If there is one film that describes director Hayao Miyazaki’s entire ethos and philosophy the most, it’s probably “Princess Mononoke.”
The film showcases Miyazaki’s love of nature and spirituality in its world of great beasts, tree spirits, and forest Gods but it is also very much a movie that describes his frustration with society especially when it comes to violence.
“Princess Mononoke” is about lamenting the death of nature and spirituality while also describing the grotesque levels of hate and violence that persist throughout the world. Prince Ashitaka, a member of an indigenous tribe of people to Japan known as the Emishi, may or not be Miyazaki’s direct stand-in but is certainly his most prominent voice in the film. The character has been cursed with the touch of a demon, whose hate threatens to consume and eventually kill him, and throughout the movie, Ashitaka struggles to contain its vengeful power from killing more people. Meanwhile, a war between nature and the people who plan to destroy it for personal gain plays out around him. He feels it is his duty to stop the bloodshed before more people and beasts are killed.
Ashitaka’s noble quest, alongside San (Mononoke), leads him to restore the life of the Deer God who is beheaded by the film’s primary antagonist Lady Eboshi. As the Deer God’s spirit restores the valley that the humans of Iron Town dwelt in alongside the beasts of the forest a peace appears to be formed between nature and the now reformed Eboshi who looks to build a better world from its now green ashes. Ashitaka and San part ways but it is implied that their relationship will now act as a conduit between the two factions, that perhaps peace over violence can now be finally achieved.
It’s a beautiful movie and remains one of my favorites since I first saw it as a child in the late 90s. The animation still holds up tremendously after all these years and its theme of environmentalism is still very relevant today. I believe the film had a tremendous impact on myself in that it taught me the importance of protecting the natural world around us, that humans are in fact causing its destruction, and it needs to end. I also learned at the time the importance of finding peace and choosing pacifism over violence because hate can turn us into actual monsters.
Fast forward to today, and while I still love the movie and still believe in much of its ideals, especially when it comes to saving the environment, I feel this latter point, while certainly noble is, unfortunately, a bit foolish.
Up until this film and to a slightly smaller extent, “Porco Rosso,” Miyazaki had somewhat of an escapist philosophy when it came to animation. He felt the genre should help audiences temporarily forget the harsh reality of the world and provide a reprieve from that pain. Movies like “My Neighbor Totoro” certainly encapsulate this whimsical nature. An understandable statement but one that did not come without some criticism from fellow directors who felt this childishness was beneath his considerable storytelling skill level. The events of the 90s changed much of these views for Miyazaki and led him down the path of “Princess Mononoke.” (source)
Miyazaki wrote “Princess Mononoke” during a period of particularly bloody conflict overseas. He was fiercely against The Gulf War and even spoke critically of Japan’s involvement in this conflict that “lacked cause.” The Yugoslavian Civil War had also broken out and many during this period bared witness to its bloodiness as it played out across the media which only further disillusioned Miyazaki about the world. The director began to see a shift in the way he both viewed the world and how he wrote his films following the end of the Cold War as well as he became “disappointed” that the end to the decades long conflict only seemed to lead to more ethnic cleansing and violence around the world. (source)
“Princess Mononoke” is often described as Miyazaki’s “angriest” movie and it’s easy to see why. It’s by far his most visually violent, for sure. It deals in many harsh themes around the history of war, especially in feudal Japan, of course. It depicts a world that is brutal and on the verge of destruction and as a kid watching it in the 90s it was a lot for my little brain to process.
The film correctly states that nature is dying, and that man is the cause of it. It depicts not only the advancing death of the environment but those who were once its shepherds with Ashitaka’s Emishi tribe. The scene where he must leave his people behind because of the impending doom of his curse is tragic to watch because we know that as the heir of the Emishi, as he goes so do they and there aren’t many of them left.
Ashitaka is a noble character. He is skilled in combat but routinely tries to avoid fighting as much as possible. Despite the fact that he is often confronted with hate and violence throughout the movie, he routinely turns the other cheek to show that it is wrong.
Violence is ugly and the film does a great job of firmly implanting that in the mind of its viewers but where I now find myself, unfortunately, disagreeing with Miyazaki is that pacifism is the ultimate solution to all this death that surrounds us. While I think most of us can agree that hate can consume one’s soul and as the film depicts, makes you less human, turning the other cheek has only had so much effect fighting evil around the world.
