The seventh film in my comprehensive retrospective on The Films of Hayao Miyazaki is the mystical chambara fantasy Princess Mononoke. Cited as one of the greatest animated films of all time, this was the first film to bring Miyazaki wide international acclaim, as it was Mononoke that brought Miyazaki to the attention of US audiences. One of the few animated films of its era to travel the film festival circuit, Mononoke gained steam in the hubs of New York, Toronto, and LA. before bursting onto US screens in 1999. And while this film would become the highest grossing animated film of all time, this was just the “set” for the “spike” Miyazaki would deliver three years later with Spirited Away.
Set during the feudal Muromachi period in Japan, Ashitaka, a young prince of the Emishi clan (Known in the story for riding red elk), encounters a Boar god that has been twisted into a demon by hate for the humans who attacked it. Although Ashitaka is able to slay the beast, his right arm is cursed by one of the demon’s worm-tentacles. Armed with the knowledge that the demon mark will spread and eventually kill him, Ashitaka uses the time he has left to investigate the incident. This investigation causes him to get in between an ancient battle between the Gods of the Forrest and human prosperity, while trying to see the conflict “unclouded by hate.”
The only one of his films to be set in Feudal Japan, this is Miyazaki’s one dalliance with the Samurai film culture. Typical Samurai films are set in the Tokugawa era of Japan 1500-1868, usually closer to the Meiji restoration that saw the Samurai as a class in revolt with the public consciousness. A lot of Samurai films set in this era center around the toppling of the Shogunate, causing many Samurai to be released from the service of their feudal lord, creating Ronin “masterless” (and penniless) Samurai. Many of the Samurai classics from famed directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kihachi Okamoto and Masaki Kobayashi are told in this period. Miyazaki on the other hand, decides to set Mononoke a few dynasties earlier, in the Muromachi era (1336- 1573). This not only informs the overall look of the characters, but informs the spiritual dimensions of the film as well
Of Gods and Monsters
The Muromachi culture during this period was heavily influenced by both Zen Buddhism and Shintoism. Zen Buddhism is a spiritual practice that focuses on meditation, self-restraint, insight into the mind, and into the activities of all things. There is no separation between practice and enlightenment in Zen. Thus, you do not need to do anything specific in order to achieve spirituality, as any act is enough. Although, typical Zen practitioners sit in Zazen (cross legged position) with a keen focus on breathing as their chief form of meditation. The other concepts of Zen that are important are the ideas of “No Mindedness” and “The Middle Way”
“No-Mindedness” is a state of awareness that is only occupied with the present moment. There is no thought of the past, or the future, nor of any subject, topic or ideology. The practitioner attempts to just simply “be.” Whereas “The Middle Way” is common in all types of Buddhism, which indicates a maintenance of focus that is a path between extremes. This is often interpreted as a rational and practical “grey” area between bifurcated concepts that are often presented or develop into exaggerations of isolated ideologies.
Shintoism is a religious practice developed in Japan that is defined as belief in the kami (spirits). This is a form of polytheism that sees “spirits and gods” in everything from plants, air, water, the moon, to the cosmos. Like most religions, the stories of the gods and spirits act as morality/cautionary tales for social control, or as ways to explain yet unexplainable phenomena. What separates Shintoism from other polytheistic beliefs is that within Shintoism the spirits and gods are not necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, or immortal. Thus, the stories that involve them are often reflecting a more fluid sense of morality than is typically found in a Eurocentric polytheism. Modern Shintoism has been interpreted to center on nature and promote environmentalism.
In Princess Mononoke, all of the gods and spirits are influenced by Shintoism. The gods are a part of a polytheistic pantheon without a typically western hierarchy structure. The three Animal God factions that Miyazaki presents are the Apes, Wolves, and Boars. Additionally, Miyazaki includes “The Forrest Spirit” presented as a sika deer, and the tree spirits called kodama. Even the name Mononoke translates to mean “vengeful spirit”. Each of these spirits represent something depicted in Shintoism itself.
