This animation is a favorite of greens and Bookchinites to be sure, but it goes far beyond such ecological concerns. As an animation it is very good, it has the typical Miyazaki character designs. As a story, however, this film is superb in that it is far more complex than most who watch it realize. There is a lot of subtlety and layering to the themes of the story which go beyond any individual, and there is refreshingly far more focus on the world than the individual characters in order to display these themes.
The Curse of Hatred
The boar-turned-demon at the beginning was injured by one of Lady Eboshi’s mini iron cannon balls; driven mad by pain, it was overtaken by a poison which festered within its body and rotted its flesh. This poison is not simply the usual infection of the flesh, but also a very clear metaphor for hatred as a poison that kills those who do not let go of it. The hatred of the natural spirits manifests as serpent-like blood which like acid corrodes everything it touches, manifesting the power of destruction. This hatred is uncontrolled, overtaking the rational spirit and submerging it into the pure primal soul of blind feeling—those overtaken by hatred become merely automatic entities acting out as pure destructive force without directed end.
By killing the maddened boar not out of spite, but out of need to protect his village, Ashitaka is rewarded in the encounter with the “curse of hatred.” The boar’s cursed blood strikes others with its hatred, guaranteeing the death of those marked by it. This is clearly running on the folk wisdom that hatred destroys its bearer as much if not more than those it harms or destroys in its path, for while hatred may go so far as destroying the life of others by ending it, they who carry hatred destroy not just their own link to community and body, but their own soul; they are doomed to a living death.
The curse is in the film a double-edged plot device that not only is the impetus which provides the original motive for Ashitaka’s westward journey, but also acts as a sort of explanation for his success against otherwise ridiculous odds in combat. Though he is doomed to die, Ashitaka gains supernatural powers such as extreme strength, aim, and some sensing capacities. While these powers play some key roles as a point which could explain Ashitaka’s solo escapades traversing the dangerous battlefields on his journey westward to find out what drove the boar mad, and to seek a cure from the Deer God, they aren’t really important to the meaning of the film.
Along with the effects of hatred as a poison on the soul, the source of the boar’s hatred being an industrial object—the iron cannon ball—is clearly linked to industrialism’s poisoning of nature via pollution. Not only did Lady Eboshi’s iron forge pollute with its smoke, bullets, and cannon balls, but its people actively engaged in the suppression of nature’s return where it was destroyed and dislocated. As is seen with the attempts of the apes to replant the forest and reclaim the land from the barren waste it had become, humanity does not simply force nature to change but denies it a place in its world. The forge is an aesthetically ugly place created from the corpse of nature—tree logs and stones along with iron melted from its ore rich sands—where nature is denied a right to return in any form but that which humans allow for their own subjective purposes. A garden exists for human aesthetic pleasure, a tree exists for subjective human utilitarian ends, and so on. In the new human world the order of the old world is inverted. Where before humanity had to bow to the order of the gods of nature in order to commune with nature, in the new order nature must bow to the order of humans. This new order, however, is no longer one in which nature communes with us but rather is actively submitted to our ends regardless of how gently or roughly we deal with it.
Humanity vs. Nature’s Gods:
The rise of industrialism was accompanied by a level of ecological change never before seen in history. To the premodern cultures such as Ashitaka’s this level of change, with its wanton destruction of nature and the extreme exploitation of nature in the service of humanity, appears as a manifested incomprehensible madness. Ashitaka asks multiple times throughout the story if there is no other way for humanity to acquire what it needs to advance, whether the war with nature and its gods is necessary. In the film it is clear, however, that the way things had been in the old world made the conflict inevitable. Not only were the humans in war with nature seeking to gain its resources as means to their advances, but nature itself in the form of the gods relentlessly denied humanity’s right to advance further. Within the forest humans had to abide by the rules of the gods and their caprice, but nature is not so wise as many consider it—nature knows no contracts nor compromise in the struggles of life. The boars and the wolves, in their pride, fought a hopeless battle against the humans knowing they were doomed to fail regardless of the damage they inflicted on the advancing forces and power of humans. Life exists in a constant struggle, harmonious in its self-consumption only for the moment that one species does not find itself in ascendance and changing the environments through the cascading effects of its victory. Humanity’s ascendance is no less natural than the catastrophic results of introducing an invasive species into an ecosystem which is not used to it. Nature’s gods refused to recognize humanity’s right to expand as an ascending species, and humanity in turn refused to recognize the gods and nature’s right to exist uninterrupted by their changing ways of life. Foolish as the mutual struggle is to our detached view from which we judge both, it is but a natural cycle in which old systems are disrupted and destroyed, the whole of an ecosystem thrown into disarray until balance is achieved again in some manner.
