Princess Mononoke
A Tale of Conflict and Harmony

 
What types of conflict are symbolically presented in the movie?

Tradition vs. Modernity

Nature vs. Industrialization
Kami vs. Humans
 
Women vs. Men
 
How do the various characters represent different perspectives on these conflicts?
 
The Kami

 
Shishigami/Daidarabotchi

 
Nago & Okkoto

Lady Eboshi
 
Princess Mononoke (San)
 

Prince Ashitaka
 
What’s the moral of the story?
Can humans live in harmony with nature/kami?
Can tradition coexist with modernity?
 
How have these issues been resolved in contemporary Japan?
Do Ashitaka and the Princess have a healthy relationship?
 

Are there lessons to be learned by China and Korea?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Basho (1644-94)
A Nature Poet?
Basho’s vision of nature is central to understanding his prose and poetry. While the title “nature poet” is often ascribed to him, some have claimed that it is inaccurate, because he was principally concerned with either people or some form of “cultured nature.” This issue obviously raises the question of what we — and Basho — mean by “nature.” There are numerous definitions of this term, but the West has been informed by two major notions of nature. One we can call “dualistic.” In this sense, nature and the natural refer to whatever humans have not manipulated, controlled, or despoiled. ... The other notion of nature is “comprehensive” and is seen, for instance, in the natural sciences ... [where] the opposite of the natural is not the cultural but the supernatural. In such a view everything humans do would seem to be natural.
 
 
The dominant East Asian view of nature tends to be different than either of these. What is natural is what exists according to its true nature. ... Humans are fully part of nature: essentially we are natural. However, we have the distinctive ability to act contrary to our nature: existentially we usually live unnaturally. We do this by acting on a sense of the personal ego and its desires and will. One of the primary religious goals in East Asia is to act according to one’s nature, which (paradoxically to us) requires spiritual cultivation and discipline. In this view, we have neither a separation of humans from nature as in the dualistic view, nor the view that everything humans do is natural as in the comprehensive view of nature.  (Basho’s Journey, 7)
 

Poetry, perhaps the highest art form in East Asia, is at root a natural expression of human feelings, in line with birdsong. Great artists create out of their deepest nature, in  concert with the creativity of nature itself. But poetry will be natural only if the creative act arises spontaneously out of authentic feelings and our true nature. Poets who vainly (in both senses of the term) strive to create a poem are acting out of their sense of self and its desires, and so their art is not natural. The greatest poet, then, is not only the most cultured, but also the most natural, because to be fully cultured is to follow the processes of nature. It is “barbarians and beasts” — those devoid of culture — that are far from nature.
 
Saigyo’s waka, Sogi’s renga, Sesshu’s painting, Rikyu’s tea ceremony — one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this aesthetic spirit is to follow the Creative, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined is not a flower, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow the Creative [zoka 造化], return to the Creative. —Knapsack Notebook (Basho’s Journey, 8)

Makoto no Kokoro
The True Heart/Mind

Makoto” means “truth,” “genuineness,” or “sincerity,” that is, being as one truly is. ... The traditional understanding of kokoro [heart and/or mind] ... regards it as a resonant responsiveness within the overlap  between the world and the person. The kokoro’s response is an engagement arising from being among things. Whereas it is certainly possible, as the stimulus/response model exemplifies, to distinguish the world and the person as two independent entities, Shinto instead emphasizes the world and the person as interdependent poles within a single field of resonance. Consider how one might respond to an awe-inspiring tree, for example. As we noted earlier in our discussion of the experience of mystery, the awe is not simply in the person or in the tree but in their interaction. The tree must somehow be extraordinary; its tama must catch the person’s attention (the shimenawa helps this to happen); but by the same token the person must also be willing to be drawn into this context. If you are lost in thought about something else or are running through the woods to escape a bear, you may not be sensitive to the tree as a holographic entry point. Under the right conditions, though, the shimenawa both embraces the tree and ropes the person into an internal relation with it. In short: kokoro suggests an affectively charged cognitivity. Thinking and feeling occur together in the person’s engagement with the awe-inspiring tree. (Shinto: The Way Home, 24-5)
 
