princess mononoke: a new relationship with nature

by rebekah paredes-larson, 2nd year sociology at LSE

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I often think about the tension I find between a desire to conserve our world’s environment and its inhabitants, and my wish for an endlessly developing and emancipatory human society. It is a question to be taken seriously: what attitude do we foster towards the natural world when we innovate to  improve medicine, travel, food, and housing- actions that have historically necessitated the use of natural resources? Should we imagine nature as something to be left alone, or collaborated with, or do we take up Marx's vision of a society taking “real conscious mastery” of nature? So, as with most problems that play on my mind, I decided to watch a film that I feel could shed some light on the question.

Besides being the gold standard for art direction and storytelling, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) is one of the best examples of a director using the medium of film to explore a philosophical idea. In this case, Miyazaki constructs an allegory which scrutinises humanity’s relationship with its own transformative power and the delicate balance of nature which has become subject to our technology.

The story is set in feudal Japan, where forests are inhabited with wild gods that take the shape of giant animals. Our protagonist, Ashitaka, has been cursed by a demon and banished by his tribe. On his quest to lift the curse, he becomes caught in a conflict between the gods of the forest and Irontown, an industrial village led by the compassionate yet brutally pragmatic Lady Eboshi. He falls in love with the wolf goddess’ adopted daughter, San (or Princess Mononoke), and together they save both the forest and the village from utter destruction by returning the severed head to the body of the decapitated deer god. Although the god still dies, the forest and valley are renewed to its natural state.

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Miyazaki makes a point of placing the conflict between man and nature within a historical materialist framework, which is shown most clearly in the different locations of the story. Ashitaka begins among his tribespeople, and then travels through feudal land before arriving at the industrial Irontown. It achieves a strikingly Marxist commentary of how society becomes increasingly liberated with its technological development - although the Emishi tribe are perhaps the most compassionate and important of Ashitaka’s relationships, it is extremely exclusive and they are compelled by ancient tradition to expel him when he gets cursed. The areas brought under the feudal empire allow for the creation of towns, exchange, and travel, but the tyranny of the emperor is ever-present. Irontown is inhabited by social outcasts, such as prostitutes and lepers, who find liberation from their marginalised positions by working for Eboshi and creating a wealthy and safe environment for themselves by trading iron. But despite this “progress”, Miyazaki makes a point to highlight an increasingly devastating relationship with nature. The beautiful watercolour landscapes shift from lush and green to a cold grey as we approach Irontown. In abandoning the superstitious but extremely respectful relationship with nature as demonstrated by the Emishi tribe, Irontown becomes entangled in a vicious war with the forest- as the forest canopy grows smaller, the attacks on Irontown become more regular and pronounced.

Here lays a dismal course of history: humanity transforming its material conditions and liberating itself socially at the cost of our natural world, to its own detriment. At the climax of the film, the head of the deer god is shot off- the forest is robbed of its divine protector. In this moment, humanity has ceased to be subject to a natural force that gives and takes life as it pleases. And, much to the horror of Lady Eboshi, it’s corpse consumes the forest, set to kill everything in its path, including her townspeople. It is hard not to see Miyazaki drawing a parallel with our own moment in history. In rejecting any moral or religious relationship we had developed with nature, by “cutting the deer god’s head off”, we have paved a path of thoughtless consumption to our own species’ destruction through ecological imbalance and climate change. Now, we, especially the most vulnerable of us, are experiencing biblical levels of ruin at the hands of the corpse of nature.

So, what is to be done? How do we build a sustainable relationship with nature once again after we have mastered and de-mystified it?

We look to our protagonists, Ashitaka and San. Although they both occupy a space between humanity and nature, having been rejected by their families and being too human to be seen as animal, it is clear the former is much more human and the later is much more animal. Yet, despite a conflict between humanity and nature filled with hatred and fear, the two surely fall in love. There is an extraordinary scene where San, about to kill a wounded Ashitaka with his own knife, freezes in her tracks as he whispers quietly: “You’re beautiful.” She later heals him by bringing him under the power of the deer god and nurses him back to health. It is only when they work together to return his head that the deer god is laid at rest and harmony is restored to the valley. Seeing this, the question arises: what is Miyazaki asking of us?

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The first is clear- we need to examine the fear and hatred we may still have of nature. The history of humanity has always been juxtaposed against and limited by the forces of nature- disease, predators, poison. Miyazaki asks us to examine ourselves and consider if we’ve truly gotten over seeing nature as an enemy we have conquered. Secondly, we must create a new relationship with nature that places the survival of our environment on the same level as our own- as that is what it will take for us to continue our existence. We are asked to think of a future where humanity and nature act as two lovers caring for one another and investing in each-other’s welfare- where we look for the best compromises to ensure hatred and fear does not breed again.

The ending of the film feels vague and almost unsatisfying (perhaps a bit like this essay)- although the valley is restored, the fate of humanity remains unclear. Ashitaka and San resolve to visit each other as they grow old, and the inhabitants of Irontown, although safe, are left homeless. But we are left to think about Lady Eboshi’s last words:

“We're going to start all over again. This time we'll build a better town.”

What will happen if the ecosocialist movement succeeds? How must we lead when profit no longer informs the way we manage our earth? I take comfort and inspiration in the words “we’ll build a better town.” As humans, we have made nature our subject- but in doing so, we are charged with a new responsibility to protect it. We will naturally build our own futures- but we must take responsibility in knowing it is not just ours.

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