Every frame of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is gorgeous, but the celluloid might as well have been processed in blood. It’s easily the most ferocious movie he’s directed but its violence is not so much exhilarating as it is devastating.
We see this vision of 17th-century Japan—with Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, this is Miyazaki’s only other movie set in his home country—through the eyes of Ashitaka. He’s the prince of a village kingdom and the most heroic character we’ll see here. Tellingly, he doesn’t want to be a hero at all. Flat-voiced, clear-eyed, and curiously unaccented in both the Japanese- and English-language dub, he’s almost a blank. He’s handsome but without any physical blemishing; the effect’s uncanny. He’s gorgeous but his beauty is slightly unsettling. When we first see him, he’s looking out over the kingdom, and on-guard. Something’s coming.
That something turns out to be a gut-wrenching, churning mass of blood and gore. Its footsteps stain the hillside in rust-colored blood. It looks like a giant mutant spider until, in a moment of fury, the red-black blob skyrockets into the air. What lies underneath is a huge, rotting boar.
My first reaction was to be repulsed, and then terrified. Prince Ashitaka instead shows sympathy. He realizes that it is a dying god, and he respects it even as he asks it kindly, and then not so kindly, to leave his village in peace. The boar god refuses, and Ashitaka is forced to kill a god. In the battle, he’s scarred by it. There, at last, is his blemish.
Ashitaka’s willingness to show sympathy, to find the glow of life in everything on Earth, identifies him with Miyazaki. Indeed, the filmmaker lavishes attention on almost every object he sees—a grain of gold sparkling in the sun, a dragonfly hopscotching on a pond, the wind-blown hair of a woman warrior. He finds beauty in everything, and he renders the physical world with grace and obvious delight. Ashitaka’s as observant as Miyazaki, and knows more about Japan’s history, myths, and real live gods than anyone else in the movie.
But he’s also a stand-in for the audience, and I think that’s why he’s such a blank. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, he notes that “the more cartoony a face, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe… Thus, when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.” Ashitaka is a blank, I believe, because Miyazaki wants him to be a representative of the viewer.
Certainly, Ashitaka tries to be as passive as possible. After the villagers discover a large iron bullet in the god’s carcass, he’s charged with finding the bullet’s source. He vows to go on his journey with clarity, to see and judge, but not to act. (He says he was prepared to accept the consequences of killing a god as soon as he let his arrow fly. We believe him.) After all, he’s killed a god—he’s acted enough, he thinks. He tries to act as a movie viewer acts, watching the world unspool but being powerless to change its course. He’s our surrogate, our guide through the increasingly strange world of Princess Mononoke.
But surrogates are funny creatures. Even if they’re ciphers for the audience’s consciousness, they still have to act within the context of the movie. As a result, they do things we might not do, and we have no control over that fact. Miyazaki knows this. The scar smeared across Miyazaki is slowly spreading. The wound is an infection that will eventually kill Ashitaka. So there’s an urgency to his mission—if he finds the source of the god’s infection, Ashitaka might find the cure to his own. He tells his village that his journey will be one of a pure observer, but we see in his eyes that he’s also acting on his own behalf.
That tension—acting for the world vs. acting for yourself—drives Princess Mononoke. Every character is selfish in some way but, like The Rules of the Games sez, “everyone has his reasons.” Ashitaka quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle between the gods who rule the countryside and the humans who want to industrialize it. The humans are destroying the natural environment, but maybe the gods need to be tamed—they kill husbands, wives, and children, after all, with no regard for how such actions decimate communities. The gods and humans can’t strike a balance—they both want and expect too much of the other—and the result is war.
Ashitaka wants to be neutral, as indeed we all like to pretend we’re not involved. From the moment he gets infected, however, he’s in the game, like it or not. He’s got good reason. Princess Mononoke is at once Miyazaki’s most tender film—we can smell, taste, and feel the world he creates—and his most furious. The violence is ugly and sickening, coming in vicious tears and quick bursts. It rips apart social structures. It makes us cry. Humans kill gods, and then pay the price for such heresy—near-apocalypse. Who would want to get involved in this mess?
