IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Movies and Mass Culture, John Belton asserts that “movies assist audiences in negotiating major changes in identity; they carry them across difficult periods of cultural transition in such a way that a more or less coherent national identity remains in place, spanning the gaps and fissures that threaten to disrupt its movement and to expose its essential disjointedness.”1 This is an ambitious statement, but it seems an appropriate one in many cases. Despite their use of traditional tropes of endurance and nobility, the final vision of both Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen is that of a fragmented national identity, a major characteristic of which is a deep sense of loss of a structured, patriarchal past. In the case of these two films the fragmentation is implicit, but in the next film to be considered, Miyazaki Hayao’s 1997 epic Princess Mononoke (Mononokehime) the sense of a broken heterogeneous world is stridently manifest. Princess Mononoke problematizes archetypes and icons, ranging from the notion of the emperor’s untouchability to the traditional iconization of the feminine, to create a genuinely new vision of a Japan at the crossroads of history. The film also emphasizes loss, even privileges it. In contrast to Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen, however, Miyazaki’s work deals with the loss of a Japan that existed before the patriarchal system, a Japan in which nature, rather than humans, ruled. In some ways one might characterize the film as a violent, indeed apocalyptic, elegy for a lost Japan at the same time that it offers an alternative, heterogeneous, and female-centered vision of Japanese identity for the future. Although Princess Mononoke is not based on an actual historical event, it belongs properly in a section on animation and history because, in its distinctive way, it is a meditation on Japanese history that provides a counternarrative to some pivotal myths of Japanese culture and society. These include such crucial notions as “top down history” (history as belonging only to the court and the samurai warrior aristocracy) and the idealized concepts of the premodern Japanese as a homogeneous race living in harmony with nature.
Princess Mononoke is the highest-grossing Japanese film (not just anime) of all time. Its appeal seems to extend to all parts of Japanese society, going beyond the typical family base of most Miyazaki films, despite its complex, ambiguous, and often dark text that calls into question many long-held notions of Japanese identity. What is it about Princess Mononoke that strikes such a chord with the Japanese audience? And what does it say about Japanese identity at the end of the twentieth century that a film set in the medieval period actively subverts some of the major myths of the Japanese past? In contrast to idealized myths of harmony, progress, and an unproblem- atic, homogenous “people” (minzoku) ruled by a patriarchal elite, the film offers a vision of cultural dissonance, spiritual loss, and environmental apocalypse. If Princess Mononoke is indeed negotiat- ing changes in identity for its Japanese audience, what kind of new identity is taking form?
To answer these questions it is first useful to see the ways in which Princess Mononoke undermines the myths of traditional Japa- nese identity while offering a counternarrative in their place. Although this counternarrative is not original (it builds on much recent scholarship from the last decade), Princess Mononoke reenvi- sions the conventions of Japanese history through a variety of distinctive and effective strategies. Perhaps the most important is one of subversion and defamiliarization. The film defamiliarizes two important icons in Japanese culture, the myth of the feminine as long-suffering and supportive and the myth of the Japanese as living in harmony with nature, often expressed through a union of the feminine with the natural.
Furthermore the film defamiliarizes conventional notions of Japanese history through Miyazaki’s decision to set the film during the fourteenth-century Muromachi period and his subsequent subversion of conventional expectations concerning what a film set in that era should be “about.” The period is usually considered to be an apex of Japanese high culture, when well-known cultural products like the tea ceremony, Noh theater, and Zen-inspired landscape gardens reached their most brilliant form. It was also an era of relative peace, when the ruling samurai class grew increasingly literate and refined as they settled in the Muromachi section of the capital city of Kyoto, where they rubbed shoulders with the court aristocracy. Princess Mononoke, however, takes place in a mythical space deeply removed from the capital, both literally and symbolically. As Miyazaki states in his introduction to a book about the film, “Contrary to the usual period film [jidaigeki], this is a movie in which few samurai, peasants, or feudal lords appear. This is a film in which the main protagonists are those who usually do not appear on the stage of history. Instead, this is the story of the marginals of history.”
