THE BODY, POLLUTION, AND DANGER IN MIYAZAKI`S "PRINCESS MONONOKE"
In Princess Mononoke (1997) Japanese animator and director Miyazaki Hayao portrays characters whose bodies are used, in Mary Douglas fashion, as symbolic mediums to express particular patterns of their social relations.1
Set in the late fifteenth century, a time when the structure of medieval Japan had collapsed and society was shifting into the modern era, the story unfolds with the infection of a youth’s body by a huge monster, a Tatari Gami or Cursed God. Originally a wild boar god shot by humans, the Tatari Gami’s hatred for mankind has transformed him into a monster. Ashitaka, the young male protagonist, defends his tribe by killing the monster, whose curse is transmitted to him with the monster’s damnation, “You filthy humans. You shall know my grief and hatred” (Mononoke Hime-I 79).2 The mark of contamination left on his right arm is a sign of a terminal disease, the pollution he now carries. A member of the Emishi, a minority tribe unjustly marginalized and pushed into northern Japan by the regime in power, Ashitaka is forced to embark on a journey to confront his unreasonable fate, which he might be able to change: “if he can view the world with eyes unclouded, there may be a way to lift the curse” (Mononoke-I 89).
Since Ashitaka is endowed with “agency,” the power to judge things with “unclouded eyes,” he is in the privileged position of representing the “standard” within the narrative of the film, as Miyazaki himself admits (Miyazaki 1997: 29-30). In other words, despite the film’s title, Ashitaka, not San who is known as Princess Mononoke, is the protagonist. The 1995 report of the film project offered two possible titles: Princess Mononoke or The Heroic Saga of Ashitaka (Miyazaki, Shuppatsuten 419). And the description of the video version released in 1998 describes the film’s story as the heroic saga of Ashitaka, a young man who has survived his harsh fate in a “manly and courageous” manner. A picture book of the same title published in 1993 may explain why the princess comes to lend her name to the title. The picture book, Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), is an adaptation of the French literary fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” in which a female protagonist named San no Hime, the Third Princess, voluntarily consents to marry a beast, Mononoke. After going through any number of adventures with him in an attempt to recover order and health in her father’s life, she finally marries the beast, as he is, not as a transformed being. This story of a “good girl” who fulfills the expectations of her father and husband is one in which a female protagonist is utilized as a means to satisfy the desires of the males in the story. Meanwhile in Miyazaki's film, San, known as Princess Mononoke, is named after the female protagonist in the picture book and lends her name to the title of the film, but, again, it should be emphasized that San is not the protagonist in the film.
One of the reasons for setting the film in fifteenth century Japan is that this period saw quite a number of wanderers, called “muen,” people who were beyond control of the regime in power (Amino 1996: 177-178). And Ashitaka is no doubt one of them. At the end of his journey, he encounters Lady Eboshi and San, who are similarly marginalized and possessed by a curse. They represent respective communities: Tatara Ba, an island fortress where Eboshi runs an ironworks and weapons plant; and the primeval forest inhabited by San and various species of wildlife.
Ashitaka’s wandering suggests that his pollution is not a personal concern, but also a social matter that involves others similarly cursed and viewed in relation to the systematic ordering of the wider world. According to Douglas:
Dirt [...] is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. (Purity and Danger 44)
In other words, Ashitaka’s polluted body is a sign of rejection by ordered systems, or the world of the Symbolic, and indicates that his body is positioned at the boundary of sanctioned social structure. Thus, through his journey to the two communities, he comes to recognize his social position in the world as one of the cursed, or what Julia Kristeva calls the “abject,” representing those rejected as dangers by society (Kristeva 1982: 142).
Critics often point out that these two communities in Princess Mononoke contain various social others: a girl raised by a mountain wolf, outcasts who used to be hangmen or gravediggers, lepers, hermits, and female slaves or prostitutes (Uratani 1997: 315). Like Ashitaka, these others have also floated through the world and settled into these communities. Among these critics, Susan Napier's argument is particularly stimulating. In her comprehensive and provocative study of Japanese animation, Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke, Napier maintains that San, Eboshi, and Moro each represent the “abjected Other” (188) and that “the revenge of the abjected is encapsulated in the wild and assaultive body of San” (189). Napier regards Princess Mononoke as a film that defamiliarizes “the myth of the feminine as long-suffering and supportive” (177). Her view has much in common with my arguments in this paper except for the following points: she fails to assertively demonstrate that Ashitaka is also an "abjected Other" and fails to illustrate how his Otherness is related to that of San.
