I just watched Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke for the second time, this time with my mom. She was intrigued by the story, although she thought the mythological elements were a bit strange. This opened up great discussion about Japanese folklore, Shinto, and religion in Japan—and how these things sometimes influence anime like Princess Mononoke. But as we talked, I found that the theme that impacts me most in this story has little to do with a Japanese take on the spiritual and a lot more to do with human nature—and hatred in particular. After what I saw in 2016—indeed, what I see every year—I couldn’t help but focus on the cycle of hatred between those aligned with human endeavors and those aligned with the natural. At the same time, I’m drawn to Ashitaka, the lone agent of peace in a world split by hate.
The Hatred Curse in Princess Mononoke
Prince Ashitaka’s journey begins after a deranged boar attacks his village, seeking vengeance against humans. This boar, originally more kami/god than animal, is deranged and dying, now more demon than god. When Ashitaka defends his people against it, the boar’s curse infects him and will bring him death if he does not find the cure.
The wise woman in Ashitaka’s village advises him to find the forest from which the boar came, to discover what drove the boar to his village, and to lift the curse. The wise woman cautions that in order to do this he must be able to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Ashitaka arrives in the boar’s homeland to find two warring groups: the humans of Irontown and the kami/deities of the forest.
The humans of Irontown, led by the lady Eboshi, have destroyed trees and killed boar kami in order to get to the iron in the hills. Eboshi has no respect for kami or the nature they inhabit. She arrogantly destroys both in her quest for dominance over the area. Eventually, she even seeks to kill the Forest Spirit (aka shishigami)—the ruling spirit of life and death—on the emperor’s request. Sounds like quite the villainess, right? But the people she supervises love her, and for good reason. She hired women by buying out their contracts from brothels, and they’re very happy in their new lives. The men, too, trust, follow, and rely on her. She’s even taken in lepers, cared for them, and given them work. She’s responsible for her people’s wellbeing, and she takes that seriously.
The creatures in the forest, including kami/deities, are naturally against the humans now. The Forest Spirit doesn’t participate in the anger and battling, but all the lower deities do, especially the wolves and boars. The leads us to the “princess” of the film’s title, named San. She’s human, but she was raised by the wolf god Moro, and she identifies with the wolves and the others of the forest. She hates all humans because of the destruction and death led by Eboshi. She and the other wolves lead attacks on Eboshi’s people and have killed humans. Like many of the forest kami, she groups all humans together, hating them as destroyers and killers. It’s hard to blame her or the kami for this hatred, but if they continue forward with single-minded vengeance, they will find only death.
Ashitaki comes to this forest as a fairly neutral third party. As a human, he relates well with many of the people in Irontown. But he also sees how Eboshi and the others are at fault in the same mess that has cursed/infected him, how they began and perpetuate the cycle of violence. This angers him, to the point that he even says he’d kill her if it would lift the curse—but it would not, so he does not. He respects kami and the nature they dwell in, so he is connected to that side, too—and San, the human among kami, deepens his sense of connection. He does not want casualties on either side.
The curse that infects Ashitaki and several kami cannot be broken until the cycle of hate is ended. And so Ashitaki becomes an agent of peace.
The Hate Around Us
Others have noticed and written on the themes of hatred and peace in this film. Charles Sadnick wrote an excellent piece on Geekdom House last February, “Lifting the Curse,” and another piece here on BtT back in 2012, “Princess Mononoke: Prince Ashitaka and the Fruit of Peace.” I encourage you to read these, as they’re challenging and encouraging messages, and as I will take a different angle to the topic today.
I’m increasingly frustrated by the hate, the false dichotomies, and the poisonous generalizations around me. I notice this especially on political and social issues: conservatives vs. liberals, Democrats vs. Republicans, pro-lifers vs. pro-choicers (or pro-aborts, as pro-lifers like to say), LGBTQ vs. Very Straight Very Conservative CIS People. We sort ourselves and others into groups, then make generalizations about both sides.
As I come to know people with increasingly different perspectives, it’s harder for me to accept any “us vs. them” statements. I come from a pretty conservative family, and I’ve made pretty liberal friends. So I see mud slung at loved ones from both directions, and I don’t like it one bit.
I get it. Lives are on the line. Pro-life conservatives don’t want to risk preborn humans’ lives or the health of their mothers. Meanwhile, liberals are worried about the lives and wellbeing of women and minorities. How can anyone be calm and see the precious humanity in people who don’t seem to care about the lives of those you wish to protect? But then again, how can we change the minds of the “other side” and work together to protect the vulnerable if we alienate each other through derisive, poisonous words?
There has to be another way, a way of peace. In a world of hate mongers, we need peacemakers. I don’t have all the answers on exactly how that plays out, but I’ve gleaned a few ideas from Princess Mononoke—and before that, from Jesus.
See with Eyes Unclouded
The phrase in Princess Mononoke is “see with eyes unclouded by hate,” but I’d say our perspective must also be cleared from greed, arrogance, and fear. Eboshi and other humans are willing to destroy for iron not, at first, out of hate but out of greed—and the arrogance that leads them not to consider the consequences of their actions. Eboshi cares for the lives of her people, but not for the nature kami in her way. She’s smart enough to see how she’s contributed to this mess, but not humble enough to pull back and consider another way forward. And other characters’ hate is enhanced by fear because the other side threatens their lives.
