Release Date: October 29, 1999
Genre: Animated Myth
Runtime: 133 minutes
Distributor: Miramax Films
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Writer: Neil Gaiman
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To understand the Japanese worldview, at least according to the popularizer of that worldview, Suzuki, it consists of layers of religion. Suzuki points out that if you ask a Japanese person if they are Buddhist, 90% will say they are Buddhist. If you ask a Japanese if they are Shinto, 90% will say they are Shinto. Thus, they seem to be able to hold a several religious beliefs from ancient animism to modern variations of Buddhism at the same time. (By the way, trying to verify Suzuki, I tried asking a few Japanese students in Kyoto what they believed, and they said that they didn't believe in Buddhism or Shintoism.)
PRINCESS MONONOKE is set in ancient Japan at a time when everything was in chaos. Unlike most Japanese films which focus on the Shoguns in the Imperial wars, this focuses on the middle class, the monks, the laborers and the Ironworkers. The movie opens in a remote village hidden away in the forests of Japan where the last members of a tribe that had been decimated by the Emperors' army barely survives. They are attacked by a wild-boar-god-demon, who is none other than the god of the forest, who turned into a demon when he was shot by an iron projectile.
The young Prince Ashitaka kills the boar-god-demon but gets infected in his arm by the demonic worms and is told by an old wise woman witch that the infection will grow until it destroys his soul and finally kills him. According to tradition, he is banished from his village to go find the great forest spirit who may be able to heal him.
On the way to find the "great forest spirit" who lives in the forest near Iron Town, he meets a monk who curses like a denizen of Hollywood. The monk gives Ashitaka clues where he can find the forest spirit. It turns out that the monk has been commissioned by the Emperor to cut the head off the forest spirit which supposedly will give the Emperor eternal life.
During his journeys, Ashitaka kills a few robbers and other unsavory people as he rides his red elk toward Iron Town. Because of the strengths of the demons in his arms, in retaliation, he cuts off his enemies' arms and heads and makes a bloody mess.
It seems that a powerful lady, who has hired prostitutes to work the foundry where she produces iron for the modern flintlock rifles that her leprous engineers build, is ruling Iron Town. To get at the iron, the lady is destroying the forest and shooting the animals, which are actually forest gods. When she shoots them, if they don't die, they become demons. Ashitaka meets up with the lady and her caravan of porters as the wolf gods are attacking them. She shoots the gigantic mother wolf.
Ashitaka rescues two of the men who fall down the cliff after this battle with the wolf gods. In the process, he sees the young wolf girl, a human raised by wolves named Princes Mononoke. Naturally, they are attracted to each other, and the prince realizes that the only way for mutual survival is if the humans and the forest gods make peace, and this becomes his goal, to be the peacemaker.
Guided by the little forest spirits, ghouls and demons, he brings the two wounded Iron Town porters back to the town. There, the lady tells him that she is going to cut down the forest in her quest for iron. He tells her not to do it. The monk comes along and enlists the lady's aid to cut off the head of the great forest spirit.
As the story progresses, Ashitaka is partially healed by the great forest spirit, battles are waged, forest gods are killed, the forest spirit's head is cut off, Prince Mononoke is almost lost to the demons, and, after a lot of depressing action which almost gets boring, the story ends sort of happily ever after.
For those who are grounded in their faith, PRINCESS MONONOKE may help them understand Japanese mythology. However, for the growing number of searchers in our society it will provide alternate religious answers, just as Gaia worship and all the other religions invading America are doing. The Greek word "demon" meant "the spirit that inhabits the tree." It is interesting that this is the same definition given to these Japanese spirits.
>From a cultural studies perspective, it is clear that the director took an animist perspective. The Buddhist monk is the bad guy. The human beings are the bad guys. They are destroying nature, gods and demigods. Although Ashitaka brings a truce, it is clear that much damage has been done to the nature spirits, ghouls and demons and that that damage cannot be reversed. The monk is deceitful and curses. The lady ruler of Iron Town is cold-hearted as her technology destroys nature. The good people and the good denizens of the forest are in retreat.
The Japanese consider PRINCE MONOKE a children's film to teach Japanese mythology. With all the bloody violence, the condoning of prostitution, which is still condoned in Japan, and the deceitfulness, it is doubtful that people of faith and values will see this as a children's film. However, some will go see it because of its interesting animation. Others may see it because of the reviews. Its ancient animistic worldview, now called New Age, will attract many who are not grounded in the Christian faith.
Listening to the radio the other day, a psychologist who happened to be a Christian in a small town in Canada said that women who wanted to be witches have been coming to the town for a long time to commune with the "forest spirits." He said a few years ago, it took these wannabe witches months to get in touch with a forest sprit. Now, they seem to meet them immediately. The non-Christian psychologists are puzzled by all this activity and think that these women suffer from multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. The Christian psychologist believes that, as Christianity wanes, God is withdrawing his protection. In light of the flood of demonic movies, perhaps he has a point.
At any rate, PRINCESS MONONOKE is a demonic movie. It clearly shows, for anybody who is discerning that spiritism and animism creates a society of fear, a cruel society of killing and hate. For those who are not discerning, it suggests that there are these powers out there that one can make peace with and perhaps even employ in one's own service.