Sunday 20 April 2008

Prince Monoke - A Film Criticism

Title: Princess Mononoke
AKA: Mononoke-hime
Year: 1999
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Writer: Hayao Miyazaki (Screenplay),
Neil Gaimen (Engl
ish Adaptation)
Studio: DENTSU Music And Entertainment

Film Stock: Color (Fujicolor)

Run Time: 134 min.

In Princess Mononoke Hayao Miyazaki tells a Shinto tale. Even though Ne
il Gaimen helped to bring it to a Western audience by helping to dub it for an English audience. It still remains a story of Shinto, told for a Japanese audience. Despite the fact that it has gathered a following in North America, the story does not become a product of Hollywood, and thus lose it's primary message. In the first chapter of The Sacred Paths of the East, Theodore M. Ludwig states: "The Human adventure can be viewed from many perspectives - and indeed there should be many perspectives, since there is not just one human story, but many stories. Common to these stories is a searching for meaning, for wholeness, for some connection to the larger continuity of human life. That searching has often been expressed in what we call religious structures, ideas, and experiences." Thus we will examine Princess Mononoke first from the perspective in which that story is used to examine life and make sense of it, second that this story is a religious story, and third in comparison to other stories Princess Mononoke stays true to Hayao Miyazaki views of his religious tradition in a way that some other films do not, especially when it is translated for a North American audience.

In order to understand how Princess Mononoke is truly Shinto we must first underst
and Shinto. Ludwig say's this about Shinto: "The word Shinto, modeled after Chinese terms, means in native Japanese terms the 'Way of the Kami' (kami no michi). This refers primarily to Japanese religion as a way of life according to the will of the kami." Later Ludwig states: "The kami who are negative and destructive are also respected - those who bring vengeance and calamity on humans. For these kami, too, are manifestations of life-power, turned to the destructive side, and they also are worthy of reverence and worship." The best example of this is seen in the screenshot. We have the Oracle or wise woman bowing to the nearly dead boar god, and asking for him to pass in peace. She also promises that rituals will be performed for him. This is something a westerner would not understand or do; our Judeo-Christian heritage tells us we are to subdue the earth and its inhabitants not bow down to them. Therefore we can state that this not a typical western or westernized film.

Hayao Miyazaki uses Shinto beliefs and practices as a narrative device. Through them in this film he examines Shinto beliefs and practices in a way that it represents the his view of Shinto through story. Ludwig emphasizes: "Norinago's reason for emphasizing this is to advocate the Shinto attitude of accepting evil and death as part of life without resorting to foreign teachings (as in Buddhism and Christianity) that deny death by hoping for some kind of life after death." This is seen in the film by Ashitaka's quest to find the cause of the boar god's wound and anger. Even though he is cursed and going to die from the wound, he is struggling against the evil in himself, and in both Irontown and Princess Mononoke. He is trying to find a way to end the cycle of hate and anger. Ludwig then states: "So the path of transformation begins with purification of the physical world and of the inner heart, and it leads to renewal of life in communion with the kami, the source of all goodness and blessing." This is the mission Ashitaka is on. He is seeking to restore balance in a world off kilter and out of balance.

The Shinto ending of the film is clearly seen in a number of ways. The first is that there is no clear good versus evil - there are characters with varying shades of good and bad in them. Also the story is not truly resolved at the end of the film. It does not get all wrapped up in a nice little package. For Ashitaka states this near the end of the English version of the film: "I understand, you'll live in the forest and I will go help them rebuild Irontown. I will always be near. Yakul and I will come and visit you whenever we can." Yet in the Japanese version with English subtitles the message is slightly different. He states they will live together, him at the Ironworks and her in the woods. Yet both are clearly a Shinto end to the film. There is no happily ever after, as in many of Disney's or even North America's other films. Compare this ending with the 1967 Disney version of the Jungle book, where Mowgli leaves the jungle and goes to the girl in the village or the 1989 release The Little Mermaid where King Triton gives his daughter to a man to marry. In both of these other Disney examples the stories are turned into happy endings so people can leave the theatre and feel good. In this story the couple end up with a strange hard relationship and neither sells out, but both have a level of hope.

From these three examples I would declare that Princess Mononoke is a Shinto story, told from Hayao Miyazaki's vision of Shinto. It kept it's Shinto message even while undergoing the transformation of being dubbed for a non-Japanese audience. It is a tale of Spirits, Gods, Nature, and Humanity seeking to find th
eir place in the world, and working through the interactions between the kami and humans. Donald Nicholl in his article "Scientia Cordis" declares: "Certainly a striking feature of many of the great spiritual adventures of this century has been the way in which, having lost their bearings within their own traditions, they have sought them in some other - and have almost gone over to that tradition, only to discover their bearings once more within their own." This could explain the fascination and cult like following to this film and it's director in western society. Nicholl also says: "Hence the Characteristic medium of the scientia cordis is neither a principle nor a law but a story - a story that will move the heart." Hayao Miyazaki tells a Shinto story but he tells it in such a way that it becomes a medium to reach the hearts of practitioners of other traditions. Thus Miyazaki's films - his stories - will have an audience across religious traditions. Yet the story will remain a Shinto tale.

  1. Ludwig, Theodore M. (2001), The Sacred Paths of the East 2nd Ed., Prentice Hall, Toronto, p.3
  2. Ludwig, p.246
  3. Ludwig, p.248
  4. Genesis 1:28 various translations. See Appendix A.
  5. Ludwig, p.251
  6. Ludwig, p.253
  7. Princess Mononke (1999) English Dubbed Version
  8. Princess Mononke (1997) English Subtitle's from the Japanese Version
  9. Nicholl, Donald, (1997) The Beatitude of Truth, Dartmon Longman & Todd, London, p.150
  10. Nicholl, p.161

Appendix A

Ludwig, Theodore M.
The Sacred Paths of the East
Prentice Hall, Toronto, 2001,

Nicholl, Donald
The Beatitude of Truth
Dartman Longman & Todd, London, 1997,

(First Written for RS266 Religion in Popular Film Fall 2007.)

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