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Miyazaki's Hope in Mononoke Hime

by Kenneth Lee

[Ashitaka, set amidst the burning forests of the shishigami]

Hayao Miyazaki's last film of his career, Mononoke Hime, marks the culmination of his directing and film making prowess. While touched on in his previous films, it is in Mononoke Hime that issues such as Nature, Paradise lost (and regained), Human Greed, and Forgiveness are fully explored. Mononoke Hime is Miyazaki's greatest critical social commentary on human nature in that the film manages to convey his message without being sermonizing. The effectiveness is achieved by presenting a cast of characters that each have a dichotomy of good and bad aspects to them, in other words, they break away from the archetypal characters; they are believable and realistic. In the end, it is through this dichotomy (of good and evil within) that lifts Mononoke Hime from being a misanthropic tale of despair to being Miyazaki's most uplifting work, filled with hope for humanity.

[Eboshi, leader of the Tatabara]

One of Mononoke Hime's strongest points is the theme of dichotomy. It is played upon heavily, from the flawed protagonists and antagonists, to inanimate objects, one can see this theme pervading the film. While archetypes are always the simplest and easiest way to convey a message, it has also become a victim of its own simplicity. Too often a story will use a personification of 'pure good' versus 'pure evil' and while the audience can easily understand it, it is also unrealistic and has become increasingly trite. Very seldom does one encounter a being of 'pure evil' or 'pure good' in real life, so when a story utilizes characters that deviate from these unrealistic extremes, that's when it becomes most intriguing and most effective. Eboshi, the leader of Tataraba, immediately comes to mind. Although the film never singles out any single figure or person, Eboshi is most closely identified as the primary antagonist in Mononoke Hime. As a result, the dichotomy of her good-natured acts with her evil ones make her that much more lifelike and troubling to accept or reject. When first introduced, Eboshi is seen as a cold and calculating leader. Intelligent and unemotional, we soon find out that it is Eboshi that drives her people to mine out the neighboring forests and mountainsides. The stark picture of the complete destruction of Nature surrounding Tataraba only helps to further accentuate her ruthlessness. With seemingly no regard for Nature or natural life around her, her primary goal is to manufacture steel to create more guns and weapons of destruction - all to help her "overtake Japan" as one of her 'citizens' commented. In addition she wants to destroy the Forest of the Shishigami (Shishigami no mori), and take the head of the Shishigami, a legendary god-like creature that has the power to heal. Yet before the viewer has a chance to categorize Eboshi as the typical 'evil leader' character, Miyazaki subtly reveals her other side: A kind-hearted woman, who cares very much for her people. It is revealed that all the women of Tataraba were former slaves and outcasts, and that Eboshi accepted them and cared for them and gave them freedom - which is even more admirable considering the era that Mononoke Hime took place in, when women were devalued. In addition, the primary reason that Eboshi gives for wanting the head of the Shishigami is to cure the lepers in her settlement. Although ultimately, her cruelty and ruthlessness overshadow her kindness - when she willingly sacrificed her own men in the front lines (by blowing them up) to stop the rampaging boars, and when she chose to leave her women to fend for themselves in Tataraba while she hunted the Shishigami (even after Ashitaka warned her that they were in a dire emergency) - those aforementioned philanthropic deeds cannot be overlooked, and that is what makes Miyazaki's master film so engaging.

[San, the Mononoke Princess]

Similarly, San, the Mononoke Hime (Princess), is just as divided. Being the main heroine and always fighting to protect nature, her valiant efforts inevitably draw sympathy from the audience. Wild, 'uncultured,' and emotional, she is seemingly the perfect complement to Eboshi. San with her Moro clan fight to stop Eboshi's (and Man's) destruction of nature. Yet, here too, Miyazaki inserts a dichotomy: While fighting for a just cause, she is also utterly consumed with a complete hatred of mankind, and cannot forgive them. It is exactly this destructive attitude that led to the creation of the Tatarigami (beings consumed by hate and anger - what the boars turned into when they were near death). Just as Eboshi disrespects Nature and murders and destroys any creatures that stand in her way, so San kills humans that invade Nature. While it can be argued that San is merely acting in self-defense, it is not true, as her murdering is just as indiscriminate as Eboshi's: while never shown directly to the audience, there is no doubt that San killed many in her attack on Eboshi and the samurai troops in the final boar versus human battle at the end. Also, earlier, when San and the rest of her Moro clan attacked Eboshi's villagers on the mountain pass, while only Moro did a head-on attack (and knocked over and killed many innocent workers), from Eboshi's steady reaction, we know that the Moro clan (San included) must have attacked and killed, innocent workers and soldiers, many times before. And again, San's hard-hearted, unforgiving hatred of humans at the end of the film further highlights her dichotomy.

