Thoughts On: Princess Mononoke - Children Of Nature


Princess Mononoke - Children Of Nature

Thoughts On: Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, 1997)

A prince is cursed whilst defending his village from a demon-God.

By 1997, Studio Ghibli had built up a thick catalogue of greats and masterpieces. In many ways, however, Ghibli had started to hit dampened ground as they were beginning to recycle their stories and style in increasingly obvious ways with brilliant, but not entirely transcendent, films such as Porco Rosso, Pom Poko and Whisper Of The Heart. It is with Princess Mononoke that Ghibli pressed through this very minor rut and entirely transcended themselves, manifesting not only one of their greatest films, but, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. In fact, I would be as bold as to say that Princess Mononoke bears one of the greatest stories I know to exist. In such, whilst this isn't a story told with the charm and objective-subjective impressionistic mastery of, for example, Porco Rosso, it holds immense and serious significance and profundity. But, to dive into the depths of this narrative we will have to start with a rather abstract conversation about religion and the male and female of nature.

God, in Abrahamic religions, is a male archetype who sends into the world 'sons' that we call prophets or messengers: Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, Jesus, etc. Male archetypes such as Muhammad and Jesus are the bedrock of some of the most significant cultures across the world. Why is this?

That is a staggeringly monolithic question that I won't suggest I can answer in full. However, I believe that we can stumble towards some kind of insight by asking another ridiculously complex question. In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto, there isn't an emphasis on a patriarchal being as God, rather, a force of 'mother' nature; the way, the spirit, the transcendent truth. Why is this?

Despite their fundamental differences (which are far more complex than I am presenting them to be) these two sets of theological philosophies seem to be in direct conversation with one another; Abrahamic religions seem to focus on the male archetype whilst other Eastern religions focus on the female archetype. And in cultures that live in conjuncture with these theologies, there are mechanisms of thought in place that attempt to balance the male and female archetype. Thus, quite globally, the idea of a mother in nature and a father in humanity is seemingly paradigmatic. This, itself, may be the result of human evolution and biology.

To consider then these abstractions in the context of a basic hunter-gatherer society, we can see that societies are often centred on females, but represented by men; women define and control the bounds of the home whilst men venture out into the unknown. This manifests generally, not universally, in modern societies across the world, and possibly as an expression of the implicit truth projected through, on one hand, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and on the other, Taoism, Buddhism and Shinto. The former set of religions focus on adventuring out into the world whilst the latter are more about the return to nature; in the former there is a movement away from the female archetype (as represented by home; mother nature) whilst in the latter there is a movement towards it. The complexities of these religions emerge from their recognition of the fact that it is probably not best that people only ever wander nomadically as much as it is best that we not cower at our mother's breast in a cave. And this idea of course manifests abstractly; to heavy-handedly amalgamate the religions, they suggest that we should not stray too far from God (nihilistic anarchy) and that we should not entirely give ourselves to nature (pointless self-sacrifice). As a result, none of the mentioned religions are as simple as we have described them as there is a balance in place that counter-points their fundamental assertions.

This counter-point can be embodied, in the most simple of ways, by contrasting these two theological approaches; by pitting the female archetype focus against the male archetype focus. If we continue to do this, we can begin to see that a powerful undercurrent of life is this idea that the archetypal man is the archetypal woman's tool: he works for her. In response to this, however, the archetypal woman must belong to the archetypal man as he belongs to her; they have to become a mother and son, a daughter and father, a husband and a wife. This is true in human terms as it reflects a more transcendent reality: the universe gives birth to independent beings that allow an internal propagation. If life is feminine and if force is masculine then the motherly universe gives birth to the godly son who will continue to create. Masculine thus serves the feminine, but without each other they couldn't be, and so they must be equals. As almost all religions showcase, family and a marriage between male and female is then essential as it reflects an imperative union between masculine and feminine in the universe. With Buddhism and Taoism, however, an actual ceremonial marriage between man and woman is considered a secular affair, but there is nonetheless a present flow between birth and life or other dualities which suggests there must be a harmony between an abstract feminine (a birthing or life giving entity) and the abstract male (the creator or adventurer).