Struggle of the Old and New World
The old way of life in the small villages of people who were forced to find their place as limited within nature’s established system was transcended with the developments of science and humanity’s realization that the gods were not ahistorical natural forces which could not be overcome. The gods were just beings as material as humans and ultimately no more fundamental to the world than any other plot of land or species. As far as the ascending humans cared, nature’s stubbornness was an obstacle to overcome in their own struggle as living beings along with the internal social struggles to acquire their freedom from material want and servitude to other humans. In the lack of mutual recognition of right, both nature’s gods and humanity were stuck in a case of right against right, but without recognition and agreement there could be no way to resolve the clash in anything but the pure power of strength against strength. Where neither side is willing to cede and become subservient to the other, the death of one or both is the only possibility—a resolution by dissolution.
One of the more general themes that flows through the movie’s plot is the shift from the old worldview mired in tradition, superstition, and religion towards the new worldview of modernity in which the spirit of free inquiry destroys the bases of the old ways. That which cannot sustain itself under the scrutiny of reason has no value or normative validity in the modern world. A new form of reason, instrumental reason, finds itself coming to prominence along with the powers of scientific inquiry and criticism. Along with the new form of civil society, capitalism, this new modern spirit denies value in anything which does not fit into its paradigm. Beauty and sentimentality have no power which can give instrumental reason and the drive for profits any pause regarding their intentions and actions; thus, the whole of life begins to become more mechanical in relation to humans.
This clash is very visible and wrapped in one neat package with Lady Eboshi and her iron forge. For one, Lady Eboshi is a strong female character in a social position of active leadership and power in a world where feudal life and its traditional trappings still exist. Although the formal feudal order is on its way out, women are still expected to be submissive and secondary to men, functioning only in the shadows, away from public eyes, if they have any role to play at all. Nevertheless, Eboshi does not have her position merely because she was recognized as such by society around her; it is very clear she gained her position through gaining access to the material bases of power: money, the forge, and her workers/followers. How she came to have these things is unknown, and rather irrelevant to the already established plot, but just how someone like her could have come upon access to the capital necessary to get her material base going is definitely an open and curious question. In the story, Eboshi acts as the progressive bourgeois enlightenment rationalist, working to expand over and destroy the existing irrational and obsolete old society. She is not simply the profit-obsessed capitalist, for she runs her business for the sake of her workers as much as for herself. She buys the contract of every prostitute she encounters and invites them to come work for her. She trains them, houses them, and gives them elevated work positions above the men at the forge—she does all she can to empower the women she saves. Not only does Eboshi care for women caught in the lowest rungs of society who were either sold into sexual slavery by family to pay debts or simply kidnapped and forced to work there, she takes in other social outcasts—the sick and cursed who are excluded by society—and gives them work and medical care. Work, or rather its more universal and significant antecedent: labor, is something denied to the sick men she has given refuge. As the capacity to engage in private or social labors and enjoy the recognition and satisfaction that comes with it, the sick are excluded not just from society’s public eye but are denied the activity of their basic humanity in the exercising of their capacity to do anything to help themselves.
Here, one may be extremely cynical and cast a doubtful eye on Eboshi’s ‘true’ intentions regarding the women and sick she employs. Is she, perhaps, not playing the role of the kind master whose slaves endure even worse material conditions than they normally would only because they are so psychologically primed by her shows of fake humanitarian care? Could she not in truth be taking in the downtrodden only to exploit them further than the normal capitalist could precisely because of the devotion she commands as a ‘savior’ figure to them? Perhaps, but it seems highly unlikely. She is, for example, wholly determined to eradicate the old gods of the forest for what seem like many plausible reasons. Eboshi herself is caught in the position of an underdog in society as a whole—first as a woman confronting the entrenched power and prejudice of a patriarchal society, and second as a capitalist confronting the power of a feudal society struggling to maintain power. Her struggle against the old gods can be taken as a double metaphor of Eboshi’s grappling with her own nature, showing that women are just as capable of reason and leadership as men—capable of rising above their physical nature’s limits—thus rising above the myth of the passively meek feminine nature. It is also the struggle against the authority of tradition over women and humanity in general, for the old gods demand that humans bow to their arbitrary rules and standards, and Eboshi is having none of it. The age of humanity’s submersion in the life of nature is over with modernity at last, and along with it must come the end of the submission of women to men.
