We’ve had a recent spate of storms around here lately, and one the other night knocked out our internet for a few hours (I was so thrilled to learn that this outage wasn’t something on our end, because dealing with our internet provider often feels like a nightmare). Seeing as I rely pretty heavily on streaming services for TV and movies, I found myself in the position of having to fall back on our DVD library for entertainment while I unwound from a day at work. I decided, mostly on a whim, that I’d like to watch Princess Mononoke, so I did.
Now, I’ve seen this movie way more times than I can remember (when I was a kid I had a habit of going to sleep to the sound of a movie, and after I got my copy of Princess Mononoke in high school, I spent several months with this movie as my default choice), but I haven’t watched it in the last couple years, so revisiting it was a really refreshing experience.
The plot, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie before, revolves around Ashitaka, a young man who gets cursed while defending his village from a rampaging demon, as he searches for the source of the demon and gets embroiled in the conflict between a human settlement led by Lady Eboshi and the gods of the nearby forest (the English dub translates a little strangely, and the gods in question are actually giant intelligent forest animals; they become demons when their minds are overcome with negative emotions associated with intense suffering; I suspect this is all better understood with some context on Buddhist mythology, but that’s not really my area of expertise). There’s also a subplot involving a Buddhist monk who’s actually a secret agent for the Emperor, which is kind of strange but nonetheless compelling. Also complicating matters is the woman San, who was orphaned in the forest by her parents and raised by the wolf god Moro as her cub; Ashitaka totally has a thing for her, but he doesn’t want to let either her or Eboshi succeed in killing one another.
As you might expect, because this is a movie by Hayao Miyazaki, things resolve pretty well for everyone, with Ashitaka succeeding in establishing tentative peace between the two communities (also, because it’s a Miyazaki movie, everyone pays a pretty hefty price for the peace too). The fact of the happy ending isn’t really what’s important about this movie. What’s important is that this is a story which is structured in such a way that there are multiple characters who antagonize each other, but none of them are actually antagonists (in the classical sense that if Ashitaka is our protagonist, no one is really setting out to specifically frustrate his objectives). It’s a villainless story, which is a really rare thing in fiction. Each of the characters do some really awful things (except for Ashitaka, because he’s more or less just a perfect hero who does everything exactly right), but at the same time, they’re all likeable or even admirable (I have the biggest hero crush on Eboshi, and she’s responsible for or complicit in some really terrible things). It’s just a wonderfully complex cast of characters (Ashitaka notwithstanding).
Thematically, one of the most obvious elements of the movie is the environmentalist message. Environmentalism’s a core part of most Miyazaki movies, and Mononoke is perhaps the most overt in this respect. It’s hard to miss the import of a conflict between industrial humans who raze forests to gather the natural resources they need and avatars of nature who want to defend their forests. I got that when I was in high school, and like most teenagers, I was terrible at picking apart themes in stories. On this last viewing though, I wasn’t struck by the environmentalism so much as by the attitude that Eboshi’s actions represent. Miyazaki is famous for centering female characters in his stories, and while San is the one who usually gets all the attention in this film (she is the eponymous Princess Mononoke, after all) her motivations are pretty easily discerned, and her goals very straightforward. Eboshi, on the other hand, exists in a precarious position as the leader of her community who has to deal with aggression from both the forest and other political rivals (the monk Jigo puts Eboshi in an unfavorable position where she has to either refuse to help the Emperor and incur his wrath or commit resources to a mission that will leave Irontown vulnerable to attack from the warlord Asano, whose agressions she’s successfully defended against up to this point). Her goals are problematic (she doesn’t seem to care about maintaining any kind of equilibrium with the forest), but she’s also dealing with a much more complicated situation that San, and on top of that she’s uncompromising in insisting that the members of the lowest social classes in her community (ex-prostitutes and lepers) acquire skills that make them integral to the welfare of Irontown (Eboshi’s rescued lepers work as her gunsmiths, and she has all new rifles designed for use by the town’s women).
As I teenager I thought Eboshi’s work with the women and lepers was cool in a sort of idealized way that put them on equal footing with the men of the town (most of the male characters besides Ashitaka and Jigo are presented as pleasant buffoons), but now that in this most recent viewing I noticed more readily the subtle hints that the men, while they respect Eboshi for providing such effective leadership, don’t really respect the women so much. Casual comments about the silliness of the ex-prostitutes and the men’s dismissal of the importance of the women’s work to keep the forge hot (they work round-the-clock in shifts while the men relax and make fun of their gossip) reveal that Eboshi’s vision for elevating the dignity of the social outcasts in Irontown isn’t universally shared. It’s a really subtle detail, but it adds a richness to the story that I didn’t notice before, and it makes me glad that I decided to revisit this movie.