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Princess Mononoke

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Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki has long been acknowledged as a master animator. Some have referred to him as the modern day Japanese Walt Disney. There is no question that his storytelling ability is both masterful and captivating, but nowhere do we see these qualities combined with a depth of historical understanding as we do in his magnum opus, Princess Mononoke. This 1997 film carefully blends folklore, mythology and history into an artful and entertaining epoch that can be best described as a historical fantasy anime.
The film, entitled Mononoke Hime, (Spirit/Monster Princess) in Japan, tells the fictional story of the last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, and his journey through a fantasy realm where man and nature are at war. Miyazaki uses the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) as a setting and metaphor for the conflict and confusion from which the story springs. By making the protagonist a member of the Emishi clan, the filmmaker sets him up as an outsider who is destined to view the world “with eyes unclouded by hate.”
The story opens when Ashitaka’s village is attacked by a forest god that has been turned into a monster, or onryo, by a small ball of iron embedded in his heart. Ashitaka saves his village by killing the creature, but his arm is cursed by its touch. The curse not only causes his self-banishment from his people, but will slowly and painfully kill him. He chooses to set himself the quest of discovering the source of the iron ball even as he hopes to possibly find a cure for the curse.
In his journey across Muromachi era Japan, he comes across a village being devastated by samurai. When confronted by them he attempts to escape, killing three of them in the process thanks to the power of his cursed arm. For a short time, he travels with a self-proclaimed monk who has a wry sense of humor and dreams of gaining wealth from the Emperor by killing the great forest spirit, Tatarugami. Eventually he finds his way to an ancient forest filled with Kami, Animal gods, Kodama, and Mononoke.
Traveling through the forest, he comes across two badly injured men and pauses to help them. Discovering they are from a village called Iron Town, or Tataraba, he pauses in his journey in order to take them home. Arriving in Iron Town, he meets its leader, Lady Eboshi, the daughter of a samurai. Here at Tataraba she has gathered all the unwanted of society, ex-prostitutes, lepers, burakumin, all of whom she treats with care and respect and who, in return, give her unwavering loyalty. The principle export produced here is iron, and in the process of mining it, the townspeople have devastated the forest, much to the ire of the Forest gods. Led by San, a feral human girl raised by the great wolves of the forest, the spirit gods are fighting back, putting Iron Town under perpetual siege.
Here then is the central conflict, a war between San, representing nature, and Lady Eboshi, representing technology. Into this comes Ashitaka who finds himself engaged in his own struggle to help the two sides put aside their hate and come to an understanding. As an outsider, he is uniquely placed to be able to see the truth behind their fight. Neither San, who cannot see her own humanity, believing herself to be a wolf, nor Eboshi, a leader passionately dedicated to the survival of her town, are wholly evil. No character within this story is, except for perhaps the distant and never seen Emperor whose influence sparks much of the conflict. There is no black and white, only subtle variations of gray.

As an enrichment tool, this film is excellent in its depiction of Japanese culture and history and would be quite useful in helping students understand much of the culture of pre-industrial Japan. Miyazaki weaves these elements together into a rich tapestry that has depth and meaning students will find themselves eager to explore. The English language adaptation, written with the assistance of author Neil Gaiman, captures much of this flavor with a carefully chosen vocabulary that matches the cultural elements with the language effectively. There is also a version of the film that contains cultural subtitles that help explain much of the background and meaning behind the character’s actions. As an educator, this is the version that I would use. Unfortunately, since the Disney issued DVDs came out, I have been unable to find this particular copy of the film. It is out there, and I am still searching for it. It’s worth the effort.

Jim Hayden
edited by jhayden on 6/15/2017
edited by jhayden on 6/15/2017