On this theme, finally, it is noteworthy that Ashitaka does not return to his village at the end of the story. Originally, he was sent out west in the hope that he might find out what caused the boar that cursed him to go mad, but he is likely expected to die on his quest. Ashitaka survives his curse thanks to the Deer God’s power, but nonetheless he metaphorically dies to the old ways, accepting a place at the forge to protect it and keep proximity to San. The old village he came from remains and continues in the old ways of communion and reverence towards nature, but it only continues into its decline just as Ashitaka left it. The village is doomed to fade into history and obscurity as the new world and ways spread and dominate, for with the gods dead and the world disenchanted at last there is no point nor power in the communion with nature in the old ways.
Secular Disenchantment vs. Theistic Animism
A major, though subtle, theme in the story is without question the movement away from theism and animism, or rather, religion in general—towards disenchanted nature in the wake of modernity. While in this world the gods are very real, they are not quite gods in the western metaphysical manner; they are more akin to personified manifestations of the ‘true god’ which is nature itself. From the perspective of the humans, the gods of the forests are nothing short of a boulder blocking the way to their progress by slowing down their increasing exploitation of nature as a resource—exploitation which from their side seems rather small compared to the vastness of nature by which they find themselves surrounded. What is a couple square miles of deforestation or a mucked up lake or two compared to the tens of thousands of square miles of forest just being there? More people exist to labor on projects and to consume products; better technologies and techniques are developing to increase the harvesting and processing of pristine nature lying around waiting to be put to human use; human population has not yet undergone the massive explosion the industrial revolution and farming science is going to unleash.
In this world the secularization of society and disenchantment of nature are no mere ideological social shifts in perception arising from education, but require a very physical and purposeful struggle to outright kill the source of enchantment. The gods must really die so that humanity may rise. With the death of the gods comes also the death of the spiritual magic which flowed from them. They are not simply banished from existence or memory, to eventually become mere myths for future generations, but their determining power over human historical development is also destroyed—humanity becomes at last capable of self-determination and arranging its own fate as it is freed from nature’s bonds. At such a point the trajectory of human history is one completely up to humans, their failure or success firmly their own responsibility as they float freely in an absolute conceptual suspension above nature in the social space of culture and self-directed government. No longer can there be an appeal to how things should be merely because nature exists in such and such a way. No longer can one count on the power of rituals and prayers for any help from other entities; everything is in the hands of humans and their own power to achieve things through ingenuity and knowledge which provides certain mastery of nature.
The Deer God, which is the closest to a monotheistic force in the film, curiously revives and saves neither the Boar God nor the Wolf God when Eboshi and the imperial hunters try to kill the Deer God; instead it takes their lives and releases them from the curse of hatred. The Deer God is the manifest power of life and death as an individual personality and can choose what to do with said power. Its choosing to take life from the defenders of the forest shows that the Deer God realizes their time is over and the battle is futile. As is expected of the avatar of basic natural life, it flows along with the changing order rather than fighting it. Nature and life as such do not question what they have done or where they are going, they merely continue to exist in any manner they can and eventually come to some sort of equilibrium as a whole. However, this is not to say the Deer God knows that things are headed towards anything such as a future lasting equilibrium. If anything, it would know only one thing: life is fated to die by its very nature no matter how effective it becomes. Whether humanity can come to understand its place in nature and achieve enough rational self-control to stop itself from consuming and destroying its own world in its expansive drive until it comes to a starvation or not, their success or failure is something nature neither knows nor values.
At the end of the story, the Deer God is beheaded by Eboshi’s rifle. This decapitation however, does not kill the Deer God, but instead inverts its activity. While normally the Deer God appears as a manifestation of life’s positive power, in being beheaded it becomes a manifestation of the negative power of life, an all-consuming death. In killing the avatar of natural life, i.e. in this case the manifest soul of the forest, the entire ecosystem seems to be doomed to die. The Deer God’s headless body seeks after its head, drawing life from everything with which its body’s excretion comes into contact—the god of life becomes the ultimate curse of hatred, killing instantly and indiscriminately. Without its head—the seat of reason—life becomes an uncontrolled destructive cancer.