The Wolf God and her Children are derived from Shinto’s idea of the Okami, the wolf spirit. Typically, they are divine messengers or vehicles of the mountain gods. They also provide guidance to worthy humans. The monkeys of Japanese folklore often are passive and act as a mediator between spirits and humans, while at the same time, being tricksters. While Miyazaki’s “Nightwalker” is related to the Daidabachi which is a large spirit that creates lakes wherever it steps, the Forrest Spirit it transforms into is a Shi-shigami, deer spirit. Deer spirits in Shintoism are vehicles and messengers of all gods, not just those on the mountain. Which is why deer in Japan can roam the countryside. The Boar in Shintoism is revered for its defiance, bravery determination and impetuousness. All of these qualities are displayed through the Boar clan’s actions in the film, as they are felled by the weapons of Iron Town.
As in Shintoism, many of these gods and spirits in Miyazaki’s story can be corrupted or destroyed. This is depicted in the annihilation of the boar clan and the Forrest Spirit itself
The boar clan’s assault on the human stronghold witnesses the destruction of the spirit clan through modern explosives and weapons (guns). No doubt a metaphor for the way advanced technology can become so powerful that it becomes greater than the gods themselves. Additionally, Shintoism is again invoked in the way the Boar clan leaders Nago and Okkoto become corrupted by led poisoning and their own hate, transforming them into demons. To Shintoism, Nago and Okkoto become a Totati. Totati is a demon in Shintoism that is created by a vengeful spirit that hangs on to anger.
Miyazaki began to cultivate a lot of the ideas and character Sketches for Princess Mononoke while working for an animator in LA on a project he eventually left. The main production did not start in earnest until 1994. This is when he had his chief animators and himself come up with the initial story boards and character sketches. In this process Miyazaki personally approved all 144,000 single shots of this film and even redrew 88,000 cells himself during the production. It was this pace and work ethic, that began Miyazaki’s flirtation with retirement Henceforth, he would announce at the end of every subsequent project, that he was going to retire; but then eventually come back.
Like a lot of other Japanese directors that have produced chambira films, Miyazaki too was influenced by the John Ford western for Mononoke. He wanted “Iron Town” to have more of a frontier feel to it, rather than accurately depicting medieval Japan. Without these western elements, Miyazaki was fearful that the film was too deeply rooted in the long history, culture, and mythology of Japan, which he was certain would not appeal to a wider audience. He was not confident people would get it.
In the 1990’s, The Disney Company owned the distribution rights to all of Studio Ghibli films. At the time, Disney charged Miramax and its co-founder, convicted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, with Mononoke’s distribution in the United States. In preparing the film for distribution, Weinstein oversaw the production of the English dub (translated by Neil Gaiman), and how the film was going to be presented in theaters. With the film’s run time being a whopping 134 min, much longer than your average animated American film (especially since a lot of American animation is created for children), Weinstein, in an act of aggressive bullying, attempted to get Miyazaki to cut 45 minutes out for the US release, after previously agreeing not to. Finding such an idea so apocryphal and dishonest, Ghibli’s Producer Toshiro Suzuki, at the behest of Miyazaki, sent Weinstein a katana with the note that read “No Cuts!”. The film was eventually released at the length Miyazaki specified.
Many of the themes of Princess Mononoke have become the staple of what the world expects from Miyazaki. It is after this, in the time before his next film, Spirited Away, where lot of people went back to his previous work and retroactively applied the themes of Mononoke (Environmentalism, Industrialization Capitalism and Gender) to create thematic consistency. While some of these themes are present in all of his previous work, it is Nausicaä with which Mononoke thematically rhymes; taking on some of the same concepts, but asking different social questions about The environment, Capitalism and gender dynamics.
