It’s been 18 years since the release of “Princess Mononoke,” which seems unbelievable to me, but it did in fact hit theaters in Japan on July 12, 1997. I rewatched it last week without knowing of its anniversary, but it worked out nicely, because now it’ll appear like this post is timely rather than completely arbitrary.
Almost two decades later, “Mononoke” feels maybe more relevant than it did at release. Its concern with the conflict between material progress and our natural environment would be applicable to almost any period in human history, but with each year that passes since its premiere, the questions it asks become more urgent. And the fact that “Mononoke” chooses to ask questions rather than declare solutions is what makes it such a powerful work still worth watching and discussing. It depicts a deeply complicated set of interpersonal and economic relationships and motivations. All of the major players in its story are given substance, so the conflicts feel honest. This also makes them more troubling.
In a quick watch of the film’s trailer, it might appear that there is a clean villain in Lady Eboshi, who governs Iron Town and is destroying huge swathes of forest and beyond in order to expand her territory and business. This would be an easy evil sell, and the film certainly judges her harshly for her ruthless pursuit of progress. But it doesn’t dehumanize her or her workers, and instead recognizes an uncomfortable truth: that the fruits of industrialism and capitalism can benefit those who are impoverished or otherwise outcast – that some form of progress can come, indirectly, from greed.
Eboshi uses her success to employ and empower women who were formerly prostitutes, as well as people affected by leprosy who have been exiled from their communities. These are people who, in the film’s universe, would otherwise have few if any opportunities, and their lives are meaningfully improved by Eboshi’s work. The film portrays Eboshi’s concern for their condition and her commitment to their dignity as genuine. Of course, her solution for the reinstatement of their dignity involves employing them in the manufacture of iron and weapons; their potential liberation is tied to their capacity for productive labor in service of imperialism. This all helps the system perpetuate itself, as the weapons they produce fuel the expansion into new territories, which encourages greater productivity to meet growing demand from Eboshi’s customers.
This is a keen observation of the way these economic mechanisms operate, and, among other things, a recognition of the argument that capitalism makes for its ability to address absolute poverty. It’s tough to deny that capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, which is one of the (implicit and explicit) arguments used in favor of globalization, but that argument has a tendency to obscure the inequality and devastation that globalization creates as it spreads. Definitions of “poverty” itself are malleable and culturally biased, which Western nations and industries often ignore in favor of infinite expansion, assuming that miserable working conditions, excruciating hours, marginal pay, erasure of culture, and rampant pollution are necessarily preferable to (and inevitable developments from) whatever lifestyle existed before their arrival. I’ve lost the thread here, I’m not really sure what we’re talking about anymore, but the point is that “Mononoke” depicts these complicated interactions without proselytizing, which is apparently something I am unable to do. There are many millions who have benefited from the global spread of industry, it shows us, but there is always a cost somewhere.
“Mononoke” shows some of these costs through the conflicts that develop between different groups of people in the film, as competing interests inevitably erupt into violent confrontation. Iron Town finds itself battling the Emperor’s armies, while Ashitaka (one of the protagonists) tries to mediate, hoping to find some way to curb the destruction that threatens both the forests and his village.
The film primarily addresses the destruction of nature, though, which is shown as being beautiful and sacred not just through the incredible artistry of the film’s illustration, but through the gods or spirits of nature, who walk the same earth as humans and are literally capable of miracles. These gods – boars, apes, wolves, deer, and others – can also speak, and argue loudly for their own safety, but they are being quickly extinguished by the expansion of Iron Town and the Empire. The greatest of these animals, the Forest Spirit, is capable of giving both life and death, and is treated with reverence by all but the enterprising communities looking to make a profit.
The Forest Spirit’s divinity makes it a prime target, and in due time, it comes under attack by both belligerent factions. They decapitate it and try to escape with its head, but the Spirit refuses to accept death until it can reconnect with its body. The result is a harrowing sequence in which the body of the Forest Spirit obliterates life in every direction, taking on the form of a thick, grey goop that suffocates and kills plants, animals, and people as it searches for wholeness. Nothing in its path survives.
I’m sure this was a grim portrait in 1997, but in 2015, it feels too close to documentary for comfort. Whether we’ve admitted it or not, we’ve known for years that we are killing our planet, but the past two decades have made it impossible to honestly ignore. The image of the Forest Spirit bringing death to the land mirrors our experiences so closely that the metaphor isn’t even needed. We can look at the conditions of extreme drought, of severe hurricanes, of rising sea levels that threaten the existence of entire nations and see the same process occurring. Our ecosystem will respond to the damage we’ve done with even greater destruction as it tries to find some kind of new equilibrium, just like the Spirit’s race to unite its body and head.
In “Mononoke,” the Forest Spirit does find its head and accept death, through which it grants new life to the places it ruined. People begin to discuss rebuilding and living in these new circumstances. Iron Town is destroyed and, crucially, the gods and spirits are dead, without an apparent hope of return, but a new kind of life is possible in the wake of the devastation.
Our planet’s transformation won’t be as quick as the film’s – it might take thousands or millions of years for it to fully adapt to the circumstances we have forced upon it. But “Princess Mononoke,” despite its bleak diagnosis of our situation, stays hopeful about the prospects for our future. It acknowledges that the damage we have done is irreparable, but also that a different kind of life is possible if we are willing to live with the new terms set forth by our environment. It will not resemble our previous way of life, but it is possible. I’m not so convinced that opportunity is still available to us anymore. I don’t know if we will still be around once the battle between us and our environment is finished. But “Mononoke” remains a remarkable movie, and I hope its optimism is rewarded.