The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

If You Like Princess Mononoke, Try This

by Lydia Anderson
February 21, 2014
Fri, 02/21/2014 - 15:21 -- landerson

Hayao Miyazaki's films have earned him a reputation as a master story-teller and artist. His latest (and possibly last) film, The Wind Rises, has just been released in theaters in the United States. It has drawn criticism regarding its treatment of its subject matter (the story centers on Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, whose planes were used in World War II), but most critics agree the animation is, as usual, breathtaking.

If you find yourself drawn to the mythical worlds of Miyazaki, you should be sure to read The Dharma of Dragons and Deamons. In this book, scholars David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew look at fantasy films and novels through a Buddhist lens, including a close examination of Miayazaki's 1997 film, Princess Mononoke. Princess Mononoke tells the story of warriors in medeival Japan, fighting against the ecological destruction of their land by both gods and men. Loy and Goodhew write about the film's representation of the struggle between good and evil:

In this film, most of the main characters do (or try to do) bad things, not because their nature is evil, but because they are complicated: sometimes because they are greedy or otherwise selfish, sometimes just because they are defending their own group. Another way to make the point is that they are so narrowly focused on what they are doing that they do not see the wider implications of their actions.

This is consistent with the emphasis that Buddhism places upon the three roots of evil, mentioned earlier as the three poisons: greed, ill will, and ignorance (or delusion). When they motivate our actions, evil tends to be the result. The ethical and spiritual challenge, then, is not physically destroying evil but transforming the roots of evil into their positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. [Princess Mononoke] shows us plenty of greed, ill will, and delusion, while Ashitaka demonstrates the alternatives.

In Mononoke, Ashitaka nonviolently attempts to mediate in the war between Lady Eboshi and San, the abandoned child who hates her own kind. Both women are depicted as attractive, even admirable figures, but they want to destroy each other. Eboshi does not mind cutting down the forest to make iron, “trying to build her idea of paradise—which makes her a twentieth-century person.” For her as for Kushana, the end justifies the means, yet she is also shown as a proto-feminist, compassionate to the lepers and former prostitutes in her care. Muddying the moral distinctions even more, Eboshi puts the lepers to work making guns, while the women forge iron. San identifies with the forest and the animals who dwell in it, and devotes herself to defending them against the encroachments of Irontown. Like Nausicaa interceding between Tolmekia and Pejitei, Ashitaka risks his own life trying to stop the violence between Eboshi and San, and later between their clans. As he interrupts their savage duel, he declares: “There is a black thing that infects your souls….This is the curse of vengeance and hatred that rots the flesh and beckons death.

To read more from The Dharma of Dragons and Deamons, click here.


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