Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997) is set during fourteenth century feudal Japan. The protagonist, Ashitaka, has been cursed by a possessed boar god. He is banished from his village, and in search of a cure comes across Iron Town, an area run by Lady Eboshi who is in a futile war against Princess Mononoke, a young woman who has been raised by Moro, a wolf God. Ashitaka intervenes to save the entire forest from destruction. It’s been argued that it is in Princess Mononoke that Miyazaki not only undermines a plethora of female stereotypes from conventional Japanese culture and from the anime world itself but also moves away from his own previous female creations.

The hero, Ashitaka



Lady Eboshi is, in McCarthy’s view, a tough, resourceful woman who dresses in a manner reminiscent of a medieval Japanese prostitute; harking back to the findings of Tado Sato that in classic Japanese cinema the female should be an entertainer, geisha, or a prostitute. Lady Eboshi has had a very tough life and has endured considerable hardships to get where she is; Sato continues to note that in prewar films this stubborn type was often a woman who struggled against becoming the servile wife in a feudal household. In postwar films, however, she took the negative form of a geisha or bar hostess who refuses to give in to overbearing men and actually make a profession out of getting the better of them. Sato’s explanation elucidates how Eboshi might have risen to the high position of power she is in, as it is surprising how Eboshi has become such an authoritative figure as a women and not having any influential family ties. Miyazaki argues that “what Eboshi is trying to do is to build her idea of paradise. That makes her a twentieth-century person”. She is, therefore, similar to Kushana, the villain in Nausicaa; neither character has malice towards people but both will sacrifice anyone or anything that gets in their way.  


Eboshi is the most ambiguous, complex and somewhat perplexing character in the film.  As Napier suggests, she is characterized by an amalgamation of the nurturing and the ferocious. She is clearly protective of her diseased and outcast citizens, but at the same time she is fanatically determined to destroy the shishigami (forest spirit) and, by extension, the natural world of the forest. McCarthy observes: ‘She relies on no man, god, or demon, and does not care that her efforts to develop the iron industry devastate the landscape and kill animals and plants’. On the other hand, despite destroying and killing everything in sight to reach her goal, she is practical as well as compassionate – she encourages and harbours the lepers because in a world where lepers are rejected and driven out, this guarantees her a skilled work-force, and she makes sure the women who work the machinery get good food and good treatment at a time when elsewhere they are treated badly.

shishigami, the forest spirit



What is perhaps most interesting about Princess Mononoke is that it is the female characters who are seen working throughout the movie and practically running Iron Town while the men are away, as Osmond notes; the film has ‘empowered female teams in “male” industries’ and as Miyazaki notes, ‘‘It’s not that I wanted to make it modern. It’s just that depicting Tatara Ba (Iron Town) under the rule of men would be boring.’  Ethnologist Kunio Yanagida was once asked what had inspired Meiji-period (1868-1912) scholars to reach their incredible achievements in letters and science, which propelled Japan into the modern age. Yanagida responded that it was the image of their mothers back in the provinces; trusting in their sons, they toiled away until the early hours of the morning, sacrificing themselves in order to put them through college in the city. It is therefore not too surprising to learn that women still perform heavy manual jobs, working on building sites and driving trucks. The labour coming from women workers being extremely important to Japan, particularly during the war when they stepped in to fill positions of the men, and according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, even today women account for 40.5% of the paid workforce; this is an increase of 59% (8.1 million females) between 1980 to 2002.


Thus, the film is, in Murase Hiromi point of view, covertly playing with gender boundaries: It is certainly true that all three female protagonists possess characteristics traditionally coded as male, and that, with the important exception of Ashitaka, there are no male “heroes” in the film. It is also possible to suggest that the use of females in conventionally male-coded roles is another link within the film’s overall strategy of destabilization.


Toki is one of these female protagonists. A head workers of Iron Town; McCarthy notes that Toki, is a bright, vivacious woman who expresses her affection for her spouse in joking abuse’. Her husband is kind-natured but a coward and this is in complete contrast to his wife. This could be interpreted as a reflection of postwar Japanese society since it is commonly said that in Japan women have become stronger because men have lost all confidence in their masculinity due to Japan’s defeat’. The way in which Toki mocks her husband concurs with Kingston’s assessment of modern Japan whereby, the popular stereotype of meek, submissive Japanese women has long obscured the reality of their lives, status, experiences and perspectives, and by the end of the twentieth century, is no more than a condescending caricature at odds with contemporary reality’. Indeed he continues that it is the women who often control the finances, allocating allowance to the husband and children as well as feeding, nurturing and making educational decisions affecting their children; consider the fact that it is the women workers who run Iron Town, the Wise Woman who was instrumental in the decision of banishing Ashitaka from the village and advises him on his possible future, and Lady Eboshi who runs the whole operation, whereas the men don’t seem to achieve much more than doing what they are told to do.

