Thematically, Princess Mononoke holds nothing back: it’s all about the ecological troubles of the world. (Notably, in lands to the West. Thanks Japan.) The ecological theme runs throughout, sometimes literally on boars’ legs and the paws of giant wolves. This is a movie about the world we live in, and the terrible strife towards balance.
We begin with the boar demon. Ashitaka’s village is in danger from the boar, a mess of toxic worms spilling from its body and rotting the woods around it. It threatens to destroy everything in its path, rampaging uncontrollably towards the most amount of people it can find. Ashitaka’s attempts to calm it down fail, and though he tries to keep his distance, he is infected with the demon’s curse, even as he kills it. He is bound for death. His only hope is to head West, where the boar came from, to find answers, and maybe a cure. In this short opening, we’re given an idea of the consequences of others’ actions on the world, though we’re yet to realise it. The boar, Nago, had been struck down by men in the West. An iron ball lodged in the beast was the eventual cause of its death, and as a god, the effects of this are more widely felt than the village can see.
Another party of humans meet the other significant animal god tribe in the movie: the wolves, led by the wolf god Maro, and accompanied by the titular character: Princess Mononoke (the name itself means “Monster”, and is not, in fact, her real name. Her family call her San.) The wolves attack humans and their oxen, humans armed with guns (albeit old-fashioned guns, given that this is an historical fantasy movie.) Immediately, we can see the issue: the weapons look like they might have been able to kill Nago.
By the time Ashitaka reaches the Ironworks, where the human party were headed, we’ve been introduced to all manner of wonders, from the spirits of the forest – the kodama – to the god in the wood, the Deer God. No explanation is given for the kodama, nor can we ever expect one. Suffice to say, if you don’t see them in the wood, then you should worry. They are a sign of life.
The story of the Ironworks further emphasises the ecological message of the movie; in order for the iron sand to be accessed, the woods and mountains had to be cleared. The boars were driven out. Nago was shot and killed by one of Lady Eboshi’s weapons.
Eboshi is one of three significant human characters in the movie. On the grand scale of how much a person can care about the environment, her concern is as far weighted towards human success over environmental survival as can be. On the far side of things is San, the proverbial eco warrior out to destroy the Ironworks and save the forest. Then there is Ashitaka, the voice of reason who seeks balance in the world. It is small wonder, then, that the Deer God saves his life.
What the movie presents to us, in the Deer God, is a shapeshifting being representing two halves of the same coin; it is day and night, life and death. During the day, it walks the woods in its deer form, with an eerily human face smiling gently at every living creature. By night, it is the Nightwalker, towering over the woods. It is a translucent being, full of splendour and power. They come in cycles, life and death alternating as the sun rises and sets. The Deer God is balance in the world. Understanding that is central to appreciating the strength of the message.
In killing the Deer God – at least, in removing its head – humanity kills life itself. Without the balance, the forest dies – it becomes a death. Humans die as the unbound Nightwalker searches for its head. The Ironworks is destroyed by its mass, a muddy death pouring over the world, choking out life wherever it touches it. This is the curse of Nago, ten fold and spreading more violently. The death of a lesser god reached all the way to the East; the death of life itself would reach the whole of creation.
Ashitaka affirms the reality of the situation: the head of the Deer God must be returned by human hands. Only humans have the power to prevent the ecological disaster we have created. It’s not a subtle message, or a subtle means of telling it – the Deer God, in both its forms, and Princess Mononoke, have become iconic figures in their own right – but it is memorable. The day can be saved, life can be returned to the forest, but the damage remains: in killing the Deer God and ridding the world of the gods, nature has lost its only means of protecting itself.
Princess Mononoke has a lot to say to us about the price we pay in our industries. Through luscious imagery and a fully formed mythology, we can see clearly the damage we have done on the earth. We have gone far enough, in our wars and in our industrial revolutions, to permanently damage the world we live in. While we have no Deer Gods to kill, the result is the same: the future of a sustained environment is up to us, and even the human face of the forest – San – cannot bear to be around people any longer after everything they did. No one could hold it against anyone if they agreed with her.