The film’s “marginals” comprise a diverse and unusual group that includes women, outcasts, and non-Yamato (nonethnic Japanese) tribes, but perhaps the most unusual inclusion is that of the kami, the ancient gods of the Japanese people who either embody or are closely linked to the forces of nature. It is these kami, who range from sentient beasts to supernatural spirits, whose war against the humans provides the narrative impetus of the film. Or perhaps it would be equally accurate to say that it is the war of the humans (or perhaps more appropriately, the war of the humans against the kami) that is one of the main drives of the film. As Komatsu Kazuhiko explains, “The motif that runs at the foundation of the story is that of the ‘extermination of ghosts’ [bakemono taiji].”
The term “ghosts” (bakemono) can be equated with kami, but it also encompasses a more negative range of natural and supernatural forces. They represent the nonrational, nonhuman world, a world that by the fourteenth century was seriously threatened by the increasing dominance of human collectivities. In the film, the kami/bakemono exist in opposition to the human realm. The marginals, in particular the female characters linked with the kami/bakemono, represent the abjected Other, the untamable supernatural outsider haunting the boundaries of the increasingly “civilized” world of Japan dominated by the imperial court, the shogun, and the samurai. From the film’s very beginning it subverts what might be called the “samurai ethic” of traditional period cinema (although it should be noted that the “samurai ethic” has also been resisted in such “high culture” films as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo). Rather than opening with a scene of samurai battle or courageous peasants resisting warlords, Princess Mononoke starts squarely in the realm of the nonhuman. It begins with a wide-angle shot of mist-laden moun- tains, over which are superimposed the words, “Long ago, this country was covered by deep forests in which, from ancient times, there lived the gods.” Although the time frame soon becomes more identifiable, this opening vista immediately places the audience in a liminal, mythic space. This space does not exist as mystical refuge, however. Instead, it is figured as a site of resistance, and even of attack.
As the focus narrows in on the forest, the hitherto serene natural space is rent by a series of plunging assaultive movements. The forest’s pristine interior is ravaged by the sudden grating movement of trees falling, which cuts jagged horizontals across the screen. The trees are not being felled by humans but by a tatarigami, a kind of violent god that has taken over the body of an injured wild boar. The boar’s injury is from an iron ball lodged in its body, which enrages it. The plunging movements of the maddened boar seem to fill the screen as it rushes through the forest. Finally it escapes from the forest to attack the world of humans, in this case a clan in eastern Japan known as the Emishi (equated in notes to the film with the non-Japanese Ainu race), whose young lord, Ashitaka, ultimately manages to kill the boar. The boar’s deadly encounter with the humans subverts audi- ence expectations. Rather than the tidy disposal of a wild animal, the boar’s death becomes the impetus for the film’s subsequent narrative. As it dies, the boar places a curse on Ashitaka, repre- sented visually by a tentacular stain on his right arm. Knowing that he will die if he cannot rid himself of the curse, Ashitaka leaves his people and journeys west toward the central land of the Yamato kingdom, the area where the Japanese court held most sway during that period. The boy, however, ends up finding two places that are very far from court or samurai culture. The first is an immense forest that is ruled by a fantastic deerlike presence known as the shishigami and contains supernatural creatures such as the doll-like forest spirits known as the kodama and clans of sentient animals such as wolves, monkeys, and boars. The second is the fortress of Tatara, where the iron ball that originally injured the boar was produced. Ashitaka discovers that Tatara is essentially a weapons manufacturing factory where they mine iron ore to make arma- ments. In another example of subversion, guns, rather than swords, play a major part in this supposedly medieval setting. Tatara is informally allied with the Yamato court since they are both united against a common enemy, the gods of the forest. Consequently, the important battles of the film are not between samurai or even between samurai and peasants but between various human factions and the beasts and spirits of the forest. Or, as Miyazaki titles his introduction to The Art of Mononokehime, “This is a story of battle between humanity and the wild gods.”
