Were we to travel back in time, the world of 1999 would be practically unrecognizable. No obsessive allure of social media, no traumatic memory of 9/11, no widespread fear of climate catastrophe—it seems like a different, simpler time.
And yet, 1999 was the year that Princess Mononoke, one of the most iconic anime films in history, first hit American screens, introducing us to a beautiful yet bleak world where humans are in an all-out war with one another and their natural environment. Written and directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, an Emishi prince who journeys west to discover why a boar god became a demon that attacked his village. There he finds Iron Town and the determined Lady Eboshi, who is stripping the surrounding forest of resources to turn her town into a booming industrial city. In that forest, Ashitaka meets Princess Mononoke, a human girl who was raised by wolves and is on a mission to kill Eboshi and save her home from destruction.
In some ways, it's a story as old as time, with human beings fighting to secure their survival and advance their interests, often at the expense of others and the natural world. But watching the film today, you can't help but see something else: a reflection of the injustices making headlines in 2019, and an unlikely source of inspiration for combating them.
Take this year's horrific Amazon wildfires, for example. Before they started, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was working to weaken environmental agencies and existing protections for nature reserves and indigenous territories, paving the way for miners, loggers, and farmers to exploit the forest for commercial gain. And while the exact cause of the fires is still up for debate, it is almost certain that they were man-made—and likely the result of businessmen burning land in the name of industry.
The pro-business Bolsonaro finds a direct counterpart in Lady Eboshi, who couldn't care less about the trees or their living, breathing inhabitants. For her, a growing economy comes at the expense of a growing forest, a trade she is willing, and even eager, to make: "When the forest has been cleared and the wolves wiped out, this desolate place will be the richest land in the world," she muses. What matters most to her is turning resources into revenue—specifically by digging for iron ore, just like the Brazilian miners.
But Princess Mononoke, or San, isn't letting the land go gentle into that good night. To save the forest that has become her home and the animals that have become her family, she's fighting to teach humans a bloody lesson about the consequences of taking what's not theirs. In one scene, she and the wolves attack a caravan bringing rice to the citizens of Iron Town. In another, she infiltrates the city and rushes at Eboshi with her teeth bared and her dagger drawn. And toward the end of the film, she leads the boars and wolves of the forest into a full-scale military battle against Iron Town and its hired guns.
As we face our own environmental crises, San's ferocious and protective passion becomes a kind of rallying cry, imbuing our campaign against climate change with a new sense of urgency. Would it be a stretch to call climate activist Greta Thunberg a real-life Princess Mononoke? Yeah, maybe. Still, it is worth pointing out that Thunberg is, like our animated heroine, a teenage girl leading the fight to save the environment and decrying the fact that "money and growth are our only main concerns." She also really likes hanging out with wolves—er, dogs. Just saying.
But the parallels between Princess Mononoke and the present day do not end there. At one point, a nearby lord named Asano decides he wants to take Iron Town for himself—if necessary, by force. But when his messenger arrives at Iron Town's perimeter, he is met by dozens of Iron Town's women, all former sex workers whose nights are now spent tending to the town forge. The messenger demands to be let inside, but the women refuse, instead opting to hurl down taunts from above the gate. Appalled by their behavior, he sputters: "The brazen impudence! You ladies need to be taught some respect!"
"Respect? What's that?" one woman calls down to him. "We haven't had any respect since the day we were born!" shouts another. And with that, they scare him off with gunfire.
Not unlike many sex workers today—who face widespread discrimination when it comes to employment, housing, and more—these women know all too well what it feels like to be stigmatized: "Women like that… It's a disgrace!" says one Iron Town man in the film. "They defile the iron." But Princess Mononoke's strong female characters refuse to accept the status quo—they daringly challenge others' perception of who they are and what they're capable of. When Asano's small army finally tries to invade Iron Town, all of the city's men are off elsewhere with Eboshi. It's the women who pick up rifles and go to war with Asano.
As they fight to preserve their way of life, they offer an inspiring example of what can happen when women band together and stand up to their oppressors, one that feels especially relevant as sex workers across America continue to fight for greater protections and for the decriminalization of their profession. In a broader sense, the women of the film also reflect the goals and values of our post-MeToo era; unlike in the brothels, in Iron Town "the men don't bother us," one woman reports. "Unless we want them to!" her friend adds.
Coincidentally, it was Harvey Weinstein himself who oversaw Princess Mononoke's U.S. release, nearly two decades before he was dismissed from his company and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences following allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. Prior to the movie's rollout, Weinstein clashed with director Hayao Miyazaki, and lost.
"I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein," Miyazaki remembers in a 2005 interview, "and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts." Weinstein wanted the director to shorten the 134-minute film, but Miyazaki wasn't having it. According to Miyazaki, his producer even sent Weinstein a samurai sword with a simple note: "No cuts."
"I defeated him," concludes Miyazaki with a smile.
Like so much great art, Princess Mononoke holds a mirror up to the world, dramatizing it in a way that enables us, as the Emishi wise woman says, "to see with eyes unclouded." We see that environmental disaster is not an abstract and faraway misfortune, but a pressing crisis for which leaders must be held accountable, and against which immediate action must be taken. We see that we can empower one another and speak up for ourselves in a way that promotes safety and human dignity. And we see what's possible when people, in Miyazaki's words, "don't think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart."
Yes, it's a cheesy sentiment, and yes, we've heard it before. But as the world faces new, uniquely modern challenges in 2019, maybe it's the reminder we need to get out there, kick some ass, and start fighting for something better.
Follow Jeremy Price on Twitter.