It sounds like you all enjoyed “Princess Mononoke” (1997), our penultimate movie in the hero’s quest media studies series. Depending on how much you liked this film, I’d definitely recommend you check out more work by Hayao Miyazaki.
In your responses to my discussion questions, you were all absolutely correct in identifying Ashitaka’s Call to Adventure. It’s pretty hard to ignore that call when it comes in the form of a curse placed on you by a giant, demon-possessed boar. As many of you noted, the actual object of Ashitaka’s quest starts as finding a cure for his cursed arm, but it shifts as his journey progresses. Sometimes we see this happen in hero’s quests. They start by focusing on one thing and then change as the character learns more.
One very important thing to notice at the outset is that Ashitaka says he wants to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.” That mission seems central to the film’s overall message about balance and harmony. His ability to accomplish that goal is also key to Ashitaka’s ultimate success as a hero.
While I did ask you to think about which among the many candidates in this movie might serve as the antagonist, this was a bit of a trick question. Sorry, I know those can be annoying. But my point was not to try and fool you, but rather to get you thinking. This movie is unusual in the sense that it presents lots of characters, all of them with conflicting goals and ideals. Even the notion of “justice” is contested among them.
While considering who might be the antagonist, if we had to name one, many of you nominated Lady Eboshi. I disagree. While she does have some negative traits, and she’s a rival to our hero at times, she also possesses too many positive traits to be the villain.
The leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi saved the town’s women from the brothels where they were basically slaves. She has also taken in the lepers and cared for them. She genuinely wants the best for her people, even if she remains somewhat short-sighted about how that would affect the forest. Lady Eboshi also thanks Ashitaka at the end and vows to rebuild her city into a better place. Ashitaka, for his part, decides to stay in Iron Town and help her accomplish that goal. These elements convince me that we can’t just dismiss Lady Eboshi as the villain.
For me, the mercenary Monk Jiko-bo with his dirty tricks and unfettered greed is almost more of a villain. He doesn’t even have a core ethic besides selfishness. But I don’t think he’s really the antagonist either. I suspect we don’t have an actually single character we can name as the villain. The antagonist here is more of an abstraction. Maybe it’s the curse of hatred that inflects various characters at various times.
In any case, even though the task of naming an antagonist was little bit of a trick question, you all made some good cases for your various nominees. That said, recognizing that we don’t have any perfect candidate gives us a great opportunity to remember that we must always take every aspect of a character or a story into account when developing an interpretation (sometimes called a “reading”) of a movie or a book. Any strong theory must be able to stand up to all the available evidence. In this case, trying to shoehorn Lady Eboshi, or really any of the characters, into the role of villain makes us overlook too much contradictory evidence. We need to let things be as complicated as they are when analyzing a complex problem.
Ashitaka’s Final Test of Worthiness and his Ultimate Boon are also tricky to answer. His Test is when he returns the forest god’s head, even though he doesn’t know what will happen. He just knows it must be made whole again. Ashitaka’s worthiness as a hero rests in his willingness to risk losing everything in order to do the right thing. Similarly, his Ultimate Boon is unexpected, but it results in that compromise towards balance and harmony. Another part of his boon is that he seems to have lifted the curse of hatred from himself and everyone else. He and the others (even those without visible signs of it) had been cursed with hatred and selfishness. That is relieved from him and all the characters by the end.
This conclusion also relates to the conflicting ideas of justice in the movie. None of the characters had a clear idea of justice because they had all been seeing that ideal from their own self-centered perspectives. The overall movie suggests that justice, like peace, only comes through balance. Not everyone can have their own way, at least not entirely.
As we look at what the movie has to say about the roles of men and women, or even the conflict between unspoiled nature and human industry, we find that compromise and balance remain at the center of Miyazaki’s vision. The director of this movie definitely wants to make us think about the order of things in challenging new ways that don’t take our typical perspectives for granted. It might be a little too idealistic for the real world, but I think Miyazaki wants to say we could all get along if we could just learn to be less selfish, more willing to compromise, and “see with eyes unclouded by hatred.”