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Film Review: Princess Mononoke: The pro-environment messaging of Miyazaki’s films

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

Many consider Hayao Miyazaki one of Japan's best animation directors. While his films were primarily known in Japan at the beginning of his career, today, his movies are distributed globally and critically acclaimed. Produced by the famous Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki films, while aimed at children, contain complex messages that adults too can find relevant. He has never been estranged from ecological themes, even if they are not necessarily at the center of his production. For example, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) deals with the consequences of a nuclear disaster. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the spread of radiation has generated monsters, the film contains anti-war and pro-environment messaging.

Miyazaki's movie that contains the most explicit ecological message is certainly Princess Mononoke (1997). The story takes place in a fantasy-like version of the Japanese Muromachi period (1336-1573), where humans and spirit-like creatures seem to coexist. The film's rich background combines elements of traditional Japanese folklore and Shintoism religion with historical events during a time of great chaos and economic transformations. The main character, Ashitaka, is a young warrior trying to survive a curse contracted after fighting with a demon boar spirit. During his quest for a cure, he arrives in a strange city of Iron Town, whose inhabitants have learned how to extract iron and produce fire weapons.

Exploiting the town's resources has contributed to tensions with the numerous animal spirits in nearby forests. When nature spirits are wounded by bullets or consumed by anger, they can become demons and violent. But the plot is even more complex: a samurai clan also wants to control the iron mines under the city, and even an emissary of the emperor will join the dispute. A giant wolf, the leader of the "magical creatures" faction, has adopted a human daughter, San, also known as Princess Mononoke. San fights alongside the beasts and seems to hate the humans more than anything else.

In Miyazaki's stories, the difference between good and evil is not absolute, and several shades exist. The forest spirits fight for their home, but they do not hesitate to use violence and try to kill humans. Miyazaki portrays humankind as the worst faction due to its desire to dominate and exploit nature at all costs. Meanwhile, Iron Town is not a place of violence. Poor people, outcasts, and even men affected by leprosy have found repair inside it. The city's ruler, Lady Eboshi, can appear both merciless and pitiful depending on the situation. San/Mononoke is a complex character whose actions are sometimes morally wrong.

The film includes a few key messages. First, humanity is a part of nature, so it must learn to coexist with Earth and animals and avoid the brutal exploitation of resources. People of different groups and nations must come together. Princess Mononoke is a beautiful and very moving film, but it can also be sad and violent. Miyazaki's style differs from Western animation, and his stories include many themes and touching elements that most children's movies in the West would never dare to explore. Miyazaki uses striking visuals to portray the harm we are inflicting on the planet. If we cannot find a way to rethink our model of development, disaster becomes unavoidable. By ignoring the climate crisis, we are putting our planet and ourselves in grave danger. This animated masterpiece uses beautiful metaphors to emphasize the importance of humanity finding a way to coexist harmoniously with the Earth's ecosystem.


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