When I was a young girl, I liked looking through the Disney DVD magazine sent in the mail, and there was a section dedicated to Studio Ghibli, which Disney had acquired the rights to sell. And none of the movies there intrigued me more than this one.
First, it was PG-13 for violence and gore which SHOCKED me because at that time I couldn’t imagine an animated movie being violent or intended for adults. Second, I was fascinated that despite having a title about a Princess, the main character and poster child was, in fact, a boy. Third, the tagline for the movie, while simple and even cliche, stirred my heart. “The fate of the world rests on the courage of one warrior.” My little heart was thrilled.
Fast forward many years later where I am an adult and used to violence in animated stories. I’d already tried a few Ghibli movies and was excited to finally experience this film. I witnessed a masterpiece. But let me first clarify this wouldn’t be a masterpiece for everyone. Its concepts are not apparent to all, and it IS violent. (Decapitation of men and animals, along with disturbing imagery of possessed monsters.) But come with me as I explain the allegories I saw in this epic fable. Spoilers are included, so be aware.
The Spiritual Allegory
Our hero, Ashitaka, encounters a demon boar attacking his village and is forced to kill it. In the fight, the dark matter plaguing the creature infects Ashitaka’s arm. As such he is considered cursed and dead to his village, forcing him to head out in hope of a possible cure. As he travels, he learns more about the curse and why the boar, a former spirit of the forest, became infected with it in the first place. It seems that the boar gave over to hatred, darkness, and despair, and as such its spirit became one of evil. Ashitaka discovers great power in his cursed arm…if he raises his hand to kill with it, it WILL kill. But. It is also killing him.
This is where I found a fascinating parallel to the nature of sin in our lives. How it begins as a shadow in our heart and slowly takes over. How it can hurt and infect innocent bystanders. How the taking of life, while sometimes necessary to survive as Ashitaka knows, also corrupts our own soul. The boar’s darkness originated in an intense conflict between humanity and the animal spirits (mini gods) of the forest. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the center of it, and soon discovers that both sides have their justifications and their fatal flaws. He doesn't want to take either side, he pities and loves both, and wishes for them to make peace. He's willing to fight both sides for that peace if it means saving lives. His impartial compassion is stunning, and while I wouldn't call him a picture of Christ, I do think he's an incredible example of how a Christian ought to love others. While his love for San, the titular Princess Mononoke, is sudden and without apparent good reason, that's also rather the point. His love isn't dependent on other people's actions. It simply exists, bright and steady.
It is only through the death and rebirth of the god of the forest that Ahsitaka's curse is healed. I am certain this was not intended allegory, considering the surrounding context, but I noticed it nevertheless.
The Environmental Allegory
Hayao Miyazaki is well known for his love of nature and distaste for modern, industrial culture. But this particular film took a more balanced approach to his favorite message, and shows that the violence and destruction of humanity is not without its own reason. The city of Irontown is founded by an ambitious Lady Eboshi who has gathered the despised and unfortunate as her citizens--lepers and former prostitutes, to name a few. While it is unclear if she only helped them for her own gain or if she actually cares, one thing is clear--THEY care about her and the second chance she's given them at life. They don't have anything against nature, but burning down the forest and harvesting the iron underneath is what allows them to survive.
Unfortunately, you can only survive so long living with nature as your enemy. Destroy the forest, destroy the life teeming around you, and it's only natural you will suffer. An imbalanced relationship with the environment does have terrible consequences, and the effect here is brutally realized. Happily, the world in this story is given a second chance...what is lost can not be undone, but life can start over and the hope of a better balance and a better future is seen.
This movie won the equivalent of Best Picture in Japan, and its influence has spread out in ways you may have seen, but not known in connection.
Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series attributes much of its design to Studio Ghibli, but has especially drawn parallels to this film. And Lady Eboshi looks so much like a grown-up Azula, I can only assume the similarity was on purpose.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took major inspiration in both the environment and the redesign of Link, and its upcoming sequel seems to have borrowed even more inspiration from the plot.
Dave Filoni, the beloved director and producer of many Star Wars favorites, such as The Clone Wars and The Mandalorion, is an unabashed fanboy of Princess Mononoke, often wearing t-shirts depicting the movie. His inspiration is most obvious in Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels where scenes with the mysterious Lothal wolves straight up reanimated scenes from Princess Mononoke.
Many people think of San as their hero for environmental justice, which I personally find to be missing the point of the movie. While the story can be praised for its complex and grey characters, no hero is more pure and good than Ashitaka. And it must be remembered that he, not San, is the main character of the movie. His love of nature and of humanity is the bridge that stands, unwavering, in the middle of conflict. Unafraid to bleed for what he believes in. And San herself, for all her claimed hatred of humans, is ironically a human, proving that both sides can coexist.
At the end of the film, San declares she will return to the forest, and Ashitaka chooses to help the suffering people rebuild. It is not an obviously romantic ending for the two, but it is clear that the story will go on. One can only wonder what the two will accomplish as old wounds heal and new growth rises from the ashes.