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An Anime Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke

Date: 2021 November 27 13:36

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In a change to our regular scheduled news, we bring you an academic article titled Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke. It delves into historical context of the much loved Studio Ghibli film focusing on how social class, race and religion are depicted. It also looks into the archaeological record, and written sources to understand how the film conveys these aspects while maintaining its fantasy element and pro-environmental message.

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An Anime Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke follows no conventions. It's part fantasy with forest spirits and monsters enchanting us, part historical drama with a rare glimpse of past minorities, women, and even class differences. Mixing different elements Miyazaki gives nature and the downtrodden a voice rarely seen in Japanese film. The film follows young Ashitaka, an Emishi warrior who is infected by an animal attack and seeks a cure from the deer-like god Shishigami. In his travels, he sees humans ravaging the earth, bringing down the wrath of wolf god Moro and his human companion San (Princess Mononoke). His attempts to broker peace between her and the humans brings only conflict. The film features layers of historical, archaeological and mythical references. Princess Mononoke was Hayato Miyazaki's take on myths held strongly within Japanese history and about its cultural homogeneity which formed nationalistic ideologies. This is what makes Princess Mononoke a great piece of historical fantasy, the interlocking use of history and fantasy to illustrate the reality of our mistreatment of the land and each other.

The remains of the Emishi

Princess Mononoke is set in the late Muromachi period of Japan (approximately 1336 to 1573 CE), where Ashitaka's village is the last pocket of Emishi surviving into this period. The Emishi were ancient ethnic group of people who lived in parts of Honshū, especially in the Tōhoku region, referred to as michi no oku (道の奥, roughly "deepest part of the road") in contemporary sources. The primary source for the Emishi the ethnographic account known as the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) compiled in 720AD. Recent evidence suggests that the Emishi that inhabited Northern Honshu consisted of several distinct tribes (which included Ainu, non-Yamato Japanese, and admixed people), they united and resisted the expansion of the Yamato Empire. Jomon people, the very first inhabitants of the Japanese Islands are the precursors to the Ainu people.

An Anime Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke - Figure 1
Figure 1

Archaeological evidence of the Emishi is scarce and inconsistent, sources claimed they occupied parts of Japan from the fifth to the seventh centuries AD. The northern half of Tohoku (roughly extending from northern Miyagi prefecture to Aomori) and the western part of Hokkaido formed a single cultural area. Evidence for occupation derives from Ainu place names are left in the Tohoku. It is now believed that evidence points to the Emishi tie with the Tohoku Middle Yayoi pottery culture that is heavily influenced by Jomon forms-as these peoples were gradually adopting Yayoi culture from the seventh to the eighth century.

The tower (see Figure 2) featured in Princess Mononoke's first part is significant because it is reminiscent of the tower from a Jōmon period (14,000-300 BC) settlement at the Sannaimaruyama Iseki archaeological site in Aomori, Northern Japan. The Sannaimaruyama archaeological site, important in the later study of Jōmon people and culture from between 12,000 and 2,300 years ago, was discovered accidentally in 1992, when a baseball field was planned to be built on the site. It has become both an important archaeological excavation site, and has become a well-known tourist attraction.

An Anime Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke - Figure 2
Figure 2

Ashitaka does not return to his people at the end of the film, and instead stays in the town. As the gun and the sword brought the end of the forest, it also brought the end of the Emishi, who either died or became Japanese while losing their unique identities. Mononoke forces the question of identity to the forefront of their imagination.

Iron Town

Iron Town is the settlement where most of the film's narrative takes place. It is protected by a lake on one side and high walls surrounding its entirety. Lady Eboshi is shown as ruthless in her position towards nature, but supportive of people oppressed by the wider Yamato society, such as former prostitutes and leprosy sufferers, whom she has hired to work and live in the Iron Town, or Tataraba. The town is built to exploitative of the natural resources surrounding area, this has caused a rift between the inhabitants of Iron Town and Moro, Lady Eboshi then chooses to create firearms to protect themselves against the angry gods from the forest. Miyazaki chose the Muromachi period as it a commonly known as a tough period in the history of Japan. The Muromachi period is a division of Japanese history running from approximately 1336 to 1573. During this period, most men were busy fighting, so women were forced to fill the workforce instead. This allowed women to gain more influential roles in society. Setting it in this period allowed Miyazaki to create Lady Eboshi as the leader of a town and a potential warrior in her own right.