In another undermining of traditional conventions, Tatara is not governed by a man but by a woman, Lady Eboshi, who has constructed Tatara as a utopian refuge for outcast women and people with incurable illnesses like leprosy. Eboshi is pitted not only against the forest creatures but also against another female human, a young girl named San who is the “mononokehime” or “possessed princess” of the title. Although “mononoke” traditionally means possession by a human spirit, San is clearly possessed by the fearsome spirits of nature. Raised by a female wolf known as Moro, San detests all things human and lives only to destroy human civilization, represented by Tatara. Eboshi in turn is determined to take over the forest, a victory that would involve killing the shishigami. In the film’s apocalyptic climax, Eboshi, along with samurai and priests from the court, battles against all the creatures of the forest and succeeds in cutting off the head of the shishigami. This action sets off the destruction of the entire forest, shown through images of the earth turning brown and cracking open and the forest spirits dying, while the immense shishigami, barely alive, searches helplessly for its head. Eboshi has promised the head to representatives from the Yamato court, who intend to take it back to the emperor, but, in the film’s climactic scene, San and Ashitaka unite to seize the head and return it to the shishigami.
The film ends with the apparent restoration of nature and harmony as the world turns green again, but ambiguous currents remain beneath the surface. Although Ashitaka is freed from his curse and decides to stay in Tatara to work with the now penitent Eboshi, he cannot convince San to live with him. She insists that she cannot forgive humans and laments the death of the shishigami. Ashitaka in turn maintains that the shishigami is still alive, but she remains unpersuaded. The last lines that the two speak have them agreeing to “visit each other sometimes.”
Princess Mononoke is a powerful and moving work but also a disturbing one. Unlike previous Miyazaki films, which end on an unambiguous note of hope and reassurance even if they present visions of destruction and horror, Princess Mononoke’s “message” fits much more appropriately into what can be termed the cinema of “de- assurance.” As anime critic Helen McCarthy points out, this is a film about love in its many aspects—love of nature, love of family, love between the sexes—but it is also, as she says, a film about “the extent to which love involves loss of many kinds.” It is a wake-up call to human beings in a time of environmental and spiritual crisis that attempts to provoke its audience into realizing how much they have already lost and how much more they stand to lose. This power of the film depends on Miyazaki’s strategies of subversion that problematize many of the accepted myths of Japanese culture. In keeping with Miyazaki’s striking ability to blend the “real” with the fantastic, Princess Mononoke creates a world that appears to have some kind of historical basis but then consistently destabilizes audience expectations of how that world should be. One example of the pervasiveness of this destabilization is in the choice of historical setting. This is an important change from his previous works, virtually all of which have been set in what might be called “international fantasy space,” fantastic nonplaces characterized by vaguely Euro- pean-style architecture and Western-looking characters. The only exception to this is Totoro, which is set in a rural suburb of Tokyo in an idealized near-past corresponding roughly to the 1950s. Totoro’s beau- tiful fantasy spaces work to create a sense of escape, pleasure, and hope. The film is also deeply nostalgic, a quest for an imagined personal past.
In contrast, Princess Mononoke refuses to sentimentalize the medieval history it highlights, preferring to problematize the past and, implicitly, the attitudes toward it. Furthermore, although his depiction contains important fantasy elements, Miyazaki’s decision to use a specific historical period is for reasons of education rather than escapism. In Miyazaki’s view, the fourteenth century is a period of significant historical transition from a world that was still in close contact with both natural and supernatural forces to a world that would become increasingly oriented toward the human. As he says, “It was in this period that people changed their value system from gods to money.” Since the period is one of transition, its variability also holds great attractions for him as a time when “life and death were sharply delineated. People lied, loved, hated, worked, and died. Life was not ambiguous. Even in the midst of hatred and slaughter there were still things that made life worth living. Marvelous encounters and beautiful things could still exist.” It is this complex and dangerous world that Princess Mononoke attempts to evoke, and, although permeated by historical allusions, it is also very much Miyazaki’s own world, his own “history as vision.” As Komatsu says, “This is not a work based on historical faithfulness . . . [T]his is fantasy dressed as historical fiction with a variety of facts and fictions gathered together.”
