Mononoke: 20 Years of Animated Imperialism


Seeing with Eyes [un]Clouded

I used to be a huge Miyazaki fan.  When I saw the dubbed version of Princess Mononoke in a small screening room in Columbia, MO, it was, I have to admit, a transformative experience.  I had simply never seen anything like it, even among the anime I had watched in high school and college, which, back then (and arguably as today), were fairly limited in terms of scope and genre.  It wasn’t transformative in that way so many white mid-westerns speak of their conversion to Japanese popular culture, as suddenly taking “cartoons” seriously or other such elitist dreck, but rather in how it seemed to completely re-orient the standard players of period drama or adventure fiction.

In Japan, the jidaigeki is something of an institution.  Every week on NHK, Sunday at 8 P.M., the Taiga Drama series depicts some historical event, generally from the perspective that most of Japanese history is told: great men (and occasionally women) doing great things in great times.  Rarely mentioned in these dramas are the working class, outcastes such as burakumin or sanka, women not of noble birth, foreigners, zainichi Koreans, or generally anyone who doesn’t fit the standard mold of Japanese greatness or plucky can-do.  The idea that anything untoward or awkward might have occurred in Japan’s past is simply left unthought, just as one might expect from a (small c) conservative institution controlled by a fundamentally (small c) conservative governing board.  It’s like the BBC, only more nationalistic.


Fukuyama Masaharu as Sakamoto Ryōma in the 2010 Taiga Drama Ryōmaden

So, imagine my surprise to see an animated jidaigeki that not only was not oriented in this way–its politics seemed to me, at the time, to be quite progressive–but also refused to leave those awkward moments of the past unthought.  It simply took for granted that feudal lords were in fact brutal warlords out for their own gain and not, as Oda Nobunaga is so often depicted, romanticized unifiers of an emergent nation.  People are petty and vindictive, they do the right thing sometimes but sometimes don’t, and life is depicted as the ongoing struggle of competing interests, even if, especially at the end, Mononoke takes a rather nauseating didactic turn.  We can all learn to coexist in our respective spheres, despite our differences–so long as we pay no mind to the overarching structures of oppression that dominated the Muromachi period or how the Emperor will likely be none too happy that the mission he sent his mercenaries on was rendered impossible by San’s and Ashitaka’s actions.  So long as the flowers grow, I guess.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized what Miyazaki was doing in his films was quite often just a watered down version of Shirato Sanpei’s brutal and generally latent class politics.  Miyazaki, having “abandoned” Marxism earlier in life, turned to interrogations of utopia (Naushika), coming of age (Kiki), and, perhaps most importantly, ecology.  Naushika and Mononoke have a particular affinity that Miyazaki’s other films do not, the 1997 film having been advertised and even conceptualized (Miyazaki began working on Mononoke just after the Naushika manga concluded) as the culmination of that earlier film which had established Miyazaki as an animation auteur.  In my own work on the Naushika manga, I struggled to get a handle on Naushika’s (the character’s) rather trenchant critique of utopianism in the final volume, in part, because I didn’t understand Miyazaki’s politics as well as I thought.  To be fair to my former self, I don’t think anyone else writing in English or Japanese did either, which is why even in my essay for the second Classics and Comics volume, I left the matter as an open question.

There were warning signs, though, that I ought to have paid more attention to: Miyazaki’s weird claims before the Tokyo Cartoonists’ Association that Japanese and European brains are hard wired to “see” differently as well as his well-known reputation, in Japan, at least, for being something of an imperious tyrant in the workplace.  As it turns out, the papa bear image that Miyazaki enjoys in the non-Japanese press and to a large extent in the Japanese press as well is completely undeserved.  Oshii Mamoru was struck by how authoritarian things were at Ghibli, but in his writings he chalks up his abreaction to his own relative laziness.  However, given how the elder Miyazaki’s strained professional and personal relationship with his son Gorō is something of an open secret in the animation industry, it seems that Oshii’s reaction was not an entirely idiosyncratic one.  In abandoning Marxism while retaining something like a progressive attitude–what you see in Mononoke really are marginalized peoples who do not otherwise get much play in Japanese media–Miyazaki had not, in fact, invented a new political orientation for himself but rather had simply regressed to one much older than the student-centered mass political movements of the 1960s.  It wasn’t until just the past few years, when I started delving further into the kindai period and its intellectual history when it became clear to me just how reactionary Miyazaki’s seemingly progressive politics were.

