Princess Mononoke is yet another Hayao Miyazaki animated feature (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro), though one not specifically intended for the youngest of audiences. Set in 14th-century Japan, Mononoke examines the dramatic changes underway as man and firearms make inroads into formerly pristine forests, and as the Japanese culture begins to change, and change irrevocably.
Ashitaka is a young Emishi warrior whose village is attacked by a rampaging boar god. As he searches for the reasons behind the boar’s malevolence, he discovers that the abuses of the forest have driven the gods of nature to declare war on Man. Ashitaka must find a cure for the sickness given him by the boar, as well as act as intermediary between the avenging beasts and the encroaching humans.
This is a story that tends to upset what may be traditionally-held beliefs; it “defamiliarizes,” as Susan Napier has written—Japanese women as servile, a culture in complete harmony with Nature, the nobility of the samurai class, even the deification of the Emperor, etc. Here the forest is being felled for its fuel potential; an ironworks pounds out man’s newest weapon, the firearm; women run the ironworks, make the decisions, and denigrate the men; and samurai are a thieving, warring lot. The film, then, can be seen as equally concerned about the Japan of today, where gender roles are in flux, the connection to tradition has perhaps grown more tenuous, and big business has replaced the emperor and his godlike status.
For all these reasons Princess Mononoke is a fascinating film, but also a challenging one. There is significant bloodshed as the men fight men, and then as animals fight men to protect their forest home, and the ending is anything but resolved. Everything is not “all right” by the final curtain—something western viewers can struggle with—as the future seems bleak for both Nature and tradition in Japan, but it seems that (wo)man may survive just fine.