The way in which the film mixes “facts and fiction” is an important element in its destabilizing effect. Two of the most impor- tant aspects of this destabilization are the film’s defamiliarizing of conventional female characterization and its “supernaturalization” of nature. Turning to his female characters, it is evident that in Princess Mononoke Miyazaki not only undermines a plethora of female stereo-
types from conventional Japanese culture and from the anime world itself but also moves away from his own previous female creations. Animation scholar Paul Wells says that earlier Miyazaki films “operate in ways which re-negotiate narrative paradigms accentuating mascu- line power and authority,” and this is especially true for Princess Mononoke. As critic Murase Hiromi points out, there are three impor- tant female characters in the film: Eboshi, the leader of Tatara; San, the human girl who has joined wild nature; and Moro, San’s adoptive wolf mother. Female characters have traditionally been of great importance throughout Miyazaki’s oeuvre, but these three characters depart from his more typical heroines in a variety of intriguing ways. While virtually all of his female protagonists, from the stalwart Nausicaä to the inquisitive little girls of Totoro, are impressively independent and self-possessed creations, they still tend to have conventionally female gendered aspects like sweetness and cuteness, which, as has been shown, are typical of the shojo. Since cuteness is such an important part of contemporary Japanese culture, it is not surprising that Miyazaki’s female protagonists participate in this cultural construc- tion, and it makes its absence in the three female characters of Princess Mononoke all the more remarkable.
Overall, the female characters possess a gender-neutral, or at least deeply ambiguous, characterization compared to traditional female stereotypes, and they remain completely outside the misogynis- tic patriarchal collectivity that rapidly became the foundation of premodern Japan. Eboshi is a leader who cares for the sick and the outcast but is equally concerned with military matters and the destruction of the shishigami. Moro appears to be a wise and brave mother, but she is also a ferocious killer. Most intriguing of all, San, the “heroine” of the film, is shown as a ruthless figure of virtually unrelenting violence. Although she has moments of softness, as when she takes care of the injured Ashitaka in the forest, the viewer is most likely to remember her first appearance in the film, clad in a costume of fur and bone, her face bloody from sucking out blood from a wound in Moro’s side.
This initial appearance is worth examining, especially since it is this depiction of San that appeared frequently in promotional material for the film. Her blood-smeared face, fierce demeanor, and fur clothing obviously connect San with both violence and nature, but there is also a strong hint of the sexual primordial female as well. The blood around San’s mouth, metonymically reinforced by two red slashes of paint on her cheeks suggests menstrual blood and also an aggressive sexuality that is confrontational rather than alluring. The fur around San’s neck, visually reinforced by Moro’s furry coat, may also suggest genitalia, but it is an explicit picture of female sexuality that is more ominous than erotic. San’s body is thus inscribed with wildness and primordial sexuality, making her Otherness not simply female but bestial as well.
This reading is supported by her subsequent appearances in the film, beginning with her attack on Tatara. The viewer first sees her from a distance, running with her two wolf “siblings” in a horizontal streak of assaultive lightning. Horizontals switch to verticals as she leaps, rolls, and plunges from rooftop to rooftop, knife in hand. Overwhelming all resistance from the outmatched denizens of Tatara and far more frightening than her wolf companions, she appears as terrifyingly Other, a creature of supernatural forces totally outside the realm of the human. San’s “mother,” Moro, is also a destabilizing mixture of charac- teristics.13 Although clearly sentient and intelligent, she is a far cry from the cuddly anthropomorphic creations that viewers of family animation have traditionally come to expect. She does have nurturing qualities (for example, at one point San buries her face against Moro’s fur, creating a rather unsettling picture of mother-child bonding), and she gives wise advice to both her real offspring and to San. However, she is also a relentless fighter, as the scene in which she dies, her teeth still firmly clenched in Eboshi’s arm, clearly demonstrates.
