would have been a much steeper uphill climb; even if the cute animated animals fit more within Disney’s theme, the message would not have been as well received because it didn’t have the story (or the animation, truthfully) to back it up.
MadameAce: I’d say the film is also successful in this regard because we can actually give a shit about the characters. I didn’t like Nausicaa because there were no stakes, the characters had no motivations outside what Nausicaa wants them to have, and Nausicaa herself was a divine Mary Sue. This is something that the later films improved upon, and Mononoke is no exception. San, like Nausicaa, is prone to violence and has killed people before. However, whereas Nausicaa would just angrily and merciless attack people, San at least has the excuse of being raised with misanthropic wolves, and not everyone agrees with her. She doesn’t like Ashitaka when they first meet, and she even wants to kill him after he saves her life. These two have to go through a giant cultural barrier of sorts before San even starts to like him. What makes San, Ashitaka, and everyone else in Mononoke great is that they all have unique motivations.
In Nausicaa, everyone was concerned about what Nausicaa wanted or where she was and no one could think for themselves. In Mononoke, each character has a different motivation, and their journeys to seeing their motivations through cause the characters to clash with each other. Lady Eboshi wants to make Irontown great and keep it safe, San wants to kill Lady Eboshi for cutting down the trees, Ashitaka wants to be freed from his curse, so on and so forth. This makes each character likable in their own way, and they each have their own strengths. I should point out, however, that San in particular we know will be a strong female protagonist because she has short hair. Yes, this is a Miyazaki film, and so once again we have a short-haired female. I honestly don’t think I’d mind—or even notice—this if it wasn’t true of every female protagonist Miyazaki works with.
Tsunderin: Man, I’m getting tired of all these short-haired protagonists. Where’s my long-hair representation.
MadameAce: Just remember, short hair = strong female character. And hey, in Howl’s Moving Castle the girl has long hair… which she cuts off at the end. I mean, didn’t you know, you can’t be a strong woman if your hair is long! What’s wrong with you?!
Tsunderin: God, sorry! I guess I’ll never be able to ride through the glen with my hair flowing in the wind because that’s not what strong female characters do! Someone better tell Merida that she’s not a strong female character. And her mother. And Sansa. Fake strong females!
MadameAce: I guess this means you and I should go get haircuts. How can we possibly be representatives on a feminist blog if our hair is past our shoulders? Has Miyazaki taught us nothing? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re fake fangirls. Do you want to be like Merida?
Fake, I say! Fake feminists!
Tsunderin: Yes! You’re right! Otherwise, we’re just the fakiest fakes that ever fake’d! My hair is not here for your aesthetic pleasure!
MadameAce: So in case you missed it, Rin and I clearly find the whole hair issue completely ridiculous. We’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t let it go anymore. While it’s not a huge problem that San and so many others have short hair—I can think of numerous sexist themes that are worrisome elsewhere—this is getting to be overdone and annoying. The feral wolf girl has the same fashion sense of Nausicaa, Kiki, Satsuki, Shizuku, and everyone else. I worry that Miyazaki is bordering on making his characters what we call straw feminists—female characters given stereotyped “strong” traits in order to make them strong without actually being strong.
Miyazaki’s girls have a long ways before they reach that point, and so their hair length may seem minor, but going the extra set to actively cut off longer hair—sometimes without their permission, such as in Castle in the Sky—goes to show that in many ways Miyazaki does relate hair length to these girls’ sense of strength and character. It’s in many ways calling what is generally seen as feminine—long hair—weak and using a denial of that femininity in order to be strong. And it’s so ridiculous because it’s hair. Even Ashitaka, our male protagonist, has long hair at the beginning of this film, which he cuts off before beginning his journey. And like I said earlier, we actually know that San is going to be a strong female character, or at least an attempt at one like Nausicaa, before getting to know her because of her fucking hair.
This is not me reading too much into this. There isn’t a single Miyazaki film I’ve watched in which hair length does not directly correlate to a girl’s strength. Even Totoro isn’t an exception. Satsuki, the responsible older sibling, has short hair, and Mei, the younger irresponsible sibling who needs rescuing, wears pigtails.
However, I feel as though Princess Mononoke in particular also has a problem with how it treats gender roles. The characters are all very well done, but the women of Irontown drive me up the wall. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I don’t like when stories downgrade men in order to make the women strong, and unfortunately, the scenes in Irontown do just that. I feel the need to repeat why this is sexist. First of all, it assumes that women cannot be strong unless the men are laid low, meaning that it makes a female character’s strength dependent on the men around her being weak. Secondly, downgrading men because they’re men is a double standard, one that greatly pisses me off. The women of Irontown call their husbands stupid for no other reason than that they’re men. They belittle these people constantly. For example, the one character Toki actually verbally berates her injured husband who almost died after being attacked by a fucking wolf god. She calls him and the other men useless for it. Then, immediately following that, she hits on Ashitaka in front of her husband because he’s cute.
I assure you that if it was the other way around—men berating the women—people would be screaming sexism. It is not cute and endearing when a story has the women shove down the men and treats the men as if they are just incapable of “manning up” in the presence of strong female characters. This is not empowerment; this is doing to men what has been done to women over and over again.
Tsunderin: Though Princess Mononoke is a sight to behold, it’s clear that being generally accepted as a masterpiece doesn’t exempt it from having its own issues. As important as it was in getting the rest of the Ghibli library imported to a wider audience in America, and probably helping to usher in the anime boom that happened in the late 90’s, its faults shouldn’t be ignored to preserve some sort of artistic purity. The fact that Mononoke is imperfect is something to embrace, something to examine so that other films that follow in its footsteps can become closer to this ‘ideal’ that carries a perfect balance of visuals, storytelling, message, and execution.
Princess Mononoke is one of the first movies that will leave anyone’s lips when a Ghibli recommendation is requested: the fact that it has stood the test of time (granted, fifteen years isn’t that long compared to other film classics) in the public eye should be enough to relieve one of any lingering apprehensions about watching this film. Watch it, take in Miyazaki’s story and his message. However, keep an ever vigilant mind and draw your own conclusions. That is what Mononoke is asking us to consider in the end: the weight of our choices and how they impact us and the world that surrounds us.