Nevertheless, Ashitaka has no choice but to try the madness. As he is our surrogate, Miyazaki makes his point—even as “mere” observers, we’re complicit in what goes on around us. There’s no such thing as a purely disinterested observer. Our actions—be it by farming too much, extracting fossil fuels too quickly, destroying too much—mar the planet, whether or not we’re conscious of the fact. To misunderstand this, says Miyazaki, amounts to heresy.
But knowing this and knowing what to do about this are two very different things. While Ashitaka is observing, the women of Princess Mononoke are vying for solutions. Lady Eboshi is a rifle-wielding mayor determined to clear the forest, but she’s doing so to better extract the iron ore the land contains. She realizes that her actions mean that she’s wiping out an ancient culture—and, despite initial evidence, she’s not happy about it—but the iron industry is what makes her town run. This town, run by ex-prostitutes whose contracts Eboshi has bought and lepers who she’s taken in, is a safe haven for women who want to be, in the parlance of our century, self-actualized. Eboshi understands that technological progress leads to women’s emancipation.
Her nemesis, the wolf-goddess Moro, understands that this emancipation comes at a price. Creeping modernity will swallow the forest whole, obliterating ancient traditions and ancient gods. Moro and her clan are willing to fight to the death to protect the gods—even though she’s often at war with other animal-god clans—and, by extension, tradition itself.
In the middle of the gods and Irontown is San, the princess of the title. A human who was raised by Moro, San/Mononoke sees herself as a wolf. She despises humans, even as she slowly realizes that she must join their ranks. This tension is best understood in the first scene where we see her face. (The shot is so iconic that it’s become computer-screen wallpaper all over the world.) Ashitaka surreptitiously follows the girl down to a river, where San tends to the wounded Moro. The princess, beautiful and fragile-looking, buries her face into the wolf’s bullet hole, sucks blood out of the wound and spits it onto the riverbank. We see all this from Ashitaka’s perspective, hidden (we think) behind a log, across the river.
Suddenly, San’s head swivels around—her earring clinks; it’s a graceful accessory that we don’t expect a killer to be wearing at this moment. She stares directly at Ashitaka/us and, unblinking, wipes blood from her mouth. Moro’s huge white body, slowly sighing, fills the background. Blood, grace, human complexity, feral response, self-awareness, uncanny poise—so much can be read on that blood-smeared face. Ashitaka falls in love right there. Her response: “Leave.”
He does, for a time, but his outlook on the world is starting to shift because of her. He feels passion for the first time in the movie. Every time he does so, his wound spreads, causing his scarred arm to mutate. He nearly raises his sword in anger because of it—it’s taking over his spirit as well as his body. Ashitaka’s allegiances shift and churn as he becomes more embedded in the war around him.
There’s shape-shifting, physically and morally, throughout Princess Mononoke. San, who falls for Ashitaka, begins to grasp that she can no longer fight blindly for the gods. The docile god of the forest—a huge-antlered deer with a human face—becomes a gigantic, all-consuming black blob at night, filled with stars and reflecting moonlight. Eboshi’s soldiers kill boars and drape themselves in their skins, disguising themselves. Every time we think we know a character’s motives, Miyazaki gives us a subtle glimpse of a different one. Every time we think we know what’s right and wrong here, we’re challenged.
Princess Mononoke offers no solutions. Apocalypse, of a sort, happens and the forest is irrevocably changed. Then again, so is Irontown. Incredibly, nature survives the destruction—the landscape is altered but it’s no less beautiful than it was at the beginning. Nature will survive humanity, says Princess Mononoke, but humanity might not survive its treatment of nature.
At the end, Lady Eboshi—tending a new wound of her own—says at the end that “we’ll start building a new Irontown. This time, we’ll make it better.”
There’s a glimmer of hope in the last frame. We want to believe her.