Even a shallow interpretation of Miyazaki’s work, especially Mononoke, understand that it has a lot to say about the environment and human’s relationship to it. However, when we look at this through the Sociological Perspective, particularly in comparison to his other work, Miyazaki is asking different questions about that relationship with each film, and with Mononoke, making a finer point than he has in the past.
On the surface, one could make the simplistic argument that each of the characters are embodiments of the thematic conflicts Miyazaki is interested in: Eboshi (Industrialization/Capitalism) San (Environmental Conservation) and Ashitaka (socially conscious consumer) all represent some aspect or actors in environmental conflicts. Therefore, the interactions between these characters are the conflation of ideas Miyazaki wants to say something about. Yet, this film goes beyond just its anthropomorphic transformation of characters. It also paints an inevitable bleakness that the mere existence of humanity means the destruction and consumption of the environment; and while we may stave off this process for a period of time, halting its momentum, elemental eradication is inevitable.
This inevitability was set in motion as our society transformed from a premodern Society (from which Ashitaka hails from) into Modernity (Iron Town). As societies shifted from an agrarian to urban organization, resources were mined from the earth through industrial means with greater ease than ever before. This process, and its results, were then given value beyond what was needed to sustain a labor force (basic exchange value capitalism), which fueled the desire of overproduction for profit rather than necessity (greed). Historically, because there was an inability to measure the overall global impact of these practices at that time, a False Consciousness developed in humans regarding the environment. Humans of the time generally did not understand the lasting effects they were causing. This ignorance continued for so long, that by the time humans gained the ability to measure their effect, not only had irreputable damage occurred, but generations of cultural norms and values were centered around this consumptive mentality which has the capacity to bring society to ruin, if unchanged. This mentality developed into climate change denial and transformed the environment into a political issue.
Contrarily, Lady Eboshi in the film, does not present this form of blind ignorance. She is very much aware of her impact on the environment and relishes in its eradication. This is the perspective common in the” Reganite” late stage Capitalism, that seeks to control the overall environment in a structured and organized way. What makes Mononoke revelatory sociological storytelling, is that Miyazaki puts this post war (Vietnam) mindset in a person living in during Capitalism’s infancy. By that subtle shift, Miyazaki is foreshadowing the end of the story. Regardless, of what transpires between Ashitaka and San after the film ends, Lady Eboshi will rebuild and expand Iron Town, eventually ushering in the concrete jungle of modern Japan. Lady Eboshi is not just Capitalism, but a type of destructive corrosive and consumptive Capitalism which is emblematic more of our current culture.
Eboshi as a Disaster Capitalist
Coined by Journalist Naomi Klein (2007) Disaster Capitalism is defined as the practices of generating profit through the creation or exploitation of disasters. While the term "disasters" was originally taken literally to mean natural disasters (fire, hurricane, flood etc.) and the profitability of reconstruction. The term has also been applied to social, economic, political or Health Disasters. The key is to use the “shock” of the disaster to adopt or enforce social or political policies that would enrich elites. These are usually policies that the public would not agree to under “normal” circumstances. Instead, they prey on the public’s disorientation (due to the “shock”) to gain their acquiescence, and then only provide Pro-market capitalist solutions. We’ve seen this with 9/11 and the passing of the Patriot act which allowed for the monetization of meta data, the gentrification after Hurricane Katrina, and now with the Coronavirus: the manufacturing of masks and other forms of PPE (personal protective equipment), the pharmaceutical profits from the eventual vaccine, Stimulus packages, and the propping up of industries through government bailouts.
Lady Eboshi demonstrates this perspective in the way that she exploits the Disaster she helped create by warring with the Boar clan. From the direct outcome of the battle, she gets her people to go into the forest, and kill the Forest Spirit for its healing powers. This singularity of thought and purpose toward Disaster Capitalism, is demonstrated when she does not send help back to Iron Town when it is being attacked by a rival clan. She is willing to sacrifice the lives of the women and disabled protecting Iron Town, because there is money in its reconstruction. She can also sell the viscus extract from the Forest Spirit’s decapitated head as a miracle cure.