Although Eboshi and San sometimes act out their hatred to dangerous extremes, Ashitaka merely criticizes, never breaking off with either of the communities. In this sense, he seems to play the role of a mediator, but, if we closely examine the results of his conduct, he is simply not a person who puts others’ benefit before his own. This has something to do with the resonance of his polluted body with Eboshi’s and San’s own, as well as the “male gaze” from which the story is narrated. I shall discuss these elements in more detail later.
The bodies of San and Eboshi possess ambiguous characteristics in terms of the social patterns they represent. The scene in which Ashitaka first encounters San is impressive because her face is tattooed and her mouth smeared with blood. She has been sucking poison from her wounded “mother,” Moro no Kimi, a wolf goddess. Adopted and mothered by Moro, San hates human beings, especially Eboshi, yet she speaks the humans’ language and wears clothes: both symbols of civilization. Moreover, when she is in combat mode, she wears a vermilion mask of a type that used to be worn in the primeval rituals of prehistoric Japan. Thus San’s body depicts the interface between humans and wildlife or civilization and wilderness.
Meanwhile, we see in Eboshi’s body the composite of aggressiveness, violence, the desire to nurture, and compassion for others. Her body is beautiful, slender, and white-skinned with bright red rouge on her lips. She is an efficient career woman who runs an arms foundry deep in the mountains, an operation which devastates the surrounding environment. In order to defend her fortress city, she ruthlessly kills wildlife and attempts to kill Princess Mononoke using phallic weapons such as long swords and firearms. Moreover, she shoots local warriors to keep them away from her fortress and plots to overthrow the regime. In collusion with Jiko Bou, an agent of the Emperor, she even dares to shoot off the head of a goddess. However, Eboshi shows quite a different side of her personality when she accepts socially rejected people such as lepers and victimized women, violating the taboos of Tatara Ba, originally a male-dominated world. Therefore, Eboshi’s body and mind are defined by conflicting characteristics and impulses. Kristeva writes that bodies, like Eboshi's, which destabilize notions of identity are abhorred as the “abject,” as follows:
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. (Powers of Horror 4)
The “abjection,” or the discharging of the “abject,” reaches a peak at the point when Eboshi and San engage in a fierce and ruthless fight to kill each other; Ashitaka therefore calls them “demons.” Meanwhile, the signs of Ashitaka’s own abject, rage within his cursed body, in the form of “snakes,” which he recognizes as demonic power. He was once called a “demon” or “possessed” when he violently fought and killed soldiers. In an argument with Eboshi about the snakes possessing him, Ashitaka rightly defines “mononoke” as “the form that the hatred and vengeance that breed within me take. It is a curse that rots my flesh, and summons my death. Don’t let yourself be possessed by hatred anymore!” (Mononoke-III 50).3 In this sense, Ashitaka is “Prince Mononoke,” a being also possessed by hatred.4
It is significant that the forest, the destination of Ashitaka’s journey, is portrayed as a feminine and maternal place pervaded by the ultimate otherness of men. Kristeva calls this otherness “the feminine,” which does not mean an innate feminine essence, but rather “an unnamable otherness” that can be faced beyond and through the triangulating function of the paternal prohibition (Kristeva 1982: 58-89). In other words, Ashitaka reaches the primeval forest and faces “the mother” - uncanny and destructive, but also fascinating - whose existence precedes the creation of the symbolic order in patriarchal society. The forest is the place where San and her “mother” unite to fight their enemies; where Eboshi, “the mother” of the Tatara Ba community, invades with her men5; and where Ashitaka struggles with the black snakes of a cursed monster and the slimy and scorching substance discharged from the severed body of Didarabocchi, a nocturnal self of Shishi Gami or the Deer Goddess. The forest serves as the site for characters to reveal and confront their abjection.