 
[W]hat happens when a poet writes a classical poem about, say, the mist on the mountain? If the poet’s responsiveness is genuine — that is, if there is makoto no kokoro — the poet’s kokoro resonates with the kokoro of the actual mountain mist and the kokoro of the Japanese words. Through the interpenetration and common responsiveness of these kokoro, the poem is produced. From this perspective, the poet alone does not write a poem about the mountain mist. More precisely, the mountain mist, the Japanese words, and the poet write the poem together. In a parallel way, if people go through the torii and enter the precinct of the kami with a pure, genuine kokoro, they enter the holographic entry point reflecting the whole in themselves and thereby reflecting themselves into the whole. They feel connected. They feel at home. (Shinto: The Way Home, 26-7)

 
The Stone Monument of Tsubo, over six feet high and perhaps three feet wide, has an inscription barely visible beneath the moss. It lists the distances to all four corners of the land. “This castle was built in the first year of Jinki (724) by Ono no Ason Azumahito .... In the sixth year of Tempyo-hoji (762), it was rebuilt by Emi no Ason Asakari .... Of places made famous in the poetry since long ago, many are still handed down to us in verse. But mountains crumble, rivers change course, roadways are altered, stones are buried in the earth, trees grow old and are replaced by saplings: time goes by and the world shifts, and the traces of the past are unstable. Yet now before this monument, which certainly has stood a thousand years, I could see into the hearts of the ancients. Here is one virtue of the pilgrimage, one joy of being alive. I forgot the aches of the journey, and was left with only tears. (Basho’s Journey, 59)
 

Basho the Wayfarer
The Journey Itself Home
 
Months and days are the wayfarers of a hundred generations, the years too, going and coming, are wanderers. For those who drift life away on a boat, for those who meet age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey, the journey itself home. Among ancients, too, many died on a journey. And so I too — for how many years — drawn by a cloud wisp wind, have been unable to stop thoughts of rambling. —The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Basho’s Journey, 4-5)
 
Why was travel so important to Basho? There were many reasons. One of them might be put crudely: it was good for business. Basho was not just a poet but a poet master with his own school. One purpose of his journeys was to spread the word of his style and literary philosophy and gain new disciples. Basho journeyed also, of course, in order to visit special scenes of nature. ... In most cases such travels involved visits to culture as well as nature, for these were sites that had been written about by previous poets. ... As such, these journeys into nature and culture were also journeys into the past as well as a way of making the past present. ... But perhaps the fundamental reason for Basho’s journey was religious. Poetry was not just an art form but also a spiritual path, a Way. For Basho this included a certain degree of asceticism. Aesthetic sensibility and spiritual vision were sharpened by the physical hardship and mental discipline that travel involved. Wayfaring also was traditionally considered a means to and manifestation of a liberated mind. ... The goal is to become free of the limitations of the self, remove desires, and live a live devoid of attachments. One of the principal ways to cultivate that state and to demonstrate one’s achievement of it was to become a mendicant who leaves the security and stability of a home and expose himself more fully to life’s vicissitudes. ... Basho also pursued the wayfaring life in order to embody physically and metaphorically the fundamental character of the universe. He expressed this view most powerfully in the opening passage of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, cited above at the beginning of this section. Life is above all a process of change and all things are travelers. and so, “each day is a journey, the journey itself home.” Our fate is uncertain, except that at some point we shall die along this road, as have those in the past. To be a wayfarer is to manifest the transience of life, to expose oneself to uncertainties and difficulties, and to be a living symbol of the itinerant quality of life itself. In this way one’s life follows the grain of the universe. (Basho’s Journey, 5-6)

