Animism and Capitalism Part 1

“In ancient times, the land lay covered 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…” — Princess Mononoke

Maybe it is that some of you wonder where exactly I stand on the topics of capitalism and consumerism? Well, I think it is time I explore these topics in a little more depth. Instead of tackling these topics straight on, I am going start by exploring them in a little more of a round about way.

Through popular culture, or more specifically, through lens of Princess Mononoke. This movie is on my super short list when it comes to favorites…

If you are not familiar with this work, I am plain and simply going to pretend I don’t know you…

As such, I am going forward with the assumption that you are familiar with these things, and so a general recap of either of them would be entirely moot. Therefore, I am going to jump straight into things.

Mononoke is absolutely rife with both animistic as well as ecological and environmental things, put briefly, things that are very very close to my heart. In a wider context, we see at least two very distinct “worlds” in this movie. The first, inhabited by San, and Moro, we see “nature, specifically represented in the form of a forest. It is full of life, from boars to apes, trees and tree spirits, and of course the Spirit of the Forest him/her/it/self. Moro is a wolf god, and is accompanied oftentimes by two smaller wolves, referred to as “pups” in the movie. Also, there is San, Princess Mononoke herself. She is human for all physical purposes, but is described in the movie as Moro’s human child. She is considered to be part of the Wolf Tribe, and is quite vocal about her distaste for humans.

As Moro says in the movie; “neither human, nor wolf.”

You could say she is my favorite character, and I find her immensely relate-able in so many ways.

On the other side of the coin, is “civilization”, represented in the movie by Iron Town, and more distantly, the “Empire” more generally. The “Empire” is one part of the story we never actually see, but is represented by samurai, and the general attempt to take over Iron Town. It is a kind of “faceless” form of civilization, one that is never seen, but it effects are felt all over; from Iron Town to Ashitaka’s own tribe the Emishi people, which are said to have been all but extinct because of the Empire.

Whereas San and Moro represent the forest and nature, civilization is chiefly represented by the characters of Lady Eboshi, and the monk Jigo. In these two characters, while not wholly evil per se, we see many of the traits of civilization, and of capitalism. For example, Jigo’s whole goal in the movie is to kill the Great Forest Spirit, so that he may deliver the head to the Emperor for “an entire hill” of gold and amnesty for his crimes. Though, one of his speeches is especially moving to me;

“These days, there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation, and nobody cares. So you say you’re under a curse, so what, so is the whole damn world.”

Lady Eboshi is a much more dynamic character, but her motivations still lean towards greed and profit. As the story goes, Iron Town was entirely unproductive (and unprofitable) until Lady Eboshi arrived with her rifles and soldiers. Her soldiers in turn drove the boar god from the mountain, the very same boar god that later attacks Ashitaka’s people. Her motivation for killing the boar god is so that the miners can get to iron under the mountain, and in her own words;

“..when the forest has been cleared and the wolves wiped out, this desolate place will be the richest land in the world.”

Granted, she is a much more nuanced and complicated character. She has a knack for treating lepers humanely, and frees brothel girls to be part of Iron Town. Also, at the end of the story, she does partly redeem herself. After the Great Forest Spirit has been killed, her arm ripped off, and Iron Town destroyed, she says:

“Amazing. The wolves and that crazy little wolf girl helped save us all. Ashitaka. Can someone find him? I need to thank him. We going to start all over again. This time we’ll build a better town.”

In addition, it is assumed early on in the movie that iron itself is a cause of evil and poison. Ashitaka’s people are attached by a evil demon, which we find out is actually a boar god poisoned by a iron bullet, that came from the west where “there is at at work.” We also see a great example of animism in practice after the boar god’s death. The Wise Woman from the village comes out to the fallen boar, and says;

“Oh nameless god of rage and hate, I bow before you. A mound will be raised and funeral rites preformed on this ground where you have fallen. Pass on in peace, and bear us no hatred.

To which the boar responds;

“Disgusting little creatures. Soon all of you will feel my hate, and suffer as I have suffered.”

The iron is of course manufactured in Iron Town, by working women in the forge, from ores mined from the mountain of the late boar god, Nago (sp?). It is thus presented that “nature” is good, and “civilization” is evil. However, even the movie itself is far more nuanced than such a simple dichotomy.

Which is where Ashitaka comes in, one of the main characters and the character of balance throughout the movie. He comes to Iron Town seeking a cure from his curse, and it is there he becomes entangled in the events that involve nature, San and Moro, and civilization, consisting of Eboshi and Jigo, as well as countless others.

He is the mediator throughout the movie, regularly going from “nature”, to “civilization” and back, running between Eboshi, and San and others. He acts as mediator, and negotiator, and helps one side or the other, whereas not clearly taking the side of one or the other. He saves some of Eboshi’s people early in the movie, then follows the Kodamas (tree spirits) into the heart of the forest, before reappearing again in Iron Town to help the women work the bellows, and return the follow people to the town.

It would be easy to say that Ashitaka is on the side of nature, given his companionship with San, and that he ultimately helps to return the head of the Forest Spirit. I am inclined to partially agree, but it is also to keep in mind that Ashitaka is also the catalyst that saves many of the people from Iron Town, as well as that he opts to help the people rebuild Iron Town as the story comes to an end.

It is between San and Eboshi where Ashitaka stand, quite literally at one point in the movie. However, while Ashitaki is more closely aligned to San, it is balance he represents more than anything. Especially at the end of the movie, where San returns to the forest, and Ashitaka returns to the village, it is in their relationship that we see a new balance emerging. A fusion of nature and civilization.

In fact, Ashitaka even says it himself, standing in the forest talking to Lady Eboshi;

“So it’s don’t kill the forest god, now you want us to kill samurai instead?” Lady Eboshi says.

“No, what I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace!” Ashitaka says.

I think it is notable that right after this exchange, Jigo wonders what side Ashitaka is on.

Also, I think that illustrates best where I stand on capitalism and consumer culture. I am not really sure what side I stand out. It is an uncomfortable middle ground to be sure. I do not support capitalism, as I can see how it is poisoning our water, our air, and slowly destroying the Earth and all that live here. I can see the destruction of the forests, the plastics in the oceans, and the increasing toxic environments we live in. In addition, it may not simply just be capitalism, but human civilization in general. As it grows, so does its need for more and more resources. Capitalism only exacerbates this greed, taking more and more in the name of profit.

Yet, at the very same time I dream of a future where humanity reaches out for the stars. While I have no love for capitalism, I do not want to do away with many of the things that define modern life. Electricity, vehicles, the internet. I do not want to destroy civilization. This comes with the very real truth that we will still need things like metal, and plastic, and sadly, fossil fuels. Reaching for the stars will involve metal, and computers, and some sort of means to get there.

With these two sides in mind, caught somewhere between nature and civilization, I seek a new balance. Like San, I love the wolves and the woods. Like Ashitaka, I want to see balance and harmony between the humans and all the other living beings on this planet.

In ancient times, there was no clear divide between nature and culture. That is what I seek to change. I seek a new balance, between civilization and nature. I don’t want all we have worked for to be lost, and I also want to see the forests, rivers and air be clean again. It means I want to work for a civilization that is truly sustainable, that is green and verdant with life, and a world that has no need for fossil fuels.

I want to build a better town.

I am still working on how to do that; as there is plenty more to write about these topics.

Sources/References

Princess Mononoke (Film) 1997

Shinto, Paganism and Awareness in the Feature Films of Hayao Miazaki. By Pia Van Ravestein, in the Anthology Engaging the Spirit World, Edited by Lupa.

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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