Princess Mononoke: Our Relationship with Nature

Miyazaki’s masterpiece explores the turbulent relationship between man and the natural world, writes Kieran Enright

When I first stumbled upon Studio Ghibli, I was immediately taken aback by the style and tone of its tales. Unlike its Western counterparts, these epics deal with conflicts of ideals, and question the resilience of the human condition. Hayao Miyazaki, the powerhouse behind the studio, intersects his stories with a sense of urgent realism and modernity, the most poignant of which, in my opinion, is Princess Mononoke. Released in 1997, the film places itself in a time of turbulent transition. Existing between thresholds: the natural world and the onslaught of mechanization, the film directly questions man’s impact on the natural world. In this way, Princess Mononoke‘s allegorical exploration is timeless.

The question of man’s impact on nature, now more than ever, is at the forefront of the political, and social debate.

The film centers around a war over limited resources, not unlike our current environmental situation. The humans, having mobilized iron in the form of weapons, ignite this conflict by shooting and killing the mountain’s Boar God. Afflicted with the “curse” of the humans, the iron, the God becomes enraged in a demonic form and violently attacks nearby villages. Ashitaka, one of our protagonists, defeats this evil but, he is in turn afflicted with the same curse and doomed to death himself. This curse, caused by the iron, a human invention, becomes a representation of mechanization,  which is feared to lead to the demise of the natural. On the advice of the village elder, Oracle, Ashitaka heads West in search of the Forest Spirit, who is said to possess a cure.

Ashitaka (left), and San (Right)

The film establishes itself in a ecosystem, one where nature and man interact violently, but also an ecosystem of choices, and motivations. Throughout the film, we meet several main characters who contribute to this complexity. San, or Princess Mononoke, acts as the human representation of nature. Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, an industrialized settlement that has waged war on the forest surrounding it, initially appears as the film’s antagonist. In her quest to continue building for the benefit of her people, she seeks to totally destroy the Forest Spirit (i.e. nature). However, her character is not completely abhorrent. She is portrayed as a kind leader, taking pity on those stricken with Leprosy, and even offering a better life to the women of the town’s brothel. In this way, Lady Eboshi, who appears as the foil to nature, is humanized. Thus, Princess Mononoke is not simply a conflict of good and evil. Our sympathies are continuously drawn back and forth. The inhabitants of Irontown are hard-working, and loyal, while at the same time, apathetic, and mindless. Likewise, the peaceful, and kind images of the natural world are interlaced with portrayals of the violent intentions to seek the retribution for human destruction.

Thus, the film is an allegory of the struggle between human civilization and the natural world, one where a clear victory is not certain for either side.

Lady Ebosh

The dichotomy of this cyclical struggle is exemplified by the Forest Spirits’ contradictory being. They are at once, both life, and death.  In one particular scene, we see the Forest Spirit cause the accelerated growth of plants by simply setting foot on the foliage, and their subsequent death when its foot is displaced. The ambivalence of the Forest Spirits’ behavior is coherent with the subject matter of the film: co-existence is the key to survival. The relationship of the Forest Spirit and those around them is similar to the relationship man has with Mother nature. The intent of the humans to kill this spirit, in order to advance their civilization is a very egocentric, and relatable concept.  The humans are willing to destroy this entity in order to ensure their continued livelihood, unbeknownst the very real, and ecologically destructive implications this act will certainly ensure.  

When we examine this film in the context of today’s political landscape, we see clear similarities. With the United States withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, Princess Mononoke acts as an vision of a future which awaits us if we continue down our current path of ignorance. Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999, Miyazaki spoke of his intentions of the film:

“What did (the children) see, and what did they encounter in this film? I think you’ll have to wait for about 10 years for them to be able to grow up sufficiently to be able to articulate their emotions about it.”

The most poignant line of the film, in my opinion, is delivered by Moro, the Wolf God. He states; “The trees cry out as they die, but you cannot hear them.”

This scene culminates this idea of human ignorance, which is laid bare throughout the film. Miyazaki uses the moral ambiguity of humans to reveal the complications of living on this planet. As the film comes to its final conflict in the form a violent battle waged between the humans and the natural, images of destruction as intersected by images of the pure. Balance is ultimately restored at the end of the film, echoing the idea of the cyclical relationship between man and nature. After all the chaos, the world returns to its natural state. In a troubling way, suggesting that there is ultimately only one outcome in this conflict.

Since its release over 20 years ago, Princess Mononoke remains as one of Miyazaki’s  finest masterpieces. Its message taps into the collective anxieties of the 21st century. The anime classic serves as a nostalgic meditation on our current relationship with the planet, one which continues to feel more delicate as time goes by.

Will the human race heed the warnings, or are we doomed by our collective ignorance to be at the mercy of the natural world?