In other reviews, Eboshi is often individualized and not viewed through this anti capitalistic lens. For instance, several reviews cite Eboshi’s garden as a representation of her complexity and lack of hostility toward the environment, as if to say “See she likes plants! She can’t be all bad.” That is like saying people who had house slaves weren’t racist. A person can admire a resource and still objectify and abuse it. Eboshi’s plants are only admirable to her because she has power over them, in what plants are in her garden, and being able to control how they grow. It is order that she craves, and she is willing to obliterate the world to achieve it. Lady Eboshi can, through this socio-economic lens, be seen as the primary villain of this story.
San and Climate Activism
Climate activism has always been an antithesis to industrialized Capitalism. Our current form of resistance began in the 1970’s with the celebration of the first Earth Day, the fight for improving air quality and exacting policies to achieve it. Modern Environmentalism focuses on three areas: environmental conservation, reduction of pollutants, and increase in biodiversity. In that charge, activists have come to the basic conclusion that our current industrial practices are unsustainable for our environment. This is because, as I have mentioned, Capitalism reinforces behaviors and practices that promote environmental destruction. Therefore, to have any meaningful environmental change, we need to deconstruct the entire system.
In Mononoke, it is this deconstructive desire that fuels San and The Wolf Clan’s war with Iron Town. San, being raised outside of the organizational structures of civilization, has grown to understand the pain inflicted on the forest by industrialization. This understanding brews into hate for humanity and causes her to reject everything that makes her human. This culminates in her verbally denying her humanity to Ashitaka and falling into bursts of animalistic ferocity, engaging a threat with quick, agile, and instinctive maneuvers. Because of her emotional commitment to the environment, beyond what is considered acceptable by the pro-industrial capitalist perspective, San would be labeled, in our current parlance, as an ecoterrorist.
Ecoterrorism is the use or threat of violence to further promote or insure environmental policies. This usually happens when activists destroy property (whether that be equipment, infrastructure, or personnel) in an attempt to thwart, or completely eliminate the threat of industrial capitalism on the environment. By that definition, San’s assassination attempt of Lady Eboshi can be seen as ecoterrorism due to San’s belief that if she is successful, not only will she get vengeance for Eboshi’s strip mining and deforestation, but she will stop the entire climate crisis. While this is short sited and does not see the macro level impacts of humanity as a whole, San’s plan (and a lot of Eco-Terrorism) fails because they do not have a diplomatic or legislative component. San needs an advocate, and her own Green New Deal.
as a climate diplomat
Ashitaka represents the collateral damage that is caused in any war. His curse, the potential destruction of his village and people, would have been caused by the aftereffects of this “War for the Environment,” had he not stepped in. Ashitaka is the grey area in between two extremes. This allows him to see with eyes “unclouded by hate”, when embroiled in this Ecological crisis. To that end, he begins to act as a “neutral” third party to resolve the conflict; interacting with both Eboshi and San, in order to stem the tide of utter destruction. Like many other real climate conscious advocates Ashitaka is injured in the process and while he can make small incremental change, he ultimately fails in his desire to achieve a more macro level impact. He cannot stop the decapitation of the Forest Spirit, and while he does manage to return its severed head to the body, he cannot stop the spirit’s death.
Identifying Ashitaka as a true neutral party, Miyazaki blurs the negative connotations of the Forest spirit’s death by juxtaposing it with the solution to Ashitaka’s curse and curing Iron Town of leprosy. At films end, Miyazaki solidifies Ashitaka’ s diplomatic status when Ashitaka becomes a citizen of Iron Town to help with its reconstruction. The implication being that he will help guide Eboshi and Iron Town into becoming more ecologically friendly. Yet, in interviews about the seemingly ambiguous nature of the film, Miyazaki is clear that the ending points to the cycle of hate and destruction beginning again with Eboshi’s line “We will remake the city, better this time.” Miyazaki believes, regardless of intention, if industrialization continues, the environment is not safe.