Eboshi is the most ambiguous character of the three. Without any apparent family ties or hint of male support, she rules Tatara independently. Even more than Moro, she is characterized by an odd amalgamation of the nurturing and the ferocious. She is clearly protective of her diseased and outcast citizens, but at the same time she is fanatically determined to destroy the shishigami and, by extension, the natural world of the forest. Even more than Moro or San, she seems removed from any historical context. While there is a tradition of isolated utopian communities throughout Japanese history and the references to iron ore manufacturing are apparently accurate, the notion that such a community would have been led by a woman, and one who was both a military commander and a fiercely determined fighter, seems clearly fictional. She too is a kind of Other, but, in direct contrast to San and Moro, Eboshi aligns totally with technology and culture. In her provocative essay, Murase Hiromi sees the three females as occupying significantly different positions in relation to the nature/ culture dichotomy that exists as one of the main pivots of the film. For Murase, San and Moro exist as a mother-daughter coalition aligned with nature and in opposition to the “civilization” of Tatara over which Eboshi rules. Eboshi in turn may be seen as a kind of artificial mother to the collectivity of Tatara. In the death of Moro at the film’s end, Murase sees nature being overwhelmed by culture and perceives a hint of the transition from the flesh-and-blood ties that characterized premodern Japan to the kind of suprapersonal relationships that characterized the industrial collectivity of contemporary Japan. Murase also suggests that Miyazaki may be covertly playing with gender boundaries behind the screen of the nature/culture dichotomy. It is certainly true that all three female protagonists possess character- istics traditionally coded as male, and that, with the important exception of Ashitaka, there are no male “heroes” in the film. It is also possible to suggest that the use of females in conventionally male- coded roles is another link within the film’s overall strategy of destabilization. In each of the three cases, the use of a female character defamiliarizes what might otherwise be a fairly hackneyed film role. This is even true in the case of Moro who, at first glance, could just as easily have been made into a male wolf. By making her both female and a mother but refusing to allow her any conventionally maternal characteristics (such as those of the lioness mother in The Lion King), the film once again destabilizes the audience, who are not permitted the reassurance of finding the beast nonthreatening. Moro remains an unrepentant threat to the humans until her own death, which itself is portrayed totally without sentimentality.
Even more defamiliarizing is Eboshi. While most standard historical dramas use the main female character as a “vehicle for tradition,” Eboshi’s character subverts the conventional notion of the traditional female role. Furthermore, had Eboshi been a male leader in charge of making armaments, governing a collectivity, and leading her troops into battle against the denizens of the forest, the audience would likely have found her far less interesting and might have seen the character as another typical representation of the evil human male pitting his draconian technology against helpless nature. By making the character a woman, and one who can both destroy and rebuild, the film problematizes facile stereotyping of technology, armaments, and industrialized culture as evil. In the film’s presentation, Eboshi is in some ways a tragic figure, but her tragedy is that she is not actually evil. Instead, she is coerced into her destructive attack by her natural desire to protect a utopian collectivity.
Eboshi’s character thus defamiliarizes both our notions of femi- ninity and of culture, showing a more complex face of the feminine. San’s character also defamiliarizes the feminine, but, more importantly, she also defamiliarizes the conventional view of the feminine and the natural as a form of sanctified Japanese harmony (wa). Even today, modern Japan places a strong emphasis on the woman and nature as emblems of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Upscale fashion magazines such as Katei gaho make a point of featuring only Japanese models, usually kimono clad, performing some seasonal activity to promote the magazine’s image of traditional harmony: “together with nature, some- thing Japanese.” Obviously, San’s connection with nature is in signifi- cant contrast to this mystically aesthetic ideal. The “nature” that San seems to epitomize suggests associations with assault, destruction, and profound, unstoppable rage. Again, while this concatenation of negative elements might be surprising or disturbing in a male “wild child” character, in an attractive young female it is far more destabilizing. Manga critic Natsume Fukanosuke has noted the important connection between young girls and myth in Miyazaki’s work, but San’s character seems to spring from the myths of early Shinto, unlike his previous female protagonists. In Shinto’s animistic beliefs individ- uals as well as natural products and forces such as animals, rocks, and mountains could become kami. These kami were gods not because of any moral attributes (as is the case in the Buddhist pantheon, a later addition to Japan) but because of their literally awesome powers. While perhaps not quite a kami, San possesses clearly supernatural powers, both in her extraordinary fighting capability and in her ability to speak telepathically with Moro and the other beasts. In many ways her ability to bond with the nonhuman is reminiscent of Nausicaä, but, in important contrast to Nausicaä, she shows very little capacity to bond with the human. Despite her human origins, San is clearly a liminal figure, closer to the animal and other kami characters, who are at least as important in the film as the human protagonists. It is this use of the fantastic and the uncanny aligned with nonhuman actants and nature that is the second major destabilizing strategy in the film. While critic Robin Wood in discussing fantasy film has stated that fantasy “can be used in two ways, as a means of escaping from contemporary reality or as a means of illuminating it,” Princess Mononoke’s use of fantasy is clearly to disturb or problematize our notions of reality.