To sum up, the primeval forest represents the ancient and mysterious mother of life (and death) who has been marginalized by the dominant value system in patriarchal society. The forest is filled with abundant images of the Mother: the clean and clear water of the pond heals the wounded, and the owner of the pond, the Deer Goddess, presides over life and death for all the wildlife that live there.
The image of the primeval forest as Mother reflects Miyazaki’s nostalgic fascination with the primeval forest that used to cover half of the Japanese archipelago. Miyazaki explains in interviews how a specific revelation once helped him break the spell of his inferiority complex as a Japanese artist after World War II. This revelation came in the conviction that he is a descendant of prehistoric Japanese who had been mothered and nurtured by primeval forest. He also admits that he has an imaginary picture of a place of purity in a deep mountain, as well as a murky place deep in his heart, that reason cannot properly control (Miyazaki 1996: 267, Miyazaki 1988: 95). In this regard, the Japanese primeval forest is an uncanny and fascinating symbol of the Mother that invites him to return.
The film’s primary question (Are we capable of overcoming our hatred?) is tackled in this maternal space. Again it should be emphasized that, in Kristeva fashion, Ashitaka’s cursed body wins its way into the maternal forest, where he confronts similar abject beings. For Ashitaka, discharging the abject means undergoing a purification rite.
In the process of his purification rite, Ashitaka journeys across a chaotic battlefield. As mentioned earlier, he struggles with the snakes transmitted by a cursed monster in order to save San from being infected. He also struggles against the slimy and poisonous substance emitted from the severed body of the Deer Goddess. On this battlefield, Eboshi loses her right arm when it is bitten off by San’s mother Moro; Moro loses her own life; and the Dear Goddess suffers the decapitation of her nocturnal self. The depiction of these battles resembles scenes in splatter movies - the screen filled with bloodshed, curses, condemnations, and slimy filth.
The slaughter of the Goddess is the most blood curdling of all. Didarabochi, the Goddess’s nocturnal incarnation, blindly searches in every direction for her severed head as though her reason were paralyzed. Likewise, Eboshi, one of those who kill Didarabochi, is lost in a sea of hatred with her reason similarly suspended and cut off from all humane emotion. The headless Deer Goddess turns into tar-like slime and explodes, emitting slimy and poisonous substances from her body, while the bodies of Kodama, spirits of the forest, fall like snow. All the creatures run for their lives under the slimy rain. Jiko Bou and his men pick the head up and carry it away in a container. But Ashitaka regains it by force and returns it to the Goddess, just in time for her to disappear with the sunrise.
When morning comes, the slime-scorched earth begins to recover. The murky, moist forest is now gone, but people find themselves standing in a bright and pleasant landscape under the blue sky. The Goddess’s disappearance, or death, has brought them signs of life: a leper woman finds herself cured of her disease, and Ashitaka realizes his body is almost cured of the cursed disease, with only a slight scar left on his palm. The death of the Goddess has wiped out the primeval forest, but she has left a beautiful grassy plain behind her.
Note that there is a difference between the way San and Ashitaka perceive the Goddess’s death as they confirm their love for each other. San says, “Even if [the forest] recovers, it is no longer the Deer Goddess’s forest. Shishi Gami is dead” (Mononoke-V 168-69). Ashitaka then responds, “The Deer Goddess does not die, because she is life itself. Life and death are hers. She tells me I should live” (Mononoke-V 169). The difference in their perceptions is attributable to their respective relationships to nature. For San, whose life is inseparable from the primeval forest and its nature, the Goddess’s death is reality since the “mother” forest has disappeared. With his terminal disease cured, Ashitaka believes in the Goddess’s rebirth and sees it as a message from her encouraging him to live.
It should be noted here that, as mentioned earlier, Ashitaka is the protagonist whose viewpoint directs the entire narrative. In other words, Princess Mononoke is the heroic saga of Ashitaka, and the revived Shishi Gami will grant him continued life. Ashitaka leads the rest of the narrative plot, saying, “San, you’ll live in the forest, and I’ll be in the ironworks. Together we shall live on. I will come and visit you [...]” (Mononoke-V 169).