Gender in the World of Mononoke
The work of Hayao Miyazaki has been consistently used as an alternative to the corporatized mass-produced princess culture spear-headed by Disney. More specifically, a handful of Miyazaki films feature specific “princesses” that provide a far more egalitarian and feminist message. In this film, San, Princess Mononoke herself, joins both Sheeta and Nausicaa as Studio Ghibli royalty as a Ghibli Princess. A Ghibli Princess is self-assured, bold, principled, has a unwavering morality and drive to do something that she knows to be unequivocally correct, while also not shying away from danger or difficulty. She is never “damseled” or becomes a prize for someone else’s work/bravery, and she never defines her identity or existence by her relationship status. The irony of this kind of “feminist” messaging is that, defining and labeling the characters as “feminist,” was never Miyazaki’s intention. He only set out to see boys and girls as equal, in both their abilities and the lessons they need to learn throughout childhood. He believes that these are universal themes that all humans, regardless of their placement on the gendered spectrum, should understand.
Princess Mononoke is one of the first times in Miyazaki’s career that he gives us differing, but equally complex, representations of femininity when comparing the main characters of Lady Eboshi and San. San and Eboshi can be interpreted as different types of feminism. From such a lens, their juxtaposition and conflict in the film becomes a representation of their clashing ideologies. Yet, these similarities do not occur to either of the characters. San does not see the feminism in Lady Eboshi’s actions with her people, because San is not a part of Iron Town’s social structure. Similarly, Eboshi sees San as just one more obstacle in her quest for domination.
Eboshi’s Liberal Feminism
Lady Eboshi is representative of the common liberal (usually white) forms of feminism that seek justice for women from inside an already established system. This is commonly illustrated through the example of Second Wave Feminism, particularly the creation of the National Organization for Women by Betty Friedan. This type of feminism, through several of its founders, was imbued with a white perspective which limited their perception and reduced their ability to consolidate power among all women during the Second wave movement. Liberal feminism (viewing feminism through a white cultural lens) championed actions and legislation that would support and improve the lives of white women, such as the ability to enter the workforce. Ignoring the fact that women of color have always had to work, and the many other differences that separated women’s experiences.
This alienation lead to the branching of nonwhite, trans, gat and disabled women into different, more radical forms of feminism. Radical Feminism being the type of feminism which seeks a dismantling of the entire social system. Rather than see the constraints on women as being able to be changed, as liberal feminists support, radical feminism sees the oppression of women rooted in the socio-political system; itself fueled by valuing white, cis heterosexual able-bodied men. Thus, creating and maintaining laws that greatly improve that group’s ability to succeed. One of the chief differences between liberal and radical feminism is the support of Capitalism. A liberal feminist can also be pro-capitalist, whereas a radical feminist cannot. It is this difference that is mirrored by Lady Eboshi and San in the film.
Eboshi is a liberal feminist in the way that she interacts with her townspeople. After eradicating prostitution, she redistributes the workers from the brothels; putting them to work in the furnaces of Iron Town. She also gives these women the freedom to choose their partners. Secondly, she also does not see those suffering from leprosy as being social pariahs, common for that time. She welcomes them into Iron town and treats them humanely. Both actions are a redistribution and/or accessing of a labor force while still maintaining the capitalism structure.
It is also important to mention that these (monetarily profitable) decisions are framed as “kindnesses” Lady Eboshi bestows upon her people; thereby fostering in them a fierce sense of loyalty and justice. During the assassination attempt by San on Eboshi, the townspeople rally behind their leader; fiercely defending her by surrounding San with their swords and guns. Here, not only does Eboshi fight San one on one (improving her status and credibility), but she allows two women, whose husbands died in the wolf attack on the mountain road, to get “revenge” for their loved ones, by shooting at San. Whom, on the other hand, in her opposition to Lady Eboshi’s liberal Feminism, not only adopts a more radical feminist perspective, but a particular form of radicalization known as EcoFeminism.
