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Princess Mononoke

[1]890 words

I feel like the skinhead who went to see Cats because he’d heard that T. S. Eliot was a fascist.

Japanese cartoons are very popular in our circles. They have even been reviewed [2] at Counter-Currents. The closest thing I had seen to a Japanese cartoon is Twilight of the Cockroaches. But that mixed animation and live action, and it was more than 25 years ago, so I remember almost nothing about it.

But I like a lot of Japanese cinema, literature, and visual art, and I figured that some experience with anime should be part of my education as both a film critic and New Right thinker, so I asked several friends to recommend a first movie, and Princess Mononoke (1997) was highly praised, so I decided to watch it.

Princess Mononoke is set in Japan in the early modern period (the late Muromachi period), before the banning of firearms. But the story has many timeless fantasy elements to it. Indeed, the theme of the movie is the clash between modernity and the pre-modern traditional-magical vision of the world.

“Mononoke” is not a proper name, it is the term for a possessing spirit or demon. It was never clear to me, though, just who the titular princess is, since the only clearly possessed characters in the movie are giant pigs. The princess may be San, the girl raised by wolves, or, more intriguingly, the mysterious Lady Eboshi.

The protagonist of the story, however, is Prince Ashitaka, who has been infected by a demon. (Why not call it Prince Mononoke, then?) Ashitaka is the last prince of the Emishi, an Ainu-like tribal people driven to the margins of Japan by the Emperors in the distant past and thought to be extinct.

I liked some things about Princess Mononoke. Like a lot of Japanese literature and cinema, Princess Mononoke gives us a glimpse into the pagan-polytheistic mentality Europeans had before the coming of the desert monotheisms. I also found the portrayal of the great Forest Spirit/Nightwalker to be imaginative and genuinely magical. Finally, I found Lady Eboshi and Irontown to be a rather brilliant portrait of bourgeois, technological civilization.

Lady Eboshi is clearly a renegade aristocrat. A woman of great ambition without outlet in traditional society, she has created a new society, named Irontown, in which she is the ruler. The people of Irontown are recruited from the dregs and outcasts of society: bumptious peasants, brothel girls, and lepers. (In one amusing scene, the prostitutes confess that they have never heard of an Emperor.) Lady Eboshi has welded them into an efficient military and technological machine by offering them the inclusion and upward mobility denied them in the larger society.

Irontown is devoted to increasing Lady Eboshi’s power through the conquest of nature and the creation of technology, including weapons. Irontown clear-cuts the forests, mines iron ore, and turns it into steel. Nature, however, strikes back. The great Forest Spirit sends wolves and wild boars to harry the woodcutters and miners. Irontown is also under attack by the samurai, who wish to plunder its wealth. To protect Irontown, Lady Eboshi needs to make her peasants, prostitutes, and lepers the equals of samurai, which she does by assiduously pursuing superior technology to quell man and beast alike. If anyone is a candidate for demon princess, it is Lady Eboshi.

Lady Eboshi also seeks to literally decapitate nature’s resistance by killing the Forest Spirit. To do this, she allies with Jigo, an ugly, vulgar, ignoble, but cunning adventurer who seems to be a defrocked monk. Jigo is very much in the spirit of the wisecracking denizens of the lower orders that populate Japanese cinema and gave us R2-D2 and C-3PO. Jigo has assembled some mysterious mercenaries who seem unbound by any code of honor to help him kill the forest spirit, for whose head the Emperor has offered a large reward. (The Emperor has been told that the head can yield an elixir of immortality. Such Oriental superstitions are driving rare animals to extinction even today.)

I won’t say anything about how the plot ultimately plays out, in case you still want to see the movie for yourself after I list its faults, which are significant.

First, Princess Mononoke is shockingly “adult” and violent for a cartoon. You would not want to show it to children. Second, the American version also uses a host of extremely annoying American-accented voice actors. Third, I found the animation to be pretty crude throughout. Fourth, the plot was overlong and often draggy. Fifth, there was a lot that seemed frankly arbitrary, but if it had been handled just a bit differently, it would have seemed magical.

My core objection to this movie, however, is the moral confusion at the heart of it. The cause of the Forest Spirit is just. Irontown is simply evil. But our hero Ashitaka does not see it that way. He spends the whole movie speeding around in his earnest-but-dumb fashion trying to prevent conflict rather than taking the right side. His motive seems to be an absolute injunction against “hate,” which is a shockingly stupid value system. Is this an outgrowth of Buddhism or a sign of Christian or Western liberal influence? Whatever the answer, it made it impossible for me to regard Ashitaka as a hero. Frankly, I expected better from the Japanese.