JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 4 (April 2000)
Princess Mononoke: Another Nihonjinron?
by Kozy K. Amemiya

I went to see Princess Mononoke with great expectations. I am no fan of animated films, but I was curious about this particular one, given the rave reviews in major American newspapers. It was described as a lyrical ecology-themed fairy tale fit for an adult audience. "It's no Disney," was the consensus, meant to congratulate this Japanese effort. Moreover, I knew it had been a huge success in Japan, more among young and not so young adults than among children. It had attracted thirteen million Japanese to theaters, surpassing the number who saw E.T., the highest-grossing film in Japan until then (although both were later beaten by Titanic). What's so special about this animation that it captivated the Japanese and also fascinated American film critics? To answer this question, I not only saw the American-dubbed version but also watched the Japanese version on video.

I agree with reviewers on both sides of the Pacific that many of the images of landscape scenery were breath-takingly beautiful, the action dazzling, and the story engaging. The story begins with a terrifying and truly monstrous demon covered with huge leech-like feelers, advancing fast toward an idyllic hamlet. He is seized with hatred and mad for revenge. It's a horrific image and made my husband exclaim, "Young kids would get nightmares from this!" A courageous young man named Ashitaka tries to stop the demon, is wounded by its feelers, but manages to slay him. The demon, as he dies, reveals he was originally a boar.

That evening, the hamlet holds a village meeting organized around an old female shaman in Ainu-like clothing. Ashitaka is considered their future leader. The inhabitants are not Ainu, but Emishi, another minority tribe. The Emishi were indigenous to Japan and the supposed developers of Japan's earliest known culture, "Jomon." ("Jomon" refers to the "rope pattern" on earthernware that has been discovered even in the northernmost part of Honshu and predates any influence from China or Korea.)

A village elder laments that the Emishi have been "driven east by the emperor's army" (in the English version) or "defeated by the Yamato" (in the Japanese version). The elder goes on to say that they have lived quietly in peace with nature deep in the mountains of the eastern region for five hundred years, causing no harm to wildlife. He deplores, however, that living in isolation, the Emishi's blood "has weakened." How wonderful, I thought to myself, this movie is not just about ecology but is going to deal with minority issues as well. I was thrilled with this unexpected element in the film which no American critic had noted. Japanese, on the other hand, seem to have focused on the Emishi's indigenousness to Japan.

The shaman analyzes a clump of lead found inside the demon. She concludes that it must have inflicted unbearable pain on the boar, thus transforming him into a demon filled with hatred and causing him to thrash about with fury, even at the innocent Emishi. Ashitaka's wound from the demon's feelers is now developing into flesh-eating bruises, which, the shaman pronounces, are caused by the demon's hatred and will slowly cause Ashitaka's entire body to rot. She surmises that something terrible must be happening in the west and that if Ashitaka were to see the situation there with his own eyes, he might be able to set himself free from the curse of the deadly infection. Ashitaka therefore leaves his people and sets out on his journey on the back of an antelope-like animal. (This animal is called a kamoshika, indigenous to Japan and Taiwan, and is now on the verge of extinction, as the Emishi were at the time of this story. Thus, it also symbolizes the film's theme.)

Life in Iron Town

Once outside his home territory, Ashitaka is exposed to the turmoil of sixteenth-century Japan and its changing society. He witnesses lordless samurai bandits pillaging a village, just as in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In towns, a money economy has developed, about which Ashitaka knows nothing. He gets help from a wily priest named Jigo, who has his own very secular reason for helping him.

From Jigo, Ashitaka learns about the holy Great Spirit of the Forest. Hoping the Great Spirit will dispel the curse and cure his infected body, Ashitaka departs for the forest. Along the way, he meets the Lady Eboshi, who is the leader of the working men and women of an Iron Town deep in a mountain. In the forest, he also meets San, the Princess Mononoke, with her adopted wolf mother and siblings. San, Ashitaka later learns, was abandoned as a baby by her parents as they fled in panic at the sight of a wolf. San is dressed in fur but also wears bobby socks and a short skirt, like any modern Japanese teenager. (I was disappointed by her distressingly juvenile appearance, because I had envisioned the princess as a young but mature woman, perhaps borrowed from the image of a snake-maiden in a kabuki dance.) Young as she is, San is the simplest black-and-white character in this film. Her enemies are all humans, but particularly the Lady Eboshi.

Eboshi is a more complex figure. Neither purely good nor evil, she provides, on the one hand, respectable jobs for both ordinary people and outcastes such as former prostitutes and lepers, treats men and women equally and fairly, bolsters their sense of self-esteem, and receives in return their loyalty. On the other hand, she is ruthless in pursuing her ambition to control and expand iron production, and thus is willing to pay any cost, regarding the forest only as a mountain of resources to be exploited. It is her bullet that turned the boar into a demon of agony and hatred. Nonetheless, Ashitaka is impressed with the Lady Eboshi and attracted to the good-natured working men and particularly to the hard-working women in Iron Town. He tries to mediate between them and San, to no avail.