Miyazaki continues to explore this theme in nearly every single other character in the film: Moro, giant wolf leader of the Moro clan, is the same. As one of the guardians of the forests, and protector of Nature, who took in and raised San when she was cast out by humans, Moro is just as ruthless, killing both the guilty and innocent, in order to get to Eboshi. The boars are the same way: While protectors of the Forest of Shishigami, they, too, turn into destroyers, actively seeking the genocide of the entire race of humans. Their prejudice and hatred of the entire human race is no better than the humans' wanton destruction of Nature. Even the Shishigami, who can be seen as a 'good-hearted god,' is depicted as both a giver and taker of Life. When the Shishigami lost its head, it turned from a force of life, to a force of death. Thus, by moving away from archetypes, we are given a much more believable and genuine ensemble of characters, and it is with this powerful tool, that Miyazaki manages to effect his potent social commentary.

[Man's spoils of war...]

Miyazaki's social commentary is extremely harsh: Man is a destroyer. From Ashitaka's first meeting with other humans outside his village to the final hunt for the Shishigami, humans can be characterized by their propensity to distrust and destroy. The first scene that Ashitaka sees of other humans outside his village is War. One important note is how Miyazaki depicts Nature and particularly, the forests. The natural landscapes and forests are depicted with so much care and detail that its beauty cannot be overlooked. The flora and fauna in Mononoke Hime are the most beautiful representations ever to have graced the silver screen. Yet this is not done just for pure aesthetics, or Miyazaki's love for Nature. It is also done as Miyazaki's coup de gras, his master stroke, as the ultimate contrast to Man. In nearly every single scene in Mononoke Hime, one can always spot where humans have been: They are the ugly blot on the beautiful countryside and forests that surround them. His direction here is so stunningly deceptive and subtle that it almost works subconsciously to forward his message of humans. When Ashitaka stumbles upon the human settlement in the beginning of the film, the camera pans from the lush green forests and natural greenery to humans fighting and killing and destroying. After a few moments, some of the soldiers see Ashitaka, and their first reaction is distrust and their first action after that is to seek his death. When we are first introduced to the human mining caravan heading back to Tataraba (Eboshi's first appearance), the gray, barren mountainside wasn't there 'naturally,' but rather, it was due to the very people that were rambling on its path, going home! In the scene that immediately followed, Ashitaka and Korokku stumble upon a virgin forest, one still filled with Kodama, little spirit beings that signify a pure forest. Powerful and subtle, the audience is directed from what man has touched (the barren, deforested mined out mountainside), to what it was and could have been if man did not do what he did. Perhaps the most stunning contrast is ironically, the 'pinnacle' of human civilization: Tataraba. When Ashitaka and Korokku stumble out of the forest, they come upon Tataraba, Eboshi's great human settlement. Similar to before, Miyazaki presents a gentle panoramic view of the surrounding hills and mountains in the distance, complete with vibrant Nature (green hills, lush pastures), and then it focuses on Tataraba, a smoking, 'smog-filled' fortress. The contrast is harsh, from easy-on-the-eyes natural beauty, to a man-made fortress of destruction. Miyazaki subtly incorporates his dichotomy theme here as well, as we see the outer structure, made from life-giving trees and forests, cut down and made into harsh weapons to hurt and kill (the hundreds of wooden spikes that poke out from Tataraba). While at first glance, the steel mill and Tataraba's human population seem to be productive, one soon realizes that their productivity is going to one thing, and one thing only: The manufacturing of new guns and armaments of destruction. Seeing the Shoujou (monkey guardians) trying to plant seeds on the stark, dead immediate hillside next to Tataraba (due to Eboshi's mining and deforestation) and Eboshi firing upon them (to stop them from bringing life back to the mountain), was a particularly biting scene. Yet another stunning scene is when Eboshi and the samurai prepare for the final battle against the boars: The harsh, grotesque orange-brown smoke (caused by the people preparing for war) floating over and encompassing the beautiful green Forest of the Shishigami was yet another cinematic presentation of Miyazaki's message.