In my view, speaking in terms of the male and female archetype is essential because of the paradigms in nature and humanity: men and women must come together to live and to propagate life. Recognising the importance of this language and its metaphorical manifestations, we can begin to assimilate something of an answer to all of our posed questions: religions emphasise the male and the female archetypes because the male and the female must co-exist so that society, in the most basic manner, can function. Religions such as Shinto emphasise female traits (abstractly, the idea of a life force) whilst religions such as Christianity emphasis male traits (abstractly, the idea of a sacrificial adventurer). However, both kinds of religions are united in their need to finding a balance between the genders of the universe. The pertinence of this philosophical approach can be seen via the fact that societies function and grow with balanced relationships between male and female. No culture is perfect by virtue of their theology - which is to say that not all cultures have equality and harmony among the genders. But, there is an implicit truth in this male-female archetype focus that is indicated by the prevalence and importance of theological concepts.

If we understand all of these abstractions as some of the most profound and significant expressions of human storytelling, we can now turn to Princess Mononoke to see a film that does not just masterfully manage male and female archetypes, but archetypes of thought that stem from Eastern and Western religions. And such is one of the clear goals of Studio Ghibli; their narratives are focused on bringing the East and West together as well as uniting strong males and females. Without further ado, we must then jump directly into this narrative.

Opening ambiguously, Princess Mononoke simply says that there is something wrong, and it is signified with flowing chaos. We are, however, quickly introduced to our protagonist, Ashitaka:

We never get a true reason as to why Ashitaka is our protagonist. But, there is an implication of harmony that stems from his interactions with females. So, not only here, but also as he interacts with these three girls in a proceeding scene, later, his sister and the oracle (a feminine archetype like the witch that can essentially tap into the matrix: the logic of the universe), it is implied that Ashitaka is a righteous leader of a community that has a strong bond between its women and men. Moreover, this community is shown to have a strong, harmonious connection with nature and a traditional understanding of it through spirits.

It is this implication that fuels the crucial subtext of this catalysing moment. Ashitaka does not want to shoot the demon-God that threatens his village, but, to save its women...

... he has to. And it's here where we have a key trope of this narrative: the females instigate battle. It is then seeing the girls brandish their swords in self-protection that Ashitaka knows he has to attack. And this is in spite of the fact that he knows he must humbly respect nature; though nature throws chaos his way, he knows that he should not react in turn.

Though this seems like a nonsensically hesitant gesture, this can be understood as reflecting a key idea that is seemingly embedded into the Taoist religion. In chapter 61 of the Tao Te Ching (a fundamental Taoist text), we get this quote:

"The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness."

Nature, or the feminine, often embodies quietness (we see this emphasised later with the Deer God). However, sometimes nature spurts out chaos and violence. In the context of Princess Mononoke, this is shown to be catalysed primarily by masculine endeavours. What we then see in this scene is rage being confronted by Ashitaka with quietness; he simply asks the demon to turn away. Thus, we see a negative masculine trait of rage that has infected nature being confronted by the anima (female) projections of Ashitaka. However, when he sees that women are about to embody rage...

... he knows he has to follow them as their leader, protector and communal brother. And so he kills the Nago, the demon-God, to save his village. Jumping to the end of this scene, we see that this situation is a tragedy.

The dead demon curses the innocent Ashitaka to death; he is infected by a chaos that has come from a far-away land and will die as a consequences unless he goes on an adventure (embodies an archetypally masculine trait). This unjust result of Ashitaka protecting his village then has no real meaning until Ashitaka accepts his fate and so decides to confront chaos; he turns tragedy into responsibility and a chance to right some of the wrongs in the world.

It is in this moment that Ashitaka becomes the classical sacrificial hero; he knows he is going to die, he is told so by the oracle, but will nonetheless find a way to die for good reason. He will have to find this reason, partly, on his journey, but he is also given reason by his sister when she gives him this parting gift...

This is a symbol of the harmony - an implicit harmony between male and female that was invaded and exploited by the chaos of the beyond - that his home represents. In such, this blade symbolises clarity as it is a crystal; practicality as it is a tool; defense as it is a weapon; and beauty as it is an ornament. The blade holds within it a balance between positive male and female traits, a balance between quiet and rage that will come to be the ultimate trophy of his quest.

