Today’s essay continues our theme of contemporary messiahs, or super saviours, which we’ve explored over the past few days. What makes this one a little different though is that the super saviour figure appears in a Japanese animated fantasy film, Princess Mononoke (more details here), rather than the more typical Western superhero brand. The author of this fab essay is Isabelle Steinman, who hails from sunny Hawke’s Bay. Isabelle is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science conjoint, majoring in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She hopes to carry on to do postgraduate study and likes the idea of working in academia one day. She took our Bible and Pop Culture class because, although an atheist, she has always been interested in religion, particularly religious art and architecture, and is fascinated by the impact that religion has on everybody’s lives, regardless of their personal beliefs.
Princess Mononoke– a Story of Gods, Demons and a Cursed Messiah
Messiahs are everywhere in pop-culture. Characterised by a selfless passion for justice, a black and white moral code, extraordinary powers and an outsider status they maintain a strong connection with divinity or spirituality whilst remaining human. (Reinhartz, 2009). These Christ figures appear not only in Western culture but also in the East as is demonstrated in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film, Princess Mononoke.
After being cursed while killing a demon that was attacking his tribe, Ashitaka is forced to cut his hair, leave his people and journey far to the West in order to meet his fate. He arrives in a land caught in a struggle between the humans of Irontown and the gods of the forest. As he is able to move between the warring sides, he befriends both San, the ‘daughter’ of the wolf god Moro, and Lady Eboshi, the mistress of Irontown. Ashitaka possesses many Christ-like qualities. He is set apart from other characters by his unusual ways and his extraordinary strength and he is driven by a commitment to justice for which he eventually sacrifices himself and is resurrected.
Throughout the film, Ashitaka ‘otherness’ is emphasised. His unusual origins and extraordinary strengths distinguish him from other characters. Often referred to as ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ (Miyazaki, 1997), it is clear that the other characters do not see him as one of them. Ashitaka comes from the marginalised Emishi tribe that was believed to have been eradicated hundreds of years earlier. Separated from the culture that was advancing towards a technological future, the Emishi people are portrayed as the ‘guardians of ancient wisdoms of the forest’ (Bigelow, 2009). Unlike the other humans in the film, Ashitaka grew up with a strong connection with and respect for the natural world. We see this when Ashitaka saves two men of Irontown, carrying them home through the ‘forbidden forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). While the men are terrified of the ethereal kodama (tree spirits), Ashitaka trusts the spirits to guide them through the forest saying that they are ‘a sign this forest is healthy’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka’s unusual origins give him a different perspective to other characters in the film. He is not worried about wealth or power but has a deep-seated interest in nature and the preservation of life.
Ashitaka is also separated from other characters by his incredible, but still very human, strengths. The nature with which he returns the men to Irontown grants him a mixed reception. While the townspeople are grateful that their men are alive, they do not wholly trust this strange man who managed to travel through the taboo forest with two badly injured men; it is something they would not have dreamed possible. Ashitaka’s strength and fighting abilities seem almost unnatural to the other characters. ‘You fight like a demon’ (Miyazaki, 1997), one character tells Ashitaka. This emphasises both the magnitude and nature of Ashitaka’s powers. His strength, determination and archery skills, while god-like in measure, are human powers in essence. Ashitaka is only human and he does suffer under human hardships. This is important as, in order to be a relatable, and therefore successful, messiah he must have ‘the same limitations and weaknesses as an ‘ordinary’ and finite human being’ (Deacy, 1999).
Despite his humanity, it is still through a screen of suspicion that the other characters respect Ashitaka for his strengths. Mysterious, powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, Ashitaka must be ‘othered’. It is this outsider status, which is common for messiah figures (Kozlovic, 2004), that allows Ashitaka to move between worlds and act in a messianic role. Messiahs, as semi-holy figures, must represent desirable values whilst being set apart from the rest of us. They are figures that we should aspire to be like. Human, and familiar enough to be relatable while being separate enough to revere.
Ashitaka’s incredible strength is balanced by his incredible love and respect for life. He is driven by a desire for peace and committed to his beliefs in justice. When these two values come into conflict, Ashitaka suffers. He wants to end violence but often must use violence to do so. When we first meet Ashitaka, he is protecting his people from a terrible demon. The creature seethes with writhing, black worms but even so Ashitaka first tries to reason with it. ‘Calm your fury, oh mighty lord’ (Miyazaki, 1997), he pleads. However, when the beast threatens some villagers, Ashitaka is forced to take decisive action, killing the demon with his bow and arrow. Ashitaka knows what is right but he still struggles to enforce it. He wants to protect the innocent and fight for the weak or marginalised but it pains him to take life and he does this only when there is no other option. We see this again when Ashitaka reflects on killing two samurai who were brutally attacking another village. ‘I was wrong to fight in that village’, he says, ‘two men are dead because of me’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Although he knows his actions were justified and that his skills gave him a unique power to help the defenceless villagers, he still feels a ‘reluctance to use those skills to do harm’ (Kraemer, 2016). Ashitaka’s complex moral code separates him from classic messiah figures. He does not rationalise the violence he uses but instead feels the weight of every life he takes. He is cursed not only with the mark on his arm but also by the guilt of the violence he must use.
