Feminism in "Princess Mononoke"
A Glance at the History of Feminism Around the World
Typically, when someone thinks of feminism, they think of the liberation movement that started up in the western world in the 1960s. The term “Western World”, in this context, is defined as America and Western Europe. However, the idea of liberation for women has existed much earlier than this. The modern movement was given a name in this context. The perceived roles of women in the world, especially in the field of cinema, have changed drastically over time due to the impact of this movement.
If the regions of America and Western Europe are known as the “Western World”, then one may assess that the Asian continent is known as the “Eastern World”. Feminism as a named movement is mostly not overly present in the “Eastern World”. In the context of Japanese film, themes of it may or may not show. However, themes of freedom for women can be seen through strong female characters in movies like Princess Mononoke.
Hayao Miyazaki is a prominent director of animation in Japan, often associated with Studio Ghibli. His work is well known for setting a standard of well-developed characters, both female and male, good storytelling, and high-quality animation. Princess Mononoke, released in 1997, is often praised for having all of these qualities, along with a strong message about the environment. As such, it is somewhat intended to be a spiritual sequel to another previous film done by Miyazaki, Nausicaa. Beyond this, there is yet another message shown by Princess Mononoke, an underlying theme of feminism.
The World of Mononoke: What Does the Title Mean?
The film is about a young man named Ashitaka, who was the Prince of his village. One day, the village is attacked by the dead body of a boar that is possessed by a demon. The “fantasy” element in this film comes from elements of ancient Japanese culture. The body of the boar, itself, is not a normal boar, but a “boar god”. Such creatures that are present throughout the film are the titular “Mononoke”, which is literally translated to mean “spirit of a thing”. Overall, mononoke can be ghosts, monsters, or spirits.
Because the boar god died feeling hatred, it allowed its essence to become possessed, hence the attack. Ashitaka stops the beast for good, but a part of him, his arm, remains cursed after he comes into contact with it. The curse in his arm seems to give him excessive physical strength, but it will also spread and kill him after a short period of time. He is told to journey to a “land in the west” to search for a way to lift the curse. In this context, the “west” simply refers to the cardinal direction. Ashitaka follows the lead of an object that was in the boar. The object turns out to be an iron bullet, which is produced by an industrial town centered on an ironworks. It is here that the female “leads” make themselves fully known.
As stated before, there are many strong women characters present in this screenplay. Even from the very beginning, it can be seen that the village elder, who is well respected and revered by the people, is a woman. There is also the little sister of Ashitaka. Though she seems passive, and has one short appearance, she plays a very important role. She gives Ashitaka a dagger, which has great importance later on in the film. He gives it to the title character, San, the “Mononoke Princess”.
San is a human girl who was raised by wolf gods since her parents abandoned her when she was a baby. She is known by the people of the ironworks as the “wolf princess”, which is a rough translation of the title of the film, Mononoke Hime, with "Hime" meaning princess. Overall, her goal is to fight to protect her mother, along with the other gods, as well as the forest. To do so, she wants to drive the humans living in the ironworks away. She is mostly ruthless when it comes to the subject of humans, and would not hesitate to kill one. This can be seen when she is leading the blind boar god through the forest, and the hunters wearing skins try to deceive him. She threatens the hunters with death in order to protect the boar god. She also is courageous, and tries to fight a demon possession on her own, but needs help in the end.
San also has a compassionate side, which is seen when she is caring for her mother, as well as Ashitaka. She helps Ashitaka recover after he is shot by one of the women in the ironworks, because he tried to protect her while she was invading. She takes him to a place where the forest spirit, the Deer god, helps him recover from that wound. She also helps him on her own by feeding him. In fact, Ashitaka spends a good portion of the film under the care of San. Ashitaka is one of the few humans she cares for, but San, as a character does not exist as romance fodder for the lead. In the end, she says she likes him, but cannot forgive humans as a whole. Perhaps because San has been living with wolves, she has a means of communicating with animals, too. This can be seen in the way she not only talks to, but converses with Yakul, the red elk that belongs to Ashitaka. Overall, San is compassionate to the people she cares about, but also is not afraid to stand up for her beliefs.