One of the first things that Ashitaka learns on this quest is that he is becoming a demon; he is being infected by the rage and destruction that blighted Nago. What we are seeing represented here is something that anyone familiar with Star Wars will understand directly. Dark forces are more powerful that lighter forces, but light forces nonetheless prevail. This is an idea that is bound to masculine and female archetypes and our ideas of feminine quietness. Men are, generally speaking, more physically powerful than women; it is a consequence of our biologically an physiology. However, that male power is not a virtue, rather, a responsibility and a cross to carry. This is because power and darkness, just like rage, consumes itself. A harmony between male and female, light and dark, is thus paramount, which is why light (the male-female unit in this context) always prevails and is characterised by good. Ashitaka's super-human abilities are embroiled in rage, not quiet. He thus discovers that he is corrupted - that he is part-demon - and so must use his dark powers for good as to turn them into light so he can prevail on his journey and rid himself of disease. As a result, Ashitaka is horrified at his ability to kill and will refrain from this for the remainder of the narrative - at multiple points he will even take deadly blows and remain quietly pacifistic.

The realisation of his core conflict (he must overcome the darkness in him by assuming great responsibility) is book-ended by his meeting with lost male and female archetypes. Above, we then see townspeople (two males and a female) as well as Jigo, who are all embedded in constant spite and conflict. All of these people then mimic archetypal dark city citizens and drifting samurai; these are people that struggle within or on the boundaries of precariously structured society. This theme of destabilisation is soon revealed to be the crux of all physical conflict in this movie through Lady Eboshi:

Lady Eboshi is essentially the architect of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are two archetypal cities of Abrahamic religions that essentially represent corruption and so are destroyed by divine retribution: fire. The 'backwards people' are a very common feature of stories, and they are often used to show how humanity has been collectively infected by sin. Eboshi is the figurehead of collective sin; she is the reason for Ashitaka's infection...

After all, she is the one who drove the boars out of the mountains. It is then implied that she catalysed the destructive rage of Nago and so forced the tragedy that left Ashitaka no other option but to become the sacrificial hero. Rage and sin - a disregard of nature and its harmony - is a disease concocted by Eboshi that is embedded into vectors (Nago and other gods) and spread across the land like malaria is by mosquitoes. Eboshi embodies this disharmony through her neglect of tradition and a dangerously blind adaptation of fire-arms that leads to a war with archetypes of nature.

The conflict between Eboshi and Moror - the mother wolf - is then an indication of a battle between humanity and nature and an allegory for industrialisation. This battle is not as simple as many will describe it, however; this is not just a commentary on humans needing to expand and nature being harmed by this (Ghibli already tackled this idea with Pom Poko). This conflict between two matriarchs, which is a central relationship of this narrative, is an exploration of a kind of relationship we have not discussed yet: same sex, female-female relations.

As we later find out, Eboshi is not a simple, tyrannical matriarch. The city that she is building is run by strong women who live in relative harmony with the males. There is something subtle that is very off about this place, however. Every single woman is a rescued prostitute: this is why they are all so strong. These women have escaped a system in which they were not real women, rather, beings that survived by becoming a caricature, an object of desire and a sexual organ, for the satisfaction of male caricatures; objects of desire and mere sexual organs. This corrupt basis of their society is expressed through its spreading of darkness into the world; Lady Eboshi is destroying nature because she has to fight off men. Thus, the corruption that Nago represents...

... is not just a projection of a male or female negative archetype - rage or greed for example. Rather, Nogo's rage represents broken societies functioning upon relationships between corrupted male and female archetypes. The reason why nature is turning against humanity is not just because Eboshi is destroying trees, but because humanity produced figures such as Eboshi and her tribe of prostitutes.

Coming back to Lady Eboshi's society, we see its corruption and its strength to be based in misguided virtue; Eboshi only wants to protect herself and women like her from the darkness in the world - and is even willing to include men in this equation. It must be noted, however, that whilst the feminine production (industrial weapons) of Eboshi's tribe is somewhat positive as it represents progress and stability, its masculine effect (pollution, battle and war with weaponry) is clearly negative. And so this paradigm reverts back to our idea that male archetypes are tools of female archetypes: men serve women and in turn enter positive, equal relationships with them. When the female archetype is corrupt, the male limb of society that it controls will destroy. Let us not forget, however, that, in this circumstance, the female archetype is only so corrupt because of negative male archetypes who exploited them as prostitutes instead of supporting them as their equals.