The imperials see this destruction with their own eyes and are even caught within it, yet the monk Jigo, following the orders of the emperor and his state, turns a blind eye to the consequences. For the state, seeking rapid advance into modern economic development, one forest and the couple hundred people living in and around it are of no significance compared to what the death of the gods promises once the entirety of nature is at last open to be harvested without significant immediate recoil in the form of powerful intelligent god-beasts.
Ashitaka, having a wiser eye than the imperials and Lady Eboshi, understands that what is being done to the gods is tragedy for both worlds, yet he does not know what can be done about it. However, one thing is clear to him: the full destruction of nature is not good for anyone. If the Deer God’s death march is not stopped, the whole world as he knows it is doomed; thus, its head must be returned, and some other way for human ascendance must be found. Once the head is returned, the Deer God returns back to its normal self. However, it does something curious: it chooses to ‘die’ of its own accord and give back its power of life and death to the world of nature qua nature. When it took the life of the god-beasts, it was already clear that it knew and understood their time and place in the world had come to an end; thus, it is not surprising that it would understand its own time and place was at an end as well. Its final act of kenosis, its self-emptying into nature, is not only representative of the death of God as an external being different from nature, but being the manifest avatar of life and death, more importantly, it shows the immortality of life as such. The Deer God was merely an embodied representation of life and death, but not life and death itself. Life as such transcends individuals and personality—it is a power and force immanent to nature itself, and as such cannot ever be ended. Life as such must empirically and logically arise from what otherwise is a dead nature; it is an ever-present real possibility that in time will come to actualize with proper conditions. However, just as life is an immanent possibility and eventual necessity in nature, death too is the immanent eventual necessity of life. The fate of finitude is death no matter how it strives to attain infinitude.
Human vs. Human: Social Struggle
The struggles seen against nature in the story are not just happenstance attitudes and events happening in a vacuum; there is a root to this struggle from within human social existence and its corresponding interplay in the social consciousness. There is something happening within the human social world which generates the conflict with nature and does not allow the continuance of the old views and ways of life which harmonize with its old existence.
For one, there is the struggle between the feudals among themselves and the rising capitalists. Throughout the story, particularly at the beginning when Ashitaka leaves his village to head west, it is shown that there is a feudal army in battle with a village he passes by. The images of war are amazingly gory—arms and heads are lopped off liberally—for what some consider a children’s animation, but it is likely meant to show how brutal such combat could actually be, rather than to dazzle and excite as much contemporary anime does. These feudal powers are struggling against the authority of the emperor and the rising power of the capitalists choking them from both sides. As seen in the last parts of the story, these feudal armies lack the modern technology of cannons and guns which Eboshi has acquired, and find it hard to attempt to take the forge even while outnumbering the women who remained at the forge to protect it. Anyone who would refuse to use such technology for reasons of traditional honor and skill, of reverence towards so-called natural powers based on animal strength and agility, would inevitably find themselves crushed by those who had no such qualms.
Along with the weaponized technological advantage, there is beside it the advantage of economic and industrial irreverence towards nature. In a dog-eat-dog world of business ethical practices that are—as far as market norms go—unnecessary at best lead to slowly being choked by the more viscous and irreverent competition. Those who would try their best to labor with ecological concerns in mind would only find themselves encumbered with lower yields and higher costs than those who did not. When the ground floor of business is but basic and simple laws which do not enforce regulation protecting workers or the environment, the most ruthless side wins in competition while accumulating more capital and running the others out of business if not first buying them out. Eboshi, while showing a soft side for her rescued women and cursed workers, is a shrewd businesswoman who does not dally on the morality of what she is doing to nature by destroying and disrupting its former harmonious existence. If destroying the forest and killing the gods advances her ‘humanitarian’ business, she has no qualms in acting against them. If it were not Lady Eboshi, it would eventually be someone else that would come and do practically the same, even if for different reasons.
