A Timeless Tale of Man vs. Nature

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke (1997) is a timeless fantasy tale that tells a story on the war between mankind and nature. Not only does this tale explore different themes such as good versus evil, love versus hate, but it also highlights themes such as feminism and respect towards nature and ourselves.

Miyazaki has often been praised as not only being able to illustrate and animate stories that impact the viewer, but also through his messages and characters that often portray children as the main leading roles. Princess Mononoke is only one of many incredible movies that tackles the idea of environmentalism and the battle between nature and mankind.

Wanting all between heaven and hell is the human condition

Princess Mononoke (1997, Miyazaki)

When I first watched this movie when I was about 15 years old, I simply enjoyed the animation and story, seeing myself through certain characters. However, as the years went on and I underwent several years of environmental studies in university, I watched this movie again and understood the very obvious messages and concepts of this story when regarding environmentalism. With new knowledge that I had gained over the years, I better understood the story of Princess Mononoke and how relevant it still is to today’s conversations on the environment, conservation, and activism.

The story begins with prince Ashitaka, a fierce warrior who belongs to the Emishi ethnic group from Japan, who kills a demon God known as Nago, who is about to rampage his village. He rides a beautiful red elk, armed with a bow and arrow. Although Ashitaka was able to save his village, he becomes cursed and must be exiled from his village as a result.

Figure 1: Prince Ashitaka riding Yahul, his red elk, with a bow and arrow at hand while killing the demon god Nago, resulting in his curse, seen as black snake-like shapes on his right arm. https://www.ebay.co.uk/c/1724722834

This is the first instance of good versus evil in the story. Ashitaka, a prince filled with respect, love and acknowledgement for nature and its spirits, is now cursed with death. This curse also grows with fear and anger, causing you to have a more gruesome death.

What a fantastic way to die; the more scared or angry you get, the more likely you’ll turn into a demon!

While on his way to find a cure, he gains knowledge of a forest Deer God who could potentially heal him. When he finally finds this forest, he stumbles on an ongoing conflict between the ironworks town led by Lady Eboshi, and San (Princess Mononoke) and the wolves who live in the forest.

In this section of the movie, we are first shown brutal and vicious images of the wolves and San attacking people, causing death and fear. This first impression leads to have the viewer be afraid of these spirits of the forest and their brute strength.

However, as the movie progresses, we understand that the depiction of good versus evil is blurred when referring to the natural spirits with the humans.

Lady Eboshi, the woman in charge of the ironworks, represents an ongoing inner battle between being good or evil. She’s a woman who not only saves other women by buying their parlour contracts so as to save them from being prostitutes, but she also provides them with the power to lead their own work at the ironworks town. In the eyes of the people who live in the ironworks, she’s a woman who brings equality and respect to the people.

To the eyes of San and forest Gods, though, Lady Eboshi is the embodiment of evil. She destroys nature and is determined to kill forest Gods and spirits, leading the way of destruction. She aims to expand her ironworks and gain the protection and respect of the Emperor.

Figure 2: San (right) versus lady Eboshi (left) fighting to kill each other and save what they each stand for. https://www.tor.com/2017/01/09/looking-back-at-princess-mononoke-after-20-years/

Ashitaka, as on of the main characters, obviously partakes in this battle between humans and animals, but remains neutral, futilely trying to make both sides agree to be peaceful and live with one another, rather than fight each other to the death.

To see with eyes unclouded by hate

Princess Mononoke (1997, Miyazaki)

He constantly wants to see with eyes unclouded by hate so as to best perceive his solution to be free from the curse and finally live his life in peace. However, he also criticizes San and lady Eboshi by mentioning that they both have demons inside of them, regardless of what they are fighting for.

San has a demon of being hateful and vengeful towards humans while she herself is one as well. Lady Eboshi has a demon in her thirst for iron and guns to pulverize whatever is in her way to making her town grow. Although these women both stand for their own values, they still bring the worse in each other rather than building together to make a better connection between man and nature, not man versus nature.

Moro, the wolf goddess who is also the mother of San as she raised the child when her parents abandoned her in the forest, also demonstrates the role of good versus evil but also love versus hate. Moro hates humans, yet she loves her daughter San who is a human herself.