We can thus conclude that Ashitaka clearly benefits from his purification rite in that it allows him to come to terms with his pollution. In addition, he gains an alternative place in the ironworks due to the fact that Eboshi, having lost her right arm, needs his help in reconstructing her community. In his ritual of abjection, “the feminine,” or the abject, has been exorcised and deeply wounded: the loss of the mother, the right arm, and the alter ego. Curiously, however, none of these female figures are killed off; they remain alive, but in a state that does not threaten Ashitaka.
A brief examination of the duality of Ashitaka’s viewpoint is also necessary. On the one hand, his viewpoint is described as that of the Emishi, a minority tribe, with “eyes unclouded.” On the other, though, he clearly sees the feminine from a “male gaze,” as feminist film critic Laura Mulvey labels it. A reading of Princess Mononoke based on Mulvey’s viewpoint shows three different perspectives: “that of the camera” as it records the beautiful Lady Eboshi; “that of the audience as it watches the final product;” and “that of [Ashitaka] ... within the screen illusion” (Mulvey 1989: 25). This is the case with San as well, who is also viewed from three different perspectives. By discussing the male gaze here, my intention is not to argue categorically that Ashitaka’s male gaze pervades the story so that his subjectivity, one based on the dominant patriarchal value system, is established. Ashitaka’s viewpoint is more complex, since it is also true that Ashitaka’s minority standpoint effectively elicits the audience’s attention and sympathy.
Though the story is set in fifteenth century Japan, Miyazaki does not describe events based on historical detail. The history depicted in the film is inaccurate, and in some cases overly exaggerated. Take the Tatara Ba ironworks, for example. There is no historical evidence to suggest that any large-scale fortress city of ironworks existed in those days. The setting for the story should therefore be considered a device utilized to create a fantasy world for a heroic narrative in which Ashitaka’s and Miyazaki’s obsession with curses can be pursued. It took Miyazaki nearly seventeen years to finally complete the film in 1997. We are therefore able to explore the implications of Ashitaka’s suffering within the social context of this period.
Unforgettable events from the fifteen-year period Miyazaki took to make the movie relate more or less to the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. In the 1980s the bubble economy collapsed, a development followed by rising unemployment and suicide rates.
Sociologist Ito Kimio, who discusses masculinity in the social context of Japan, offers some clues that are helpful in interpreting this film. Ito points out that two unforgettable and symbolic incidents occurred in Japan in 1989: one was the death of the Emperor Showa (Hirohito); the other the arrest of a serial killer who murdered infant girls. Ito explains: The Emperor Showa lived through two wars, World War II and then the postwar “economic war,” one fought by men not in uniforms but in business suits as "corporate warriors." During the first twenty-year period of his reign, the Emperor was the country’s Commander in Chief; he then lived as a “symbol” for some forty years, a period of economic war. Ito regards the Emperor’s death as marking the end of the “age of men” in Japan (“Otokorashisa” no Yukue 4). He also suggests that the second symbolic incident represents the collapsed masculinity of a serial killer who felt compelled to prove his “manhood” and existence by sexually assaulting those weaker than he (“Otokorashisa” 5).
Three incidents from 1995 to 1997 have indelibly etched themselves in the minds of the Japanese public: the massive earthquake in Kobe that claimed 5,502 lives; the terrorist attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995; and the arrest of a fourteen-year-old serial killer in Kobe who placed the severed head of his handicapped victim on display on a school gate post in 1997. These incidents sent severe shocks through the whole of Japan, leading many to recognize the fragility of the Japanese system and become disillusioned with the myth of the safety of Japanese society.
The film Princess Mononoke was released in Japan on July 12, 1997, going on to run at theaters across the country until July 10, 1998 and attracting a total audience of roughly 130 million. One Japanese critic maintains that the anxiety triggered by the shocking incidents in 1995 and 1997 could have had a significant impact on the unprecedented popularity of the film (Kiridoshi 2001: 80).
