Questioning the Current Reality through Reinventing the Past in Princess Mononoke

Below is a paper I wrote in the spring of 2007 for a freshman writing course. It explores how fantasy stories set in an alternative, distant past (fantastical historical fiction) can challenge current societal norms in non-threatening ways. Taking Princess Mononoke as a case study, I argue that the film’s distance from “now”–both as historical fiction and as a work of fantasy–allows its critiques of major issues in contemporary society to not be interpreted as direct attacks. (Specifically, Princess Mononoke critiques the reliance of industrial production on environmental destruction, as well as industrial society’s connections to greed and war.) Direct attacks generally warrant defense mechanisms, causing people to become defensive, and less willing and able to accept critique and to work to find solutions. For this reason, fantastical historical fiction could potentially be a more effective mechanism to effect change than media that overtly claims to be critiquing the status quo. At the same time, the distance of the fantastical historical fiction from reality could also allow viewers an “easy out,” wherein they acknowledge the issues within the film, but do not connect them to contemporary issues.

(Disclaimer: It’s an older paper written for a class, and has not been updated or edited.)

I would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on anime’s potential to challenge societal norms and/or effect change.

Questioning the Current Reality through Reinventing the Past in Princess Mononoke

Endless expanses of silent green forests are violently rent by a boar demon tearing its way through the trees, destroying everything living in its path. Hideous, its body consumed by worms that are the physical manifestations of its anger, it emerges from the forest to attack a human village. The village’s prince, Ashitaka, manages to defeat the demon, but is wounded. Where the demon touched him is a mark that will “consume [his] body and soul, and then kill [him],” like that hatred that first consumed the boar (Princess Mononoke). This introduction puts in play the two major opposing forces in the movie: man and nature. Set in Japan’s fourteenth century Muromachi period, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke presents a vision of Japan in conflict with the predominant dialogue in movies portraying that era of Japanse history (Napier, 233-234). In the highest grossing Japanese film in history at the time of its release, Miyazaki has created a visual masterpiece that questions the origins of current Japanese society, and places in stark contrast the industrialized cities of today and the breathtaking forests lost in their creation.

Yet, while Princess Mononoke‘s story revolves around this dichotomy between man and nature, the ending calls for the need for a balance between these two forces. The dichotomy is not between good and evil, but rather between two forces which must be reconciled in order for society to progress. This desperate need for reconciliation is evoked by the strange non-ending the movie supplies its viewer with. The movie ends with the main character, Ashitaka, and the daughter of the wolf god, San, deciding that, while they love each other, they cannot live together. Their separation emphasizes the divide between the human race, represented by Ashitaka, and nature, represented by San. Rather than following the standard movie formula of problem, progress, and solution, Miyazaki, while curing the curse that started Ashitaka on his journey, does not allow him to go back to his home or stay with the person he loves. Miyazaki uses the separation of the movie’s hero and heroine to represent society’s current separation from the environment, implying that in order for the story to have a happy ending, we must all work to form closer ties with the natural world often forgotten in our daily lives.

Susan Napier examines this contrast between nature and civilization in her chapter entitled “Princess Mononoke: Fantasy, The Feminine, and the Myth of ‘Progress’” in her book Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. Napir focuses on the movie’s three lead female characters, analyzing their roles in destabilizing the traditional Japanese perspective not only of women’s place in history, but of the Muromachi period as a whole. Napier sees Princess Mononoke as “refus[ing] to sentimentalize the medieval history it highlights, preferring to problematize the past and, implicitly, the attitudes toward it” (237). Through the medium of film Miyazaki is able to create a world both realistic and fantastic, weaving the two together in order to destabilize and defamiliarize the viewer’s preconceived notions of how the story should go. Napier particularly emphasizes Miyazaki’s use of “gender-neutral” women who oppose female stereotypes by controlling and representing the two warring factions and using violence to protect their homes and families (238). Miyazaki thereby encourages the viewer to discard their traditional assumptions about the past and women’s roles in society, and instead to recognize “the extraordinary array of pluralities that suggest the ever more complex world of the twenty-first century” (248).