Let us now return to the female-female conflict:

It is not coincidental that a literal conflict between females and males leads to a feminine life force (nature) conflicting with masculine invention (industrialisation) in the abstract. This parallel is an expression of the idea that we are all children of nature. Great male archetypes of the Western world are sons of God; they represent the lineage of positive masculinity whose foundations are in the transcendent. This itself implies that the greatest male archetype is superhuman, is quite literally a demi-God or God, and that we should all aspire to be him (this is why Jesus is the main Christian idol). In tandem with this great male archetype, however, is the great female archetype who is also a transcendent being.

I think it is a downfall of Abrahamic religions that there is no emphasis of a transcendent female archetype that is equal to the highest male archetype (God). However, Western cultures do carry an idea that Mother Nature, which is arguably equal to God, is a transcendent being. With nature and God as transcendent parents, men are sons of the ultimate patriarch whilst females are the daughters of the ultimate matriarch. The depicted conflict between gods and humans in Princess Mononoke is in direct reference to this idea.

Eboshi is, in essence, a matriarch that is attempting to establish a new domain of being that is outside of the traditional societies of 15th century that she perceives to be corrupt. This is why she is constantly fighting the matriarchs of nature; she has to clear a new realm for herself outside of the traditional - or natural - domains of humanity. What this comments on is the idea that, whilst male-female relations can be destructive, they are most destructive when they make daughters fight with mothers and sons fight with fathers. Sometimes this conflict is necessary; we have classical stories of Jacob wrestling angels or Greek demi-gods like Perseus fighting their divine fathers that are mimicked in a plethora of other narratives that see men fight gods and women fight goddesses for the greater good. However, in Princess Mononoke, there is no necessary battle to be had between daughters and mothers; human females (Eboshi's tribe) need to reconcile with their male counterparts. And this is one of the key super-structural themes of this story that we see referenced time and time again; Princess Mononoke is largely about a female conflict between a transcendent mother and earthly woman that is an off-shot of society breaking down. Society breaking down is the foundational idea of male archetypes being the tools and equals of female archetypes crumbling.

Whilst there is a constant conflict between female archetypes (daughters and mothers; humans and gods), this story has a parallel plot of a son attempting to reconcile with his transcendent father. We see this referenced in this scene:

Ashitaka's arm flares up when he is in the presence of the Deer God. This somewhat nonsensical happening has implicit reason to it for the fact that Ashitaka is seemingly a prince or demi-god of nature who is infected with corruption, but in the presence of transcendent good. This scene thus signifies the pressure of the responsibility that Ashitaka is attempting to carry; he senses that he is corrupt, but is fighting this poison internally. Interestingly, the only soothing agent for his pain is life-giving (motherly) water.

Ashitaka's connection with nature is made evident throughout this narrative through his relationship with his deer, Yakul. Yakul and Ashitaka together are sons of the highest male archetype of this narrative: the Deer God.

Together, we can understand Yakul and Ashitaka to be the sons of this Qilin because of the lineage that they are implied to have as Emishi people. With the Qilin being an East Asian symbol that usually connotes illustrious rule and serenity it then seems that Ashitaka is a prince of the forest and so a figure destined to be a righteous male archetype.

What we can understand by recognising that Ashitaka and Yakul are princes of sorts--decedents of a great male archetype--is that their purpose is to reconcile with this father figure so that the destructive mother-daughter feud can be put to an end before the whole 'family' of the world collapses under the heel of deathly rage. And thus we see the solution to Eboshi's conflict potential resolved; she can reconcile with men through Ashitaka.

It is now quite self-explanatory why Ashitaka attempts to settle all conflicts between nature and its daughter, Eboshi, by essentially being a great male archetype: a sacrificial hero. Thus, much of this narrative needn't be explained. However, there is one key character that we are overlooking: San.

San is the antithesis of Eboshi: she is the good daughter of the gods - a spirit princess (mononoke means spirit) - whilst Eboshi is the corrupt, rebellious daughter. What we then have in the depicted scene is a good son of an estranged god meeting the good daughter of a protective goddess. Whilst San and Ashitaka belong to the same generation of children, San has aligned herself with the older generation which is currently at battle with the younger generation; she is apart of the transcendent female archetypes whilst Ashitaka isn't a true god. This rift between Ashitaka and San is paramount, however, as it will allow Ashitaka to mediate between the transcendent and the human, the older generation and the younger generation.

