by Seb Manley
About twenty minutes into Princess Mononoke (1997), Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy epic, there is a scene that I think qualifies as one of the stranger meet cutes in modern cinema, in which the film’s hero, Ashitaka, first encounters a mysterious female character called San, with whom he later develops a complicated but meaningful relationship. Ashitaka has stopped by a river, having come across two badly wounded men in need of help. Sensing some other nearby presence, he moves away upstream and sees, on the other side of the river, the forms of three wolves and a young woman. The young woman, San, is sucking blood from a wound in the side of the largest wolf. Ashitaka makes his move, stands up and announces himself as a traveller in search of the realm of the spirit of the forest. San stares fiercely back at him, blood round her mouth and a wolf pelt round her shoulders. Romantic music swells. They gaze at each other for several seconds. ‘Go away,’ she says finally, before riding off on one of the smaller wolves into the forest.
What the viewer already knows when this scene begins but Ashitaka does not is that it is the wolves and San (a human raised by wolves) who are responsible for the wounds of the men Ashitaka has been attending to. There is a war on: on one side are the humans, who clear the forests to mine iron ore and produce firearms; on the other are the forest animals, sentient beings led by giant beast gods who fight to defend their home. Both sides fight viciously, and the casualties mount by the day. It is Ashitaka and San who seem to together hold the possibility of achieving peace or reconciliation between the species, although San is also perhaps the animals’ most fearsome warrior: a supernaturally fast masked assailant who effortlessly overwhelms her human attackers. San saves Ashitaka’s life after he is accidentally shot by a human, but she remains loyal to the animals and her adoptive wolf ‘mother’ to the end, refusing at the film’s conclusion to stay with Ashitaka but agreeing to see him again whenever he is able to visit her in the forest.
Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s most beautiful films, and it never fails to move me. It’s also, as the anime critic Susan J. Napier suggests, an often unsettling work in which the feeling of nostalgia and pleasurable escape that suffuses many of the director’s earlier films is largely absent (1). The events of the narrative revolve around bitter enmities and personal losses, and characters often seem animated by conflicted emotions and desires. Napier identifies three central figures whose characterisations incorporate a particularly unconventional or ‘destabilising’ mix of features: San (young female heroine with unparalleled combat skills and a taste for confrontation), Eboshi, the leader of the humans (female figure of authority who cares for society’s outcasts but is utterly merciless in battle), and Moro, a terrifyingly ferocious giant wolf who is also wise and intelligent and acts as a caring mother to San (2). Of these characters, Moro seems to me to be a particularly unfamiliar type of character, one who has few equivalents that I can think of in cinema, animated or otherwise. Moro is marked by three characteristics that together set her apart from established wild-animal representations. First, she is clearly a wolf, rather than a wolfy-looking human wearing a jacket, or standing on her hind legs, or whatever else (this being a representation familiar from many children’s cartoons, as well as animal fables). Second, she is a subject who thinks, feels and remembers (that is, she is not a wild ‘beast’ who functions within the narrative only as threat). And third, she is a morally ambiguous character who is neither sentimentalised nor demonised and thus does not fit into the broad-strokes tradition of animal characterisation exemplified by Disney.
Moro’s characterisation, I would suggest, is part of a broad strategy within the film of subverting expectations about animal characters. Animals are presented both as Others and as beings with particular desires, thoughts, even politics. The viewer is frequently forced to reassess judgements made about animals (and many humans) in light of new narrative developments. I think it’s likely, for example, that someone watching the first twenty minutes of the film for the first time would assign wild animals to the ‘villains’ category; after all, he or she would have thus far been confronted with one giant demon boar who refers to humans as ‘disgusting little creatures’ and three wolves who attack a group of men and oxen and send several plummeting down the cliff face. It is only later that we are told that it is the humans who are responsible for filling the boar with hate and transforming him into a demon, and that the animals are angry and desperate because their land is being stolen from them. Animals in the film are both victims and aggressors, consumed by a hatred fuelled by pain and loss.
Obviously, representations of animals such as those offered by the film involve some degree of anthropomorphism, a projection of recognisably human characteristics onto non-human animals that may or may not be justified. But equally, it would be fairly absurd to read the film as making an empirical claim about the emotional or moral lives of animals. Rather, Princess Mononoke asks us to see animal Others as an integral part of everyday life and, implicitly, to question simplistic categorisations of animals as, for instance, dumb beasts, natural resources to be exploited by humans, or cute and furry spectacles. As we learn more about animals and their behaviour and minds, this seems like an increasingly important thing to do.
1. Princess Mononoke is in fairly dramatic contrast in this respect to My Neighbour Totoro (1988), for example, which Napier describes as a ‘deeply nostalgic … quest for an imagined personal past’. Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 181.
2. Napier, pp. 181–185.