Princess Mononoke

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 19 11:34:30 MST 1999

In the opening scene of Miyazaki Hayao's 1997 animated feature Princess
Mononoke, we witness a battle between young Prince Ashitaka and a giant
demon warthog that is attacking his village. In the act of successfully
killing the animal, he receives a wound to his arm. In a meeting with the
village elders, he learns from a wise woman that the wound is certainly
fatal. It is only a matter of time. His only hope is to travel to the
forest home of the demon warthog to find out what has driven it to hate and
kill humans.

Thus begins a quest that is thematically related to many legends and fairy
tales, going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. A young protagonist, usually an
adolescent like Ashitaka, goes on a voyage to save either himself, herself
or their people. This voyage--in many ways a rite of puberty--leads to
self-discovery and a happy ending.

Although Miyazaki is known as Japan's Walt Disney, it would be a mistake to
assume that Princess Mononoke resembles the sort of saccharine product
Disney studios offer up today. In many ways it is a throwback to the darker
vision of a Disney past, when his films had the power to both frighten and

Ashikata departs to the East on his steed, a loyal elk in true fairy-tale
fashion, the rumored homeland of the demon hog. The only clue to what drove
the animal wild and turned it into a demon is the iron ball that is
discovered in its corpse. The wise woman of the village tells him that if
he discovers the source of the iron ball, he will likely understand the
root of his own suffering as well.

After a journey across mountains and through forests, he finally arrives at
the source of the iron ball. It is Irontown, ruled by Princess Eboshi.
Miyazaki's Irontown is a realistic depiction of one of those towns that
existed everywhere on the cusp of the introduction of capitalist property
relations in the 16th century. Its citizens work in a foundry turning iron
ore into guns and bullets. Eboshi dreams of ruling the world. By bringing
together wage labor and raw materials, she will achieve mastery over all
her enemies, including the feudal Samurai warriors who are constantly
attacking her heavily fortified industrial compound. She is symbolic of an
emerging Japanese bourgeoisie, whose artisan-based workshop is a mere
sprout in the surrounding feudal countryside. Out of such sprouts,
capitalism could emerge anywhere, but for geographical reasons was allowed
only to emerge in Western Europe and Japan. In the first instance because
Western Europe was able to cannibalize the New World, in the second because
Japan took advantage of its insular features to resist the cannibals.

Her only other enemy are the animals and spirits of the nearby mountain,
where the town's miners are systematically destroying trees in order to get
at the iron ore under the ground. Periodically animals, including the
warthog of the opening scene, attack the miners and the soldiers who defend
them. That is what the iron ball turns out to be, a bullet that both
gravely wounded the warthog and led to Ashikata's own struggle against death.

Eboshi's main worry, however, is San, the teenaged girl who lives with
white wolves in the forest. She is Princess Mononoke, who has the ability
to talk to the animals. Her parents abandoned her in the forest when she
was an infant, where she was adopted by the wolf goddess Moro, her mother
now. During one of her raids on Eboshi's fortress-factory, San is saved
from death by Ashikata who takes her unconscious body back into the forest.
During the rescue, he is wounded himself. Using the restorative powers of a
pond deep within the forest, San brings Ashikata back to health. However,
the original wound he received from the warthog has not disappeared. Its
black magic will prove difficult to overcome. The partnership of Ashikata
and San against the destruction of the forest, set against their unsteady
progress toward friendship and possibly love, will eventually overcome this
black magic.

Besides the three central characters--Princess Mononoke, Ashikata and
Eboshi--the most vivid character of all is the forest itself with its
animals and spirits. Miyazaki is one of the great animation artists of the
20th century, whose landscapes still depend heavily on manually produced
cels, although he is not above using computers when appropriate. Every
scene in Princess Mononoke is framed by a breathtaking natural tableaux,
typically tree-covered mountains that arch toward a brilliant sun and
clouds, with birds coasting lazily across the sky. Although the scenes of
nature usually occupy less than a minute, they are essential to the
esthetic pleasure of the film and its underlying theme: nature has
transcendent if not divine status. To kill it in a wanton fashion is evil.
On one level, Miyazaki's environmentalism has much in common with the "deep
ecology" that has sprung up over the past 2 decades. It depends heavily on
spiritual and religious understandings of the connection between humanity
and nature.

