On Princess Mononoke

Ever since I saw Princess Mononoke, I loved it. I was particular fascinated by the gender dynamics with the fantasy story structure of spirits and gods. According to Deconstructed Gender Norms in Princess Mononoke:

Anime reflects several of Japan’s fundamental beliefs concerning the role of the female in society. Unlike in the West, where comics and cartoons are usually scene as vestiges of childhood, Japanese manga and anime target a national audience. Although several anime series and film studios have regularly produced shining examples of gender equality, the majority of anime is still dominated with rather backward, heavily chauvinist ideals. Anime is a medium in which comedic sexual harassment, damsels in distress and curiously short skirts are in ample supply. The treatment and development of the female characters of Princess Mononoke are clear deviations from this usual portrayal of women. Princess Mononoke is one of the crowning masterpieces of Japan’s world renowned film studio, Studio Ghibli. Told against a backdrop of Japan’s turbulent Muromachi era, the film is unique in giving its female characters status and respect which in the West would have been reserved for men. Like many of the movies produced by Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke has a female lead (LadyGeek).

Aside from the aforementioned lead, the animated film boasts an impressive cast of commanding female characters who portray masculine traits of strength and leadership. In the opening scene, a young prince named Ashitaka is cursed by a possessed boar that was turned into a monster after being shot by an iron bullet. Ashitaka leaves his village after being told by the resident wisewoman that he would die unless he found the source of the boar’s affliction. By beginning with Ashitaka’s consultation with the wisewoman, the movie deviates from the course of traditional animated films. The wisewoman holds a position of upmost spiritual leadership, a position that although not odd in African and Asia cultures is still rarely seen in cultures with strong ties to Judaism and Christianity. Although Ashitaka is a prince and the oracle is a woman, her wisdom and influence are absolute and her directions unquestioned.

At the border between the boar’s forest and civilization, Ashitaka meets the film’s second female leader, Lady Eboshi. Lady Eboshi is the ruler of Irontown, a small mining settlement at the border of the boar’s forest. Inside the fortified walls of Irontown, Ashitaka learns that before Lady Eboshi became ruler of Irontown its people were under constant assault by angry gods of the forest. Then with guns and gunmen in tow, Lady Eboshi fought off the gods, renewing the prosperity of the mining town. Eboshi also revolutionized the process of turning the ore into iron, hiring society’s outcasts, both lepers and prostitutes alike, to work the bellows and design the guns (Hoff Krammer).

Lady Eboshi’s political and industrial genius bends many of the gender rules emphasized by Western society. Lady Eboshi is a beautiful, slender woman. Her indubitable femininity would suggest she play the subservient role of a distressed damsel. Ironically, of all the female characters in the film hers most clashes with the western female stereotype. Her dominant and innovative character is epitomized by her military and economic role in the transformation of Irontown. She embodies the concept of the leader. She is unwavering, astute and firm; the first time the audience sees Lady Eboshi, she is coolly staring down the barrel of a gun, taking aim at the snarling jaws of the wolf goddess Moro. Her influence is such that the men under her command obey her without question and never make reference to her gender or the dichotomy it and her personality represent. There is no prejudice against Lady Eboshi, even from the neighboring lord who attacks Irontown. “It’s simply accepted that she’s a capable, intelligent noblewoman whose actions have helped her settlement to prosper” (J. Shea).

Princess Mononoke’s central female protagonist is a human girl named San. San’s role as a warrior and her cool emotional control deviates from anime’s standard dewy-eyed female character. Although she is typical in her youth and beauty, San manages to possess several unsterotypical traits, notably her self-awareness, strength and fearlessness. San is also shown as very aggressive, a trait which according to Baron-Cohen is essentially male (165). In the scene where San attempts to assassinate Lady Eboshi she moves with great agility and shows no hesitation, not even when Lady Eboshi brings out her guns.