During the postwar era, the Japanese people strove to reconstruct their country, boosting the national economy. Not only were natural resources exploited and the heart of the Japanese people devastated in the process, but more recently, the country also experienced the collapse of the characteristically Japanese economic system. What this collapse exposed was the greed and violence bred within the Japanese, who had struggled through the “economic war.” Miyazaki considers greed and violence to be the “karma every creature is born with” (Miyazaki 1997: 46),relating these tendencies to the curses depicted in the film. Take Lady Eboshi, who represents the abject, for example. As mentioned earlier, she cares for the weak and is highly esteemed for her work by her people, yet at the same time, she shoots cursed bullets at animals. Miyazaki maintains that industrious adults of “goodwill” have transmitted anxiety within the basso continuo line to the younger generation behind them without realizing it (Miyazaki 1997: 41).
The meaning of Ashitaka’s polluted body and his journey to the primeval forest can be read in this social context. Ashitaka is portrayed as a typical youth in contemporary Japan who happens to “draw the short straw” and suffers from his unreasonable curse. For this reason, he is forced to embark on a journey to find “a way to cure the curse” (Mononoke-I 89). However, from a feminist perspective, the journey’s goal is unfair to the feminine as Eboshi, San, Shishi Gami (and her primeval forest) are all exploited for the sake of Ashitaka’s purification rite. It is indeed a harsh reality for the feminine who, coded as abject and targets of abjection, survive. After the establishment of Ashitaka’s subjectivity, they are asked to maintain “long-distance” relationships as when Ashitaka says to San, “You’ll live in the forest, and I’ll be in the ironworks. Together we shall live on. I will come and visit you [...]” (Mononoke-V 169). The bodies in Princess Mononoke thus reflect multifaceted images of Japanese society.
1. Douglas sees, “in the body a symbol of society, and [...] the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body” (Purity and Danger 142). [back]
2. All citations are from Film Comic Mononoke Hime (2000), a comic faithfully based on the film, to ensure that the reader can easily identify characters’ lines. All translations are mine. [back]
3. According to the Japanese language dictionary, Kojien, “mononoke” means “possession by wraith and vengeful ghost, or evil spirit, ghost, and wraith themselves.” Miyazaki does not use this term in this sense. [back]
4. In her discussion of Japanese pornographic animation, Napier maintains that the abjected male body is “a form of marginalized male who is often associated with sexual violence” (81). However, she does not illustrate the abjected male body in Princess Mononoke. [back]
5. Murase names them the “mother-daughter union” and “the mother of the Tatara Ba community” (Miyazaki Hayao no chakuchiten o saguru 64). [back]
Amino 1996: Amino, Yoshihiko. Muen, Kokai, Raku. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1996.
Douglas 1978: Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Ito 1993: Ito, Kimio. “Otokorashisa” no yukue: Danseibunka no bunka-shakaigaku. Tokyo: Shinyosha, 1993.
Kiridoshi 2001: Kiridoshi, Risaku. Miyazaki Hayao no “sekai.” Tokyo: Chikumashobo, 2001.
Kristeva 1982: Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roundiez, New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Miyazaki 2000: Miyazaki, Hayao. Film Comic Mononoke Hime. Vol. I-V Tokyo: Tokumashoten, 2000.
Miyazaki 1997: Miyazaki, Hayao. “Hikisakarenagara ikiteiku sonzai no tameni” Miyazaki Hayao no Sekai. Tokyo: Seidosha, 1997.
Miyazaki 1988: Miyazaki, Hayao. “Jubaku kara no kaiho,” Sekai, 1988.
Miyazaki 1993: Miyazaki, Hayao. Mononoke Hime. Tokyo: Studio Gibri, 1993.
Miyazaki 1998: Miyazaki, Hayao. “Mononoke Hime,” 79 nenkan daihyo shinarioshu. Tokyo: Eijinsha, 1998.
Miyazaki 1996: Miyazaki, Hayao. Shuppatsuten: 1979-1996. Tokyo: Tokumashoten, 1996.
Mulvey 1989: Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indianapolis UP, 1989.
Murase 1997: Murase, Hiromi. “Kumorinaki sunda manakode mistumero “Seino yami”: Miyasaki animeno joseizo,” Miyazaki Hayao no chakuchiten o saguru. Tokyo: Seidosha, 1997.
Napier 2000: Napier, Susan. Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Uratani 1997: Uratani, Toshio. Mononoke himewa koshite umareta. Tokyo: Tokumashoten, 1997.
Miyazaki 1997: Miyazaki, Hayao. Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 1997.
© Junko Yoshida