The center of the film’s fantasy space is, of course, the forest that stands in uncanny opposition to the civilization of Tatara. In terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny as something that is both unfamiliar yet eerily familiar (unheimlich in the original German), the forest fits appropriately. For Miyazaki, the great forest exists as a buried arche- typal memory. According to critic Komatsu Kazuhiko, Princess Monon- oke’s forest is based on Miyazaki’s reading in historical ecology, in particular the writings of Nakao Sasuke, who wrote about the origins of agriculture in Japan. For Miyazaki, reading these works was almost a spiritual revelation. As Miyazaki himself puts it,
Upon reading [Nakao], I felt my eyes being drawn to a distant height. A wind blew over me. The framework of the nation state [kokka] the wall emblemized by the word “racial people” [min- zoku], the heavy weight of history, all fled away from me and the breath of life from the evergreen forests flowed into me. Everything was woven together in this book—the forests of the Meiji shrine where I liked to stroll, theories about farming in Shinshu during the Jomon period, the tales of everyday life in Yamanashi that my story telling mother liked to relate—and it taught me what I was the descendant of. It is Miyazaki’s notion that he and presumably other Japanese are the spiritual descendants of the “glossy leafed forests” that Nakao theo- rizes once covered Japan before the country became dominated by rice culture. Once rice paddy culture arrived, wet rice cultivation began to destroy the wilder kind of nature, and by the twentieth century it had almost completely disappeared from contemporary Japan. Miyazaki believes that these vanished forests still exert a spiritual pull on the average urban dweller, and it was this that he attempted to dramatize in his creation of the forest of the shishigami. He explains “If you opened a map of Japan and asked where is the forest of the shishigami that Ashitaka went to, I couldn’t tell you, but I do believe that somehow traces of that kind of place still exist inside one’s soul.”
In this interpretation, the forest of the shishigami is a place of magical and spiritual renewal. Its construction draws together Nakao’s historical research, archetypal Shinto beliefs, and Miyazaki’s own imagination. The forest’s magical qualities come across expressively in the film’s brilliant animation and exceptional use of color. In contrast to the pastel palette of many of the director’s films, Princess Mononoke’s forest is designed in deep greens and browns, with the occasional radiant shafts of light penetrating the depths of quiet forest pools. Night scenes are even more remarkable, especially the moonlit vision of the shishigami as it metamorphoses into the detarabochi, an immense phantom of the night that is its alter ego. These scenes might suggest that the forest in Princess Mononoke is a classic example of the traditional Japanese valorization of nature. Indeed, in its depth, power, and beauty the forest does suggest some of the spirit of premodern Japanese poetry, particularly the lengthy Shinto-inspired celebrations of nature in the tenth-century poetry collection, the Manyoshu. It is crucial to point out, however, that Miyazaki radically defamiliarizes any conventional stereotyping. Despite its beauty, the forest has little in common with the traditional Japanese landscaping that reached its apogee during the Muromachi period. Influenced by the Zen priest- hood, the Muromachi landscape was an enclosed one, the carefully cultivated and safe framework of the Zen garden. In significant contrast, the forest of the shishigami is a wild and threatening place, consistently avoided by the human characters in the film. Rather than a refuge it is a locus of revenge.
The motif of revenge begins with the terrifying vision of the wounded boar bursting out of the forest, who, as it dies, intones a message of eternal hatred against all humans. A sense of anger and desire for human blood animates virtually all the other animals in the film (with the exception of Ashitaka’s domesticated steed, Yakurtu), from the monkeys (whose refrain is, “We will eat humans!”) to the pitiless Moro and her children. Even the shishigami, despite its gentle demeanor and deerlike characteristics, is clearly not a sentimentally benevolent deity. Although it does save Ashitaka when he is wounded in the initial battle with San, this could be a result of San’s intercession or, as Ashitaka guesses, a means of prolonging his life so that the boar’s curse may legitimately destroy him. In either case, the shishigami itself is unconcerned with any larger moral implications, wishing only to protect its forests and the forest’s denizens. Once again, a comparison with The Lion King might be apt here. Unlike the approachable and all- wise father lion, the shishigami is characterized in a deliberately mystical way, speechless, enigmatic, and, in its detarabochi transforma- tion, truly godlike.