Movies, like all media, have limitations in regards to their ability to inform the viewer about reality. Jean Baudrillard emphasizes this limitation, arguing that media creates a simulacrum, which imitates and replaces our ideas of fact and reality, while at the same time being incapable of presenting reality itself. In his essay “The Gulf War did not take place,” Jean Baudrullard argues that the Gulf War was not actually a war, but rather a production of the media meant to deter both the American public and foreign countries from entering into an actual war. He proposes that nonwar is only possible because the fact that the “war is not a war … is compensated for by the fact that information is not information either,” adding that “if the war had been a real war and the information had not been information this non-information would have appeared for what it is: a scandal” (81). Through this Baudrillard implies that non-information misrepresenting what the viewer knows to be reality causes the viewer to challenge that information.

In short, the contrast between non-information and the viewer’s understanding of reality forces the viewer to become more aware of their own reality. At the same time, if non-information forces us to reexamine reality, then any information (or truth) should stand out in contrast to the non-information in this process. Through this we can propose that Princess Mononoke’s status as a fictional cartoon representing a past which did exist in reality may actually allow it to make more progress in forcing the viewer to reexamine their understanding of reality, and perhaps even challenging and changing that understanding, than a medium in which information portrays reality.

In this sense Napier and Baudrillard agree on the power of media, especially in the form of a fantasy story set in a world representing reality, to challenge the concept of reality in the present. Through the contrast of the false reality shown in the movie with reality as the viewer knows it, the movie encourages people to question their ideas of reality when they would otherwise have let their assumptions be. Baudrillard believes in a complete absence of “reality” from the human conscious, proposing in his essay “Simulations” that truth is indistinguishable from simulations, and that because of this reality is irrelevant. At first this seems to disagree with Napir’s argument that Princess Mononoke is able to point out things about our lives and history, or, more specifically, the lives and history of the Japanese people, that would allow us to better understand our actual lives and history. Yet in both actual reality is irrelevant. Rather, what is important is that the viewer forms a new vision of our past and current reality. As Princess Mononoke focuses on the past, we have no expectation that a reconstruction of the past in the minds of today’s people will be able to portray that period as it actually was. Rather, the creation of a magical and fantastic past has the potential to make people long for the fantasy world over their own, and question what it is that is keeping them from obtaining this world that is really not too different from our own. The fantasy world and the ideals it presents are both non-realities; what is important is not reality but rather the internal changes the movie makes in the thoughts and hopes of its viewers.

Princess Mononoke’s focus on a period in Japanese history that Miyazaki is passionate about makes the world presented all the more fantastic for his idealistic portrayal of it. Nadir quotes Miyazaki as saying of fourteenth century Japan that “‘it was in this period that people changed their value system from gods to money’”: two of the forces seen in direct conflict in this movie (237). Miyazaki further idealizes the people of this period, imagining it “as a time when ‘life and death were sharply delineated. People lied, loved, hated, worked and died. Life was not ambiguous. Even in the midst of hatred and slaughter there were still things that made life worth living. Marvelous encounters and beautiful things could still exist’” (237). The use here of the word “could” implies a contrast with the present. Through this, Miyazaki shows a yearning for a time that he sees as lost and gone forever. Yet, at the same time, though implying that it once existed, he postulates that it could exist again. Whether or not this is real is irrelevant. What is important is that Miyazaki portrays this world not as some far-off dream or fantasy world, but as an incarnation of our human longing, and as a place that we have the potential to create once again.

Princess Mononoke was Miyazaki’s expression of this longing for his ideal of what Japanese history should have been. For this reason this film is wrought with challenges of current Japanese society as well as of modern civilization as a whole. The main character, Ashitaka, is a member of a tribe representing the Ainu, the native inhabitants of Japan, who, like the Native Americans, have been pushed out of their native home and now live in small numbers in isolated locations with harsh climates. The samurai class and emperor, who Napir notes as dominating films about this period, are hardly shown, and represent only greed, violence, and abuse of power.

