Across the years, one of the most consistent themes in director Hayao Miyazaki's work is the preservation of the natural world. Most of the Japanese auteur's films, from #Nausicaa to #SpiritedAway, carry environmental messages, but Miyazaki has seldom been accused of being preachy, even in his environmentalist epic, #PrincessMononoke.
Just why is this? Often, the "message movie" finds opposition with the filmgoing public, even among those who agree with the statement the film is trying to make. James Cameron's Avatar, for example, enjoyed great success upon release, but one common complaint was its message was too ham fisted, even among environmentalists. Miyazaki's 1997 classic, on the other hand, seldom receives such complaints, even though the environment is a much more central theme. So, where did Miyazaki succeed that James Cameron didn't?
Princess Mononoke, or Mononoke-hime, is the ninth feature film to be officially released under the #StudioGhibli banner. It tells of Ashitaka, a young Emishi prince who is mortally cursed by a demon. Seeking a cure, the traveling warrior seeks out the Forest Spirit in the hopes that he'll be saved, but finds the Spirit's forest threatened by a settlement known as Irontown. Under the leadership of Lady Eboshi, the people of Irontown fend off attacks from the gods seeking to protect the forest. Eboshi is directly opposed by San, a young girl raised by a wolf goddess who has sided with nature over man.
Princess Mononoke was a smash in Japan, becoming the country's highest-grossing film of all time until it was dethroned by Titanic. The film also enjoyed great success outside of Japan on home video, helping to spread Studio Ghibli's influence into America and the rest of the world. Even some 20 years later, it is still counted as among the best films the studio produced, and remains a pinnacle of animated cinema.
The film carries an environmentalist message that is every bit as blunt as the one found in Avatar, if not more so. However, a few key decisions and story changes help create a more nuanced message that makes this film more successful with the moviegoing public.
The Other Side Makes Mistakes
One of the most prevailing cliches to be found in the genre is everything being black and white. Those seeking to encroach are portrayed as unambiguously evil, with the besieged portrayed as wholly innocent. Princess Mononoke takes a more ambiguous approach in setting up right away that the forest gods are not entirely blameless.
This is evident from the first time we see Moro, the wolf goddess and San's adopted mother. In any other film of this genre, we would see Eboshi tracking down Moro with intent to do harm. Here, Eboshi is merely leading a party down the cliff face gathering food for her workers. Moro attacks without any provocation that we can see. When Eboshi shoots, it appears to be out of self defense.
When Moro and the other gods are developed, they're not made any softer. Moro speaks regularly of her hatred of man. Though her hatred is relatable, neither she nor the other gods make any attempts and peace and compromise. For instance, the boar god Okkoto-nushi, or Okkoto in the English version, speaks only of war and never of peace. Though their fight is justified, they share the immobility of their foes.
Perhaps most telling is that the gods constantly bicker among themselves. Moro and Okkoto's clans fight almost nonstop, with the boars accusing the wolves of eating one of their own, and the wolves threatening to eat the "dumb pigs." Their lack of unity shows them as equally flawed, in spite of their relatable motivations. Their hearts are still filled with hate. It's just as Ashitaka says when breaking up a fight between Eboshi and San:
"There's a demon inside you. It's inside both of you."
Ashitaka Doesn't Pick A Side
These films generally have the same formula, one that is also seen in James Cameron's Avatar. Generally, the hero comes into the conflict from the outside, usually on the side of the encroachers. After seeing the conflict up close and firsthand, the hero has a change of heart and sides with those in the besieged wilderness. The hero of Princess Mononoke does not. Ashitaka has ulterior motives for coming to Irontown, seeking a cure for his curse. As a third party, he comes to understand the views of both sides, and sees they both have value.
Ashitaka's fight is much more difficult than helping one side destroy the other. He tries to act as a mediator, desperately pleading for reconciliation. The gods have a rightful claim to their land, yet the encroachers are simply trying to make a living themselves. Ashitaka sees the possibility of both sides coexisting in harmony but finds no support when he puts this forward to Eboshi or Moro. Both of them balk and continue their fight, and it is this fight that nearly drags both worlds to oblivion.
Ashitaka's curse is an interesting plot device that serves as a barometer for the conflict. The demonic wound in his arm feeds on hate, so the hate of Eboshi and Moro both make it stronger. The wound grows progressively larger, threatening to eventually kill him. In this sense, Ashitaka represents the innocent third party caught in the midst of every conflict. Though he is innocent of the crimes both sides have committed, their conflict wounds him all the same.