San, the Ecofeminist
EcoFeminism, a term coined by French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne is a specific form of radical feminism that focuses on the relationship between gender and nature. Some Ecofeminists use ecological destruction as a complex metaphor for how women are treated within society, seeing the treatment of the earth and the treatment of women as being analogous.
The character of San intersects with Ecofeminism at two distinct points:
1. The Ecofeminist principle regarding capitalism and the environment.
2. The subcategory of Spiritual Ecofeminism
For Ecofeminists, capitalism has a need and drive toward the exploitation and destruction of animals, earth, and people for profit (Adams and Gruen 2014). San, being raised by the Wolf God Moro, came of age with an understanding of the beauty, wonder, and splendor of the environment and its importance to all creatures. Therefore, San sees the actions of Iron Town, and Lady Eboshi specifically, in the destruction of the forest for profit, as not only selfish but dangerous.
Spiritual ecofeminism, a subcategory of Ecofeminism itself, see the earth as alive and devotees give time and energy to its protection; focusing on community-based behaviors that generate caring and compassion. In Mononoke, we literally see the earth alive through the Tree Spirits and the Forrest God/ Spirit, the latter of whom controls life and death. San’s respect and reverence for these beings is so great, that she is willing to go to war with those that oppose or try to harm them. Admittedly, this is not a common practice among spiritual eco feminists, as they tend to preach nonviolence.
Princess Mononoke was both a critical and commercial success. The film became the biggest film in Japan at the time and one of the most profitable animated films in the world, grossing over 230 Million dollars. This was a watershed moment for Miyazaki as it was a story that he was working on for years, and it was the film that allowed him to be able to make whatever he wanted next. Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa and Spirited Away are the films in Miyazaki’s filmography that represent what the public sees as “The Miyazaki Aesthetic.” It was these ethereal masterpieces of Spiritual Eco-Feminist Anti-Capitalism that solidified him as a welcomed alternative to the sexist corporatized monotony of Disney and others of their ilk.
Aadams, Carol J. and Lori Gruen 2014. “Groundwork” Pp 7-36 In EcoFeminism: Feminist Intersections with other Animals and the Earth New York Bloomsbury Academic
Klein, Naomi, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism New York: Picador
 Through the adherence to these rituals, beliefs, and behaviors. The deer have become, in the strict Durkheimian sense, a sacred object.
 Thankfully this has changed. Since 2017 Gkids has had exclusive distribution rights for all of Studio Ghibli and has remastered and re released all of their films.
 Seriously, Fuck this guy. If I believed in Hell he, and all the other male predators he trained in the industry would be flayed and burned for eternity.
 This my favorite Miyazaki story because he and Suzuki stand up to a sexist bully during the height of his power and basically gave him the Japanese equivalent of a middle finger. Again, Fuck Weinstein.
 Components of Modernity:
- - Shift in the economic system. From a Barter Systems of trade, to Capitalism
- - New technologies emerged causing an increased focus on industry and production (resulting in hydro and steam power, textiles, steel, and increased transportation (sea trade))
- - Expansions in Medical Science leading to Population Growth (lower infant mortality)
- - Urbanization ( City boom; go where the jobs are)
- - Increase in Secularism
 More on this, read the book the Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
 Clean air, water and endangered species acts
 Ponyo will eventually be included.
 In general, a feminist is any person with a political consciousness that promotes the understanding the women are people and champions their progressive advancement in all aspects of human life.
 Secondarily, there may be also a personal stake in San’s ideological position. San became adopted by the Wolf Clan after her birth parents threw her at Moro when she was a baby as a sacrifice to let them live. Knowing this would not engender sympathy for humanity in anyone.