The Things That Sigh in the Dark

I wavered a bit about whether or not I would go to the 20th anniversary screening of Mononoke last week.  After all, I had seen this film a dozen or more times, had seen this very dub, which is quite well executed, I have to admit (with the possible exception of Claire Danes’ voice acting… Christ on a stick…), so it seemed rather silly to plonk down the equivalent of a bottle of good Spanish wine to watch something I know like the back of my hand.  At basically the last possible second I decided to abandon my child and spouse to go see it, thinking I hadn’t seen the film projected since that very first time, so I loaded up on surreptitious snacks and headed for the theater.

Seeing as I live in a college town, you can imagine the audience were, in the main, at least a decade and in some cases two decades younger than myself and, I can imagine, had no sense of those heady days in the 1990s, when Japanese media felt so new and different.  After all, many of them hadn’t been born yet!  The experience of sitting in that theater, alone this time, in that crowd, was surprisingly similar to the first time.  People laughed awkwardly at samurai getting their limbs and heads blown clean off by a single arrow, and their faces gazed at the screen with a reverent awe.  Mononoke is for many, once even for myself, a sacred object, a relic that embodies a transcendent anime ideal and to which, much like the bones of martyrs, the “true fan” must pay obeisance after a long pilgrimage.  Even now with my ideological misgivings I have to admit that the film is breathtakingly beautiful, its pacing clear and direct–it tells its story well.  But the question as to whether it’s a good story, one that bears the ceremonious retelling that an anniversary would seem to demand, remains an open question.

For why that is, you’ll have to indulge another of my, at first glance, tangential digressions on Japanese history.  One of the writers who has most influenced my thinking over the years is Oguma Eiji.  His Tan’itsu minzoku kaiwa no kigen–“Nihonjin” no jigazō no keifu (translated as A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self-Images) completely upended most of the absolute crap I had read over the course of my life re: Japanese culture and showed me the way toward interrogating those things that, throughout my on and off academic career, hadn’t passed the smell test but for which I had no clear basis to critique.  What Oguma makes clear is how most of what is taken for granted nowadays with regard to Japanese cultural and racial homogeneity is largely a fiction of the postwar era.  The dominant image of Japanese identity prior to and during the war was fundamentally multi-racial/multi-ethnic.  The reason for this was that this ideological construction of the Japanese polity, based in part in folklore studies and in rather loose interpretations of the myths of ancient Japan, justified Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia.  The idea was that the Japanese, having been composed over time of “assimilated” (read “conquered”) peoples such as the Emishi and the Ainu and sharing a common lineage with Koreans, were ideally suited to colonizing vast swaths of the continent in order to protect it from Western imperialism.  Yes, you read that right: the Japanese colonized Asia to prevent people from colonizing Asia.

There were throughout the first half of the 20th century a number of variations on this notion of a mixed race polity, not all of which agree with each other about the particulars, but the most relevant for today’s screed would be the essays of Kita Sadakichi and in particular his 1921 essay “Nippon minzoku no seiritsu” (“The Formation of the Japanese Nation”) published over the course of three issues of Minzoku to rekishi (Nation and History).  In this essay, Kita argues that Japan and Korea were once an undivided region, that the imperial family did not necessarily share a common ancestor with the Japanese people, and that, most importantly here, the aboriginal peoples (<–plural) of the archipelago were originally in a state of constant infighting and strife.  According to his line of argument, the tales (in the Kojiki, for instance) of how the imperial family moved steadily eastward assimilating group after group is also the story of how the emperor et al. brought peace and order to a galaxy land tearing itself apart.  The imperial system of governance, then, was meant to harmonize and resolve tensions between those factions that otherwise would be at each others’ throats.  Given this nature, it was only appropriate that Japan would intervene in East Asia in an effort to preserve “order” and promote “harmony.”

