It’s hard to describe just how beautiful Princess Mononoke is. Our hero, Ashitaka, tells San “you’re beautiful” in what could be his last words. He’s come a long way to do only that. Cursed by a war-god turned demon while trying to save his village, he is forced to leave his primitive, thought-to-be extinct people and find a cure from the Spirit of the Forest. This leads him to witness massacres, battles, and a ravaged land as nobles fight with each other while the Emperor tries to find a cure for mortality.
Eventually he comes to Iron Town, where Lady Eboshi actively hunts the gods of the forest for iron for her rifles. She gives former prostitutes work in her factories; lepers design her weapons. They are loyal because of her generosity and leadership. But she shot the boar that was the war-god and turned it demonic. And she actively destroys the forest for the materials she needs. She has declared war on the animal/nature gods and hopes to hunt them with her rifles. In our first encounter with her, she mortally wounds the wolf-goddess, the wolf-mother who adopted San. The residents of Iron Town see San fighting alongside the wolves and want her dead.
Ashitaka saves San from a trap where at one point every rifle in town is aimed at her. He is shot by a woman who wants revenge for her husband, who was killed by wolves. Only the curse of the demon keeps Ashitaka alive as he bleeds to death. San takes him to the Spirit of the Forest, letting the Spirit do as it will with him. It chooses to heal him but does not remove the curse. Ashitaka’s attempt to bring peace between people and nature – his attempt to use the curse – makes him alone, with nothing but his own animal companion. San is pledged to hate humans and fight with wolves and the other forest animals. His saving people people from Iron Town is worthless, as he has allowed one of their greatest enemies to live. And he is far from his village.
These problems resolve, as he does find allies and love, but what Princess Mononoke continually calls for, in every scene, is for the viewer to be more sensitive. The fundamental question is what is the power of the old gods, the old piety. This is not a simple environmental statement. Attempts to unify and modernize Japan were always matters of war. Industry itself does not seem a neutral concept. It is subordinate to war as it helps build an “us” opposed to “them.” But the old nature gods – the great boar, the great wolf – have the same problems we do as they fight among themselves for a solution to the human problem.
Nature, though, has something else within it. Our lust for progress and improvement culminates in trying to purge our minds of the very concept of death. However, precisely because it comprehends death, nature is the possibility of resurrection. To be sure, this means it contains demonic darkness. That makes it so much stranger to see animals and natural forces talk amongst themselves in terms of human conflict. Such an anthropomorphization did not occur because of our encroachment. Lady Eboshi says she wants to kill the old gods so she can deal with dumb, stupid beasts. What is in the forest is rational. What is in the forest is ourselves. The story as a whole points to that; to cite the most important thread, consider what the curse means. Our hero’s curse pulled him away from the village so he could see more fully what he was standing for. In sacrificing himself to protect his people, he did choose exile. No particular place can attest to naturally being human and why it matters.
To worship the old nature gods, then, is to see human limit as constitutive. It is to see the beauty of simply being. That does not mean the nature gods are right about anything. It does not mean they have any power; they do dissolve before our reach. It does mean to ask the right questions will bring us to fantastic, terrible places, places we may have to be. And it means we have to accept division and loss for a greater unity. Ashitaka’s new home will be Iron Town. His love will stay in the forest nearby. When walking back at night after watching the film, I watched some ripples in the pond reflect the light from some lamps. I stared at them, thinking they were animate.