lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 13:23:00 MST 2002
For my money, the Lord of the Ring and the Harry Potter movies (I admit
that I haven't seen the latter--frightened away by the abysmal reviews)
can't hold a candle to Princess Mononoke, a Japanese 'anime'.
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 enchant.
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
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
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
"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
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.
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