SUBJECTS — World/Japan; The Environment; Mythology; Cinema;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Male Role Model; Leadership; Romantic Relationships;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring; Citizenship.
AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for images of violence and gore;
1999 (U.S. Release); Animation; 133 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.
“Princess Mononoke” is an enthralling epic that elevates anime to art. Most children adore it. The movie is also an environmental wake-up call which attempts to provoke its audience into realizing how much we have already lost and how much more we stand to lose.
The story is set in a mythical Japan in the sixteenth century. A boar god has been shot with a bullet made of iron, a substance so incompatible with his nature that its presence in his body turns him into a demon. He attacks a remote village but is killed by its young prince, Ashitaka.
In the fight, some of the evil that possessed the boar god has attached itself to Ashitaka’s arm. The Village Wise Woman tells Ashitaka that soon the evil will overwhelm him and he will die. The only cure can come from the Forest Spirit who lives far away in the deep woods. Taking her advice, Ashitaka leaves his village to find the Forest Spirit. On his journey, he comes across Iron Town, a place where society’s outcasts find refuge and acceptance. But the people of Iron Town have destroyed the surrounding forest to make charcoal, a necessary ingredient in the smelting of iron. The animal spirits of the forest have begun to resist and to attack the ironworks. Among them is the mysterious Princess Mononoke, a human girl raised by wolves. The leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi, is the person who shot the boar god. She is now bent upon killing the Forest Spirit to protect her people and allow the ironworks to expand.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
This film won the 1998 Award of the Japanese Academy for Best Picture.
(For the English Version) Billy Crudup as Prince Ashitaka’s voice; Claire Danes as San’s voice; Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi’s voice; Gillian Anderson as Moro’s voice.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“Princess Mononoke” can be used to make children think about what we are doing to the environment. It shows strong nurturing male figures and strong female figures as leaders of their communities, who both nurture and destroy. The film is also an opportunity to discuss the early history of Japan.
MODERATE. This film contains violence in which, for example, heads and arms are cleanly lopped off by Ashitaka’s arrows. Less extreme violence would have been preferable, however, there are five reasons why we recommend this film despite the violence. First, this is animation. Children have watched cartoon characters kill, maim and destroy each other for generations without ill effect. Second, the violence occurs through the agency of Ashitaka’s arm, which not only suffers from the curse of the boar god but, when Ashitaka is provoked, has a god-like strength. It is not the character of Ashitaka who commits the violence, it’s the evil that has taken control of his arm. Third, the animation is set in a dim and mythical past and these are not real people. Fourth, we recommend this film for children twelve and up. By that age, unfortunately, most children have seen so much violence in movies and on television that they won’t be affected by cartoon violence in this film. Finally, in all other respects, the film is beneficial.
Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question and talk about how we must stop ruining our environment.
“Princess Mononoke” is the most popular Japanese made film of all time. Only “Titanic” has sold more theater seats in Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote and directed the film, is one of the acknowledged masters of animation. He released the following statement about “Princess Mononoke“:
This film has few of the samurai, feudal lords and peasants that usually appear in Japanese period dramas. And the ones who do appear are in the smallest of small roles. The main heroes of this film are the rampaging forest gods of the mountains and the people who rarely show their faces on the stage of history. Among them are the members of the Tatara clan of ironworkers, the artisans, laborers, smiths, ore diggers, charcoal makers and drivers with their horses and oxen. They carry arms and have what might be called their own workers associations and craftsman guilds.
San and Moro, the Wolf God
The rampaging forest gods who oppose humans take the shape of wolves, boars, and bears. The Great Forest Spirit on which the story pivots is an imaginary creature with a human face, the body of an animal and wooden horns. The boy protagonist is a descendant of the Emishi tribe, who were defeated by the Yamato rulers of Japan and disappeared in ancient times. The girl resembles a type of clay figure found in the Jomon period, the pre-agricultural era in Japan, which last until about 80 C.E.
The principal setting of the story are the deep forests of the gods, which humans are not allowed to penetrate, and the ironworks of the Tatara clan, which resembles a fortress. The castles, towns and rice-growing villages that are the usual settings of the period dramas are nothing more than distant backdrops. Instead, we have tried to recreate the atmosphere of Japan in a time of thick forests, few people and no dams, when nature still existed in an untouched state, with distant mountains and lonely valleys, pure, rushing streams, narrow roads unpaved with stones, and a profusion of birds, animals and insects.