Ashitaka has to deal with a certain level of hate in him through the story, but his eyes are still relatively unclouded. The closest thing he has to greed is a wish to lift the curse on him, and it’s the same curse that affects everyone in the area, so he never has to weigh his own wishes against others’ needs. And he’s humble enough to realize his urge for revenge should not drive him, and that both kami and humans should be respected. He’s already likely to die, so fear doesn’t blind him, either.
As a Christian, I wish to see with eyes unclouded, too. I’m not perfect at it, but if I see all humans as created in the image of God, that helps. I seek to focus on what we have in common, not what sets us apart. God loves people, and with his help, I want to get better at loving them, too—even when their perspectives seem wrong and their actions are destructive. This doesn’t mean being blind to their sin or standing by as they harm others. But it does mean being able to look past it.
If someone hurts me or those I care about, I cannot respond in kind. I must, like Ashitaka, respond in kindness—or better, like Jesus, respond with love and gentleness. Sometimes, the loving thing to do is a bit harsh—Jesus didn’t mince words with the Pharisees, and certainly not with the corrupt merchants in the temple. But when Jesus uses harshness, it’s never just because it feels good to lash out at what’s wrong. Nor is it to get back at someone who’s caused him and his loved ones pain. It’s to illuminate a truth connected to love and to peace with God.
A Christian peacemaker’s eyes must be unclouded by not just hate, but also greed, arrogance, and fear. That means being humble enough to put others’ needs first. It means being bold, confident that God will set thing aright and that promoting eternal life (complete with relationship with God) is more important than defending our earthly wellbeing. It means being willing to lose everything in service to God and others, because everything that truly matters is already secured for us.
I’m not always great at that. One of the easiest ways to tell if there’s hatred infecting me is to try to listen to certain politicians. When I listen, their voices stir something ugly in me, and all I hear is arrogance, deceit, and annoying smiles. This is a problem I need to pray about, because I want to view politicians, even corrupt ones, as precious human beings. I want to be able to respectfully engage with their ideas.
I do better with the average citizen—with people I know as people, not just figureheads. I can look at people with very different perspectives than I have, at people who promote actions I view as not just a bit wrong but downright evil, and see them as beautiful humans, no more imperfect than I am. Again, I’m not perfect at this. It’s easier to speak in love in theory, rather than to actually seek relationships with those I don’t agree with. But by God’s grace, I’ve improved over the years, and I pray I’ll continue to improve.
Be Prepared for Pushback
“Just whose side is he on, anyway?”
In Princess Mononoke Ashitaka is unwilling to align completely with Irontown or the wolves, and that can lead to rejection. When he defends one, the other may see him as the enemy. This leads the monk Jigo to ask what side he’s on—and leads wolf-girl San to accuse, “You’re on their side, you always were!”
Of course, Ashitaka isn’t on either side. If anything, he’s on the side of peace, of rightness in the world—of the same Forest Spirit who San wishes to defend. But when San sees him save the lives of humans who killed her friends, she sees him as an enemy.
Ashitaka must move forward, seeking friendship with San and others who see him as an enemy, stubbornly defending both them and those they hate.
Jesus has a similarly stubbornly loving attitude. He loves us and seeks justice for us when we’re hurt—but he also loves the people who’ve hurt us and our loved ones, and if they repent, he will forgive them. Sometimes, that’s a hard idea. If you loved me, you’d hate those who hurt me, we may think. But then again, how often have we sinned ourselves? I look at myself and think, “How often have I hurt family and others, knowingly or unknowingly?” Jesus forgives us for hurting others he loves, and from an eternal perspective, we are no better than those who’ve hurt us.
In a world divided by hatred, groups often build themselves up as much through who they’re against as what they’re for. To be peacemakers, we have to break from that mold. We have to strive to be like Jesus, not equating love for one group with hate for another. We can and should hate sin itself, but how we communicate that requires discernment. And Christian peacemakers must remember our primary alignment should be with Jesus, not with any group, conservative or liberal.
Recognize Your Limitations
Even at the end of Princess Mononoke, the sides could not completely reconcile, not yet. They could only live in peace, refraining from infringing on one another’s wellbeing as much as possible. The same applies in reality. People are different. People are often flat-out wrong and unwilling to admit it. You and I can’t control whether or not people reconcile with each other or with God. We can only seek to facilitate reconciliation. That can be discouraging.
There is, however, hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He seeks to reconcile all people to God and, through him, to each other. Those who refuse to repent and be reconciled with him will, in the end, be dealt the eternal separation they choose, and it will not be pleasant. But those who have been redeemed and reconciled will enjoy eternal life with God, and peace will reign. We can look forward to that, and we can spread this message of hope and peace.
The new year is three days old. We aren’t going to fix everything this year. Political parties won’t stop slinging mud, and cruelty will continue. But whatever your beliefs, I hope you’ll join me as an agent of peace. Let’s continue to learn to see with clear eyes, to listen to one another, and to seek others’ wellbeing. We can’t fix everything, but we can make a difference.