Ideally, pacificism should be a starting point when trying to confront evil. Nobody should look to violence first as an option to do this but while I don’t think this film intentionally says this, I think it is very much saying no one has tried peace yet.
When it comes to violence around the world and the ever-increasing climate death of our planet, there seems to be a belief among many that people just don’t know any better, especially at the top. For pacifists the path to change starts with laying down one’s arms and appealing to the other side’s morals. It comes from a belief that people are ignorant and simply need education to recognize another’s humanity. This might be true of the general populace but this is a foolish belief because it assumes that the main characters or let’s say villains in the equation of the destruction of the environment and the continued hatred of refugees, asylum seekers and many more, are either stupid and don’t understand the consequences of their actions or can accept a change to the system if one plays by its rules.
Make no mistake, the vile people at the top who run this planet are fully aware that it is dying, they are fully aware that people die when they make decisions to bomb other countries indiscriminately, and they don’t give a fuck. They have access to all kinds of information about the environment and the people they drop bombs on and they have chosen violence over peace. No amount of passive resistance and appeal to morality will change this reality.
Lady Eboshi is a stand-in, to a certain extent at least, for these real-world villains. She is a capitalist who is trying to plunder the land for her own gain and she doesn’t care how many beasts she kills in the process because she sees this simply as a competition for survival. She, of course, has a softer side too. She provides work for women who were once subjugated to sexual exploitation within the brothels of big cities. She cares for and gives shelter to leppers who would otherwise be cast outs in society. It’s an interesting dichotomy for the character that creates a grey zone for the audience to where they can’t completely despise her or hate her motives. She’s not just some mustache-twirler like in any other number of action movies and by the end of the story recognizes the error in her ways finally when she witnesses the aftermath of the Deer God’s beheading.
She’s reasonable, she is capable of changing and becoming better because she is a three-dimensional character.
Unfortunately, I hate to break it to y’all, our real-world villains are not “complex.” They are not morally grey. In fact the situation is very black and white.
As mentioned, these wealthy overlords are well aware that the world is careening toward climate disaster and I’m not just exaggerating here. They know with the way things are going, it will eventually end poorly. These people have a wealth of experts at their disposal and have looked at the outlook for our planet and simply chosen to save themselves only instead. They are quite literally preparing to outlast and survive the apocalypse while we choke to death on the toxic fumes of our pending climate disaster.
Basically, while we largely waste our breath telling our legislators who are in the pockets of these billionaires “if we don’t change things soon we will all die!” these pigs are looking at ways to build fallout shelters to outlive the apocalypse. You might think it’s cute, maybe even inspiring that people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are trying to go to space and colonize Mars someday but they ain’t looking to colonize it for you and me.
The real world is unfortunately very black and white. Sure there is grey here and there but it does not represent the whole by any stretch. While billionaires continue to plunder our planet to death, the US government coups largely burgeoning governments that refuse to play ball with them in their infancy for their own gain to lay the groundwork for their plundering not because they are ignorant of the humanity of the people in these countries but because they simply want to increase their bottom line.
How do you choose pacificism with people and governments like this? “Princess Mononoke” asserts the belief that the beasts of the forest deserve to be preserved and saved but also that the humans of Iron Town also have a right to live. This is not a wrong statement, as the context within the story certainly supports that these people are good and simply don’t understand the consequences of their actions on the environment. Lady Eboshi isn’t able to see past her own end game until finally, it rears its headless form in front of her in the film’s final act. By the end of the film, these people rededicate themselves to a better new world and bringing harmony between themselves and nature. They are able to do this because they are capable of not only learning but understanding their collective place in the world and what mutually assured peace would mean for both factions.
But again, the real world isn’t like this, the people who are directly causing its destruction (and I don’t mean people who don’t recycle or whatever) know they are wrong and won’t change. Appealing to one’s sense of morals only works on someone who cares about those things. Our enemies when it comes to climate disaster and violence against marginalized people have no conscience and no morals. If it were as simple as showing someone the error in their ways then we wouldn’t be in such an ugly world today. Trying to find common ground and compromise with literal fascists will not save the planet.
In fact, the pandemic in many ways revealed to us all that appeal to morality in the face of overwhelming destruction largely does not work on these people. We’re having a real-life headless Deer God moment in history with this pandemic among many things and the Lady Eboshi’s of the world have largely done next to nothing to help the situation.
Of course, you might say that you know that and that’s why you continue to vote for people who you feel have morals and can enact change. This is admirable and I’m not necessarily against you exercising your civic rights but I feel this is at the very least not nearly enough.
