Spoiler Warning: The following is not recommended for people who aren't up to date on Game of Thrones, and it includes a few plot details from Princess Mononoke.
Game of Thrones, HBO's cultural juggernaut of a fantasy TV show, has approximately 628 plots and 37,920 characters. Last season, one of those characters, Ser Jorah Mormont—also known as "the middle-aged blond guy who isn't Jamie Lannister"—got pulled into a plot line very similar to the story of Hayao Miyazaki's 1998 anime masterpiece Princess Mononoke. Specifically, he came down with a terminal case of a leprosy-like disease called greyscale, the circumstances of which are almost identical to what the protagonist of Princess Mononoke goes through.
If you haven't seen Princess Mononoke (and you should really treat yourself sometime), here's the plot: Ashitaka, a man of noble lineage who never inherits the lands he was promised, gets in a fight with a demon and catches an incurable curse on his arm in the form of an infected wound that will eventually consume his body and then kill him. Ashitaka goes on a journey and fights alongside a princess he's chastely in love with, who considers giant beasts her family (in this case, wolves), and he seeks to cure himself.
Jorah Mormont is also a man of noble lineage who never inherits the lands he was promised. Mormont gets in a fight with some zombie-type guys called Stone Men and catches an incurable disease on his arm that will eventually consume his body and then kill him. Mormont goes on a journey and fights alongside a queen he's chastely in love with who considers herself the family of giant beasts (in this case, dragons). And, as of a few weeks ago, he seeks to cure himself.
Let me be clear up front: In the books, Mormont never tests positive for greyscale. But in A Dance with Dragons, written in 2011, another Westerosi warrior in exile named Jon Connington does. Connington is the one who saves Tyrion Lannister from the Stone Men in the books, and in the process, he catches their deadly disease. But Connington's greyscale is on his hand as opposed to his arm. So in short, there is a faint similarity to Princess Mononoke in the books, and it's evolved into something much more akin to an homage when those books became a TV show.
Since Game of Thrones has a novelist, two TV executives, and a writing staff, there are at least seven people steering the story. When I asked showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss if they nudged the Jorah Mormont storyline in a Mononoke-esque direction, their representatives turned down my request for an interview. Author George R. R. Martin didn't respond to my request either, but for his part, he hasn't been shy about the fact that his form of creativity involves some recycling. "I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things," he told Rolling Stone in April 2014.
The trope of a cursed wound that won't heal is obviously not unique to these two stories. For instance, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings gets stabbed by the Witch King, and the wound poisons him until he finally sails away to paradise. But that wound just makes him sick from time to time. This body-devouring terminal arm curse is more akin to something you see in science fiction, like Wikus van de Merwe's alien arm in District 9, or Seth Brundle becoming a fly in The Fly, but those are transformations, not terminal illnesses.
But in the fantasy worlds of Princess Mononoke and Game of Thrones, both diseases manifest themselves as a creeping pox that begins as a battle wound on the arm, gets concealed under a garment, and serves as a tangible memento mori throughout further adventuring. The characters' constant awareness of their own mortality motivates them both to quietly try and change their deeply troubled worlds for the better before they check out. Derivative or not, it's a great conceit, because on some level, isn't that just the human condition?
There are other similarities between Princess Mononoke and Game of Thrones, too. Both take place in magical universes that manage to remain anchored to the realities of life and death on earth. Both feature female warriors just as strong as—if not stronger than—their male counterparts, plus plenty of chieftains and other bosses who are women. Moreover, both feature wars between many competing factions painted in shades of gray. No one's good, no one's evil, and everyone is fucked in both if they can't figure out how to stop the supernatural menace that's coming for them all. And there are giant wolves in both.
Plus, both are super-violent.
But while both stories revolve around futile human battles for supremacy in a seemingly doomed world—an idea nicely encapsulated by their shared image of a striving hero being irreversibly consumed by an internal form of evil—they seem to have significantly different aims.
I won't spoil the specifics of how Princess Mononoke ends here, but even though Ashitaka's adventure shows him the uglier side of humanity, we also find reasons to be optimistic. Director Hayao Miyazaki—the undisputed god of Japanese animation—said this was intentional. "There can never be a happy ending in the battle between humanity and ferocious gods," Miyazaki wrote in his original movie pitch. "Yet, even amidst hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist."
Meanwhile, in the recent Game of Thrones episode "The Door," when Daenerys told Jorah, "I command you to heal yourself," right before the two characters parted ways—possibly forever—the exchange might propel Jorah toward a Princess Mononoke–style personal odyssey. But come on. We've all been watching this show for a while now, and I think we all thought the same thing: This dude is fucked.
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Game of Thrones airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.