Princess Mononoke and the Birth of Japanese Capitalism
Written by Evelyn the Marxist Owl
Editor’s Note: Alexius is taking a weekend break and allowing yet another humanlike animal to take up his pen and write. Evelyn blogs here on tumblr, posting all sorts of ephemera related to Marxism, politics, and art. He is an owl, but he’s not as special as he thinks he is.
“Miyazaki’s intent was never to create an accurate portrait of medieval Japan. Rather he wanted to portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization – a conflict that has continued to this very day. Throughout, Miyazaki resists forging simple villains or stainless heroes. The human polluters are not so much evil as merely attempting to survive in a world that has pushed them to the edge. San and the forest gods are not entirely noble, either; their long, losing battle with humans has hardened their hearts, sharpened their anger and divided their own ranks. Yet in the interaction between the two – however hard won – something magical occurs.”
I dug up the above quotation from Princess Mononoke’s official site. It provides us with an entry point into why this film’s story is so rich and worthy of analysis. Most films that deal with antagonisms between nature and humanity tend to flatten out complexities to sharpen the opposition. The 1990s were a wasteland of kiddy environmental agitprop films. From the creatively bare chasms of Ferngully to Disney’s pretty but empty Pocahontas, these films tended to revolve around a stark conflict between evil developers and colonizers on one side and pure nature allied with sympathetic humans on the other. Shrill Internet reviewer Nostalgia Critic based one of his most memorable running gags on the absurdity of this idea. A-like so:
A large part of the appeal Princess Mononoke held for people, at least in the West, was that it managed to tell a story about this conflict in an accessible and entertaining way while also maintaining narrative integrity. Its characters are driven by realistic motivations that, while not always admirable, remain understandable. Our antagonists are not moulded into monsters by the needs of a lazy script but keep their humanity–and, crucially, much of their animalism in the case of the anthropomorphized animal characters–and dignity. Roger Ebert’s review, through which our kind editor first heard of this film, mentions that the film is “more like mythical history than action melodrama.” It is precisely as mythical history, more specifically as etiology or a story of origins, that we are going to be looking at Mononoke. Specifically, I want to read the film as a myth about the triumph of capitalism in Japan. Besides the obvious mythical overtones of the film, especially the fact that it begins with dramatic framing narration, we can also read the comments we began the post with, as well as the fact that the movie is set in the late Muromachi period, a time of significant social turmoil in Japan and the beginning of the end of the Japanese feudal system that had been dominant since about the 13th century, though the situation is in fact more complex than that.
According to historian Pierre François Souyri, Japanese feudalism was never able to establish a cohesive social order that allowed it to complete its hegemonic control over the islands. While the warrior-state under the control of the shogun certainly wielded the lion’s share of power through the various shogunates of what we can call the Japanese Medieval period, they were forced to collaborate with the old aristocracy and especially the imperial court. These vestiges of the old order still held significant economic and symbolic power, and by the time the warriors were able to seize dominion in the 16th century, “Japan was beginning to undergo another transformation” (The World Turned Upside Down 213). Feudalism was being entrenched further by the Edo period shoguns, the Tokugawa, whose regime eventually set the stage for the restoration of the emperor in the 19th century and the rapid creation of a Japanese nation-state/empire along European lines. The late Muromachi, therefore, which is also called the Warring States Period, is a transformative moment in Japanese history, right on the brink of the first European contact and the end of the unstable period of domination by warlords. As Souyri writes, “This unification ended the war. It also ended the multiplicity of land regimes and laid the groundwork for a new and unprecedented rise in population growth, which continued throughout the seventeenth century” (216).
Of course, much about Princess Mononoke is ahistorical. Locations, when named, are never precisely situated. The people, with the possible exception of the unnamed and unseen emperor, are fictional. This does not mean, however, that we cannot watch this film and see its relevance to Japanese history. Nor should we deny its importance in getting a glimpse at how a particular Japanese, Hayao Miyazaki, views this history.