We used these settings to escape the conventions, preconceptions and prejudices of the ordinary period drama and depict our characters more freely. Recent studies in history, anthropology and archeology tell us that Japan has a far richer and more diverse history than is commonly portrayed. The poverty of imagination in our period dramas is largely due to the influence of cliche movie plots.
The Japan of the Muromachi era (1392-1573), when this story takes place, was a world in which chaos and change were the norm. Continuing from the Nambokucho era (1336-1392), when two imperial courts were warring for supremacy, it was a time of daring action, blatant banditry, new art forms, and rebellion against the established order. It was a period that gave rise to the Japan of today. It was different from both the Sengoku era (1482-1558) when professional armies conducted organized wars, and the Kamakura era (1185-1382) when the strong-willed samurai of the period fought each other for domination.
It was a more fluid period, when there were no distinctions between peasants and samurai, when women were bolder and freer, as we can see in the shokuninzukushie – pictures that depicted women of the time working at all the various crafts. In that era, the borders of life and death were more clear-cut. People lived, loved, hated, worked and died without the ambiguity we find everywhere today.
Here lies, I believe, the meaning of making such a film as we enter the chaotic times of the 21st century. We are not trying to solve global problems with this film. There can be no happy ending to the war between the rampaging forest gods and humanity. But even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, there is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things still exist.
We depict hatred in this film, but only to show there are more important things. We depict a curse, but only to show the joy of deliverance. Most important of all, we show how a boy and a girl come to understand each other and how the girl opens her heart to the boy. At the end, the girl says to the boy, ‘I love you, Ashitaka, but I cannot forgive human beings.’ The boy smiles and says, ‘That’s all right. Let’s live together in peace.’
This scene exemplifies the kind of movie we have tried to make.
[End of statement by Mr. Miyzaki.]
This film has a strong basis in the Shinto religion. The focus of Shinto is the purity of self and a reverence for “kami,” the spiritual quality found in trees, rocks, waters, mountains, and the forces of nature. The spirits of deceased emperors and heroes are also considered kami. Unseen forces of nature, called “ke,” permeate all matter such as rocks and trees to create “mononoke,” the spirit of natural objects. The Japanese blame mononoke for many unexplainable things, from a minor headache to an earthquake. The title of this film can be said to be “Princess of the Spirit of Natural Things.” (This is not a translation but rather an interpretation; others suggested interpretations of the title that we have seen are “the possessed princess” and “the ghost princess.”)
A belief system in which spirits exist in nature fosters reverence for the value of natural resources. It is a doctrine with practical appeal for a large population living on a relatively small island.
Kodama and Tree
Kodama are tree spirits, also called echoes. They are said to come in various sizes and shapes and to be born from the largest and oldest tree in the forest. The particular form of kodama in the film, little white creatures, is Miyazaki’s invention.
This is a story of outcasts. San had been abandoned in the forest by her parents. Similarly, the women of the ironworks had been also been abandoned. Their only recourse would have been prostitution had Lady Eboshi not provided a place for them.
Lepers were banned from society in ancient and medieval times because it was thought that their illness was contagious. By giving these outcasts a place in her community, Lady Eboshi earned their loyalty. In a sense, Ashitaka was also an outcast. He lives in a secret village, hidden by mountains and forest from the rest of Japan. His people had fought the emperor and lost. If Ashitaka leaves the village, he can never return for fear that he would be followed. In feudal Japan cutting one’s hair meant that you were dead to your community. When Ashitaka cuts his hair, he acknowledges that he can never return to his village, whether he finds a cure or not.
In the Tatara iron making process, iron-bearing sands and charcoal are placed into a clay furnace and burned for several days.
Afterward the furnace is taken down and the iron ingot taken out. The process uses large amounts of charcoal. The manufacture of charcoal requires the burning of many trees. The burned out area around the ironworks attests to the many acres of trees that had to be destroyed to make Iron Town profitable.
2. The film opens with a long shot of mist-laden mountains and the words “Long ago, this country was covered by deep forests in which, from ancient times, there lived the gods.” What does this tell us?
It tells us that the story is not of our time and place but exists in a mythical time and place.
3. The fact that the iron bullet poisons the boar god and turns him into a demon is a symbol. What does it mean in the context of the story?
