Princess Mononoke (Japan 1997)
Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 September 2006
Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke) is perhaps Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece. It combines his two main themes – support for feminist ideas and concern over the ecological disaster that faces the planet. It is also the Miyazaki film with the most direct relationship with Japanese history and culture.
The setting is during the late Muromachi period in Japan, possibly in the early 16th century. Most of Miyazaki’s other films are set in indeterminate historical periods with various anachronisms (e.g. flying ships in Victorian Europe etc.) Princess Mononoke is by contrast remarkably consistent. The chosen period is the ‘pre-modern’, a time of great change when the Japanese population was growing rapidly and local wars over land and resources were quite common. But it pre-dates the first appearance of the Europeans and also the major wars of the end of the 16th century when the Tokugawa shogunate gained control and stabilised/stratified Japanese society. Miyazaki argues that in some ways this period was similar to our contemporary world – in which we still have a chance to change before the future is mapped out for us.
The setting also has a meaning in terms of Japanese cinema in which films have traditionally been defined as ‘contemporary’ (gendaigeki) or ‘period films’ (jedaigeki). Princess Mononoke is clearly a jedaigeki, but unlike many such films it doesn’t focus on the slightly later Tokugawa period and it doesn’t focus on samurai warriors and their lords (daimyo). Instead it gives precedence to artisans and to confrontations with the natural world.
“The reason for these settings is to depict characters more freely, without being bounded by the existing commonsense, preconceived notion, or prejudice in the existing period dramas.” (Miyazaki Hayao on www.nausicaa.net)
One feature of the Muromachi period that interested Miyazaki was the greater freedom for women in these more anarchic times. In this respect, the film is similar to the jedaigeki of the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, whose women are active in films like Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), but generally suffering. Miyazaki’s women are often both active and successful achievers. Although Princess Mononoke (‘Princess Ghost/Spirit’) is the named character of the title, the protagonist of the story is actually the young prince, Ashitaka, a rare example of a male protagonist in a Miyazaki film.
Ashitaka is a prince of the Emishi, one of the original peoples of the main Japanese island, Honshu, who were eventually conquered and assimilated by the Japanese around the 10th century AD. However, the history of the Emishi and their relationship to the Ainu, the other group of indigenous people of the most Northerly Japanese island, Hokkaido, has still not been resolved. Perhaps for Miyazaki what is important is that Japan was once a much less ‘mono-ethnic’ culture.
There are several groups of characters with various inter-relationships in Princess Mononoke. This is one of the great strengths of the film. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The humans are fighting the spirits and the gods of the forest. They are of course also fighting each other. The iron workers in the forest are led by women and are in many ways progressive, yet they threaten the natural world. The ‘princess’, San is quite unlike the the feisty but generally pleasant young women (shōjo) of most other Miyazaki films. Instead she is violent and angry, but also loyal and protective towards her adoptive mother, the dog/wolf god, Moro. In his early discussions about the film, Miyazaki suggested that San would be resemble a clay doll figure from the pre-agricultural period. With her blood-stained face she is clearly not a ‘princess’ from Western stories.
Western commentators have sometimes referred to The Lord of the Rings or the Tales of Narnia in trying to introduce Princess Mononoke. I’m not sure that this helps. Japanese culture is much more accepting of spirits as part of everyday life and although the action in Princess Mononoke may be fantastical, it is rooted in a much more realistic context (only the Shishi – the spirit of the forest – is a Miyazaki invention). The film has a universal appeal certainly, but this doesn’t mean that we can view it in the same way as Western mythological stories. Miyazaki has created a story that should concern us all, but it takes place firmly within the context of Japanese history and popular culture.
Roy Stafford, 27/10/06
(These notes were written for a screening of the film during the 2006 Bradford Animation Festival.)