The Lady Eboshi and Jigo have made a deal to eliminate the Great Spirit of the Forest for their common interest. The Lady Eboshi would gain complete control over the forest, while Jigo would please the emperor and thus attain a high social status. Jigo has been entrusted by the emperor to take the Forest Spirit's head, which is supposedly endowed with the magical power of eternal youth and immortality. Meanwhile, a herd of boars, seized with anger and despair, decide to launch an attack on Iron Town only to fall into trap and be slaughtered by Jigo's men. Eboshi and Jigo, along with their men, advance deep into the forest. Finally, egged on by Jigo, Eboshi shoots off the Forest Spirit's head with a firearm made by her workers. Jigo puts the head into a pail and with his men tries to carry it away. But the Forest Spirit has turned into a huge headless Night Spirit, roaming around, looking for his head and destroying everything in his path, including Iron Town. Ashitaka and San catch up with Jigo and press him to return the head to the Forest Spirit. Jigo resists until the last moment, when his own life is threatened. With his head back, the Great Forest Spirit is whole again. All at once, life is renewed everywhere and Ashitaka's bruises are healed.

Watching the rejuvenation of the forest, San and Ashitaka bid each other goodbye. San tells Ashitaka that although she is fond of him, she cannot live with human beings. That's all right, Ashitaka replies, adding (in the English version) that he is returning to Iron Town and will help its people rebuild it. (In the Japanese version he says he is going to live in Iron Town.) But what about his own people, the Emishi, who have continued to live in harmony with nature? Why doesn't Ashitaka return to them? The Emishi seem to be totally forgotten by Ashitaka and are expected to be forgotten by the audience as well. Suddenly, I felt betrayed.

Up until that moment, my eyes had been fixed on the big screen as the story unfolded. I was anxious to see how Ashitaka would reconcile his minority status with the more powerful majority in the humanity-versus-nature struggle. It seemed like a cop-out for Ashitaka to become a Yamato-ized Emishi who forgets his own people and vows to take part in what he hopes will be a kinder and gentler economic development.

Kyosei and Nihonjinron

Ashitaka says to San at the end of the film, "We shall live in separate places, but in the same planet together. I will come visit you." These words represent a popular Japanese notion called kyosei (literally meaning "co-life" or to "live together") that developed in the 1980s as an answer to modern rationalism. Obviously, the director Hayao Miyazaki is a proponent of this idea, and Japanese audiences loved it.

I first heard about this idea of "living in the same planet together" in the mid-1980s from Japanese pro-choice women who were also concerned about the rights of the disabled. At that time, the idea had no name and was expressed as a vague "let everyone live in harmony together." An architect named Kisho Kurokawa claims he gave this idea a name and introduced it to the world, domestic and international. He asserts in his 1991 book titled Kyosei no shiso that kyosei is part of Japan's traditional thought and that it can help overcome Western enthnocentricism and provide a new conceptual tool to fill the gap left by modern rationalism not only in Japan but in the rest of the world as well (p.3). Kurokawa's inflated claims seem to reflect the national psychology of the Japanese at that time, before the economic bubble had burst. Kyosei seems to be another form of Nihonjinron, the "science" of Japanese uniqueness.

Although Japanese over-confidence in themselves has faded in recent years, the notion of kyosei has remained popular. It projects an image of community, large and small, in which all living things-- people, animals, and plants-- live in harmony alongside one another as equals. In this idea, juxtaposed categories are brought together, such as human beings and nature, or in the case of people, the majority and minorities, men and women, the powerful and the meek, the able-bodied and the disabled, the rich and the poor, the First World and the Third World. Many Japanese social and environmental activists, social scientists, architects, and artists often use the notion of kyosei to discuss everything from social and ecological issues to urban planning. For example, in 1996, Iwanami published an anthology entitled Sabetsu to kyosei no shakaigaku (The Sociology of Discrimination and Kyosei.)

The problem with kyosei is that nothing is said about how opposing claims will be harmonized. Often, the secondary categories are simply romanticized as less greedy, more innocent, and purer than the primary ones. In this context, Ashitaka may be seen as a purifier of the majority, the Yamato. Still, that hardly justifies his forgetting his own people or the film's abandoning the Emishi as soon as they have been used to introduce the story.

No doubt that the notion of kyosei is well-intentioned. However, the way in which Princess Mononoke ends reveals that kyosei is no more than a self-serving romanticism of the more powerful, richer, dominant majority. Rebels, like Princess Mononoke, who reject the idea of kyosei, or outsiders, like the Emishi, who are defeated and forgotten, are doomed to disappear from this earth. Kyosei offers them no alternatives but to swallow the notion and be absorbed by the majority. No wonder groups within Japan like the Okinawans are losing their own language and have been forced to accept the lion's share of the American military bases. Similarly, Koreans in Japan are never allowed to achieve full-fledged citizenship while retaining their own ethnic identity. The kyosei ideal has no conceptual framework for articulating minority points of view. In this sense, it is like Nihonjinron in its self-regarding, insular sense of particularity.

KOZY K. AMEMIYA is a sociologist and member of the Board of Advisers of JPRI. Her current research focuses on Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry.


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