Iron and the civilization based on iron is alien and destructive to the gods of the forest, or, in other words, civilization based on iron is repugnant to nature.
4. “Princess Mononoke” is the most popular Japanese movie ever made. This fact indicates that its story relates to important issues affecting Japanese society. Some of these are relevant to people the world over. What are they?
Good responses should include some of the following concepts: (1) We are concerned about our abuse of the environment. (2) The proper male role model is not the destructive entrepreneur or the samurai out for his own enrichment or glory, represented by Jiko-Bo, but rather the peacemaker who nurtures every well-meaning person that he meets, exemplified by Ashitaka. (Ashitaka helps everyone but Jiko-Bo. See also the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.) (3) There is a continuing recognition that the era of male domination and patriarchy is coming to a close and that women can become leaders. This story also calls into question pivotal myths of Japanese culture and society, such as reverence for the emperor, a view of history as a chronology of events at the imperial court and wars of the samurai, and the conviction that the Japanese are a homogeneous people living in harmony with nature ruled by a patriarchal elite.
5. At the end of the film, has a lasting peace has been achieved between the ironworks and the forest? Can they coexist?
There is no lasting peace but perhaps the forest and the ironworks can coexist. Ashitaka hopes so and will work for it. Some critics see this film as an argument that very different cultures can, or rather must, learn to live in the same space without losing their identities. This applies to both the international community and to groups of people within nations. See Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation by Susan J. Napier, 2000, pp. 191 & 192.
6. Does this film have the classic “happy ending”?
No. San and Ashitaka cannot live together. There is no lasting peace between nature and civilization and we know that in the future nature will suffer further depredations by civilization. In the terms of the symbols of this movie, the forest and its gods (nature) will continue to be pushed back by the ironworks (civilization).
7. If you were to analyze this film in terms of its plot (i.e. setting, rising action, conflict and resolution) is there really a resolution?
The resolution is incomplete. See response to preceding two questions.
8. This film shows an animist view of nature. What is animism? Does anyone still believe it?
Animism is the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess a spiritual dimension and can become gods. The beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans in which there was a god of the sea, a god of the winds, etc. was animist. Hinduism has strong elements of animism. The Japanese Shinto religion also believes that animate and inanimate objects, in addition to human beings, have a spiritual dimension. In many cultures people hold animist beliefs along with the beliefs of the major non-animist religions: Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Animism is still a vital force in the spiritual lives of many people.
9. This story can be seen as the tale of the quest of a hero. How is it like and unlike other hero myths that you know about? (Examples: Odysseus, Jason, Hercules, Luke Skywalker.)
Like all heroes, Ashitaka leaves his village on a quest. His quest is not for greatness but, like Odysseus, for survival. Like other heroes, Ashitaka undergoes challenges and by meeting them saves his community, although, for Ashitaka it is not the isolated and doomed community he came from. Instead, the community helped by Ashitaka represents all mankind. Note that Ashitaka is not cured of the curse by the Forest God until Ashitaka becomes instrumental in returning the Forest God’s head. This was the test that Ashitaka had to pass.
10. How is the role of women, as shown in this story, different than the view of women in traditional Japanese society?
The women in this story are strong and powerful leaders. Traditional Japanese society viewed the role of women as limited to serving men and family. The creator of this film, Hayao Miyazaki, intended to challenge this view of women when he wrote the script for this film.
11. What did the Wise Woman of the Emishi village mean when she said that Ashitaka must learn “to see with eyes unclouded by hate”?
Emotions such as anger, the desire for revenge, or hatred often blind us to reality, justice or what is really important.
12. In this movie, what did the Forest Spirit and the animal gods represent and what did Lady Eboshi and her ironworks represent?
The Forest Spirit and the animal gods represented nature. The inhabitants of the ironworks, led by Lady Eboshi, represented the forces of human development and progress.
13. What would be lost if the world was completely developed and consisted of nothing but cities, housing developments, shopping malls, roads, office buildings, farms, and factories?
There is no one right answer. A good answer would include a reference to the fact that in such a world the fundamental balance of nature, on which mankind’s continued existence depends, would be destroyed. Millions of people would perish from either starvation, global climate change, loss of oxygen, a plague or from some other cause.
14. What are you going to do to prevent this from happening?
There is no one right answer but a good answer should include activism of some kind. There are millions of people involved in the effort to save the planet. There are many organizations working to this end.
