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Princess Mononoke

By Shamus
on Sunday Apr 23, 2006
Filed under:


Den Beste has an article up on Miyazaki Hayao. He talks a bit about Princess Mononoke. Other people (such as Alexander Doneau) have reviewed the movie as well, and almost nobody comments on what I thought was the biggest flaw of the movie.

(Note that I saw the movie months ago. What I’m writing here are the impressions I had right after seeing the movie. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the key locations and some of the minor characters since then, so please forgive the lack of specifics, or if my chronology isn’t perfect.)

I’m thinking of the village where most of the action takes place. The women in that village were very callous and needlessly mean to their men. As we’re introduced to the village, the men are returning from a deadly task. They’ve been out of the village for a few days, and their reward as they get home is a lot of verbal abuse from their wives. The wives then begin gushing over the young and handsome Ashitaka as if their husbands weren’t even there. They openly and brazenly fawn over Ashitaka in front of their husbands, who were just out risking their lives for the village.

The guys are mostly too fat or too skinny. Most are nearing middle age. They are drawn as very un-handsome. So, they are more or less like any other random selection of men you’ll find: not buff heroes, but regular guys. But their wives aren’t any bargain either, and the men seem willing to go out and risk their necks (under the command of a woman, I might add) on behalf of the village. In return, the women never have a single nice thing to say about them. Even after being out of the village for a while, the men and women sit apart from each other at mealtime, and the women toss more shame their way as they eat. I guess these married couples hate each other so much they can’t stand to have meals together, even after being apart for a few days?

The lack of respect between the men and women in the village was awful. If you swapped the gender roles and had the women risking their lives while the men remained at camp drooling over the sexy new princess in town, you would expect them to get some sort of comeupance before the story ended. You’d want to see the men appreciate the sacrifice the women make for them, or at least stop verbally humiliating them in front of everyone else. And since we’re dreaming, an apology might be good for everyone’s well-being. This never happens. In fact, as far as I could tell the movie seemed to think I should side with the women. I didn’t.

Near the end of the movie one of the men is asleep. (It’s the middle of the night and he’d been taking part in an ill-advised battle the previous day. Again, under the command of a woman.) His wife is there beside him and as she sees him sleeping with his mouth open she grudingly admits that he’s (I can’t remember the exact words) a big oaf but she loves him anyway. That was it. During the whole movie only one of the women admitted that her husband wasn’t all bad. Of course, she said it while he was asleep, and she couldn’t say it without insulting him first.

I hated the whole village. I thought the men were fools to put up with all the abuse, and idiots to follow their misguided commander. I thought the women were awful, mean-spirited harpies who didn’t even deserve the shabby husbands they had. Disliking a majority of the characters in the story sort of ruined it for me. Yet nobody else that saw the movie was bothered by this. (Or at least, nobody mentioned it in their review.) Was I reading it wrong? Was I misunderstanding their relationship? Was it just the English dub that portrayed the women this way? Did their dialog come across differently in the sub version? I seem to be the only person with this reaction, and I have to wonder why.

It’s my least favorite of all of Miyazaki’s films that I’ve seen so far (I’ve seen most of them) and obviously it still bugs me when I think about it.

Just so I don’t end this rant on a sour note, I’ll add that I emphatically agree with Steven’s assesment of Spirited Away: It’s Miyazaki’s best film, and a real treat. (Also, note that it has a Tomatometer rating of 98%!)

Comments (15)

  1. Evil Otto says:

    You aren’t the only one who thought that. Irontown bugged me, as did Eboshi. She was obviously a very capable leader, which made her motivations for walking into a situation where she was obviously being used as bait (she in the forest and her men on the battlefield) extremely bizarre.

    Mononoke isn’t my least favorite Miyazaki film, but it’s right up there. Which still makes it better than 90% of the animation coming out of the US.

  2. foobario says:

    I got the same gut-reaction to Irontown and Lady Eboshi, but I thought that the behavior of the women in town was logically consistent – they are, after all, brothel girls who have had their contract bought by Lady Eboshi.

    Most portrayals of brothel workers show them as jaded (understandably), somewhat crass, and unwilling to accept the yoke of a more traditional role. (‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller” comes to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others.) Eboshi has set up a little fiefdom in which there is an uneasy truce between the men and women – the women in particular appear to be pretty young, so they’re experiencing a new-found freedom and even though they are adapting somewhat to the new scheme of things, they aren’t going to forget the lessons they have learned in their previous lives. Men, for them, are simple creatures with simple motivations, and they treat them as such, even if the reasons for that perception (possibly) no longer apply.

  3. Tatterdemalian says:

    Like any other entertainment form, Miyazake films have to exaggerate things… if they were no different from real life, we would find them boring or slow.

    The residents of Irontown, instead of having exaggerated virtues like the protagonist, had exaggerated flaws. They were more mean, more petty, more lazy, and more incompetent than real life people would be (or could be and still survive, given their situation). It’s something they simply have to be, in order to give the audience a feel for the place in the ten to fifteen minutes the movie allots for their plot and background exposition, before moving on.

    Sure, it could have been more subtle. Miyazaki could have spent the better part of an hour exploring more complicated relationships between the men and women of the town, with the women having more reasonable expectations of their husbands, and being more grateful when they come back alive. But the typical moviegoer would have found it a total drag, and the movie would have flopped where it really mattered: at the box office.

  4. Another point is that most of those marriages are not the result of courtship and deliberate choice. The women are mostly refugees from whorehouses. In practice most of them were slaves. Eboshi bought up their contracts and brought them to her town mainly because the men living there needed wives, but also because Eboshi is something of a proto-feminist.

