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Miyazaki Week: Why “Princess Mononoke” is Not an Environmentalist Fable

by on February 27, 2010

One common criticism I’ve seen of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is that it’s “environmentalist,” which is usually used to mean the sort of preachy, treacly, Earth First screed where people are Bad and nature is Good, end of story.

Really, I have to wonder if we’re watching the same movie. While there is a healthy respect for nature in Miyazaki’s films and “man and nature out of balance” is a common theme to many of his films, it’s hard to see the kind of one-sided, Earth-centric viewpoint that could justify this more derogatory use of “environmentalist.” As with many of his opinions, Miyazaki’s views on man vs. nature are complex and sometimes contradictory, as can be seen in his early essays reprinted in Starting Point. He himself does not see his movies as environmentalist (in the literal rather than the derogatory sense) and has little use for many in the environmentalist movement, but even if one is not willing to take the man at his own word (or believes that he cannot see his own biases), there is still plenty of evidence to counter criticisms that Princess Mononoke is an “environmentalist” film in the derogatory sense of that word.

In most of Miyazaki’s films, and especially in Princess Mononoke, nature is a force to be reckoned with, not reasoned with. Nature is fundamentally unreasonable in Princess Mononoke — it is completely unwilling to compromise or change, and more than a little frightening in its capabilities of destruction. This inflexibility of viewpoint marks nearly every character in the movie, of course, which is one reason why the ending of Princess Mononoke may feel so oddly unsatisfying to Western audiences. We’ve been trained to expect character arcs, where characters grow and change and learn a lesson between the start of a movie and the finish. At the end of Princess Mononoke, nobody seems to have learned anything at all, with the exception of Ashitaka and possibly San. In any event, it’s as hard to root for the forces of nature to triumph as it is to root for the people, simply because neither one really seems able to see anything beyond their own immediate and selfish needs. Princess Mononoke may not have kind things to say about humanity, but it doesn’t have many kind things to say about nature either. It’s hard to accept that nature is meant to be the hero of the film, as one would expect for a true “environmentalist” movie.

However, the key scene which ensures that it’s impossible to view Princess Mononoke as a simple environmentalist screed comes in the middle of the movie, when Lady Eboshi is giving Ashitaka a tour of Iron Town. During the tour, she shows him the town’s leper colony, which has been turned into a gunsmithing operation that ensures Lady Eboshi’s supremacy of firepower against both natural and human forces that would take Iron Town away from her. Only an industrialized population center like Iron Town can afford to turn its lepers into productive members of society. In more primitive agrarian societies, an individual’s value is measured by the amount of work they are able to produce, with some allowances given for the young and the old (not that either has a terribly long life expectancy in non-industrialized societies). Lepers are nothing but a hazard to such communities, forcibly separated from the main of society as soon as they are found and left to rot away. It is only through the leverage of industrialization that Iron Town can not only afford to keep its lepers, but even find a way to integrate them into key members of society that are critical to the town’s survival.

This is one reason why Lady Eboshi’s tour of Iron Town seems to have such an effect on Ashitaka. His village is based on the aboriginal cultures of Japan, and seems barely past the hunter-gatherer phase of human development. This presumably lets them live a life closer to “nature,” but when faced with the equivalent of a leper in the community when Ashitaka receives his wound at the start of the movie, his people chose to throw him out. This might be the reason why the movie spends so much precious screen time showing Ashitaka working with the women at the forges of Iron Town. Iron Town is the only place he’s seen that could have a place for someone like him, wound and all, so perhaps he is trying out different roles to see if he truly belongs with them. Circumstances separate him from Iron Town before he can get a definitive answer, but the clear merits of a place like Iron Town are why Ashitaka struggles as much for them as he does for the forces of nature during the climax of the movie.

So, Princess Mononoke is a movie where nature is entirely unreasonable and where a character is led to understand some of the benefits of industrialized society to the point where he will fight for its right to survive. If Princess Mononoke is an “environmentalist” fable, it sure seems to be doing a bad job of it.

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