The seamless connection between San’s gender, personality and abilities calls into question the western version of femininity. The media heavily implies that female characters with multiple “masculine” traits are perceived as unrealistic, deterring an effective viewer reception. However, In Princess Mononoke San’s aggressiveness and cold determination doesn’t alienate her from the audience. In the film San acts heroically and she shows concern for both Ashitaka and Moro. In a sense, San could be the poster child for constructional feminism. San was abandoned as an infant and raised by the wolf goddess Moro. So, because of her unique parentage, San was never exposed to the cultural practices which create the widely accepted views on masculinity and femininity. Rather, in the freedom of the forest, San was allowed to grow naturally, unencumbered by burdensome gender roles. Ashitake never seems to think San’s control or aggressiveness is unfeminine, and just like Lady Eboshi, no one remarks on her gender deviance.

The women of Princess Mononoke are stark deviations from the Western notions of masculinity and femininity that often perpetuate stereotypical gender roles. Masculinity in America relies upon being strong, independent, and dominant (Rachel).However the possession of all of these traits by the women of Princess Mononoke raises questions concerning the assumption that there is a categorical difference between men and women in terms of biology and behavior. It’s almost possible to overlook the fortitude, strength and independence of the wisewoman, Lady Eboshi, and San because in the world of Princess Mononoke it’s never a big deal. Nobody mentions their gender as being either a boon or a detriment or believes their actions deviate from some overarching guideline of female behavior. The layered femininity delivered throughout Princess Mononoke helped me hold on to my love for anime and, if yours was ever in doubt, it will likely do the same for you.

According to The New York Times review:

While watching ”Princess Mononoke,” a landmark feat of Japanese animation from the acknowledged master of the genre, it’s very easy to understand the film’s phenomenal popularity. Outdone only by ”Titanic” as Japan’s box-office champ, this intricate, epic fable is amazing to behold. No wonder the filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, is acknowledged as an inspiration among his American counterparts who have reinvented animated storytelling in the post-”Little Mermaid” era.

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”Not a day goes by that I do not utilize the tools learned from studying his films,” John Lasseter (”Toy Story,” ”A Bug’s Life”) has said. Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, whose ”Mulan” shows strong evidence of Mr. Miyazaki’s influence, are on the record with ”Miyazaki is like a god to us.” ”Princess Mononoke,” which was shown over the weekend as part of the New York Film Festival (an unusual distinction for an animated feature), explains what they mean.

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This exotically beautiful action film features gods and demons locked in a struggle for the future of the unspoiled forest and an elaborate moral universe that Mr. Miyazaki has created. As such, it is a sweeping, ambitious version of the comic-book storytelling that engendered it. Frequent battle scenes, graphic enough to make a sharp distinction between ”Princess Mononoke” and animation made for children, keep the story in motion. These are often breathtakingly rendered, but it is the film’s stirring use of nature, myth and history that make it so special.

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In a plot somewhat knotty for even the most ardent devotees of anime (comics-derived Japanese animation), the events of ”Princess Mononoke” begin with an attack on a remote mountain village. A demonic wild boar, drawn as a furious tangle of pulsating wormlike strands and given the movements of a huge, terrifying spider, is the reason the young hero Ashitaka goes off to save the forests.

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Those forests, imbued with a stirring, forthright sense of natural beauty, turn out to be filled with Mr. Miyazaki’s fanciful inventions. The film is worth seeing just for the sight of its Forest Spirit, which takes animal-like form by day and roams the nights as a diaphanous Godzilla-like divinity with magical powers. The image of plants and flowers springing to life beneath the Forest Spirit’s hooves as he walks is simple, meaningful and ravishingly presented.

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The film features a superb blend of hand-drawn cels and fluid computer-generated motion, but its look is also gratifyingly understated. Notably absent are the little anthropomorphic touches that enliven most animation involving animals; this film’s prevailing attitude toward its creatures is one of respect and wonder. And in welcome contrast to the chest-thumping animated musical, this film uses the grandeur of its score (by Joe Hisaishi) gracefully to enhance the momentousness of its story. Individual scenes are most intriguing for their rich variety in a film whose human characters (ironworkers, lepers, hunters, former prostitutes and Princess Mononoke, a feral young woman reared by wolves) are as varied as the woodland fauna.

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”Princess Mononoke,” which is being released by Miramax, has been effectively translated (by Neil Gaiman) and dubbed into casual Americanese without losing its Japanese essence. Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, Minnie Driver and Jada Pinkett-Smith all give vocal performances that suit the vibrant images on screen.

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