15. Do you think that mankind can exist and progress can occur without destroying nature?
There is no one right answer but a good answer will contain some of the following elements: Mankind can live with nature but it will take a combination of restraints on human development, restraints on consumption, and an aggressive use of technology to continually work to make man’s impact on nature less harmful. The primary restraint is population control, which often occurs naturally in the more developed nations, i.e., birth rates decline. But we also need to restrain our consumption. Each person should try to consume less and to recycle what he or she consumes. Finally, advances in technology are needed to lessen the impact on nature of what we do consume. An excellent example of the use of technology to make man’s impact on the environment less harmful are the catalytic converters in automobiles which have substantially reduced air pollution and hybrid automobiles that get more miles on less gasoline. There are two other ways to phrase the same question: “Do you think that the inevitable effect of human habitation on the environment is the scorched earth shown in this film?” and “Can the spirit of the wilderness coexist with civilization, or must the whole earth be subjugated to the dictates of human economy?”
16. What was Ashitaka’s relationship to the forces of nature and the forces of human development?
Ashitaka tried to make peace between the forces of nature (the gods and spirits of the forest) and the forces of human progress (Lady Eboshi’s ironworks) because he knew that the forces of human development could not be stopped, but at the same time, that human development could exist only if it made peace with nature.
17. Within the framework of this film, fast forward to the modern day. What would you expect the relationship between the gods of the forest and mankind to be?
The struggle is over and in almost all parts of the world, certainly in Japan, the U.S. and other developed countries, the forces of civilization dominate. The question is whether mankind will exert the self-control necessary to preserve enough of the balance of nature so that it will not rear up like a wounded dragon and kill us all. Ask a follow up question of how we can exert this self-control. Suggested response: through population control, restrictions on consumption, both voluntary and imposed by government, technological innovations to lessen our impact on the land, government regulation, etc. Debate the effectiveness of each.
18. It has been said that this film does not adhere to simplistic views of good and evil. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.
Agree. Look at the characters of Jiko-Bo and Lady Eboshi. They are not portrayed as evil, although ultimately, Jiko-Bo has no redeeming features. Lady Eboshi is a good and nurturing leader for the ironworks; her main problem is that she lacks the vision to see that the ironworks (civilization) cannot exist out of balance with nature. The animal gods too have their problems; they refuse to accept Ashitaka because he is human. Remember how the boar gods became angry with the Forest Spirit because it healed Ashitaka? San herself is overcome with bitterness and cannot work cooperatively with the humans.
19. At the end of the film are Jiko-Bo and his Kagarasen soldiers defeated?
For the moment, but they and the forces that they represent, human greed, are still there, waiting to pounce if we ever let our guard down.
20. In this film the wolves are a symbol of the power and strength of the forest. What has happened to wolves in the United States?
Wolves are very destructive to cows and sheep. They were hunted almost to extinction in the lower 48 states of the U.S. Recently some wolves have been reintroduced into the national parks, but if they go beyond the boundaries of the parks they are either anesthetized and returned or simply killed.
21. Why didn’t Ashitaka live in the forest with San?
Ashitaka was human. His place was with people, i.e., in the ironworks.
22. Ashitaka’s arm that is infected by the poison of the demon god takes on superhuman powers when he is angry or threatened. What does this symbolize?
Evil has a great power to destroy. This is one example; another is the conversion of the boar god to a demon god.
23. In this movie, what is the relationship between rage and evil?
Rage begets evil.
24. Are there any villains in this movie?
Jiko-Bo is certainly a villain, although he doesn’t see himself as evil. He wants the head of the Forest God, the very heart of nature, to serve his emperor’s lust for eternal life. To attain this goal he is willing to do grievous harm to nature. Jiko-Bo is the personification of those who, for personal gain, will destroy the environment with no regard for the long term consequences. In that sense, he is evil. Lady Eboshi shares this failing, and the film is equivocal about whether she learned her lesson. Lady Eboshi has many good qualities but this is not among them.
25. Who is good and who is evil in this film?
See response to the preceding question. Everyone, other than Jiko-Bo and perhaps Lady Eboshi, is more good than evil.
