IT WAS NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO WHEN WAS RELEASED ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL FEATURE FILMS MADE BY HAYAO MIYAZAKI AND STUDIO GHIBLI. IT'S PRINCESS MONONOKE (ORIGINAL TITLE: MONONOKE-HIME). IT'S A FILM WHERE THE JAPANESE ANIMATION MASTER FOCUSED ON MAIN TOPICS AS ENVIRONMENTALISM, ECOLOGY, ANTI-CAPITALISM, ATTENTION TOWARDS OUTCASTS IN JAPANESE SOCIETY. ALSO, THAT FILM EFFICACIOUSLY MIXES SOCIAL, HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL ASPECTS OF THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN. THIS MIX CREATES A WORLD WHICH IS COMPLEX AND PERFECTLY COHERENT WITH THE DEEP JAPANESE SPIRIT AT THE SAME TIME, ALTHOUGH IT'S INSERTED IN A FANTASTIC AND IMAGINARY WORLD.
Japan is a very advanced country, and it is particularly known for the high levels of competition and pressure their citizen constantly undergo. On the other side, the Nipponese State promotes interest and diffusion of spiritualism and that ineffable and mysterious part that surrounds our existences. Monsters and spirits are a distinctive element of Japanese popular culture. Miyazaki shows here how they might be good or evil depending on circumstances and external influences. Spirits are the wire that connect contradictions and complexity of this community, where social differences are very strong, almost as society would be divided in casts. So it is not accidental that Ashitaka, the main positive human character comes from the Emishi people. The Emishi were one of the most marginalized people in Japanese history. They had animistic cults with were similar to the Shinto ones, and Shinto is the Nipponese popular religion, which is highly related to the Nature and its circles. Shinto is traditionally opposed to Buddhism, which is typically considered as related to the Power, then considered as ‘corrupted’ (that is why Miyazaki represents it through a Monk named Jiko). These ones are connected to Lady Eboshi, who is the leader of Irontown, which represents the human exploitation of nature for productive and expansionistic reasons. According to Miyazaki, this exploitation would lead to a catastrophe if humans wouldn’t respect nature and its inhabitants, animals and spirits. These ones may have nice and innocuous aspects, such as Kodama, or they can be majestic and almighty as the Forest Spirit is. This is the real protector of the Yakushima Forest, and it is pictured as a deer, which is considered the holy animal of the Forest, in Japan.
That’s only an example of the vastness of supernatural entities that traditionally would live in the world, even in lifeless things like stones. Everything is “animated” then and they are called Yookai or Bakemono or Yurei, and they would be eight million. Mononoke are even part of them. Mononoke is also the way the Irontown people call the mysterious girl living in the Forest with wolves, who raised her since she was a baby. She actually has no name (she is called San), but her human enemies recognize and call her as the goddess of enraged forest spirits and forces of nature, as Mononoke is the traditional spirit in classical literature and mythology, the one who can cause sickness or death to humans. In this film, she has the aspect of a human being hating humanity, but simply because she doesn’t know them and has never seen them as a counterpart. Humanity doesn’t respect the equilibrium and the inhabitants of nature, it makes fun of the Forest Spirit and attacks him violently, which leads to trigger his destructive rage.
Princess Mononoke is the complex journey of an Author into the deepest and most fascinating soul of Japanese culture, where concrete and animism, result and mystery coexist, in order to warn us about the risks of tensions between mankind and Nature, where spirits live with and around us and keep an eye on us, worried about our identity and how we might lose it.
Text by Alessandro Altobello