“To see with eyes unclouded by hate”
Updated: Apr 15
Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Castle in the Sky… these are some of my favourite works from Studio Ghibli productions and the director Hayao Miyazaki. All are beautifully drawn animations, telling incredibly touching and immersive stories. Growing up, I would watch and rewatch the entire Studio Ghibli film collection, so when I heard that they were screening Princess Mononoke in cinemas all over the UK for the first time in over 20 years, I saw it as an opportunity I did not want to miss out on.
Princess Mononoke is set in 14th Century Japan, and narrates the story of Ashitaka, who is confronted and wounded by a Boar-like God in his native village. He has to embark on a voyage to accept his fate and find the origin of this God that was consumed by evil, and turned into a demon. On his journey, he encounters San, a human raised by wolf deities, also referred to as Princess Mononoke, who sides with the forest to protect it from mankind. He also meets Lady Eboshi, whose goal is to destroy the forest and Gods inhabiting the forest for her personal self-interest, and for those who follow her. Her main objective and desire is to kill the forest God of life and death. Whilst Ashitaka tries to preserve and restore the peace between both conflicted sides (Medium, 2017), Lady Eboshi is successful in her personal quest and decapitates the forest God with her iron bullets. However, this backfires and the remnants of the dead God create a powerful, headless being that kills everything in its path.
At least that's how I remembered it as a child. Watching it again, the story seemed so familiar yet entirely different as I was seeing it through a different and slightly more analytical lens. The story illustrated the ubiquitous paradoxes and binaries between industry and nature, greed and desire, peace and war, man and God… (ibid). Watching it again, it was quite overwhelming noticing the scenes, motifs and symbols that I was blind to as a child. I finally saw and understood the deeper allegory and political relevance of the story. The story is about the destructive and materialist tendencies humans impose on nature, morality and corruption.
A salient, recurring theme in the film is nature and the environmental degradation brought upon by human activity and war. This is most evident in the film in the scenes depicting the war between humans with their modern, industrial weapons against the Gods of the forest and nature. Furthermore, the symbol of manmade iron, which turns animal-like Gods into demons, is essentially how Miyazaki pictures mankind, as immoral and destructive.
In Princess Mononoke, war was a result of Lady Eboshi’s lust for power and desire to annihilate any form of natural life, an idea that resonates with contemporary actions and decisions regarding the environment. The war and destruction of the forest is representative of the ongoing war in mankind's attempt to destroy the forest for industrial and technological purposes. It is also symbolic of mankind's inherent violence. Whilst there is no unique cause or factor that we can attribute causes of war and conflict to, the principles of classical realism offer ideas which links human nature to power and politics. Morgenthau discusses the selfish and power-hungry aspect of human nature in the context of war and conflict (Korab-Karpowicz, 2018). He even describes this as a universal trait, possessed by individual and state actors, actions based on this is rational behaviour (ibid). This idea ties to Miyazaki’s portrayal of humans in the same context, which is why war and violence preoccupy such an important role in the film. However, there is an inconsistency in Morgenthau’s argument. If violence is inherent and universal, it suggests that all actors are prone to this, which even in the context of the film is inaccurate as Ashitaka is a figure of peace. This suggests that in the film, and in a wider context, violence cannot be a universal trait. Furthermore, Morgenthau’s argument assumes that all motives behind the decisions of political leaders and states are the same, and that all go to war for the sole pursuit of power. This assumption would be inaccurate as there are several factors and reasons that lead states to go to war, not just one.
Whilst Morgenthau’s principles may relate to parts of Miyazaki’s work, in a wider context, personal self-interest and power are not the only factors that contribute to war in an international system. Although Waltz (2001) acknowledges the brutish nature of man as a possible reason for conflict in an international context, neorealism also analyses the role of states and the international system. Waltz describes the international system as anarchic, as there is no global governing body, each state must look after itself and ensure it’s own security and survival (Korab-Karpowicz, 2018). This is the aim of each state, and they all achieve this through different levels of capacities, based on their military, technological or economic capabilities, in order to seek and provide security (ibid). In an anarchic international system, state relations are crucial to ensure further security and beneficial gains. Hereby, Waltz explains that the anarchic structure of international systems, and states within that, are also important factors and determinants of war as each state is autonomous and there is no supranational body to dictate what these states can, or cannot do. Each state decides whether or not it wants to engage in war or conflict. Whilst many aspects of Princess Mononoke are visible and relatable to our world, the idea that a pursuit of power is the primary cause of conflict in politics would not be entirely true. Nevertheless, in the film, Miyazaki presents mankind as egotistical and power-hungry as we often prioritize ourselves and our interests over nature. This phenomenon can be observed in our political atmosphere, but is also presented through the characterization of Lady Eboshi.
Whilst Princess Mononoke is a fantasy animation, key issues and debates within the film are recognisable in our world. The impact of human violence and activity is also demonstrated through the storyline as the film revolves around environmental destruction. Deforestation, and the exploitation of land for industrial and economic prosperity, results in environmental degradation and climate change qualms. Furthermore, the distinct ideologies maintained by the animals of the forest and humans create an internal conflict fuelled by differences and the inability for either group to live and tolerate each other. This fundamental duality is a mechanism and identifier of peace and conflict studies that results in war. Thus, greed, ignorance and the desire for power have negative influences on war, state relations and the environment in our world, and in Princess Mononoke’s world.
“To see with eyes unclouded by hate” (1997) is a phrase articulated by Ashitaka, which carries a strong, timeless political message that is relevant in the context of the story, and to our contemporary society. Human’s destructive capacities, and ignorance to the exploitation of the natural world, have had detrimental effects on the environment, and on relations between individuals and states.
Princess Mononoke has a beautiful ending. Ashitaka and San return the decapitated head to the headless God, which brings peace and restores the devastation his body had caused. In the end, the forest and nature prevail, growing over the remnants of human civilization and masking all traces of their destruction. The limitation of human activity due to the isolation period has had promising effects on the environment and climate change. Reduced human presence and interaction with nature has encouraged the return of wildlife and decreased levels of carbon and nitrogen dioxide pollution. So maybe Miyazaki was right, after environmental detriment caused by humans, maybe nature will prevail.
Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. (2018). Political Realism In International Relations. [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-intl-relations/ [Accessed 2 April 2020].
Medium, T. (2017). How To Deliver An Effective Environmental Commentary In An Animated Film (And How Princess Mononoke Does It So Right). [online] The Vault. Available at: https://thevaultpublication.com/2017/03/09/how-to-deliver-an-effective-environmental-commentary-in-an-animated-film-and-how-princess-mononoke-does-it-so-right/ [Accessed 29 March 2020].
Waltz, K. (2001). Man, the State, and War. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.3-20.
Princess Mononoke. Dir. Miyazaki, Hayao. Tran. Gaiman, Neil. Studio Ghibli, Jap. 1997 Eng. 1999. Film.