Movie Review: Princess Mononoke

This is based an old post that was originally published elsewhere. 

We live in an age of transition (or as I like to say, an apocalyptic age): older ways of experiencing the world are dying away, and we do not know what the new world will bring. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which takes place in medieval Japan, is about just such a period of transition.

It opens in an isolated Emishi village. These indigenous people have already undergone their apocalypse, driven by the early Japanese to the mountains and by the time of the movie widely supposed to be extinct as a separate culture. Even though their world came to an end, this village, by existing on the margins, has managed to keep Emishi traditions and religion intact: they have a coherent way of acting and thinking in the world as they understand it. The village however has no future: their numbers are dwindling, and they are forced to exile their last prince, a cursed boy named Ashitaka.

When Ashitaka leaves the village he finds a world in disintegration: bandits and mercenaries wander the countryside. Villages are ruined, people are suspicious. Because of his upbringing Ashitaka is still capable of successfully navigating this disintegrating world: he is just, stoic, and resolute. But his upbringing in the village also lets him enter communion with the non-human world: he knows how to deal respectfully with an angry divinity, is at home in the forest, and gets along with woodland spirits. The world outside the village has lost that capacity; the world where man, forest and spirit can coexist has collapsed, and no one can tell what world is going to replace it. Ashitaka meets the jolly wandering monk Jiko-bo who actually thrives in this chaotic world. A cynic and nihilist, Jiko-bo knows that death comes for us all, some sooner, some later, so one may as well profit from it.

Far to the West Ashitaka meets Lady Eboshi who runs an iron mine in the mountains and manufactures rifles. She assembles the dregs of society, people lost and worthless in the chaos of the current world, and gives them work and a vision. Armed with her improved rifles, her band of lepers, ex-prostitutes, and ox drivers are the equals of Samurai and spirits. The current world and its flailing order are about to be shattered, but of course only the visionary Eboshi realizes it. Standing between Eboshi and her future world is the primeval forest and the gods who inhabit it. She and her miners are fighting a war to destroy the forest and its gods once and for all. Their most dangerous enemy at this stage of the conflict is the wolf goddess Moro and Moro’s adopted daughter, a human girl named San whose nom de guerre is Princess Mononoke, Princess of Monsters.

So we see four worlds in conflict:

  • The mountains are the world of nature and spirits. This is where San the wolf-girl lives, but it isn’t really a place for humans.
  • The world of man living in harmony – however imperfectly – with himself, nature, and spirits, which we see with Ashitaka and his village. It is the old world, small and fading. It feels impossible to sustain.
  • The modern/future world, Lady Eboshi’s world, which pursues its goals in opposition to the natural / spiritual world.
  • The in-between / current world, where most of us live. We stand in the ruins of the old world and the future world will never be realized for the vast majority. Some, like the amoral Jiko-bo, thrive in the underlying chaos. The rest are lost or deluded.

In Princess Mononoke, all of these worlds are facing their Apocalypse. They are all passing away, just like ours is. The characters all know this implicitly and have to decide between a quick death in hopeless defense of the passing world, or hanging on in the slim chance of finding something to live for.

It is, by the way, an excellent movie: beautiful, tragic, and engrossing. You don’t have to be an anime fan to enjoy it.



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