Because capitalism is, before anything else, a system of organizing labour, I will be employing Marx and other critics in the Marxist vein to analyze the way labour relations are depicted in the film.
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx describes the conditions under which the feudal aristocrats were overthrown by the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie or middle class. He writes:
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground…” (17).
Lady Eboshi’s settlement, Irontown, is a perfect example of a frontier capitalist town. We the audience are not privy to the details of how it was founded or why, but we can see what it represents: the advancement of production and the subjugation of Nature to human ends. Our protagonist, Ashitaka, represents an earlier ideal, that of placation of nature. He respects the divinities that patrol the forest, even when they are fearful or hostile. He clearly sees that it is Eboshi’s disrespect for these sacred laws that govern human-nature relationships that is the cause of his curse. She, however, sees nature as demystified and commodified. She kills the forest god. It exists only for the purpose of human exploitation, and with her technology and loyal armies nothing can stand in her way. Positive criticism of the film tends to praise her for harbouring lepers and former prostitutes, even inverting gender norms to an extent. There are men as well, but they play a subordinate role. I would argue, however, that her recruitment from the margins is more canny than compassionate.
As we see as the story progresses, Eboshi’s enemies are many. Gods are not the only members of the old order who are contesting her dominance. Samurai and daimyo, the symbols of Japanese feudalism, also invade seeking to seize her technology and the raw materials that underly it. Therefore, Irontown’s labour population has to be composed of people their overlord can trust. Prostitutes and lepers are among the most dispossessed and marginalized groups in society, unbound by loyalties to the old system. According to Souyri, they were classified as hinin or “pariahs,” people who, though granted certain protections, were entirely dependent on charity and subject to discrimination (97-98). Lady Eboshi is the only person willing to give them anything resembling a dignified life, even if she is also exploiting their labour for her own purposes. She is therefore a vanguard of capitalism in a largely feudal society, and someone who disregard the divinity of nature in a world where the lines between animal and human are not as well defined as they have become in modern times. Not only this, but the film depicts the beginning of labour organized around producing surplus capital rather than subsistence. The town is dependent on trade in food and other necessities, indicating the greater specialization for maximization of capital profit inherent in capitalism.
The reason we probably label this early captain of industry a sympathetic character is because her values are the closest to ours. We have no qualms about cutting down that annoying oak tree that blocks our view. We don’t offer supplicatory prayers to nature spirits when we kill animals or eat meat. Most of the time, our own view of nature is that it’s an instrument for human consumption and exploitation. I could easily see a remake of this film focusing on Eboshi as the protagonist, a lone voice of reason putting the old superstitions to rest, slaying the gods that hold back human progress and getting rid of the oppressive feudal lords. That would be a more triumphalist and probably less nuanced film, but it would be more familiar. Industrial innovators and early inventors are lionized in our society, usually with scientific measurement units named after them. We celebrate human conquest of nature, and Mononoke shows us how the world became so safe for us to ransack. Now that the gods are dead, nature has no agency of its own, and though it might occasionally inconvenience our development, it is fundamentally inert.
Hayao Miyazaki’s film ends with the death of the forest god, the temporary destruction of Irontown, and the realization that the formerly close relationship between humans and nature has been torn asunder. San and Ashitaka are forever alienated from one another despite their mutual affections, reflecting the new system of order governing nature and humanity. This ending marks the end of the beginning, and prophesies, in hindsight, the ever-accelerating pace of development in Japan and throughout the world. It does not sentimentalize the loss of nature, nor does it fail to see the real benefits gained in the advance of modern capitalism, but it also shows the problems inherent in treating the world as a static reserve for resources. Though Eboshi’s vision of society is more inclusive of the outcasts, it continues to exploit them, and only exacerbates the tensions between humans and nature. Presently, the great forests of Japan have all but vanished, and in their place humans have erected Iron Towns far more colossal and populous than she could have ever dreamed.
Next week, we’ll continue our analysis of Japanese film in the 90s and its discourse on nature with a look at Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko. If Mononoke is the etiology of Japanese capitalism, that film is a mournful reflection on its final victory.