The adoptive mother of San is the wolf goddess, Moro. As such, she is the leader of the pack of wolf gods. Due to this position, she is a brilliant tactician. She is as well respected as the other “male” gods, and even feared. She, too, fights alongside San and the other gods to protect the forest against the humans of the ironworks. Though Moro despises humans to a degree, she still took her daughter in as her own and raised her. Moro continues to be protective of her daughter, despite the fact that she is somewhat in denial about her being human, calling her “neither human nor wolf”. When she is dying, she uses the last of her strength to save San, and even returns from the dead to bite off the arm of an important “aggressor”. This shows that even after death, Moro continued to protect what was most important to her.
The Women of the Ironworks
The owner of the ironworks is Lady Eboshi, who is well respected in the town. In fact, she practically owns the town, since it is centered on the iron industry. Her ideas are revolutionary in the era, and they not only increase productivity for the business, but help the people . For example, she allows women to work in the ironworks. Specifically, she buys prostitutes from brothels. This keeps these women out of a potentially harmful industry, and provides them with a steady job. The women even say that working in the ironworks is “better than life in the towns” and that they are provided with food or the means to have food. This implies that these things were not readily available to them, and that they would have starved to death or worse. They also are provided with weapons as a means of protection. These weapons are created by lepers, who are normally shunned by the rest of society. Eboshi provides them with a steady job, as well as acceptance. Due to her fearless nature, they claim that Eboshi was the only one who “treated them like human beings”. However, Eboshi not only has a presence within the town, but also goes to gather material with the “troops”. As such, she protects the people in the town, and the people willingly stand up for her in return.
Lady Eboshi, seemingly, has a ruthless personality. It is revealed she is the one that shot the boar god, which in turn, led him to become possessed. Overall, it seems like she is only destroying the environment and the old gods for her own benefit. However, there are other motivations for these actions. She simply refuses to give up anything. Eboshi refuses to allow anything to stand in the way of her ambitions, including death or the gods. Furthermore, she will do whatever she can to keep the ironworks, and the people living in it, thriving.
As stated before, Eboshi takes in the prostitutes from brothels and gives them a steady job and a better life. These women, themselves, are excellent characters. They are led by Toki, who takes over leadership duties when Eboshi leaves. She is very no-nonsense in her personality, and an excellent leader. Furthermore, these women have great, feminist intensive dialog. When a messenger comes asking Eboshi to surrender, the women act as guards and retort. He tells them that they have “no [sense of] respect...”. They reply, “We haven’t had respect since the say we were born!” and scare the rival troops off by firing. As a character observes, they do not “lack courage”.
Uniting Themes: Feminism and Environmentalism
One can observe that the two main female roles represent two sides of conflict. San,along with her mother, want to protect the forest. Meanwhile, Lady Eboshi wants to protect the ironworks. They are common in that they both fight for things that are important to them. However, the difference in incentives is the reason that there is no peace between the humans and the forest. This may represent how people fight over what they believe to be differences, but are actually very similar in their motives. It also shows that women should not be working against each other, but helping each other. Furthermore, this ties the feminist themes with the environmental message.
Although the story of Princess Mononoke is fictional, and parts are deeply rooted in fantasy and lore, it is still based on real historical events of the period. The film takes place in Japan during the “Muromachi Era”. Most scholars feel the era took place from 1392 to 1573. Specifically, it is set “around the time of the War of Onin”, which took place from about 1467 to 1477. During this time, iron production was increased, which required trees to be cut down for charcoal. Women also had more freedom. This was due to the fact that women were expected handle affairs at home while their husbands were fighting in the war. In this way, their “treatment was founded in their capabilities”, and they were judged less. This is somewhat seen in the film, itself, when Ashitaka first comes upon the ironworks with two fallen soldiers. He sees that the women are taking care of the village while they are gone. This era was, mostly, chosen to be the setting for the film because it represented many degrees of progress.
The theme of feminism is represented well in this film. The women are not “objectified” or made into romance fodder for the lead male. The lead male, in turn, is mostly respectful towards the women, as are most males in the film. The characters representing the theme are well-rounded and important, with their own purposes. It also ties in with the other aspects of the story. Messages are not exclusively “black and white”, and it leaves the viewers to draw their own conclusions.
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Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. 13th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2013. Print.
Johnson, Michael S. "FAQ // Princess Mononoke." The Hayao Miyazaki Web. Team Ghiblink, Web. 08 Sept. 2013.
Princess Mononoke. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Prod. Toshio Suzuki. Perf. Yuriko Ishida and Yōji Matsuda. Studio Ghibli, 1997. Online Streaming.
Shea, J. "Analysis: Princess Mononoke." Web log post. Exploring Believability. Blogspot, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 08 Sept. 2013.