The presence of the samurai class and emperor within the story line, though, is particularly interesting in its departure from traditional portrayals. When a samurai attack a fallen woman, Ashitaka yells “Stop!,” and draws his bow when they do not respond. Controlled by the demon curse in his arm, he shoots an arrow that chops off the arms of the samurai, allowing the woman to run to safety. This scene portrays the usually idealized samurai class as the villain, putting Ashitaka, and by extension his arm cursed by the demonized boar god, in the place of the hero. This reversal of traditional roles continues with the Emperor requesting the head of the god of the forest, presumably because he thinks it will make him immortal. Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Iron Town, finally manages to sever off the forest god’s head in order to fulfill her debt to a monk. This monk, though he should be representing enlightenment and balance with the natural world, has no care for the forest and only hopes to gain the fortune promised by the Emperor to whomever can make him immortal. The result of this action is the complete destruction of the forest, Iron Town, and dozens of people as the decapitated forest god kills everything it touches in search of its head. The Emperor is thereby represented not only as being consumed by pride and greed, but as being consumed by these emotions to the extent that his will brings about the death of both people he is supposed to protect and nature itself. Through reversing traditional roles Miyazaki creates a world in contrast with the normal representation of history and presents a new image of the ideal Japan, causing the viewer to question their understanding and blind acceptance of the traditional views of history and the ideal image of Japan.

Rather than use the tactic employed by Al Gore in his movie An Inconvenient Truth of presenting blunt facts meant to stun and shock the audience into action, Miyazaki uses an animated fantasy movie to get the audience to question their way of life. In some senses both movies are doing the same thing: they are attempting to get the viewers to leave the theater feeling moved, changed, and inspired to make changes in the world around them. Yet, rather than using facts and figures, Miyazaki uses a fantasy story set in a fictional place at an actual time in history. This last part is key because, unlike the majority of Miyazaki’s movies, which are set either in a nondescript part of near-present day Japan or in what Napier calls “international fantasy space,” a “fantastic [nonplace] characterized by vaguely European-style architecture and Western-looking characters,” Princess Mononoke takes place in a place simultaneously fantastic and tied to a distant reality (237). This distance allows Miyazaki to challenge current Japanese society by presenting them with an image of their ancestors as those destroying the forest and its gods, while the setting of the movie in the distant past allows him to avoid the audience feeling directly attacked and thereby becoming defensive and rejecting the process of reexamining their understanding of reality.

Miyazaki’s use of fantastical events in the distant past allows him to freely create his own world. Yet, the world he chooses to create is neither perfect, nor ideal, but rather all too similar to our own reality. Expecting to see some fantastic adventure, like the Star Wars movies Miramax quotes it as being similar to, we are taken aback by its striking resemblance to reality. As Baudrillard proposes, when watching non-information one expects a non-reality, and so when we watch this movie we prepare ourselves for an idealistic portrayal of the world. This is different from Al Gore’s documentary, where we go in expecting a harsh and unpleasant reality. How could one not with a title like An Inconvenient Truth? Yet going in with our expectations of an idealized portrayal of the past, seeing the harsh realities of our own world as the active destroyers of that beautiful idealized past shown in the first few seconds of the movie challenges us much more violently than it would had we been prepared for it. Miyazaki’s destruction of his own ideals is therefore an exemplification of what is perhaps one of the most effective tools of the anime medium, enabling him to challenge the viewer’s ideals rather than just their everyday actions, as is done by An Inconvenient Truth.

In the end, though, Princess Mononoke is simply a beautiful fantasy film about two different worlds colliding: the natural and the modern. At the center of this conflict stands Ashitaka, who, although coming closer to achieving his goals in the end than either side, ends the movie alone and separated from not only both man and nature, but also from his home. Despite this ambiguous ending to the movie, we all live the real ending and know who the real winner is: civilization. Through the fictional form of a cartoon set in a fantasized history, we begin to see the “reality” behind it and the flaws in our own perspectives of the past, as proposed by Baudrillard. As Napier proposes, Miyazaki destabilizes us, and distances the Japanese people from their pride as the inheritors of the land. The Japanese people are Eboshi shooting the gods of the forest, and they bring about the demise of the cute and helpful Kodama who signify a healthy forest. Having been presented with breath-taking views of their native country in its pristine form, the people become aware of what they have lost. Theirs is no longer a history solely of pride, but of shame as well. Ours is. This movie questions us a human race. It proposes that women can be powerful, nature can be all enveloping and breathtaking, but also that we continue to destroy those possibilities. The movie leaves us with a choice: to continue to fight on either side, or to try and achieve the precarious balance between the two that is presented as the only real solution.


Baudrillard, Jean. “The Gulf War did not take place.” Trans. Paul Patton. Indianapolis:

Indiana University Press, 1995.

Princess Mononoke. Dir. and writer Miyazaki Hayao. Subtitled. Miramax, 1999. DVD.

Napier, Susan J. Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. New York: Palgrave

MacMillian, 2005.

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