Princess Mononoke is one of the most amazing movies ever. My kids demanded that we watch it last night. I didn’t mean to join them, since I may have seen this film ten times, but once it began I was immediately sucked in and could not escape until the film ended. It also has totally abhorrent politics and functions as apologia for colonialism.
The film is about a place called Iron Town, which is colonizing an ancient forest. The film explains, however, that Iron Town is good, actually, because its leader, Lady Eboshi, is a woman, and has hired lepers and former sex workers to aid her project. (This could easily have been an Israeli film explaining that Israel is good because it saved Jews from the Holocaust.)
Multiple times characters in the film state that sex work is bad but being exploited by Lady Eboshi is good. She herself leaves dying workers behind, abandons them to samurai in order to pay off a debt to a monk (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton, in what must be his most memorable performance), and calls one worker an idiot — right to his face. She gets away with this because she is a woman and the worker is a man; Miyazaki himself has repeatedly stated that he is a feminist, though clearly not a leftwing feminist. He has therefore anachronistically placed individualized neoliberal identity politics in Japan during its violent and brutal transition from feudalism to capitalism.
But Eboshi is also good because she apologizes, once, for pushing workers so hard, and also works alongside them — more like a small business owner than a lazy billionaire. At one point she even mentions that she will have some wine sent up to the lepers — who are busy manufacturing the weapons of war that Japan will one day use to enslave Asia. (This film takes place in the Muromachi period, just before Japan’s first failed attempt to colonize Korea and China.) And yet in spite of Eboshi’s friendly mode of exploitation, she still keeps the lepers, sex workers, and men separate and alienated from one another. She wouldn’t want them banding together to overpower her, after all!
Compare this portrayal of the goodness of capitalism to a novel like The Good Earth, in which feudal serfs become feudal oppressors thanks only to luck, and a sex worker manages to wrap an entire wealthy family around her finger.
We can also see, in Princess Mononoke, the capitalist Lady Eboshi triumphing over workers, nature, and even the feudal order. Iron Town uses modern industrial methods to produce modern guns, while all of Eboshi’s foes are trapped in the past and are therefore limited to swords, daggers, bows and arrows, and even their own bodies (like the wolves and the giant boar).
Because of her advanced technology, Eboshi is never defeated in battle, but is still reminded of her own femininity and emasculated by losing her arm — being castrated — by the mother wolf head — itself likewise emasculated, castrated, enraged, and able to direct its rage toward the proper source — Lady Eboshi — unlike the workers in Iron Town.
No one even seems to know where Lady Eboshi came from or how this conflict even began. One worker mentions that she just sort of showed up one day and took charge of everything. The title of the film, Princess Mononoke, refers to San, the wolf woman, but also refers to evil spirits which can possess the land, animals, or people. Like the liberal vision of history itself, these spirits (like “greed” or “tribalism” or “human nature”) have no origin, but have always been here, and therefore cannot be resisted, explained, or overcome. Prince Ashitaka hears about these spirits early in the film from Billy Bob Thornton’s monk, who is probably the only real villain we really encounter.
Prince Ashitaka’s Journey to the West, meanwhile, hearkens back to the Chinese Buddhist epic novel which has the same title and which is popular across East Asia. The wise woman in the film — a kind of Buddhist-shamanistic version of Ursula K. Le Guin — even utters Buddhist or Nietzschean clichés about how all life is suffering and we must accept our fate. Though Buddhism is perhaps the only world religion which has any kind of positive appeal on Earth at the moment, Zen monks were just as happy to aid the Japanese imperial project in Asia as Christian priests have aided Western imperialism in the Americas or Africa. While living in South Korea, I was even able to find a Japanese Zen temple constructed during the colonial period!
But Ashitaka is also an easterner traveling to The West — Europe, the Americas — to learn more about the capitalism and imperialism which has already ruined his own life. He goes there to heal himself, but inadvertently joins the colonial project — even as he repeatedly attempts to both-sides the conflict between Iron Town and the forest it is exploiting — again, not unlike a liberal attempting to make sense of Israel-Palestine. By the end of the film, he tells the wild woman he loves, San, that he will help Lady Eboshi rebuild Iron Town. But without the (Godzilla-like) Forest Sprit, the film has already explained to us that the gods — the world’s indigenous people — will just become dumb animals, and that it will be impossible to stop the human capitalists from literally devouring them.
Miyazaki’s most famous film, My Neighbor Totoro, has a similar approach to Japanese capitalism and imperialism. I first saw this movie as a kid and barely even realized that it took place in Japan. I noticed that the girls in the film ate breakfast with chopsticks and that their father bathed with them, but other than that, they were “normal,” as far as I could tell.
I loved this movie then and still love it now. But none of the film’s characters mentions that Japan has just lost a catastrophic war. The father is a history professor and probably spent his earlier career cheerleading Japan’s rape of Asia. Thus his exile to the country, and his fervent desire to talk about literally anything other than history or politics — not unlike the narrator of An Artist of the Floating World.
In Spirited Away, we likewise see a young Japanese girl experiencing exploitation at the workplace for the first time. Rather than banding together with the alien workers in order to overthrow the evil witch who has enslaved them, the main character in the film attempts only to liberate herself, one or two friends, and her parents, and then flees that workplace to return to late stage capitalism in Japan. There we can only assume that she will continue being exploited, just by someone else, or that she herself will rise up to become a business owner in her own right.
Grave of the Fireflies (a non-Miyazaki anime) is a much more devastating portrayal of people living inside the imperial core and dealing with its collapse. My Neighbor Totoro, in contrast, barely seems to be aware that anything negative has taken place. Rather than attempt to come to terms with the past, the characters in both Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro seek to lose themselves in visions of primitive nature — which to their pre-capitalist ancestors would have appeared as an overwhelming, horrifying power to be sated with sacrifice, not as a source of beauty or peace or Totoro-like or Kodama-like warmth or friendliness.
Thanks to all these films, it would seem that imperial powers have a lot of trouble adjusting to their new status as playthings of history. The UK, Japan, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy all seem to have been more or less in crisis mode for decades. As the American Empire declines, we can expect to see more American films that implicitly or explicitly address this decline — either by burying their heads in the sand, as with Miyazaki’s films, or by attacking the issue head-on, as with Grave of the Fireflies. None of these films makes any attempt to bring imperialists to justice, however—although we may see hints of this in Bong Joon-ho’s films (especially The Host), or those of Jordan Peele.
This is because the powers-that-be are still too strong inside the world’s defunct imperial powers. The proletariat has yet to overcome the bourgeoisie; history and culture have been stuck for decades. Tension nonetheless continues to build toward a spectacular climax—like the one we witness at the very end of Akira.