While Iron Town is not entirely based on historic town. Recently academic and researchers have focused on the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on present-day patterns of biodiversity. In particular, pre-modern energy-intensive industries, such as ironwork of the sort depicted in the Princess Mononoke, which were major drivers of ecosystem deterioration and have had long-lasting impacts on the distributions of many species in the Muromachi period.

Forest Spirits

What makes Princess Mononoke a great piece of historical fantasy is that it never strays into transcendent moral judgment. Like the archaeological record, the movie always remain unbiased. Similar to our interpretations, Mononoke despite its fantastical element is steeped in social historical reality even if . The world of Princess Mononoke revolves around Shintoism, which permeates the religious landscape of Japan and is a major key to the understanding of Japanese culture and society. This film has a strong basis in the Shinto religion. Shintoism can trace its origins from the Asuka period (538-710) with the establishment of an institution for the worship of kami (jingikan. The focus of Shinto is the purity of self and a reverence for "kami," the spiritual quality found in trees, rocks, waters, mountains, and the forces of nature. The spirits of deceased emperors and heroes are also considered kami. Miyazaki has several times pointed to the existence of broadleaf evergreen forests that existed in ancient Japan, which were reimagined within Princess Mononoke in the form of the forest through which Ashitaka and Yakul travel, and where they and the wolf team shelter. In reality, Yakushima an island off the south of Japan has a sprawling ancient forest with thousand-plus-year-old Yakusugi cedars inspired Miyazaki.


San resembles a type of clay figure (see Figure 3) found in the Jomon period, the pre-agricultural era in Japan, which last until about 80 C.E. San is wild, rarely evoking the conventional notion of a princess or the stereotypical image of submissive wrongly associated with Japanese women. Most of the figurines appear to be modeled as female, and have big eyes, small waists, and wide hips. The emphasis on the pointed breasts and generous hips of these figures suggests that they functioned as fertility symbols.

An Anime Steeped in History: Princess Mononoke - Figure 3
Figure 3

The origins of the word 'mononoke' actually date back to the Heian period of 11th century Japan, wherein The Pillow Book the word referred to a mental illness suffered by a woman. A few years later, The Tale of Genji (often considered the world's first novel) explains that Mononoke are parasitic spirits of the dead risen up and inhabiting the bodies of living women. Mononoke' could be someone else's soul bringing a curse of fury, jealousy or hatred upon the mentally ill person. In order to cure this, the ancient Japanese asked priests to say special prayers. When the 'monster' or 'Kitsune' escaped from the body of the mentally ill person, the patient could then recover completely. San is seen as possessed by by her hatred and anger towards Lady Eboshi for her wanton destruction of the forest. Earlier, in the film we see the boar god Nago becomes corrupted by a human bullet and go into a mad rage. The evil Mononoke referred to in Japanese history here seems to be human's inherently destructive behaviour against nature.

What it means to the present day

Through his approach to Japanese history and blending fantasy and gods like the Shishigami, Miyazaki deconstructs the national myths of Japan, and challenges the viewers to rethink their relationship with the natural world. Although Princess Mononoke is set with a historical fantasy world loosely based in Japanese history, it also forces us to face the complexities and realities of our own world. A world where indigenous peoples are threatened with extinction and progress means the destruction of nature. In the film Ashitaka believes that a complex social-ecological system can exist. So how can we maintain the delicate balance between humans and nature today? Miyazaki provides us with some of the answers, but it's really up for us to decide.

  • Hall, John Whitney, and Takeshi Toyoda. Japan in the Muromachi Age. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell U, 2001. Print.
  • Denison, R. and Pallant, C. eds., 2018. Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli's Monster Princess (Vol. 1). Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
  • Kuji, Tsutomu, 1997. Mononoke hime no himitsu: rarukanaru jomon no fukei (The Secret of Princess Mononoke: the Scenery from the Far Away Jomon Era). Tokyo: Hihyo-sha.
  • Olowu, K., 2013. Deconstructed Gender Norms in Princess Mononoke.
  • Pan, Y., 2020. Human-Nature Relationships in East Asian Animated Films. Societies, 10(2), p.35.
  • Tomoko Shibuya, '"Excavation Sheds Light on Jomon Life"', Japan Times, 10 November-16 November, vol. 37, no. 45 (1997), p. 15.
  • Totsuka, E., 1990. The history of Japanese psychiatry and the rights of mental patients. Psychiatric Bulletin, 14(4), pp.193-200.
  • Ugoretz, K.M., 2018. Drawing on Shintō?: Interpretations of the Religious and Spiritual in Miyazaki's Anime.

Source: Otaku News
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