The Reconciliation of Humanity and Nature
Despite most of the conflicts between humanity and nature which dominate the narrative, there are a couple of points where there are hints at the reconciliation between humanity and nature in some manner. Two points are memorable:
Right after San’s second attempt to attack Lady Eboshi’s forge on a crazed suicide mission, Ashitaka saves her and takes a cannon ball wound that would kill anyone except someone empowered by the curse of hatred. San seems to connect to someone human for the first time, and is confused by what Ashitaka did for her. Experiencing compassion, she takes him to the Deer God’s grove in the hope that he may be healed on his sacred island. There, as she leaves Ashitaka on the island, she takes off the reigns from his red elk, Yakul, and tells him he is free from his servitude and may leave to do as he wishes. Yakul understands her but does not run away as San expects; instead, he remains by Ashitaka’s side, contradicting her belief that nature as such is against humanity and seeks to rid itself of it as soon as it can. Yakul, though he is domesticated and subservient to humans, appears conscious of and knowingly accepts his place and role in the human social system. In domesticated animals, we find that nature, in bestial form, and man can have a harmonious existence and continuing interdependence despite what at face value seems a relation of mastery and slavery. By our intervention into animal life and our controlled breeding, we inevitably come to be so intertwined with animals that some no longer can live on their own without us, and indeed have become so dependent on us that we are more important to their psychological health than their own kind. In our intertwining with animals, we do not come to become more beast-like, but rather the opposite occurs—animals become humanized. Though domesticated nature is but one link of reconciliation with nature, it is one that is very fragile. Humanity has problems recognizing other humans and treating them well as it is; even worse is the case of recognizing animals as worthy of respect and good treatment.
The second point is that San , like Ashitaka, is left with an undeniable awareness that the old ways of life are over. She cannot forgive what the humans did to the only family she knew, killing her ‘mother’ Moro, and left with the last of her wolf siblings, she has nowhere else to go, but she cannot join the humans. There is no enchanted forest to which to return, yet she realizes that nature and life continue. When San saved Ashitaka and took him to her den to keep him safe, he argues with Moro to release San from her grip, but Moro claims that as her daughter San is not human and is to be doomed along with the wolves to die with the forest she has fought to protect all her life. At the end of the story, however, Moro changes her mind and urges her daughter to live on despite the death of the forest and the gods. It is likely that Moro in no way expected San to join the humans, but she wanted her to live on since Ashitaka would clearly remain as a friend to accompany and watch over her in place of Moro.
San’s link with nature and Ashitaka is yet another metaphorical reconciliation with nature. San in herself remains an abstract link of nature with humanity in that bestial nature seems to merely find its spirit embodied in human flesh, yet with her connection to Ashitaka she gains recognition from him as human and goes on to recognize herself as indeed human despite her continuing hatred of humanity’s actions towards her family; thus, San is metaphorically nature humanized. While domesticated beasts are humanized in that they become acclimated to the human world and gain a place in it, her humanization is the awakening of self-consciousness in human animals. It is, so far as we are aware of in history, only in humans that nature has achieved humanity, that is, attained to a spiritual existence beyond mere animal submersion in emotional life drives and unconscious instincts. This, of course, is muddled with the presentation of the beast gods of nature in the story, but its truth is no less present. While nature, in all its intricate order, merely is, only humanity can come to grips with what it should be. While the gods of nature are merely manifested givens of nature, born into and stuck with their roles in the ecosystem of the forest—taking up these givens and dogmatically enforcing them without question—and, in the case of the Deer God, merely flow with the direction of life regardless of the justice of where it is heading, humans are beings who can question tradition and nature itself. They can contemplate nature’s justness and rationality as a basis for what is.
While many take this film to be about environmental and ecological concerns, I think the themes central to it go far beyond mere concerns of such kind. Miyazaki constructs a world and narrative that hits points of social observation and commentary which go beyond typical ideological one-sided browbeating to get a simple message home. Princess Mononoke is not just about humanity’s unfortunate struggle with nature; it includes themes about the source of that struggle as within human society itself. It is surprising that nature itself is not shown in a shining positive light in the form of the gods, nor is humanity shown as a purely irrational destructive force impinging on the pure goodness of nature. There are multiple contradictory tendencies in the story, at different levels of existence, not just between humanity and nature, but also between and within social actors. No side is clean of guilt, and no side is purely evil. What we find is a narrative in which the reality of muddled lines come to bear with full force. Two forms of life—two social worlds—are shown to come to inevitably clash, and in this clash is found a surprising conclusion: Despite the terrible basis from which it begins in violent contradiction to old nature, the new modern world is capable of existing along with nature in a new way. A new harmony is possible, even if it is not yet actual.