Lady Eboshi


Sato notes the strength of women by stating that the social mobility in modern Japan allows lower and lower-middle class families to pursue the dream of rising socially, the women of such classes are expected to show fierce determination and pride.’ It is particularly notable that since the 1980s, more married women have entered the paid labour force and currently less than 40 percent of families depend only on the husband’s earnings as Kingston notes, wives’ earnings are critical to family finances and thus not working is not a viable option for most married women.’ Women often find themselves confronting frustrations regarding the difficulties they face in balancing their various roles because of the lag between their everyday reality and the social context within which they function. Therefore, the recent introduction of Government legislation aims to make it easier for women to balance the various roles they are expected to assume, but this goal remains elusive. Despite increased legislation in the past twenty years such as the ratification of the UN Convention for the Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, the Childcare Leave Law and the Elderly Care Law, women remain far behind men in the workplace in terms of job status, opportunities and pay.



Toki and Kohroku’s marriage is solid which suggests that they were married on their own terms rather than having an arranged marriage, a tradition that is still very common today in Japan with parents and bosses in particular being matchmakers. McCargo is in accord with the findings, stating that, many marriages are arranged through formal or informal introductions by go-betweeners; and social, economic and educational status are among the main criteria. However, the latest figures show in today’s Japanese society the average ages of marriage has risen from 26.6 for men and 23.8 for women in 1955, to 29.0 for men and 27.2 for women in 2001. There are typically two common patterns of marriage for women: one is to marry early, soon after finishing School; another is to marry later, often after working for several years on short-term contracts. However, these figures suggest that more women are pursuing jobs and higher education before entering the workforce.


The numbers regarding abuse within marriage though are very high and this is often accredited to the number of arranged marriages. The Prime Minister’s Office reported statistics that 20% of married women have been beaten by their husbands and nearly one-quarter of those were victims of life-threatening violence. Despite these figures, the divorce rate in Japan remains negligible by international standards, in spite of increasing in recent decades (0.73 per 1,000 people to 1.94 in the last twenty years, a nearly threefold increase); divorce rates remain very low by Western standards reflecting a high degree of outward social conformity. McCargo isn’t convinced stating that nevertheless, these figures disguise the fact that some Japanese marriages are little more than conveniences, maintained for pragmatic reasons by couples who would separate or divorce in other societies’. Kingston thinks otherwise, arguing that regardless of the social stigma attached to divorce attenuating in recent years, single parent families are rare in Japan, meaning that the Japanese family have helped maintain a degree of family stability that is the envy of other industrialized nations.


Often men and women have separate social lives and groups of friends. There are two similar common Japanese sayings that reflect Japanese society: “a good husband is healthy but absent” and “a husband should be two things, healthy and at work,” therefore, marriage is often thought as an economic arrangement that lends form and respectability to adult existence, in stark contrast to the central institution around which a person’s inner life revolves.



The women in Princess Mononoke remain completely outside the stereotyped misogynistic patriarchal collective that rapidly became the foundation of pre-modern Japan. For instance, Lady Eboshi is a leader who manages to care for the sick and the outcast but is equally concerned with military matters and the destruction of the Shishigami. Moro appears to be a wise and brave mother, but she is also a ferocious killer. Moro is interesting in many ways, predominantly, her appearance. She is drawn as a cuddly wolf with three children yet she is a far cry from what viewers would typically associate with its form; while she may look lovely she is quite the opposite, as highlighted in the scene in which she dies, her teeth still firmly clenched in Eboshi’s arm clearly demonstrates. Most intriguing of all, San, the “heroine” of the film, is shown as a ruthless figure of virtually unrelenting violence. Although she has moments of softness (when she takes care of the injured Ashitaka in the forest), the viewer is most likely to remember her first appearance in the film, clad in a costume of fur and bone, her face bloody from sucking out blood from a wound in Moro’s side.

Princess Mononoke Moro

San is as fierce and wild as the wolves, but she is also as wise and brave as the gods. By the end she has evolved and grown enormously as a person – from hating all humans, she has developed far enough to admit her love for Ashitaka, as Miyazaki recalls: “I wanted to show the kind of development that makes them a good person in their heart.”’   Therefore, Princess Mononoke is a very different film when compared to Miyazaki’s other animated features. Whereas his female protagonists from his past films always tended to have conventionally female gendered aspects, such as cuteness, it is in Mononoke that the audience sees a different side to Miyazaki’s females. Therefore, as Napier notes, that since cuteness is such an important part of contemporary Japanese culture it is not surprising that Miyazaki’s female protagonists participate in this cultural construction, and it makes its absence in the female characters of Princess Mononoke all the more remarkable.


Works Cited

From the Theater Program of Mononoke Hime, published in July, 1997. Tokuma McCargo, D. (2000) Contemporary Japan, London; Macmillan Press Ltd McCarthy, H. (1999) Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, Berkley; Stone Bridge Press. Napier, S. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, New York; Palgrave Macmillan. Osmond, A. (2008) BFI Film Classics: Spirited Away, London; Palgrave Macmillan.     Sato, T. (1987) Currents in Japanese Cinema, New York; Kodansha International. Tames, R. (1981) Japan in the Twentieth Century, London; Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd


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