Figure 3: San and Moro

This contradiction is painfully common throughout Princess Mononoke. Characters battle each other but they also each fight their own battles:

  • San fights the humans and hates them, but she is one herself, and constantly battles the fact that she is neither wolf nor human
  • Ashitaka is cursed with evil that lives inside him, but he depicts an attitude that hates whatever brings hatred to someone. His desire for peace is constant, even when he is filled with anger and fear inside of him because of his curse
  • Lady Eboshi fights San because she wants to have more iron which is available in the forest, but must also fight her own views to understand how everyone deserves to live and be given a second chance. Lady Eboshi gives second chances to the women in her ironworks, but at the end, she gives herself a second chance to rebuild her own life and town to make it more ‘sustainable’ in a way that will not cause harm to the forest and spirits that live within.

At the end, the Prince is freed from his curse but the god of the forest is killed. Humans decide to rebuild their town in a better way so as to respect nature and the beings who depend on it. Ashitaka and San each live in their own world; Ashitaka in the ironworks and San in the forest, leaving a bittersweet ending where the main lovers do not live together forever.

This ending comes to the conclusion that we must learn to fight our own battles and overcome them to create new solutions that will aid both sides to grow and maintain one another.

Figure 4: Deer God from Princess Mononoke

Something important to note is the role of the Deer God in this film. This god is not only revered as something that gives and takes life, but it also has no specified gender. The deer God is neither a he nor a she, and they are simply described as a deity that has powerful power and can shape-shift depending on the time of the day.

The Deer God saves Ashitaka from his deadly curse, but only when Ashitaka brings back his severed head when he was decapitated by Lady Eboshi. This forest God also takes the life of Moro at the end, yet he saved Ashitaka, which can be seen as a give and take. Nature today can also be identified this way, with deadly diseases or ‘curses’ such as cancer occurring to young people without a real reason as to why it is happening. Yet, after huge bushfires and intense drought, entire prairies can come back to life when it all seemed dead.

A lot of deaths occur in this movie with bittersweet endings, but each with a lesson to be learned.

Today’s environmental movements can be related with the different characters and their roles in the animation:

Ashitaka can be seen as the environmentalist, who pursues to be neutral and peaceful for both sides; learn from one another and make the best of it. San can be identified as a more activistic type, with actions meaning more than just words and constant application of force – and essentially violence too – to make a change.

Realistically, in today’s world, although there are several Ashitaka’s and San’s out there, many of us are actually Lady Eboshi’s. We seek to use nature to our best interest with sometimes an ignorance as to what exactly the natural ecology and systems are doing and how important they are. However, at the end, once we are made aware of these processes and the importance of maintaining our natural world, we change for the best to rebuild our values, institutions, and actions to be better balanced with our wants compared to natures needs.

It’s not bad people who are destroying forests


Hayao Miyazaki when interviewed on Princess Mononoke

Although this story can be seen from many different perspectives, Hayao Miyazaki has always been able to protray such messages through his animations. Whether it is My Neighbour Totoro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, or even Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, these movies portray young girls as protagonists that do not necessarily end with their love interests, but who make an impactful change in the fantasy world.

The use of women and children is often used when making characters in these animated movies by Studio Ghibli. This can also highlight the use of purity, innocence, and unclouded love (children) when delivering the messages of mankind versus nature, technology advancement, or even consumerism societies.

By having young female characters lead the way along with their other characters, which are often male or other children characters to fight the older generation, can show a change in views that may be coming in today. New views on the environment, activism, and sustainability are leading the way through younger generations.

Princess Mononoke depicts a story between good and evil, love and hate, equality, and that at the end of the day, we must overcome our own battles and live together peacefully.

An interesting interview with Hayao Miyazaki explores the different characters, themes, and meaning of this tale with relation to today’s society and values on the environment. When asked in another interview what the message Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki responded saying:

There cannot be a happy ending to the fight between the raging gods and humans. However, even in the middle of hatred and killings, there are things worth living for. A wonderful meeting or a beautiful thing can exist.

We depict hatred, but it is to depict that there are more important things. We depict a curse, to depict the joy of liberation.

Hayao Miyazaki

There are many things worth living for in our world. Whether it is the environment, family, friends, your own dreams, your career, or just to enjoy everyday, we all have something worth being here for and fighting for when the time comes. We can no longer sit idly as we are consumed by our fears and angers; it’ll just turn us into demons, unaware of the possible solutions or ways to come out of this cycle.


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