Much of Princess Monoke's narrative constantly plays with the relationship dynamics that we have so far identified with a focus on the feminine conflict. I will then leave the minute details of the second act for you to explored on your re-watches of this film. The only other key element of this narrative that we will explore is bound to a question of reconciliation. How can Ashitaka and San come together to bring peace back into the world?

The answer, quite abstractly, is a marriage under God: San distancing herself from the wolves to be closer to Ashataki. Having embraced after San refused to hear that she is not a wolf, but a human, we then have the symbolic separation of mother from daughter. Just as Eboshi created her own kingdom by separating herself from society and even from her transcendent mother, so must San. However, whilst Eboshi's kingdom was based in destruction and rage, San's must be one of peaceful quiet; and, in this case, sacrifice connotes such peace.

The founding of this new kingdom is witnessed by the Deer God in its dark Daidarabotchi form. What this means is in fact implied in the image above. The Deer God, whether in this form, or this one...

... is a king of forest, but, is also a servant of nature. So, just like Eboshi's men, who both create in tandem with women and destroy for them, the Deer God gives life in the day and takes life in the night. This is all decided by a feminine celestial body above: the moon. This is why the moon is the symbolic head of the Deer God here.

This image is of a lost male archetype who, like Ashitaka in the beginning of this story, wants to protect its female archetype, but can only do this by channeling destruction and rage. Without its head, and with no other choice, the Deer God does not realise that its destruction will ultimately consume itself and that it wants to protect: nature. Subverting this, the Deer God is allowed to witness the union of San and Ashitaka - positive female and male archetypes.

In offering the Deer God his head back, San and Ashitaka are silently suffering, taking the weight of collective sin on their shoulders.

This symbolic offering signifies the union of earthly male and female archetypes, a marriage of sorts, under the transcendent male and female above. And just like rage spread across the land, so does peace as idols of sacrifice and quiet have proven to their transcendent parents that they can live in harmony once again.

So, ultimately, Princess Mononoke is not just a film about pollution and the environment. Rather, this is a film about the degradation of human-human relations and human-nature relations, all of which are predicated on a poisoned lineage of male and female archetypes that transcends basic, worldly structures. The re-installation of harmonious structure through sacrifice, responsibility and quiet is then Miyazaki's solution to a collapsing system; this is not a political statement, it is not even a theological statement; this is an abstract statement of art transcendent of even the words you have just read.

There is so much more to be said about Princess Mononoke as, like all truly great films, its narrative seems inexhaustible. So, what are your thoughts on all we've covered today? What have I missed? What more is there to be said about the archetypes and symbolic figures in this film?

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Anonymous said...

you throw around "nonsense" and "nonsensical" quite a bit. i'm not sure you know what it means.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I was a bit disheartened with San's resolve to live apart from Ashitaka because of her history with humans. Ashitaka understands this, and says he will stay near to help reconstruct the iron city, this time in a healthier, more tuned with nature way. And that this way he'll be near San, and come visit, with how much clearly he is in love with her, beyond mere visits.
I was that bit disheartened, sad, because I so much wanted to see them endure in their bond, stay together, en even form family and all.
The thought and feeling stuck with me, wondering what could be the meaning behind the metaphor in that final resolve.
Then it hit me: Miyazaki is teaching the younger generations, about these things you discussed and probably some more (I didn't read the whole post, just the part I came looking for, regarding the scene in which Ashitaka and San return the spirit of the forest's head), and so behind the metaphor, the myths, there's the real modern-day "city life" that awaits every child. And I think that degree of separation between our loving protagonists has to do with the introduction/reminder, that even in the face of a sacred union such as the strongests of love (Miyazaki sows proof of this all over), and marriage before God, the man will still leave the home in the face of adversity "to help rebuild the iron city" - better, wiser each time -, and the woman will remain faithful to how she feels, and protect her (their) own home/kingdom/nest/heart/land.
Such that whenever they come face to face again, it is always a renewal of their love: hence, a visit.
I'm in love, with a woman that loves me back.