Around the World in Film: Princess Mononoke – The Ultimate Environmentalist Film

May 6, 2021
Radio Fodder Princess Mononoke

By Zoe Jayne

Graphics by Jasmine Pierce

Around the World in Film is a column dedicated to celebrating global film and its potential for expanding perspective. Each recommended film is from a different country and chosen for its unique take on storytelling, as well as accessibility for audience members who might not have seen many films outside their own cultural context. For the first edition, we’re in Japan!

Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, is the greatest environmentalist film ever made. Bold claim, I know. But I’m prepared to back it up.

The film follows Ashitaka, the last remaining prince of his tribe, who kills a demon of hatred and is cursed with its fatal mark. He journeys West, to find a remedy at the source of the demon’s hatred: a war between humans and forest gods. To save himself and countless others, he must find a way to stop the fighting and “see with eyes unclouded by hate”.

The gods have lived in the forest since ancient times and want to protect their home. The humans want to cut the forest down: to keep their town alive and provide for themselves. The two desires seem to be at perfect odds with each other: for one side to succeed, the other must perish.

In a watered-down version of this tale, one side would be good and the other evil. The humans would be selfish and angry and hateful, and the animals would be the good guardians, who Ashitaka would join in getting the humans to leave.

But Miyazaki doesn’t do watered-down. He does real-life messy complication. And despite the film being set in ancient Japan, its message could never be more relevant.

The humans are selfish, yes. They are quick to anger and stupid and short-sighted. But so are the forest gods. The humans don’t understand that their desire to expand will eventually cost them as much as it is costing their adversaries. And the forest gods don’t understand that the humans want the same as them: to protect each other and live. Neither side truly recognises the other’s right to exist, but as the film shows, everything has its place. It is all necessary. It is simply a matter of balance.

The only villain in this story is hatred itself. Lady Eboshi, the leader of the humans, who first appears ruthless, is actually as compassionate and caring as she is quick-witted and strong. The women who work for her and are treated as equals in an extremely patriarchal society were rescued from brothels, and the people who build her weapons are lepers. San – a girl raised by a forest god – wants to kill Lady Eboshi more than she wants to live, but like Lady Eboshi, is driven by a desire to protect those she cares about. Yet both allow that desire to drive them to hatred.

As Ashitaka acknowledges in one of my favourite scenes, hatred is powerful. In short bursts, it can accomplish ‘inhuman’ feats. But it is never sustainable.

“There’s a demon inside you. It’s inside both of you…Look everyone! This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! It’s eating me alive and very soon now it will kill me! Fear and anger only make it grow faster!”

Hatred, and by extension fear and anger, is blinding. You can never see another person or a situation clearly when you are motivated by rage. For Ashitaka to have any chance at saving himself or anyone else, he cannot be blind.  

I first saw this film in February of last year, when a little thing called COVID-19 was beginning to gain its hold on the world. It struck me then as much as it does now.

COVID has made blaringly obvious so many realities we have been trying to avoid for so long. Our way of living is deeply unsustainable. For humanity to not only survive but thrive, it must change. There is no returning to normal, and the last twelve months have shown us that when change is needed, nothing about the way we live is fixed. In the face of climate change, a global pandemic and the blaring inequalities intensified by both, it is easy to point fingers and assign blame. We blame governments, billionaires, ignorant neighbours, or family members. While it’s true that many of these people bear responsibility, we are all responsible to the world we live in. Responsibility, by definition, is the ability to respond to something. We all have responsibility to our planet and the people around us. Despair in these circumstances is perfectly understandable, but it will not help us.

For me, Princess Mononoke reimagines the role humans can play in our world. We do not have to be a plague on the planet. We can choose differently.

Change is possible, but we have to be willing to choose it. It will require unlearning so many of the things we have been taught to care about; things that we have for so long prioritised over each other and the health of our planet. But it is possible. Not only possible but necessary. Inevitable even.

And to do that, in all things, the only pathway is one of compassion. Of love. We need urgency yes, but not urgency motivated by shallow perceptions and misplaced anger. The changes we need are in for the long haul.

If any of that resonated with you, or none of it did, regardless, please watch Princess Mononoke.

Princess Mononoke is streaming on Netflix.