#stayinspired, reviews, writing

Understanding Princess Mononoke

Two years ago, I got obsessed with Princess Mononoke. I can’t remember how; maybe I saw some stills from the film on Pinterest or Instagram. The moment I laid eyes on Ashitaka and San, I was hooked. I needed to see the movie. 

In February 2019, I watched the movie (English dub) with my best friend, Emily. After it, I felt hollow. Not in the sense that it was a bad movie, but there was a message I was missing. I couldn’t make sense of the plot. 

Maybe it was because I wasn’t listening. Maybe it was because we were making fun of Ashitaka’s voice actor and “stock sound” wolf howls. So when my dad gave me the DVD for my birthday this Tuesday, I hesitated. 

“You won’t want to watch this during dinner,’ I said (cause that’s what we planned). “It won’t make sense.” 

Friday night rolled around, and Princess Mononoke and I met again; only this time, it was different. It felt like climbing a mountain, but I knew the trail. I knew the twists and turns. And though I still haven’t figured everything out, I’m a little closer. 

That’s one thing I love about ambiguous art. I like art shrouded in mystery and symbolism, art that pinches you with unease or discomfort, lures you to look deeper. I love art where every image serves a purpose. And one thing I’m still learning is: Good art makes you uncomfortable. Good art makes you go, “What?” so you explore why. All of us need a splash of discomfort if we’re going to learn anything. 

With that said, here are a collection of thoughts (not necessarily ordered) about Princess Mononoke. 

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  1. The Deer God.

    This character is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating figures. For a culture like Japan, where (I thought) they worshipped only spirits, with neither spirit greater than another, the Deer God is a pretty omnipotent figure.

    Although Moro and Okkoto, the wolf and boar, are called “gods,” they are only forest guardians compared to the Deer God.

    Another fascinating element is that the Deer God might be controlling the strings behind the scenes. Here’s why I think so.

    a. He cast the demon out of Okkoto, which means he knew of the existence of the demons. He also did not heal Okkoto (we don’t know why), but I speculate that he was aware of the demonic infestation of the boar tribe and chose not to allow that to continue. If this is true, he must have been aware of Nago’s curse and its effect on Ashitaka.

    b. He knew Ashitaka had the demon’s curse, and did not immediately heal him. The first time he saved Ashitaka’s life, he surely saw the curse mark, and because of how he healed Ashitaka and San at the end, he obviously had the power to heal Ashitaka then. But he didn’t.

    c. If the Deer God was aware of the curse’s existence in the boars and Ashitaka, and did not heal them immediately, he must have had a purpose for doing so.
    Furthermore, he knew Eboshi was seeking to kill him. He had every chance to escape, but he didn’t, and I think that was, for some reason, on purpose.

    Conclusion: The deer God’s actions are too unexpected for a finite being.

    The worst part of the movie, in my opinion, is when they actually capture the god’s head. Slime spills everywhere, ravaging the countryside. The god doesn’t die, and the sun doesn’t kill him, either, like the priest says it will. But I don’t see why he chose to search for the head instead of summoning it to himself. Does this mean he isn’t omnipotent? Or does it mean that he’s giving Ashitaka and San a chance to “restore” humanity, because Eboshi and the priest’s foolishness harmed him, but Ashitaka’s courage could atone for it?

    Side note: I also thought it was fascinating how the Deer God told Ashitaka to save San. The Deer God could’ve clearly done it himself, but for some reason, he used Ashitaka. This makes me wonder if Ashitaka and the Deer God have some sort of connection the other characters don’t have; the Deer God has never spoken to any other character–even his protectors, the wolves and boars. Furthermore, the first time Ashitaka sees the deer God, none of the other men see (as they’re crossing the sacred forest on their way back to Irontown).

    Update: I found out the Forest Spirit/Deer God technically died. However, I still think this is open to interpretation, as his death was never solidly stated. After all, Ashitaka, who appears to have a special relationship with it, says, “He’s all around us…He’s telling us to live.”

  2. Ashitaka.

    I swear I’m not trying to make a Christian analogy here, but hear me out:

    a. Ashitaka acts as a sort of bridge between the spirit world and human world. To be honest, he intervenes for the people of Irontown, asking Moro not to harm them. He respects the spirits and the Deer God, but doesn’t vehemently seek death for the people. Coming from a land far away, he really does see with “eyes unclouded,” as he is able to interpret both the needs of the forest and the needs of the people. He isn’t ignorant of the people in Irontown.

    b.  Ashitaka restores San’s identity. His relationship with San is particularly interesting; he is the only human being who hasn’t tried to kill her. Due to trauma she experienced, San cannot think of herself as human (“I’m a wolf!”), but through Ashitaka, sees good in humanity.

    We don’t see the completion of this journey, as it leaves off minutes after the deer God’s restoration, but I think San does a good job of representing the polarized, scared mindsets of every human in the show (except Ashitaka, interestingly enough).

    Every human in the movie seems to have San’s problems, to a greater or lesser extent. They’re all clinging so desperately to things they think will provide meaning, help, or purpose, they forget what it means to be human.

    Ashitaka redefines humanity for everyone. For him, life isn’t about scrounging for the best amenities or benefits–it’s about seeing with eyes unclouded and making life better for others. Essentially, he is almost totally unselfish.

    c. Ashitaka chooses to suffer. Throughout the whole story, Ashitaka is under a curse he does not deserve. All he did was protect his people, and get banished for it! It allows him to have an unbiased position when witnessing the events of Irontown, but he is able to realize a better future as a peacemaker and–basically–savior of Irontown and possibly humanity.

    One of the most interesting parts of the movie is when the deer God heals Ashitaka, but doesn’t lift the curse. What would happen if he did? I wonder if Ashitaka, getting what he wants, might return to his homeland. His connection to San wouldn’t develop; he might not have been there when the boars died, or Eboshi pulled off a plot to kill the god; he might not have had the superhuman power to save San. He would have no need to stay where he was.

    Some other points:
  • When Ashitaka is suffering, he doesn’t grow bitter about it. 
  • When the Deer God doesn’t take the curse away, he isn’t railing. 
  • When Moro suggests he could “jump and end the pain,” he still doesn’t. I think that’s very brave of him, because it isn’t easy to live with a curse, and Moro is right. He didn’t have to suffer. He lost everything–his home, his old life–and really, he had no reason to live. Yet he still did. 
  • What I am wondering is whether the Deer God intentionally didn’t heal him initially, because he knew Ashitaka could bear it. He knew humanity needed Ashitaka and his right example. And perhaps he knew Ashitaka would be needed to restore balance (and even his head?) later on. Probably only one person wouldn’t lose their calm in the midst of the chaos following Eboshi’s shot, and that was Ashitaka. 

It looks like I’m running out of writing time for today. On my second rewatch of Mononoke, I’ll have to declare: pay attention to Ashitaka and the deer God. They may be keys to understanding the story. 

Last advice: SUB, NOT DUB! 

Have you seen Princess Mononoke? What made you feel odd?

2 thoughts on “Understanding Princess Mononoke”

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