Miyazaki’s “supernaturalization” of the natural is a deliberate defamiliarization strategy offering an alternative vision to the conven- tional Japanese view of nature, which, while acknowledging the wildness of nature, prefers to view it as something that can be tamed and cultivated. In the film nature is beautiful, sacred, and awesome, but it is also vengeful and brutally frightening. Embodied in the spiritually remote shishigami, it exists in the eyes of Eboshi and the Yamato court as yet another vision of the Other, an object to be repudiated and ultimately destroyed.
The theme of repudiation and destruction returns to the notion of the abjected Other touched upon at the beginning of this chapter. Certainly one of Miyazaki’s major strategies in Princess Mononoke is to privilege a vision in which the abject revenge themselves. This is not an entirely original vision (another version appears in Akira). It is rather one that has lingered on the boundaries of twentieth-century Japanese culture and has undermined the dominant discourse of modernity and progress through the presentation of alternative visions that privilege the irrational, the supernatural, and the apocalyptic. Often these visions have been linked with women. Throughout much of the twentieth century, women in modernizing Japan have been seen as sites of what literary scholar Nina Cornyetz calls “the nostalgic uncanny.” Cornyetz suggests that the modern tendency to associate women with the nostalgic uncanny is actually a form of abjection, a process in which the “culturally repulsive aspects of the premodern and the undifferentiated maternal body” are repudiated and jettisoned from the dominant collectivity. Abjecting the Other (female, supernatural, premodern, etc.) allowed the modern male Japanese subject to develop. In Princess Mononoke there are two different and almost contra- dictory processes at work. First, the revenge of the abjected is encapsulated in the wild and assaultive body of San. The second is a provocative acknowledgment of the brutal complexities of “progress,” dramatized through the character of Eboshi. Turning to the question of abjection first, there are many examples of this process in both film and literature, from the savage and seductive female ghost in Mizogu- chi’s film Ugetsu to the forest-dwelling enchantress of Izumi Kyoka’s story Koya hijiri (the holy man of Mount Koya). While San is delineated in essentially asexual terms, her association with blood and with spirit possession links her to premodern archetypes of ferocious femininity—the shamanesses, mountain witches, and other demonic women who are the opposite trope of the all-enduring, all-supportive mother figure. Read in this light, San’s femininity is aligned with the uncanny and the “supernatural natural” embodied by Moro in resis- tance to modernity. However, unlike the females in Koya or Ugetsu, who are defeated by the world of the Symbolic (the written word of the Buddhist scriptures), San is shown as able and willing to strike back against “civilization.”
Ultimately, although San and Moro do not exactly triumph, they are also not entirely defeated. The supernatural forces with which they are connected are strong enough to threaten an apocalyptic end to the environment, which temporarily defeats the monks and samurai, and forces the material civilization of Tatara to rethink its position vis-à-vis the forest. San’s refusal to live with Ashitaka and her decision to stay in the forest ensure that a sense of loss or absence inevitably permeates the film’s conclusion. As a result, the ending of Princess Mononoke is a kind of draw, with neither side triumphant and the abject still not entirely repudiated.
However, looking at the ending with the long gaze of twenti- eth-century hindsight, it is clear that the forest of the shishigami no longer exists except, perhaps, as an archetypal shadow on the contemporary unconscious. In this regard, the complex, intriguing, and enigmatic character of Eboshi and her association with the proto-industrial Tatara take on pivotal importance. In the film’s refusal to destroy Eboshi or Tatara we see an implicit acknowledg- ment of the inevitability of “progress.”Princess Mononoke’s abjected Others function as an all-out confrontation with the notion of modernity as progress, but the film is too sophisticated to offer only a simple antiprogress/antimodernity message. By acknowledging Eboshi’s “humanity” (in both senses of the term) the film forces the viewer out of any complacent cultural position where technology and industry can be dismissed as simply wrong. It is worth reempha- sizing that Eboshi’s femininity, especially her nurturing capacity, ensures that the viewer cannot slip so easily into a simplistic moral equation of industrial equals evil. Miyazaki problematizes the issue even further by making Tatara not just a site of industrial production but a site of weapons manufacturing. In addition, one of the weapons it produces, the iron ball that lodged in the tatarigami [boar], has engendered a lasting curse on humanity. However, it is these weapons that give employment to Tatara’s outcast citizenry, who surely have as much right to survival as the denizens of the forest.
