Studio Ghibli is widely known for its creation of beloved animated movies such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Founded by Hayao Miyazaki, many of these movies involve characters going on magical adventures, while learning important life lessons along the way. Princess Mononoke is one of these highly acclaimed movies, with its main moral being about environmentalism.
Set in Muromachi Japan (likely within its later years), it opens with its main character, Prince Ashitaka. He is almost immediately thrown into battle with a deranged Boar God who was turned into a demon due to his anger at humans. During the battle, Ashitaka is also cursed by the god’s rage before he kills it. This starts off our protagonist on his journey to lift this curse, and find out what started it to begin with.
On his journey, Ashitaka is brought to a newly formed village called Irontown. It specializes in industrialization and creating muskets with it’s iron. The town is led by a woman named Lady Eboshi, a strong woman who houses lepers and former slaves in her town to protect them. We learn that it was she who caused the anger of the Boar God due to stealing the land that once belonged to the spirits and polluting it. Further, she wishes to expand into the forests to gain more natural resources. To do so, she has to kill the Deer God who protects the forests and its inhabitants.
This starts off the main conflict of humans vs. spirits within the movie. The humans wish to further their industrialization in order to create better inventions and care for the sick. On the other hand, the spirits wish to protect the forests and keep out the humans who ruined their homes. While both are important, it seems as if neither can coexist with the other.
However, further in the movie, we meet a girl by the name of San. She was born a human, but raised by wolf spirits. San sides with the spirits and protects the forest along with other spirits, despite her being of human origin. In order to protect the forests and spirits, she leads an attack on Irontown, which results in her clashing with Eboshi. Ashitaka breaks up the fight by overpowering both women and knocking them out thanks to his curse. He then takes San away from Irontown, but not before being injured due to a misfire with a gun.
San awakes, but hesitates to kill him due to Ashitaka telling her she is beautiful. She soon decides to trust Ashitaka due to the Deer God saving his life, helping him recover from his injury.
Eventually, the boar clan, led by the blind god Okkoto, decide to attack Irontown to get revenge on the humans who killed their former leader (the Boar God from the start of the movie) and to save their forests. Eboshi, on the other hand, plans to kill the Deer God with the help of a monk named Jikko who works for the emperor.
Ashitaka then fully recovers from his previous wounds to see that Irontown is under attack by samurai. Further, the boar clan was annihilated by Eboshi and her men, causing Okkoto to become corrupted, just as the Boar God at the start of the movie. San tries to help Okkoto, but is absorbed due to his corruption.
Ashitaka manages to save San thanks to the help of the wolf clan, but he isn’t able to stop Eboshi from shooting off the Deer God’s head, with Jikko collecting the head. This causes the god to bleed ooze from its wound, which kills everything it touches. The forest, humans, and spirits all begin to die due to this and Ashitaka flees the forest with San.
(Warning: this paragraph contains spoilers for the end of the movie) Ashitaka heads back to Irontown to warn the people of the ooze, then heads out with San to retrieve the head of the Deer God from Jikko. Despite everything dying, Jikko resists giving back the head, but eventually gives in, with San and Ashitaka returning the head together. The Deer God is still dead, but the land restores itself. Though it isn’t the same forest, nature healed. Likewise, Eboshi vows to make a better Irontown, one that can coexist with nature.
Despite this film being released in 1997, many of its themes still remain relevant to this day.
With many environmental issues such as the Amazon Forest fires and melting ice caps, the world is going through climate change. The 2050 scenario furthers this by stating how in 2050, our climate’s average temperature will have risen 3º Celsius since pre-industrial times. Yet despite environmental issues raised by industrialization, the world still needs to keep innovatingin order to modernize our lives. While it may seem impossible for us to combat climate change, but still push innovation, Princess Mononoke teaches us that both can coexist.
While it may seem that the main theme in Princess Mononoke is that industrialization is evil, it’s actually that the way in which humans protect its industry can be harmful. Theresa-Anne Clarke Harter states, “The film delivers the message that industrialization isn’t necessarily evil, but the way in which humans protect their industry with violence continually disallows balance between human and nature.”
Industry can create jobs, push innovators to create inventions and medicine, and help humans with basic day-to-day life. However, humans also pollute, harm natural inhabitants of places, and even start wars over it. The true antagonist of the film is human ego pushing industrialization without thinking of its consequences, which can not only lead to the destruction of the earth, but also to ourselves.
Humans need to protect the environment, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice innovation for it. Both can exist with each other, and even help the other grow. Ashitaka states, “Can’t the forest and [Irontown] live together in peace?” And he’s right. Both can live together. Ecologist, Heather Tallis, argues, “Why an individual should care about nature is a very value-laden issue […] It is not necessary to choose one set of values over others.”
Princess Mononoke perfectly encapsulates the importance of caring for the environment, but still allowing for modernization. Despite the heavy topics (and at times, gruesome animations), the movie is still directed for children, allowing the future generation to understand the importance of environmentalism early. Hayao Miyazaki stated at a film festival in 1999, “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.”
Featured Image (at the top of this page): San and the Wolf God, Moro
Photo Credit: Studio Ghibli, 1997