Ashitaka’s desires are different from all other characters in the film resulting in him not taking a side in the conflict. It is not any particular victory that he wants but an end to violence. When questioned what it is that he desires, he says ‘What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace’ (Miyazaki, 1997). The other characters see the forest and the town as completely divided, different and unable to mix. But Ashitaka does see not the division between them. To him, all life is simply sacred. No matter what you must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). When San and Eboshi become involved in a vicious fight, Ashitaka intervenes and delivers a stirring sermon. His curse manifests itself as black, swirling tendrils as he shouts to the shocked and terrified crowd, ‘This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka fight is not against against humans or gods but against hatred and it is his ‘willingness to meet violence with love’ (Kraemer, 2016) that is his greatest weapon.
Ashitaka’s image as a messiah figure is cemented in the other-worldliness of his resurrection and in his sacrifice. Miyazaki is careful in the way he portrays Ashitaka in these scenes. Although they are rich with godly powers, Ashitaka’s humanity is emphasised. As a messiah figure, Ashitaka is human touched by divinity. He is not a divine being himself but he is influenced by the gods and demons that are present in his life. This is epitomised in his resurrection. After Ashitaka is shot, San takes his lifeless body to a sacred island in the middle of the forest. She places a small plant above his head, a life to take in return for his. After she leaves, we see the forest spirit approach and revive Ashitaka in a strange, dream-like sequence. During the day, the god, who duty is to ‘give life and take life away’ (Miyazaki, 1997,) takes the form of a deer like creature with many antlers and humanoid face. We see flowers and plants bud, bloom, wilt and die under the creature’s feet as it walks. The forest spirit looks upon Ashitaka and the plant as the leaves of the plant wither and drop. In the morning, Ashitaka’s bullet wound is healed but the cursed mark remains. Although Ashitaka undergoes what is definitely a divine resurrection, it is not any divinity of his own that saves him but his pure heart. It is the forest spirit who, deeming Ashitaka worthy of resurrecting, saves him thus ensuring Ashitaka remains fully human.
In the stunning climax to the film, Ashitaka sacrifices himself to atone for humanity’s wrongdoings. Eboshi and the other humans have shot off and taken the forest spirit’s head. The ghostly shell of its body spews out deadly black liquid and long arms which search for its head. Ashitaka catches the carriers of the head and demand they give it to him to return before everything is destroyed. ‘Human hands must return it!’ (Miyazaki, 1997) He shouts. Humanity as a whole has sinned, they have turned their back on nature and committed the ultimate atrocity; killing the ‘very heart of the forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Messiah figures feel a duty to ‘take on the sinfulness of those around them’ (Kozlovic, 2004). Ashitaka must, therefore, act as a representative of humanity and sacrifice himself for their transgressions.
As he and San hold up the head for the god, they become covered with cursed marks. They are sure of their deaths but stand strong and true. With their sacrifice, they save not only themselves but all living things as a wash of new life spreads over the ruined land. Ashitaka not only possesses many of the characteristics of a messiah figure, his life and death also mirrors that of Christ in many ways. Just as Christ’s death gave humanity ‘forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7), Ashitaka’s sacrifice saved the world. His resurrection and sacrifice mark him as a clear messiah figure.
Messiah figures in film are used as symbols to exemplify the characteristics and values that filmmakers want to promote (Deacy, 1999). In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki teaches us a respect for life, as he said in a 2004 interview ‘We should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything’. He uses Ashitaka to convey a message of peace and environmentalism. Although Princess Mononoke is not explicitly religious, it does draw from Shinto mythology and beliefs and reflects many of the tenets of Western religion. Shinto faith ‘stresses relation and connectedness’ (Bigelow, 2009). This is an important theme that develops through the film as the characters realise relationships they were not previously aware of. In one of the last scenes, one of the townspeople comments ‘I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow’ (Miyazaki, 1997). As Christ literally gave a blind man sight (John 9:11), Ashitaka metaphorically opens the peoples’ eyes to the interdependent relationship between the town and the humans (Kraemer 2016). Although Miyazaki’s messiah may be more implicit than those typically found in Western culture, the ideals he teaches of love, peace and respect are essentially the same.
In conclusion, Ashitaka acts as a messiah figure to spread a message of peace. Miyazaki sets Ashitaka apart from other characters with Shis strange customs and extraordinary powers to make him able to move between warring sides. He is not the fully-assured messiah we see all too often in the West, but a saviour racked with guilt and uncertainty about how should carry out his mission without just creating more violence. Like Christ, He is fully committed to his beliefs and ready to sacrifice himself for them. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka not only learns to ‘see with eyes unclouded by hate’ (Miyazaki, 1997) but also teaches us to do the same.
All Biblical references are from the New International Version
Miyazaki, Hayao. 1997. Princess Mononoke. film. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Toho.
Bigelow, Susan J. 2009. “Technologies of Perception: Miyazaki in Theory and Practice.” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal 4 (1): 55-75.
Deacy, Christopher R. 1999. “Screen Christologies: An evaluation of the role of Christ-figures in film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (3): 325-337.
Kozlovic, Anton Karl. 2004. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8.
Kraemer, Christine Hoff. 2016. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrfice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2).
Reinhartz, Adele. 2009. “Jesus and Christ figures.” In The Routledge Companion of Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 420-439. Taylor and Francis.