Humans are ruining the Earth, and nature returns the favor with unparalleled fury. The clash between humanity and the environment is at the heart of the animated fantasy epic Princess Mononoke – but it is also the world we live in today in the midst of the climate crisis. Humans are deforesting the earth at an alarming rate as the warming planet responds with hellfire – sometimes literally.
Directed by legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke centers on a young man named Ashitaka. Cursed by an injured boar god, Ashitaka leaves his community and travels far from home to find the source of the bullet that ultimately killed the boar god.
He soon finds his answer: The people of Irontown. Led by the fierce Lady Eboshi, the people of Irontown want to demolish nearby forests so they can produce more iron and satisfy their burgeoning industrial economy. But the forest is home to ancient spirits and gods, and they don’t take the destruction of their home lightly. Consequently, the titular Princess Mononoke – a human girl raised by wolves – leads her family of animals to attack Irontown, ultimately resulting in an upsetting confrontation between humanity and Earth itself.
Twenty-five years after its release in Japan, Princess Mononoke feels increasingly relevant in our modernized world. The experts explained to Reverse why humans should heed the film’s radical environmental message and heal our relationship with nature to stem the climate crisis.
“We are all much more aware of the fragility of the Earth today. Miyazaki’s films anticipated our awareness of this fragility. Susan Napier says Reverse. Napier is the Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese at Tufts University and the author of the book Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.
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Princess Mononokeradical environmentalism
Princess Mononoke clearly indicates that humanity’s all-consuming greed will inevitably lead to the destruction of nature on which it depends for life.
“When the forest has been cleared and the wolves wiped out, this desolate place will be the richest land in the world,” Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, told a stunned Ashitaka.
But in the film, nature is not passive. Indeed, all the elements of nature in the film – from boars to wolves to the god of the forest – will use violence to protect themselves and reclaim their home from humans. This assertion of the independent agency of nature is radical. It’s a strikingly similar message to the modern nature rights movement, which asserts that nature has legal rights akin to human rights.
“I think one of the most interesting and perhaps most empowering messages from Princess Mononoke is the importance of respecting the natural environment as an entity in itself”, Napier said.
Napier recalls an amazing scene where the god of the forest – known in Japanese as shishigami – stands as a giant translucent being and towers over the mountains. The shishigami is a majestic and terrifying “other” that humans cannot anthropomorphize or subjugate.
“This is a fundamentally animistic view, and animism is increasingly recognized as an approach to the natural world that respects the power and legitimacy of non-human forces,” Napier adds.
The film’s final sequence, a final showdown between shishigami and humans, emphasizes that by destroying the environment, we also destroy ourselves.
“Miyazaki’s film suggests that humanity is not at the top of the food chain, that we live in a complicated, interconnected, non-hierarchical world, and we need to recognize that and build from there,” Napier says.
A very real climate crisis
Princess Monoke takes place in a fantasy version of medieval Japan – but it holds up a mirror to the modern environmental crisis.
“If anything, the message is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released in 1997,” says Napier.
Unsustainable human demand fuels the destruction of the sacred forest in the film. Likewise, our unsustainable demand for fossil fuels is driving widespread destruction of nature around the world. Deforestation in the Amazon – the “lungs” of the Earth – reached an all-time high in the first half of 2022.
Forests are vital for human survival. When Lady Eboshi wounds the god of the forest, the deity wreaks havoc by killing everything in its path. In real life, humans knock down a forest football pitch every six seconds. Doing this releases carbon dioxide stored in trees into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming increases the likelihood of extreme weather events and natural disasters. Nearly 2,000 people have perished in ongoing heat waves in Spain and Portugal, and tens of thousands have fled wildfires in France.
“The parallel between this film and the climate crisis is that there is a natural balance in forest ecosystems and nature more broadly that we humans interrupt at our peril,” said Professor Emeritus Barry D. Solomon. in Geography and Environmental Policy at Michigan Technological University. , recount Reverse. Solomon co-authored an article on the subject of ecological consumption in the works of Miyazaki.
Rebuilding our relationship with nature
Whereas Princess Mononoke depicts destruction, it also offers pathways for humans to rebuild their relationship with nature and each other in an age of climate crisis.
First: We need to recognize that humans and nature can co-exist, even if it’s uncomfortable. Recognizing that the economy is part of the natural ecosystem—also known as the ecosphere—in turn recognizes that we depend on nature’s resources to survive.
This view reflects a field of thought called “ecological economics”. According to Solomon, ecological economics asks how big the economic system can grow “without destroying the vital functions of the ecosphere”.
Solomon says humans can cut down some trees for our use, but we must counter deforestation with reforestation to “preserve the balance.” In Princess Mononoke, the steelworks disrupts this harmonious balance by seeking to cut down the entire forest for mining. To counter the climate crisis in real life, we also need to think about how many trees we plant or preserve for each tree cut down.
Second: We need a community of concerned citizens who look after each other and the planet.
Napier points out that the film shows characters like Ashitaka working to “try to create a more harmonious connection between the people of Tatara and the forest around them”.
Ashitaka’s bravery and kindness inspire collective action, which helps the people of Irontown survive the impending environmental destruction.
“The film depicts anger and resentment on the part of many of its characters, but also shows the characters moving beyond those feelings to try to create a more effective and harmonious community,” Napier said.
The film’s protagonist desires to see a world “with eyes devoid of hate”. Seeing beyond our immediate anger and helplessness to find long-term climate solutions can protect our planet. Otherwise, as the film warns, our rage will simply consume us and leave nothing but further destruction.
Princess Mononoke is now streaming on HBO Max.