Key to understanding the underlying beliefs of Princess Mononoke is the
continuing strength of Shintoism in Japan, the pre-Buddhist indigenous
beliefs. The core of Shintoist mythology revolves around tales of the sun
goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestress of the Imperial Household. In the
beginning, according to Japanese mythology, a certain number of kami or
divine powers simply emerged, and a pair of kami, Izanagi and Izanami, gave
birth to the Japanese islands, as well as to the kami who became ancestors
of the various clans. Amaterasu, the ruler of Takama no Hara; the moon god
Tsukiyomi no Mikoto; and Susanoo (Susanowo) no Mikoto, the ruler of the
nether regions, were the most important among them.

Shintoist beliefs remain strong in Japan today, although there is no
organized Shintoist religion as such. Perhaps best way to understand the
persistence of precapitalist mythology in a highly advanced industrial
country is to imagine by analogy that Mexico had been an island able to
resist Spanish conquistadores. At some point, the native Aztec feudal
aristocracy emerges into a capitalist class, but never loses touch with the
pantheistic beliefs of its racial origins. Among them is a belief in the
sacredness of nature, something that is obviously inimical to unfettered
capitalist growth.

The concern about "absence of the sacred" not only permeates Miyazaki's
film, it also is strong among some of the ideological leaders of the recent
Seattle protests. Green idealists such as Jerry Mander and Vandana Shiva
decry the soulless pursuit of profit by the modern corporation. Salvation
would seem to be a return to the simple life of pastoral villagers and
nomads, who view themselves as part of nature and not above it.

However, a deeper reading of Princess Mononoke would yield a somewhat
different view. Prince Ashikata's message is not that Irontown should be
destroyed, only that it find a way to co-exist with nature. In addition,
the artisans of Irontown are depicted as plucky and resourceful, not simple
wage slaves who hate their work. The most skilled workers there, who are
designing a more powerful rifle directly under Eboshi's supervision, are
lepers whom she has rescued from outer society's fears and superstitions.

In a perceptive Oct. 24, 1999 Los Angeles Times profile of Miyazaki,
Charles Solomon notes that in contrast to the sneering Clayton in "Tarzan"
or the brutal Shan Yu in "Mulan":

"Eboshi is not a straightforward villain. Like the Japanese people after
World War II, the workers in Iron Town are trying to survive in a troubled
world; they don't mean to destroy their environment. 'If you portray
someone who's evil, then you off him, what's the point?' Miyazaki asked.
'It's easy to create a villain who's a maniacal real estate developer, then
kill him and have a happy ending. But what if a really good person becomes
a real estate developer?'"

The questions posed by Princess Mononoke and the Seattle protests will
remain with us as long as the world is organized on the basis of profit and
private property. Some people opposed to the system will long for simpler,
precapitalist foundations while others will argue that progress and
material well-being can only be ensured by relentless exploitation of
natural resources. Marxism has often found itself struggling to define
itself within the two poles.

Perhaps Engels' characterization of the Iroquois confederacy and other
precapitalist societies might be a guide to understanding resolving this
apparent dilemma:

"The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken.
But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a
degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile
society. The lowest interests -- base greed, brutal appetites, sordid
avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth -- inaugurate the new,
civilized, class society. It is by the vilest means -- theft, violence,
fraud, treason -- that the old classless gentile society is undermined and
overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half
thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the
development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and
oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before."

Clearly, what Marxists should aim at is the marriage of the values of
communal society--including its reverence of nature--with the scientific
and technological advances that modern class society has made possible. The
proper term for this is socialism.

Louis Proyect
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