Readers Write In #378: Princess Mononoke: Getting Ambiguity Right (?)

Posted on July 2, 2021

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(by Adithya R)

One WTF fact I came across recently was that Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t write screenplays for his films. WTF! *

This is pretty hard to imagine given the myriad themes, characters, and incredible world-building that is stuffed into a typical Studio Ghibli film. And the typical Studio Ghibli film is a visual masterpiece without a doubt, each one reaffirming Miyazaki & team’s status of being among the all-time great storytellers.

So it should come as no surprise that there’s tons of content on the internet discussing various elements of Ghibli storytelling. This video, in particular, makes a great point about the ambivalence inherent in many of Miyazaki’s films: in the stories, the characters, even the worlds they’re set in. There are no inherently good or bad people, and as the viewer, we don’t know what to make of many of the situations the characters find themselves in or the various creatures they encounter.

Princess Mononoke is the movie that, in my opinion, best demonstrates this quality of ambiguity. Every character’s motivation is actually legitimate from their perspective, but the confluence of everyone’s motives and the nature of the world they live in is what creates conflict to a great extent.

The movie begins with the protagonist Ashitaka getting poisoned by a monster created by a disturbance in nature; he sets off on a journey to find out how to stop the poison from killing him, and chances upon no less than four different parties in conflict: the citizens of Irontown, led by the domineering Lady Eboshi, the neighboring feudal lords and his samurai, the Emperor’s henchmen led by the wily Jigo, and the nature gods, among whom is the wild, mysterious Princess Mononoke (also called San).

The root of the conflict stems from Irontown clearing forests to extract sand and convert it into highly coveted iron. With their habitat threatened, the nature gods continuously attempt to kill Lady Eboshi with San at the forefront, the samurai attempt to take over the town for its riches, and Jigoschemes to obtain the head of the Deer God (sort of like the supreme nature god) using Lady Eboshi, so that his master can attain immortality. And Ashitaka, instructed by the village elder to “see with eyes unclouded by hate”, is right in the thick of it all.

The premise makes one think this is along the lines of James Cameron’s Avatar, with the usual conflict between the nature-loving indigenous tribals and the evil industrialists. But Miyazaki says “not so fast”.

Irontown acts as a metaphor for modernity, with its flaws and benefits. Specifically, it shows how modernization brings widespread progress with it, manifesting as shifts in gender roles, prosperity, and dignified lives even for the likes of lepers, who are allowed to manufacture tools and weapons. In any other place, they’d be left to slowly rot to death. Nature didn’t care about them, but Lady Eboshi did.

My favorite characters in the film are Irontown’s women. These are former sex workers freed by Eboshi, who perform the essential function of working the bellows to keep the furnace running. And these are no ordinary women: they boss the men around at times, openly flirt with Ashitaka (hinting at a polyamorous society), and do hard, physical toil for days on end.

These things wouldn’t be possible without the wealth, power, and possibilities from industrialization. Eboshi is at war with nature because she wants to see her town prosper, and her people live dignified lives. Miyazaki himself is a staunch critic of many aspects of modernity in his films (mostly war and environmental damage) but seems to prefer the zone where progress does not uproot the past entirely but coexists with it.

On the other hand, this is that rare portrayal of nature that is not all teeming greenery, babbling brooks, and frolicking deer. San and her wolf family routinely attack warriors and innocents alike in an attempt to get rid of the humans that encroach on their land, and their hatred for humans comes across as outright bigotry in some scenes. Even the all-powerful Deer God gives and takes life away on a whim, much like nature itself.

Jigo also has his own peculiar but familiar logic for his actions: that humanity is hardwired to want and accumulate stuff, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with him doing his best to get what he wants.

All this results in feelings of great confusion accompanying awe while the story progresses; Eboshi is obviously wrong to seek the extinction of the nature gods, but isn’t nature also cruel? Why shouldn’t Eboshi be a humanist and provide for her people the way she does? Could material progress ever be sustainable? There aren’t clear or easy answers.

All these conflicts end up in a climactic battle fought on no less than 3 fronts: with the samurais besieging Irontown, Eboshi and Jigo hunting the Deer God, and Ashitaka and San trying their best to stop it all, developing a romance in the process. For some reason, the sheer scope of this conflict, especially in moral terms, makes your typical Avengers movie battles look like water balloon fights at a kid’s birthday party in comparison.

True to form, the movie ends on an ambiguous note; not giving too much away, there is a semblance of compromise between Eboshi and San, and the inkling of hope for a better future, but we don’t know for sure how it’s going to turn out. Even the romance between Ashitaka and San doesn’t fully materialize, as each of them realizes the greater responsibilities they bear to their constituents. So they (ambiguously) agree to do the medieval equivalent of “let’s stay in touch”.

I want to re-emphasize why this film (and nearly every other Ghibli film) is so great; kids can watch it for the jaw-dropping animation and a storyline even they will find engaging**. Adults can also watch it for the jaw-dropping animation, but there’s so much to unpack and think about; a movie that not only engages your eyes but your mind and heart as well.

So if you’re one of those people who thinks “aNimAtIoNiSoNlYfOrKiDs”, please change your mind, watch this movie and discover the magical worlds of Ghibli.

Footnotes:

*To be accurate, he directly goes into making the storyboards, but often without having the full story ready. It’s still pretty impressive how he doesn’t use written scripts.

**Fair warning, a number of scenes are quite gruesome, so this is probably in the PG-13 category.