What makes Studio Ghibli films so poignant is often the truth of their subject matter. The windows they open into the fantastical worlds they depict are a surreal traverse at times and a grounded meditation at others. The world of Princess Mononoke is beautiful and mysterious as much as it is ugly and violent. The journey we embark on, with our protagonist Ashitaka, through the verdant forests, towering mountains, and aged Japanese decors to find a cure to the curse that plagues him, soon turns into an exploration of the human condition, and our complex relationship with the environment.
Prince Ashitaka, as he is first known to us, hails from a village of exiles removed from the world; they live in harmony and in reverence to the nature that surrounds them. Even when under the threat of the fallen boar-god, entangled by dark and foul corruption akin to pollution, their respect in it as an incarnation of nature does not falter. Ashitaka’s people live, due to their banishment, on the fringe of society. They are unaltered by outside forces, living in apparent balance with the nature around them. As a result of this Ashitaka’s understanding of the world outside of his village is lacking, he does not understand the value of currency nor the violence that exists between humans, he is a firm believer in the harmony that exists between men and nature but this belief will be shaken by the people and the gods he meets on his journey.
Hayao Miyazaki, in his depiction of the world outside of the village of Ashitaka, displays uncharacteristic violence. Heads and limbs fly away as Ashitaka shoots arrows aided by his now corrupted arm. This is wanted, the viewer empathizes with Ashitaka’s bafflement at the scene he is encountering and at this strength emanating from the curse. As we follow Ashitaka, we too will grow quizzical at the mysterious yet familiar nature of this corrupting curse and its empowering effects. The world of Princess Mononoke is riddled with intricacies, and much like in the real world there are often no simple answers. Miyazaki alternance between gruesome violence and breath-taking scenaries is often a metaphor for the complexities of the world that we, the viewer, live in.
On his Journey, Ashitaka made two fateful encounters, the first of these is Lady Eboshi, founder and leader of Irontown. She is a strong-willed and seemingly fearless leader that is entirely devoted to the protection of Irontown; whether from men or gods, she never falters. She is appreciated and loved by all the denizens of Irontown, many of them being lepers, and women bought by Eboshi from surrounding brothels. Irontown is an anachronism to the time, it displays civic and technological development well beyond its time, with guns, empowerment of women, and non-discrimination against lepers. Yet, it is this very progressiveness that has embroiled Irontown in conflict with nature; the finality of human development, Miyazaki seems to tell us, is to converge towards conflict with the environment.
The inhabitants of Irontown, unlike Ashitaka, are warry of nature and spirits. During the journey to Irontown, after his rescue by Ashitaka, Kohroku is bewildered by the Kodama, spirits dwelling in the trees, and terrified by the Forest Spirit. A stark contrast to the reverence displayed by Ashitaka’s people that shows a fundamental disconnect by the people of Irontown from nature. The spirits and the Forest Spirit are in themselves allegories for nature and its functions as such the people from Irontown can be seen as a rejection of these; they have turned inwards towards consideration of their society above all else. As witnessed by Ashitaka, the expansion of Irontown has noticeable effects on the environment. Parts of the forest are cleared to provide material for the furnace that antagonizes the surrounding fauna, which Miyazaki chooses to represent through shadowy silhouettes, underlining the point of view of the villages. As we later learn the apes’ intelligence is devolving as a result of their growing hate for the humans; the effects of human development are throwing nature into a spiral of negativeness and disequilibrium .
Eboshi’s stance is unbending, she only sees nature as an obstacle and a relic of the past; a point of view that may seem flawed with the benefit of hindsight. Yet, her actions are painfully familiar, her drive to develop Irontown is a reflection of the way our world progressed, often at the expense of the world around us. Like the iron ball lodged in the boar-god, Irontown, despite its moral correctness, is the source of nature’s corruption.
Ashitaka’s second fateful meeting is to the titular Princess Mononoke, a girl named San raised by the wolf god, Moro, and who now considers herself part of the wolf clan. She is the foil to Lady Eboshi, a human that sides completely and utterly for nature and who harbors hate towards her fellow humans guilty of laying waste to the environment in their wake. She is unconcerned and oblivious to her kin, but like Eboshi she too seeks to protect her community. San is an ideology, that of the possibility of humans embracing their primal origins and being one with nature. Unlike Ashitaka she does not revere the gods, she considers them family. Ironically, she shares in Eboshi’s flaw that she too rejects her being; while Eboshi rejects the inherent place humans play in nature, San has rejected her humanity, their conflict is a result of this lack of understanding.
Miyazaki in opposing these two ideologies appeals to our understanding of the complexities of our world. Princess Mononoke tells us that our balance with nature is distraught; human development was needed but was the price that nature paid too high? Like Ashitaka we too are torn, and we too seek balance in this world that has been scarred by human development. The Forest Spirit is the metaphor for this fragile balance; he is the incarnation of the cycle of life and death on which lays our world. His chimera-like appearance mirrors the life of the world; chaotic, unsettling and beautiful, and the mesmerizing anthropomorphic features of its face are a reminder that we too, humans, are a part of the cycle.
Eboshi’s eventual beheading of the Forest Spirit is a sign of her hubris; in her pursuit of advancement she has offset the balance between men and nature; the Nightwalker’s resulting frenzy and the death that ensues is a commentary on our disregard for the harm down by industrialization and widespread environmental pollution. Eboshi pays a dire price for her hubris and her obliviousness, she is physically punished by losing an arm and Irontown is destroyed, a painstaking reminder of the state of our world.
The cycle that had been broken is re-established by Ashitaka and San. They take on the curse to return its head to the Forest Spirit, for its frenzy to be quelled. The curse, much like it was at the start of the story, is a burden; it represents the consequences that are faced for choosing to go against nature. In their willingness to take on the curse to re-establish the order of things San and Ashitaka represent the message that those consequences need to be accepted and faced; unless they are, life will not flourish.
Interlaced with Princess Mononoke’s awe-inspiring sceneries and melodious flow is entangled an uneasy message. Humans, as a species, have thrived at the expense of the world we live in. The balance of things in Ashitaka’s world, like in ours, has been offset and the environment we once lived in symbiosis with is now our reluctant enemy. Development and progress are an inherent part of what defines us as a species, it is undeniable that humanity would not be where it is without the sacrifices that have been made, but Miyazaki’s message and warning are that humanity ought to bring order to the chaos brought upon by its actions, to not do so would lead us to be enveloped in an irremediable curse.