We see a reflection of this rather ludicrous worldview in the final scenes of Mononoke, where, despite the fact that the kami, the people of the Ironworks, Lord Asano’s army, Jigo/Jiko-bō’s mercenaries, Ashitaka, San, etc. are all caught up in their conflicted interests, suddenly, with the appeasement of the Shishigami/Forest Spirit, everybody is super chill and just wants to, you know, hang out.  While the emperor plays different roles in Miyazaki’s film and Kita’s formulation, the moving parts of the narrative are surprisingly similar to Kita’s origination mythos.  A non-native dude (Ashitaka) journeys far from his home and somehow resolves ongoing factional divisions through sheer force of will, thereby harmonizing their latent sectarian impulses.  One could argue, though, as I once did, that the inversion here is important, that Ashitaka comes from one of those peoples classically subjugated by the Yamato and therefore represents a kind of return of the repressed.  He makes good and true on what, from the perspective of the Japanese government of the early 20th century, is simply a polite ideology meant to paper over what is straightforwardly a power grab.

But Ashitaka is just one example of an assimilationist fantasy that runs throughout Miyazaki’s film.  The other important thing to note about Kita’s intellectual legacy is that the harmonizing power of imperium was also a means to promote the enfranchisement of marginalized peoples.  Kita’s legacy in Japanese academic circles is fundamentally ambivalent, because while, on the one hand, he was a clear booster for empire, he was at the same time an advocate for the burakumin, an especially brave position when you consider how most intellectuals in the 1920s didn’t even consider them to be human much less fully enfranchised Japanese subjects.  Ashitaka’s “return” to the multi-ethnic fold from Emishi exile is almost perfectly analogous to how Kita tried to argue for the re-inclusion of outcastes back into the Japanese social order.

Moreover, Eboshi’s championing of brothel girls and lepers (i.e. people with Hansen’s Disease) can be seen in this light as well.  It might be tempting to read her belligerence as simply one of those compromising features that makes her a more complex character, neither strictly good nor evil, but that plus her integration of the marginalized into the Ironworks’ social order is a near perfect analogue to Kita’s construction of the Japanese imperial state.  Her lepers may be treated well, but they also serve a key function in her small scale military-industrial complex, wherein they design the guns she and her cadre of riflemen and brothel girls will use not only to protect themselves from local warlords (the “other colonizers”) but to take over the already inhabited nearby forest strictly for material gain.  So, it’s hard to know what to make of her claim at the end of the film, which is equally vague in both the Japanese and English translation, that they will make the Ironworks “better.”  Whether an ii mura or better town, it matters little, because the film ends before we can find out just what that means.

I harp on this point because it’s a failing in nearly all of Miyazaki’s creative works, both manga and anime: the inability to account for the aftermath of what has transpired in the narrative.  Naushika, after her stunning revelation, simply drifts off into the epilogue; Kiki “grows up;” Ponyo becomes an ordinary housewife; and Jiro regrets building war machines, despite the fact he knew the whole time that’s what was going on.  What matters, we’re told, again rather ludicrously, is that there was the opportunity for something beautiful to be made.  Galen Erso at least built a fatal flaw into the Death Star.  But in Mononoke, as with most of Miyazaki’s films, the politics are generally taken for granted or, at best, oversimplified.  No one is meaningfully accountable for what they have done.

If we pick apart Mononoke‘s allegory and set aside the fact that the years following the historical period depicted in the film were hardly a post-industrial utopia, its message that nature and human industry can co-exist is facile at best, because it never questions what ends that industry will be put toward.  If the people of the Ironworks go back to smelting ore into ingots, what do they think a feudal society constantly at war with itself will use it for?  When Japan industrialized in the late nineteenth century, the very first thing they did was get the war machine up and running.  Moreover, the politics of public intellectuals at the time were clearly on the side of using said war machine, even for supposedly progressive ends.  Given how the Japanese government is currently run by a PM whose ideological loyalties lie with an ultra-nationalist, right wing cabal, it’s entirely possible that the take away from this facile message of co-existence is “good for the environment, bad for democracy and self-determination.”

The authoritarian tendency has always been there in Miyazaki’s work.  I have been trying hard throughout this essay not to spoil the ending of the Naushika manga, but it has direct bearing on the current argument.  So consider yourself advised.  When Naushika (the character) refuses the master’s offer of knowledge so that humanity might survive in the world after its purification, she functionally dooms the whole of humanity to extinction for the benefit of… well, it’s not entirely clear.  As noted above, at this point the narrative simply drifts off into epilogue.  She makes this refusal without consulting anyone and, as it turns out, without even telling them about it after she made the choice.  Both Naushika and Mononoke are emblematic of the idea that any struggle with the complexities of human relationships can be simply dispensed with so that the story might come to a close.  Miyazaki himself has often complained of having to turn to messiah figures in order to work his stories out, but I would argue that what he truly cannot give up are the authoritarians.