In the northern darkness there is a fish and his name is Kun. The Kun is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is Peng. The back of the Peng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven. ... If water is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the floor and bits of trash will sail on it like boats. But set the cup there and it will stick fast, for the water is too shallow and the boat too large. If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings. Therefore when the Peng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him like that. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him. Only then can he set his eyes to the south. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 96-7)

Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Zhuangzi: Basic Writings, 44)
I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon. It was the first year of Jokyo, autumn, the eighth moon. As I left my ramshackle hut by the river, the sound of the wind was strangely cold.
 
bleached bones
     on my mind, the wind pierces
          my body to the heart
nozarashi o / kokoro ni kaze no / shimu ni kana
          —Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field
 (Basho’s Journey, 1)
 
In mid-autumn of 1684 ... Basho set off from Edo (now Tokyo) on a journey. ... This trip lasted until early summer of 1685. One result was Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field (Nozarashi kiko), his first travel journal. Marked throughout by a deep sensitivity to the impermanence of all things (mujo-kan), the journal begins with the passage quoted above in which Basho imagines himself dead by the roadside. In the first significant episode  of the journal, he comes across a baby abandoned by the roadside. He expresses great pity for the child and asks how it could have come to such a fate, then decides “this is simply from heaven” and, after tossing the child some food, leaves it behind as he continues on his journey. Soon afterwards we read a famous poem about his horse suddenly devouring a rose of Sharon blossom, unable to live out even its brief life of one day. Back in his home village, he is presented with strands of his late mother’s white hair. Despite all these images of impermanence, there is continuity through time, however, as in the beautiful passage in which he enters Yoshino and communes with poets of old. ... The journal concludes on a humorous note, with the journey ended but Basho still trying to remove from his clothes lice he had picked up on his travels. (Basho’s Journey, 1-2)
 
Through the journey he wanted, among other things, to face death and thereby to help temper his mind and his poetry. He called it “the journey of a weather-beaten skeleton,” meaning that he was prepared to perish alone and leave his corpse to the mercies of the wilderness if that was his destiny.” (Matsuo Basho, 25-6)
 
 
This gave him a unique perspective on the aesthetic principle of sabi, which he reinterprets as the concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature. The complete absorption of one’s petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe …” (Matsuo Basho, 30)
 
This approach to sabi is well-expressed in the following passage, which uses a prose description of a particular portion of his journey to set up the haiku poem that appears at the end (a combination known as haibun):
 
On a pilgrimage along the Northern Road I stayed over at a place called Izumo Point. Sado Island is off across the blue waves some eighteen leagues, lying sideways thirty-five leagues east to west. From the precipices of the peak to every corner of the valleys, it all appeared so vividly I thought I could reach out and touch it. The island has yielded great quantities of gold and has been known widely as a jewel of the world, an auspicious island, yet all types of criminals and traitors have been exiled there and now it is a shudderingly fearful place, so unfortunate. I push open my window, hoping to soothe for a time the sorrows of the road. Already the sun has sunk into the sea, the moon is dim, and the Silver River [i.e. the Milky Way] hangs across the heavens, stars glistening in cold clarity. As the sound of waves is carried in from out at sea, my spirit seems slashed, my bowels torn apart, leaving utter desolation. I can take no ease on my pillow, and my ink-black sleeves are wringing wet with tears.
 
stormy sea—
stretching out over Sado,
Heaven’s River
arumi ya / sado ni yokotau / ama no gawa
Seventh Month, 1689
(Basho’s Journey, 119; cf. 69-70)
 

Stormy Sea


Heaven’s River (i.e. the Milky Way)
 
 
The same theme is explored in the following excerpt from Basho’s masterpiece, The Narrow Road to the Deep North:
 
The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream. The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
 
 
We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north. Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass. “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain. When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.” These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me. There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.
 
Natsugusa ya
Tsuwamono domo ga
Yume no ato

The summer grasses—
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath.

  (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 369)