While this could have easily turned into a bitter, misanthropic denunciation of mankind, Miyazaki saves Mononoke Hime from being so, and instead turns it around to being a powerful reminder about man's ability to Hope and Change, through the character of Ashitaka. Consistent with the other characters, Ashitaka is definitely not perfect. While being a hero, he was not invincible. As the others, while loving peace, he did kill (although it can be argued that his engagements truly were in self-defense). And while Miyazaki is no professed Christian, it is especially interesting that Ashitaka embodies many Judeo-Christian beliefs, such as unconditional Love and Forgiveness:

"Get rid of all bitterness, wrath and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you."

Ephesians 4:31-32

[Man's spoils of war...]

Throughout Mononoke Hime, Ashitaka was the near-embodiment of these ideals. When he stumbled upon the first village and the fighting, he did not want to fight. Similarly, toward the end of the film, when the samurai were attacking Tataraba, and they engaged him, he pleaded with them to stop fighting. Perhaps the most powerful and poignant moment that embodied the above statement, was when Ashitaka was shot in the back (and effectively 'killed') in Tataraba by one of the women while trying to carry out (and save) San. The person who shot him, was one of the very women whom he had helped earlier that evening in the steel mill! These people who turned on him, were the very people he risked his life to protect and save (Korokku and the other fellow in the river). Ashitaka had no regrets and no anger; he continued to bear his burden (San) and walked out of Tataraba. The greatest example of Ashitaka's Christ-like behavior was one of the most difficult segments in the film: When Ashitaka saved a near-dying Eboshi from the Forest of the (rampaging) Shishigami. Seeing the main villain, and the very cause of all the death and destruction of Nature (and the person who 'killed' the Shishigami) being saved by the main protagonist is extremely shocking and difficult to handle. Yet here we see Ashitaka embody one of the most difficult teachings of Christ: "Love your enemy." And finally, the most stunning and subtle use of the dichotomy theme that ties into the message of Hope, is Ashitaka's curse (which is described as stemming from bitterness and anger and vengeance). From the beginning, Ashitaka was cursed when he fought the Tatarigami. Instead of lamenting or being bitter, Ashitaka bore his curse (that black disease eating away at his body), and actually reversed the power of all the hate and anger (the curse), and used it to protect and save and defend! Ashitaka is not perfect, and has plenty of flaws, but he is someone that one can strive to become, or rather he embodies ideals that would benefit all of mankind. In the end, it is ironic, yet fitting, that mankind, the destroyer, is also the source of Hope. While all the natural animals despaired and gave up - the Shoujou proclaiming the end of the forest and running away (when the boars lost), to the boars and the Moro clan plunging head-on in a destructive battle against Eboshi and the samurai, knowing that it was a trap - it is Man, that has the ability to Hope and Change and Live on, as when the women (after the final battle) met the men in the lake, and lamented that it was all over, one of the men said that there was still hope, or Eboshi, in the closing moments, given a renewal on life, proclaimed to everyone: "Let's build a good village."


To conclude, in Mononoke Hime, Miyazaki's use of dichotomized characters and themes provide an effective means to explore his acidic social commentary upon human civilization, and man's tendency to destroy. What saves Mononoke Hime from becoming completely nihilistic (like, e.g. Unforgiven), is Miyazaki's final segment of his commentary: Man's Hope and Willingness to Change, in the form of Ashitaka. It is with Ashitaka that Miyazaki also provides his most brilliant master stroke about Repercussions. His social commentary is about repercussions; about how Man's actions (beneficial or destructive) can send out massive repercussions that may not be apparent immediately, such as the Tatarigami in the beginning of the film. It is because of Eboshi's greed and power-lust, that mined the mountains that created the steel to make the weapons to shoot the boar that turned into a Tatarigami that in turn, rampaged across many lands and attacked (and cursed) Ashitaka and his village! Perhaps the most stunning example of closure that draws in all of the themes that Miyazaki presents of dichotomy, man's tendencies, of Hate and of Love, and repercussions, is the Crystal Dagger. Given to Ashitaka in the beginning of the film as a gift of Love, Ashitaka then gives it to San as his gift of Love to her, who in the end, (after seeing Ashitaka save Eboshi) turns the gift of Love (the Crystal Dagger) into a weapon of Hate when she stabs Ashitaka with it. Yet above all this, Ashitaka, as if a 'moving drop of water' that sends out his own repercussions of Hope and Forgiveness, embraces San at the end. Even after having that expression of his love being turned against him into hate, Ashitaka bore it and loved San even more. When she despaired, he proclaimed Hope. It is masterful direction such as this that makes Mononoke Hime Hayao Miyazaki's greatest work, and the most important Anime film of all time.

- Kenneth Lee, July 9, 1998.

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