    So each time a new group of women arrive, they’re pretty much matched off with men in the town, and married on the spot. Little wonder there isn’t much romantic love in those relationships.

    I also cut that aspect of it a lot of slack because of the fact that I’m kind of anti-nostalgic. I know full well how awful life was in them times and recognize that trying to apply modern standards to how people then lived is faulty. The idea that marriages should routinely be based on romantic love is quite a lot more recent than most people realize — less than a hundred years old even in the west, and less than fifty years old in Japan.

    What I always figured was that Irontown was a place where the women could actually say what women elsewhere were thinking about how their men treated them.

    As to their reaction to Ashitaka, life in a town like that is rather boring. It isn’t too surprising that they’re going to react that way to the arrival of a handsome young man like him.

    So all in all I didn’t find that aspect of the movie particularly noteworthy, let alone scandalous. It felt quite natural to me.

  5. Alex DOENAU says:

    I never really minded, but I’ve seen Mononoke so often that I don’t think I can ever watch it again. The dub may be a part of it, because from memory in the Japanese version it was more playful and less malicious.
    The beauty of the film was that it was so literal; Eboshi didn’t achieve any sort of reform until she had her arm bitten off by a wolf god. Everyone gathered under her banner because she was ultimately kind, and if these people could not have made fun of each other they would not have had as strong a community.

    As for my review … that’s one of the least inspired pieces I’ve ever written.

  6. Shamus says:

    Alex: Thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like you are right. In the English dub the women were more mean-spirited than playful. That’s probably the key difference. And maybe I’m just over-sensitive.

    Side note:

    My comment spam filter flagged your comment, which is why it didn’t appear right away. Sorry about that.

    (I can’t figure out why. There are lots of no-no words, but all of them are stuff like “perscription drugz” and “hot seks”. The comment from Alex is clean and doesn’t have anything spam-ish in it. This is happening more and more to legit comments, and it’s bugging me. Grrr.)

  7. I’ve never listened to the dub. These days I rarely listen to the dubs.

  8. Alex says:

    It’s probably because I capitalised my surname to ensure maximum spellage.

    SDB: dubs are an occasional form of masochism for me. Double that masochism by watching the dub with the subtitles turned on (of course there are good dubs, but there’s no pain in watching those, so I don’t).

  9. Astrid says:

    First off, I’m wondering if you noticed that the women of Irontown were FORMER PROSTITUTES. Not the rare, lucky few who are in the business because they (shock horror) enjoy sex, but the hard, gritty kind who had it forced on them. Being that these women have basically been treated like shit from “the day they were born”, it would make sense that they’d automatically be angry towards men.
    Also, the men are former criminals. They’ve lived harsh, screwed-up lives where it’s kill or e killed, and no doubt, the women they met were a part of this.
    Thirdly, most, if not all, of the marriages were probably for convenience (like how some people here in the US get married for the tax break–yes, I’ve had the misfortune of knowing some of these people).
    This is mentioned in the original Japanese books, and being that I’ve only seen the dub version, I’m not entirely sure if it’s made clear outside of them.

  10. Astrid says:

    Forgot to mention: Eboshi was also a prostitute who ended up killing her master for one reason or another, and ended up starting Irontown as a need to survive.

  11. Blackferret says:

    I like Mononoke, but I have to agree a lot about Irontown. It’s not just that they were trying to be independant, but Eboshi was so unjustifiably smug about it.

    The scene that got me was when she showed the Emperor’s letter to the woman and the woman asked who the Emperor was. Eboshi was so smug and proud that she had no idea who he was. All I could think was: “Well, your people’s ignorace of the Emperor won’t protect them from his army when it comes calling.” Ignorance might be bliss, but it’s never a virtue.

  12. Sarah says:

    Blackferret’s comment about the women asking who the Emperor was I think is a bit incorrect.

    It’d be impossible for them NOT to know who the Emperor is, and they were probably just ‘taking the piss’ out of it – especially since a large part of the plot revolves around the fact that other people wanted the Iron from Irontown and were trying to take over. So they wouldn’t have any respect there, as he was trying to take over their home.

  13. Katrani Merack says:

    Mononoke was my first Miyazaki film, and I generally have good thoughts about it. And somehow, my brother got it past my dad so I could watch it when I was ten or younger. Same with the Hellsing anime and DBZ. Pretty much the ONLY age/gender-appropriate animes I watched were Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon.

    Anyways, I always thought that was the whole point of the movie. Humans, as a whole, are cruel and mean-spirited, and just don’t give a damn to the natural order of things. Remember, in feudal Japan, the Emperor was seen as a god. I’ll assume Miyazaki had Mononoke’s main society (the big cities, at least, if not Irontown) as being like this. You can see this with the whole nature aspect too. The humans are afraid of the forest, but still treat it like everything in it is crap. This eventually leads to almost everything being destroyed, and hopefully teaching the residents of Irontown not to mess with the forest gods again. But that’s just what I think.

    BTW, i sthe plural for ‘anime’ ‘animes’, or is it like fish, and still ‘anime’? My friend and I are arguing over this.

    BTW BTW, sorry if my commenting on old posts is getting annoying. I just can’t help it. I’m sort of one of those people that wants to make people go back and look at older things, just because.

  14. dyrnwyn says:

    Princess Monoke was one of my favorite miyazaki films I never noticed that slight flaw probably becouse in my traditional movie watching style I dismissed it as “One of the boring parts”

  15. M says:

    I’ve always liked the japanese version better because the voice of the wolf actually sounds like it could come from a wolf.

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