When things come to a head, Irontown is as threatened as the forest. The workers scramble to protect themselves as the world comes down around them and all of their achievements are laid waste. For his part, Ashitaka works tirelessly to defend both from destruction, for seeing the ruination of Irontown is in many ways just as tragic as the destruction of the forest. Ashitaka is a character who treasures both worlds.
No Real Bad Guy
By far the most interesting aspect of Princess Mononoke is there really isn't a bad guy. Avatar was especially guilty of having the encroachers be unambiguously evil to the point that, in my opinion, they bordered on cartoonish. They dismiss the clear advantages of working with the people of Pandora, and eventually bomb a helpless village to dust. Then, of course, there are the dreaded villains to be found in Captain Planet and other similarly themed media, who seem to pollute just for the fun of it.
The invaders in Princess Mononoke are portrayed quite differently. They may be misguided, but there's a lot of good in them. Eboshi at first seems the villain of the piece, but the more we learn about her, the more good we see. Eboshi is a maverick and an entrepreneur who seeks to develop the forest not out of greed, but for the good of her people. She even takes in Ashitaka as gratitude for his rescuing some of her people from Moro's attack. Never once does she draw a weapon or otherwise attempt to harm Ashitaka throughout the entire film, even when she has a clear chance.
Miyazaki makes an effort to get us to like Eboshi, regularly showing that she is charitable, hard working and even selfless. This is especially evident when Ashitaka finds Irontown's ruler has been caring for a group of people stricken with leprosy. In exchange for their help, she provides them with good care, clean bandages and her kindness. As one of the stricken puts it, she was the only one who saw them as human.
The conflict comes from Eboshi being headstrong, exactly like the wolf goddess Moro. It is less the clash of civilizations and more the clash of personalities that results in the conflict, and that is. in many ways. the real tragedy of this film. In any other world, Moro and Eboshi would have made perfect partners, and together could have forged a spectacular world.
Story Before Message
Of course, one of the biggest problems in the so called message movie is the message seems to be the only point a film is trying to make. Important elements like character, arcs, a cohesive narrative and artistic merit often take a back seat to the all important statement, which is an issue I personally had with Avatar. The fascinating world Cameron created seemed to be drowned out in the message. In Miyazaki's work — Princess Mononoke included — it's the message that seems to be drowning.
Stripping away Princess Mononoke's environmentalist themes, it's still a solid narrative. It tells of a young man seeking his own redemption, and finds it in forging a peace between two bitterly divided worlds. The characters of this world are as rich and fertile as the forest in which the story is set, for that is the film's central focus. Each character is fleshed out until not a single cardboard cutout remains.
The environmentalist theme of the film merely acts as a compliment to an already rich and fully realized world, and gives the characters a more definite target to shoot for. They spend very little time going into big speeches and preaching to the choir, because Ashitaka, San, Eboshi, Moro and all the rest have a lot more interesting things to do. The environmentalist message is just icing, but there's still plenty of cake beneath it.
It is, in many ways, a disservice to Princess Mononoke to simply label it an environmentalist film. Though that is one of the prevailing themes of the film, it is not the only one. Equal attention is given to themes of moral ambiguity, peace and war, how revenge destroys and so on. This film is not just an environmentalist movie, but so much more. Perhaps that is the biggest reason it has such lasting power.
Many films that carry environmental themes carry a simple message of merely stopping, but Princess Mononoke rises above them with a more interesting, even hopeful take on our civilization's conflict with the natural world. Miyazaki says that we can work with — and even enrich — the realm of nature.
This is a direct contradiction to most environmentalist media — the destruction of development for the preservation of nature. By these alterations to the typical formula of the genre, Miyazaki says that both worlds are important and that both deserve to survive. The message of this film is not one of destruction, but of reconciliation; not of abandoning development for the environment, but allowing them to compliment each other.
It is easy to say that those seeking to develop are simply evil, interested only in profit by the pain of others. Miyazaki was wise enough to craft a film that says, uncomfortable as it is, that's not always the case. Princess Mononoke is a film that does away with one side being blameless, has no cackling mad villain, and has a hero fighting to save not one world but both. First and foremost however, it's just a really good story, and like the message that civilization can compliment nature, Miyazaki shows us that it's the message that should be the compliment.
The ending of the film says it all, when the survivors of Irontown are finally awed by nature's beauty. They don't leave this land ruled by the gods, instead vowing to stay behind and build a better world, one that helps to preserve the life-giving Earth.
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