Moro and the Shishigami in Miyazaki’s Temporal War Epic Mononoke-hime
Copyright ©2012-2017, M. Negrych
In modern history, Japan has experienced a set of dynamic shifts in identity. The Meiji Restoration (1868) saw an internal thrust for modernization, and the resulting issues and social anxieties which emerged in the aftermath of the Pacific War persist into the present. With modernization there came the negotiation of the Japanese relationship with nature and its sacred past; was it possible to modernize the nation while still preserving the sacred environment? Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s most loved and exported directors,1 negotiates this question in his whimsical and romantic style with Mononoke-hime (1997); the modern and the ancestral are in a proverbial battle royale, with nothing but a young man left to try and find a means to ensure the survival of both. Miyazaki creates a masterpiece which pits the past and the present against one another, with characters who are neither completely good nor absolutely evil, and the fate of a whole country rests on the shoulders of the youth.
Christine Hoff Kraemer chooses to focus on Ashitaka’s unique bridging role as a salvic figure in the film,2 and pushes aside the battle which takes place between the old ways of existence, exhibited by Moro and the shishigami, and the encroachment of modernity as embodied by Eboshi. Miyazaki’s storytelling genius shines as he weaves these social concerns and anxieties into the tapestry of Mononoke-hime.
First, his choice of characters is interesting; he relies on the supernatural to represent the past, and the humans to symbolize the future. Secondly, Miyazaki crafts his story in such a way that one cannot help but notice the many subtle yet meaningful manifestations of these concerns. Overarching everything is Miyazaki’s uncanny ability to utilize the spiritual and the supernatural to draw these issues to the forefront of the viewer’s mind.
Miyazaki does not deal in black and white dichotomies; San is the seed of the present held in the past, Ashitaka is the middle ground living between two worlds, and Eboshi has left the past and seeks to destroy all that is primitive in comparison to her way of life. However, beyond this Miyazaki has chosen interesting supporting characters in the form of supernatural beings. Moro, the great two-tailed Okami of the sacred forest, is an interesting choice on many levels. First and foremost she is a wolf, an animal that has officially been absent from the niche environment of Japan since the beginning of the 20th century.3 By using this specific kami type to act as forest guardian, Miyazaki is showing the audience that the effects of modernization have already adversely impacted the ecological landscape of Japan. Moro accepts her death at the touch of the shishigami, but after her death she still effects her surroundings by removing Eboshi’s dominant arm; this is Miyazaki’s way of showing that though the past fades, it is still capable of impacting and damaging the present if not given proper attention and respect.
Kraemer emphasizes that both worlds, that of the supernatural and the technological, must find a synthesis in order to escape complete devastation.4 Moro is a representative of this; while she herself does not survive the changing times, her children, including San, are coloured by her animosity towards a future where the sacred forest is destroyed, and the supernatural guardians forgotten. She represents the difficulty of change, and the Japanese social anxiety created by the prospect of angering the natural and national kami; this fear is something that must be negotiated in order for modernity to find its place, and also to ensure the survival of the ancestral patterns of worship. Moro and her children are symbols of the Japanese anxiety of what might happen to the spiritual environment if modernity is unmitigated in its progress; since nature is the realm of the kami, the human desire to destroy it for their own gain would provoke a retaliation.5 If the present attempts to move forward and bulldoze the past into ambiguity, the effects would be disastrous not only to the environment, but to the national concept of identity as well.
Secondly, in traditional folklore, the Japanese wolf was seen as a protector of humans, in opposition to its Western image as a destroyer.6 Miyazaki has greatly altered the role of the Okami; Moro has become a guardian of the forest and the spirit of the forest, was has taken the form of a wolfs traditional prey species. This is again a commentary on an social anxiety related to the battle of past and present; if what is supposed to protect humans has instead chosen to protect itself because of the reprehensible and disrespectful actions taken against them, there is nothing but destruction on all levels.
Thirdly, Miyazaki’s subtle references to the conflict of time are seen in the actions and shifting nature of the shishigami. This type of confrontation arises in two major instances; once near the middle, and again at the end as reinforcement. Kraemer stats that Ashitaka is a creature of both town and forest, “fully human but also fully in touch with the natural world.”7 But, Ashitaka is more than this, and that is made clear by his interactions with the shishigami in both of these instances. After being gravely wounded San takes Ashitaka to the sacred grove, hoping that the shishigami will choose to restore him; the shishigami takes the life of a sapling, and in exchange rids Ashitaka of the wound. This action is an allusion to the struggle between the past and the present; in order for one thing to survive, another must be sacrificed. Later on, the shishigami is beheaded so that the emperor might gain immortality. Miyazaki has made a powerful statement, which plays on a major source of anxiety which befell the Japanese after the Pacific War, when Emperor Hirohito denounced his divinity. In the act of beheading the shishigami, the sacred spirit becomes an amorphous embodiment of death and destruction who destroys everything, regardless of innocence. This is a symbolic commentary on the need for the co-existence of spiritual concerns, and the controlled implementation of technology. The shishigami‘s death is a warning, as well as a call to hope. When one attempts to eradicate the old so that something as imperfect and impermanent as humans can survive, there is nothing but destruction to be gained. If the Emperor had sought to hold on to his divinity in the aftermath of the war, it is likely that the Americans would have taken more drastic steps. Here, the past gave way; it was not destroyed, it was done is a way which honoured the past, and provided stability to the future. It is also important to note that Miyazaki emphatically shows the audience that despite the destruction brought about by the push for modernity, there is still a deep seated hope; if the new generation can embrace both sides of the fight then they will succeed in living in harmony with the the past, while looking critically at the issues of modernization.
Moro and the shishigami are only two of the very interesting supernatural and religiously influenced characters that Miyazaki has created in order to represent the vicious struggle that identity and the sacred past have when competing with the fast paced modernization and industrialization of the Japan. Moro and the shishigami both find their death at the hands of modernity, though in those moments their actions are more powerful then at any other time in the film; they are a warning that the past will not simply lay down and fade away. If treated with disrespect or contempt, nature will rise up and wreak havoc. If treated with respect, they will not hinder the developments needed in order to ensure a better life for all.
1Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrifice in Princess Mononoke” in The Journal of Religion and Film 8/1 (2004), 2.
3John Knight “On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf” in Asian Folklore Studies. Vol 56, No. 1 (1997), p. 130.
Knight, John. “On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf.” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol 56, No. 1. 1997. pp. 129-159.
Kraemer, Christine Hoff. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrifice in Princess Mononoke.” The Journal of Religion and Film. Vol.8, Issue 1. 2004.
“Mononoke Hime” by Sugar-H is used with artists’ permission. Please take the time to visit the link to both the art piece and the artist profile. Both can be reached either by clicking on the image or on the artist credit below the image.