26. What are the ways in which nature shows its supremacy over mankind?
Violent storms, and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, epidemics, climatic change (changes in precipitation patterns, global warming). Many of these, such as epidemics and global climate changes, use man’s excesses against him. In many, man’s over-extension and over-population makes him more vulnerable; for example, deaths from earthquakes that occur because millions live in poorly constructed houses that will collapse and crush the people inside. Another example is the destruction that inevitably occurs when people build houses and businesses in a flood plain.
27. In this film nature is a giver of life but it can also take life away. What is the role of death in nature?
Death is an essential part of the natural order. Lions kill game, etc. Mass deaths from disease or natural disasters are a way that nature corrects for imbalances if one species overpopulates.
Male Role Model
1. Evaluate Ashitaka’s character.
The key factor in Ashitaka’s character is that he cares for others. This leads him to be nurturing and protective. While he is a powerful and courageous fighter, he fights only to protect others or when he himself is attacked. Ashitaka honors each of the Six Pillars of Character but especially the Pillars stressed in the story, Responsibility, Caring and Citizenship. See the questions on these Pillars for further elaboration.
2. Would you consider Ashitaka to be a male role model?
Yes, for the reasons outlined in the answer to the preceding question.
3. How would you rate Lady Eboshi as a leader?
She was a strong leader who cared for her people. She was calm in the face of attack and chaos, taking control and protecting her people. Like all good leaders, she has learned how to release the energies of her followers. The women and the lepers work hard because Lady Eboshi has given them a place to live and treats them with respect, something that societies of the time didn’t accord to women or lepers. She felt that she had to kill the Forest Spirit to secure the continued expansion of the ironwork. In this she was shortsighted because the people of the ironworks had to learn to coexist with the forces of nature. Her lack of foresight in this area was her most serious shortcoming as a leader.
4. Why couldn’t San and Ashitaka live together?
Where would they live? Ashitaka would not be accepted by the gods of the forest and understood that his destiny lay with the ironworks, i.e., civilization. San could not live in civilization.
5. Since San and Ashitaka could not live in the same worlds, shouldn’t they have tried to forget each other and find someone else?
That is the practical solution but many times love does not permit this.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
1. In this film, Ashitaka hurt some people very badly; his arrows cut off their heads or their arms. Did he honor the Pillar of Respect?
Yes. Ashitaka only used force in self-defense or to defend others. When he had the opportunity, he warned the person facing him to stop attacking him. Ashitaka attacked only when it was necessary to save his own life or the lives of others.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
2. The creator of this film, Hayao Miyazaki, said the film tells us that “… even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, there is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things still exist.” What was he referring to?
There is no one right answer but a good answer should refer to love or caring for each other.
3. List three occasions in the film when Ashitaka acts with caring.
There are many. Some of them are: when he kills the boar god; when he saves the two residents of the ironworks who have fallen off the cliff in the attack on the supply convoy; when he saves San’s life; when he saves Lady Eboshi’s life; and when he risks his life to warn Lady Eboshi that the ironworks are under attack.
4. How did Ashitaka honor this Pillar?
See response to the preceding question.
5. Who other than Ashitaka cared for others in this film?
San, who tried to tend the wounds of both Ashitaka and the wolves, and Lady Eboshi, who was caring toward the people of her town.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
6. Why did Ashitaka go out of his way to help the ironworks and its citizens?
Because he had adopted it as his community.
7. How did Ashitaka honor this Pillar of Character?
He risked his life for the people of the ironworks by protecting Lady Eboshi from San’s attack and by warning Lady Eboshi of the attack on the ironworks.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
2. Write a paper answering any one or a group of the Discussion Questions set out above.
3. Give a class presentation, individually or in groups, responding to any of the Discussion Questions set out above.
BRIDGES TO READING
Princess Mononoke: The Art and Making of Japan’s Most Popular Film of All Time by Studio Ghibli, 1999.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Frequently Asked Questions on “Princess Mononoke” from The Hayao Miyazaki Web
- The Hayao Miyazaki Web main page
- Oku-Izumo district of “Tatara” steel manufacture
- The Fate of the World Rests on the Courage of One Warrior – Princess Mononoke, at Animated views.com, accessed 4/23/21
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Princess Mononoke: The Art and Making of Japan’s Most Popular Film of All Time by Studio Ghibli, 1999
- Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation by Susan J. Napier, 2000; Footnote 1 the language in the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Description
- Section is adapted from this book, page 180
- Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy, 1999.
This Learning Guide was last updated on December 17, 2009; minor changes were made on April 23, 2021.