  1. I missed this blog so much, but that’s partly my fault for not reading the book related posts.

    I never liked Princess Mononoke for some reason, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t subconsciously reading any of the above issues. I think I just never got the plot or characters rendering it my least favourite Ghibli film. Even the narrative mess of Howl’s Moving Castle was much more enjoyable.

    I probably enjoyed The Wind Rises mostly because it made me feel smart because I connected it to a reading of The Tempest in a tv documentary.

    The Wind Rises on the otherhand feels enough like it ends on a note of existential horror that I can feel like its nuanced rather than just providing a cop out. Maybe my own interpretation of the ending is being too fair. Leaving Jirou as a conflicted mess of pride and self doubt felt like a better ending then having him scream “this mountain of corpses are the results of my ambition and childhood dream” since the latter is basically stated as a superposition within the former. The message the audience is supposed to get from a piece doesn’t have to be arrested at the end of the protagonist’s character arc. Though the advantage of a historical film is that we’re living the fall out so it doesn’t matter if its left hanging.

    If the Wind Rises fully condemned Jirou it would just be the misanthropy of the end of the Nausica manga again. “Humans make beautiful things in their quests to enslave or kill each other” is basically the only honest conclusion you can find in military otakudom (and a love of ruined castles, swords and mail is basically just another branch of military fetishism). Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get through any of the books about Bronze age archaeology I’ve spent the last two years trying to work through without deciding that the only moral path is the “return humanity to the stone age” school of super villainy.

    Humans are mostly horrible to reach other. To maintain any sort of non-misanthropic outlook you have to accept that. That’s what I’d rather think The Wind Rises is about and as a white British guy its not like I could ever really understand the proper meaning anyway.

    Though I’m more familiar with Oda Nobunaga being a super villain with demonic powers. But he always represents progress even when he’s a demon so clearly not a super villain to aspire to be.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding, but I wanted to give this much more than just a cursory, “I disagree,” because, well, I kinda, sorta, maybe, disagree just a little.

      First and foremost, Miyazaki can do whatever he wants. After all, he is _the_ anime auteur. And I can’t say I want The Wind Rises to condemn Jiro so much as for any Miyazaki character to recognize the ramifications of their actions in the moment they do them. The reason I alluded to Shirato’s work is because 1) Miyazaki was supposedly heavily influenced by him and 2) Shirato’s characters can be read as both valorizations of violence as well as cautions against it. That may seem contradictory, but his ninja characters in particular always seem to be rather acutely aware of what they’re doing and how it contributes to systems of oppression largely beyond their control. An excellent example of this is Hotarubi in Ninja bugeichou, who realizes that her ultimate moment of triumph over her enemies is predicated upon her own death. Also, in an earlier volume, after she [SPOILERS] murders Akemi, Shirato very subtly hints that Hotarubi understands that what she has just done to this young woman not unlike her (Akemi is a powerful ninja in her own right) could just as easily be perpetrated on herself. In other words, his characters seem to have a much better sense of how the past informs the present informs the future.

      So, in thinking back about The Wind Rises, if Jiro were to express, say, an intense anxiety about what’s he’s doing in the moment of creation, pressing ahead despite knowing full well what purpose his work will be put to–frankly, I would find that more compelling and a clear break from the pattern I otherwise identify in Miyazaki’s work of being unable to fully comprehend ramifications or the aftermath of events. There is also within the broader Japanese society a tendency of seeing the past, particularly Japan’s ignoble, imperialist past, as something from which the present has made a clean break, which, from the perspective of a “vulgar Marxist” such as Shirato or a feminist like Ueno Chizuko, couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a way to show the many facets of violence without turning it into a perverse object of desire and to draw the line that connects the violence of the past with the political conundrums of the present.

      I hold Miyazaki accountable, because one of his own avowed influences shows just how that can be done.

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    wow! this is a trash take lol

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