Princess Mononoke and the Value of the Unknown

by Kane Karsteter-McKernan

In ancient times, the land
lay covered in forests,
where, from ages long past,
dwelt the spirits of the gods.

Back then, man and beast
lived in harmony,
but as time went by, most
of the great forests were destroyed.
Those that remained were guarded
by gigantic beasts…
who owed their allegiance
to the Great Forest Spirit,
for those were the days
of gods and demons.

A forest is a bizarre place. Not many things simultaneously inspire explorative wonder and paralyzing terror. The feeling spawns from unknown discovery. You might find something to play with, some inspiration, a cool looking rock, or something that will kill you. That is the fundamental characteristic of the unknown. Unlimited possibility. Incredible enlightenment along with ultimate destruction. Despite the inherent danger, there are some great, crucial discoveries that can only be made in the chaos of the unknown; however, this narrator points out that humans have scorched the forests, and in the desolation that remains you can’t explore, you can’t play, but you can starve. Such is the wretched condition humans have found themselves. “Princess Mononoke” is a story about the last great forest, and a lone, cursed prince trying to preserve it.
The film centers on Prince Ashitaka and his journey to release himself from lethal curse laid on him by a demon from the forest. He journeys into the wilderness hoping to find the Great Forest Spirit, who is said to have the power of life and death. During his travel, he comes across two people along a nearby river. They lead him to Irontown, a local community that makes wealth off the iron deposits within the forest. Ashitaka discovers that these people are clearing the trees. The towns’ people see this as necessary since the great beasts that dwell nearby attack and kill a handful of them every time they venture out.
This conflict is a dramatic representation of culture against nature, and it’s one of the oldest archetypical stories we have. Culture, in its barest form, is precisely that which defends us from nature. Clothing and housing are early examples of that. Of course that gets built upon to become more and more complex. We form communities, because surviving together is much easier than surviving alone. We make music, dance, and drama to symbolically act out the natural struggles we endure lest we forget them; however, even though nature is the very thing that kills us, we need it. This is what Ashitaka has to convince Irontown of.
It’s worth explaining that though the forest is, of course, the nature I just described, it also represents the unknown and that can take many forms. There’s the physical unknown, where you go to a new place, and there’s the mental unknown, when you explore a new idea. The great forest of Princess Mononoke is both, because the forest is unexplored and also where the gods dwell. A new idea gives you a foundation to anchor yourself, just like how belief systems in god gives you a moral platform to stand on. And that is precisely why Irontown cannot afford to torch the forest, because it will be erasing any hope of discovering something new. And we need to constantly be learning new things. The law of entropy means not only will our buildings fall apart, but also our culture will become outdated. If our culture does not adapt, then it is doomed to corruption and collapse. It is why political regimes that offer simple axiomatic basis for their entire community have imploded time and time again. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, none of them could stand the test of time because of their one-dimensional, utopic views. Ashitaka foresees the same fate in Irontown.
What is to be done, then? Nature is the very force which tears us apart, yet it also forces us to improve and adapt. The story itself gives us the answer. Bounty hunters from Irontown and from abroad infiltrate the wilderness to get to the heart of the woods. That is where the Great Forest Spirit lives. It is the force of life and death, the balance between good and evil, and the very soul of the forest. The humans mean to kill it. Ashitaka knows their plan, and heads in to stop them, but too late. Right when the spirit is most vulnerable, they shoot off its head and place it in a metal bin. The Forest Spirit isn’t so easily killed, he transforms into a massive, hulking demon, who’s on a search for its head. It kills everything it touches. Large portions of its body slough off, roll around, and devour the landscape. Ashitaka knows he must find the head and return it. He needs to fix the scale that balances good and evil.
There’s a postmodern statement being made here – more specifically a moral relativist statement. The humans have destroyed the very thing that distinguishes between good and evil, and as a result the entire forest withers. Why? If the utility of telling what’s good and what’s bad is gone, then the utility of the unknown is gone. The only useful thing about the unknown is that it’s where you have to go to generate new ideas, but it’s not possible for one thing to be better than another, so there’s no point in going through struggle of adopting anything new at all. If that’s the case, then the only thing the unknown does is kill you, so better off destroying it before it destroys you. The kicker to it all is that you can’t even be convinced that the barren landscape left behind (that will also kill you) is a worse position than the forest, because who’s to say that wasteland is better than wilderness. The only thing to hang onto is that death is bad, and it comes from the forest, so we need to destroy it.
Ashitaka will have none of it. He manages to retrieve the head, runs into an opening, and returns it to the forest spirit. Then something very interesting happens. The spirit’s body converges onto Ashitaka, and it appears as though Ashitaka’s curse fully consumes him. It cuts to the spirit, now whole again. Its massive body falls upon the land, and the forest returns. What used to be dense growth is now rolling hills of lush grass. I love this. We’re emerging out of the postmodern era. We’re living on the scorched remains of an ancient forest, because we killed the old distinction between good and evil. An era of relative meaning. As we leave those ideas behind, it’s not as if a forest will instantly return along with the forest spirit, but we have the beginnings of something. We still don’t quite have a distinction between good and evil, but we’re trying to sort out exactly what that is. And with time, as long as we’re brave, and can face the wonder and terror of nature, we can grow it back. We can be brave adventurers in the mystery and peril of the unknown.

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