In contrast to a vision of a fundamentally approachable world in which conventions may be destabilized but never totally undermined, Princess Mononoke subverts the traditional history, aesthetics, and gender relationships of Japanese society. In opposition to elitist and masculinist versions of Japanese history, the emperor and the court are seen as struggling with powers potentially beyond their control, while the only authoritative guidance comes from a female wolf and the female leader of a weapons manufacturing community. Most shock- ingly, in contrast to the dysfunctional but still archetypally feminine women of Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen or the sexually attractive, nurturing women of the romantic comedies, Princess Mononoke uses female characters who exist in their own right, independent of any male interlocutor. Furthermore, these indepen- dent females are not domesticated by marriage or a happy ending but are instead interested in living separate but presumably fulfilling lives, San with her companions in the natural world, Eboshi with her industrializing community.
In contrast to the traditional tropes of homogeneity and har- mony, the film offers a vision of what might be called a Japanese form of multiculturalism. This observation is supported by a striking essay by critic Saeki Junko in which she compares Princess Mononoke to director Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Although acknowledg- ing the obvious difference between an American science fiction film set in the twenty-first century and a Japanese historical fantasy set in
the fourteenth century, Saeki points out that the films possess a significant commonality in their mutual fascination with the problem of Otherness. In her eyes, both films are highly conscious of such questions as “How do we accept the existence of the Other or reach a mutual understanding [in a society] in which different worlds cannot fuse together but will eternally maintain their separate territories?” Saeki’s conclusion is that both Blade Runner and Princess Mononoke answer this question by promoting a willingness to accept difference as an essential part of life, an acknowledgment that she sees as a product of globalization. Ultimately, she suggests that both Blade Runner and Princess Mononoke are narratives that relate a “dialogue with the Other” as an attempt at some kind of “global standard in a period of . . . ‘internationalization’ in which countries continue to maintain their identity while accepting the inevitable need for exchange with the Other.”
Saeki’s vision of what I have called Princess Mononoke’s “multi- culturalism” is intriguing not only in relation to Blade Runner but also in regards to a more recent work, the 1999 animated Disney film version of Tarzan, released two years after Princess Mononoke. Both films feature primordial natural settings and human protagonists raised by animals, and both privilege to an extent a fantasy of revenge by the natural world upon human technology. However, the narrative strategies and imagery they employ are significantly different, as are their ultimate ideological messages. While Princess Mononoke insists on difference, the Disney film attempts to erase it. Thus, despite its jungle setting and an ending that seems to suggest the autonomous power and appeal of the natural world, Tarzan’s underlying message privileges an anthropocentric view of the world, emphasized by the film’s final scene, in which Tarzan, Jane, and her father are seen frolicking with the anthropomorphically rendered apes in a paradisial jungle. In a sense this is a vision of a Garden of Eden, in which all species live together in contentment. It is also a vision that ignores the steady march of history, technology, and progress that ultimately destroy any hope of such an Eden in the contemporary world. In contrast, Princess Mononoke’s world is one in which nature, emblema- tized by the inhuman shishigami, remains beautiful but threateningly and insistently Other. This is also a world in which technology cannot be erased or ignored but rather must be dealt with as an unpleasant but permanent fact of life. While Tarzan uses fantasy to gloss over the inconvenient facts of historical change and cultural complexity, Prin- cess Mononoke employs the fantastic to reveal how plurality and otherness are a basic feature of human life.
In contrast to the melting-pot vision of American cultural hegemony, Japanese society remains deeply aware of plurality and otherness. Miyazaki’s earlier films reflect this awareness in an upbeat way, offering enchanting visions of other worlds and identities in a nonthreatening, even empowering, manner. Princess Mononoke takes a darker and more complex look at this issue. In Ashitaka’s and San’s agreement to live apart but still visit each other (the opposite of the inclusionary ending of the Disney work), the film suggests the pain involved in choosing identities in a world in which such choices are increasingly offered. Although set in a historical past, Princess Monon- oke reflects the extraordinary array of pluralities that suggest the ever more complex world of the twenty-first century.
susan j. napier, anime