The system we have in place was built by these same people without morals and good principles. It protects itself constantly from change and reformation whether it’s changing the rules around third party representation or actively suppressing the vote. I’ve been around 31 years, there have been three Republican presidents and three Democratic presidents in my lifetime and the rich have only gotten richer and the global temperature has only gotten hotter.
Our system abhors reconciliation and reparations. When you put someone who may be has a good political compass in this system, it has already built-in safeguards to keep them in their place. Why do you think good legislation consistently dies on the House and Senate floor? Why do you think despite the supposed goodwill Democrats majority across two branches of the government we can’t seem to pass crucial aid packages to those afflicted by the pandemic? Why do you think that this same majority, who states they are “very” concerned about women’s reproductive rights haven’t put forth guaranteed protections in the law for abortions even though they could totally do that tomorrow if they wanted?
Again, these people know what’s going on. They know what’s best to do for the people and instead are choosing themselves.
Ashitaka’s radical pacifism in “Princess Mononoke,” which nearly gets him killed multiple times, is admirable and there is nothing morally wrong for sure with seeking peace first. But we have tried the peaceful route already, be it voting and protesting, we have tried “doing it the right way” multiple times already and the state of our country and the world speak for itself.
At this point, you might say something like “Well MLK did things the peaceful way and got us Civil Rights.” This is a popular retort among pacifists, especially liberals, but given what transpired last year I think we can say at the very least it wasn’t enough by any stretch.
And if you think MLK wouldn’t support the violence that transpired last year, well, there’s a reason he ain’t here to tell you himself…
My rewatch of this film recently is still a gut check just as it was before. The soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi still penetrates my soul every time as it hits its crescendo when Ashitaka rides away from his village to go on his journey west. I still cry like a baby when Moro describes the trees crying out as they die with no one to hear them. But I now find its pacifist message of nonviolence as unfortunately foolish when confronted with the context of the real world.
You might be asking me at this point “So you want us to pick up a gun and start a revolution? and to that, I would say I’m not sure but as I’ve mentioned in other blog entries it should not be off the table at least just because you feel violence is ugly. At the very least we need to start accepting rioting as valid form of protest at this point.
Violence has in fact solved injustice across the world. The Vietnamese wouldn’t have won their independence from The Japanese, French, and Americans if they had chosen peaceful resistance over violence. The fascist US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista wasn’t defeated by the Cuban slaves calmly holding picket signs in the field. I’m not saying all forms of violence are valid but it can absolutely be an answer and it’s not invalidated by how ugly it gets.
“Princess Mononoke” seems to believe that nonviolence is the best answer to fixing our dying planet and ethnic violence around the world but I am simply here to tell you that is only ONE answer to all this.
Our real-world villains are not like Lady Eboshi and the people of Iron Town. They are not people with good principles and morality that can be swayed through good arguments and peaceful means. They are people who know full well what they are doing and will not stop until there is nothing left.
With all this said, there are people who can be reasoned with. There are people who can change when presented with new contextual information. I write this blog at least partly for people who I think are not quite on my side but I want to bring over, as my friends largely exist between the liberal and conservative spectrum. I try my best, at least, to police my own language when I write these and avoid talking down because I want people whom I love to see things, or at least understand things, my way.
This is where “Princess Mononoke” and Ashistaka’s wisdom can be used. This is where pacifism and acknowledgment of differences can form a bridge between two groups. The working class and people of all ethnic groups I feel are largely persuadable and can be shown reason if you work hard enough to get them see a better point of view.
We can achieve harmony there. We can achieve peace and collective strength through talking to one another and finding common ground on various issues. Understanding who those people are and who can change is important to creating a better world. We can’t just blanketly try to find peace with everyone (Nazis will NEVER be your friend) and every institution for that matter but we should seek out those who can be brought over. And we do so not through forced coercion but through a shared sense of love just as Ashitaka and San find in one another.
We must use our humanity to unite with good people. From there we can build a coalition together to bring true peace and harmony to the world. We should bring as many people to our side as possible in our shared sense of empathy and love for each other and the planet. That is the kind of pacifism “Princess Mononoke” extols that I can still get behind, and I like to believe it’s what informs my sense of morality in this blog as well.
But for everyone else, for everyone who refuses to give a damn, for specifically everyone who sits in positions of power and continues to do nothing when they know they can, it is also our duty to eventually stop them.
And pacifism will not be the way to do it…