Can you forgive humanity? Hayao Miyazaki can’t.
Maybe that sounds out of character for the director of some of the most beloved animated movies ever created. Studio Ghibli has risen and fallen with Hayao Miyazaki. He has worked with some of the most driven artists cinema has ever seen to craft delightful narratives, adorable characters, and breathtaking vistas for decades. And sometimes he’s just as endearing as you’d imagine him to be. Miyazaki talks about how children keep him going, writes about his earnest desire to help kids come of age and figure out the confusing world around them. He only takes off Sundays, and he always spends them cleaning a nearby river. He makes sure to set up stuffed goats in the winter for neighborhood kids to see.
But Hayao Miyazaki is also a curmudgeon, a man characterized in person by a grumbling, growling affect. In interviews, Miyazaki is overwhelmingly negative. He denigrates his own work, his career, his fans, his chosen medium, and his coworkers. He excoriates society, bemoans the state of the world. He will insult his friend’s life’s work to their face, tell his employees to quit if they hand in subpar work, curse entire organizations and countries over any failing. When Miyazaki draws himself in doodles or comics, he gives himself an exaggerated scowl, usually wreathed by clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Can you feel my pent-up rage?” Miyazaki asks while painting storyboards in the 2013 documentary In the Kingdom of Dreams and Madness directed by Mami Sunada. He has just talked about how it’s impossible to express the meaning of a film in words, and he’ll go on to say that making movies is a futile, dying endeavor. He feels the same way about the world at large, frequently making despairing comments about society to nobody in particular. It’s hard to hold it against him; knowing that Miyazaki is an environmentalist, can you blame him if he despairs about the future? Knowing that he grew up in Japan in the aftermath of World War II, can you blame him if he has a dark view on the morality of man?
Maybe it’s a shock to see him grouse about anything and everything, to feel this deep, dark well of pessimism and anger expressed so constantly. Maybe it’s a shock to read collections of his work and find conversations like the one he had with Yoshie Hotta and Ryōtarō Shiba in 1992, where he states that he was awed and exhilarated when the other two declared, “people are irredeemable.” Maybe it’s a shock to find out that he admired a kind of nihilism based on realism. This surprise may come from the fact that many of his movies don’t even hint at Miyazaki’s unrelenting anger, let alone illuminate the source of it.
But there is one that comes closer than all the others.
Studio Ghibli released Princess Mononoke in the summer of 1997 to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success after three years of production. Written and directed by Miyazaki based on ideas he came up with in the late 1970s, Mononoke found him crossing the line between diligence and obsession. Miyazaki would redraw any element that didn’t satisfy him (especially those involving the main characters), eventually estimated to have drawn parts of over 80,000 of the film’s 144,000 cels. A harsh, exacting boss, Miyazaki was dedicated to this passion project from the beginning.
The film follows Ashitaka, an Emishi boy banished from his village due to a curse from a rampaging demon named Nago. He journeys to the West to find the origins of the demon, eventually finding Iron Town and its leader Lady Eboshi, which manufactures the guns that first wounded Nago. He also meets San, a human adopted by the wolf gods trying to protect the forest, and Jigo, a traveling monk trying to behead the most powerful god of all, the Forest Spirit.
The world that Ashitaka discovers is characterized by conflict. More so than any other Miyazaki film, Mononoke finds him leaning into blood and brutality, as the clash between humanity and nature (and humanity with itself) barrels further and further away from any peaceful solution. Miyazaki is never interested in demonizing any of his characters or creatures, and as in all his films he makes a point to showcase the good and the bad of every side of every struggle. But Mononoke is different from his other works because there is a palpable sense of impending doom, an all-too-realistic feeling that a happy ending is impossible.
As the denizens of Iron Town fight to survive and produce their valuable iron, they clear away forest, forcing the spirits that dwell within to fight for their own survival. All the while, warring samurai and imperial agents encroach on the borders, eager to exploit the town and the spirits for their own ends. As these factions battle, unintended consequences blossom out, harming people and creatures in every direction. Ashitaka tries to stop the fighting, as he knows violence only continues the hateful cycle, but gets only derision for his trouble. He is laughed at seemingly every time he expresses his desire to leave peacefully and without hate.
A sense of warring duality is everywhere in Princess Mononoke: selfishness and altruism, nature and humanity, life and death. Contradictory impulses reside within the same character; contradictory forces play out against one another but form the basis of the world. Plants bloom into life then immediately decay around the feet of the Forest Spirit. San is both a human and a wolf princess. Ashitaka is a walking dead man, banished by the Emishi and too alien to fit in with the people of Iron Town.
And at the end of it all is the Nightwalker, the nighttime form of the Forest Spirit. Where the Forest Spirit has the body of a deer and a humanoid face, the Nightwalker manifests with the body of a man and the head of a deer; when Eboshi shoots off the Forest Spirit’s head under the urging of Jigo, all that remains is the human body. Once a melding of nature and humanity, the god of life and death is left only with its human side, its viscous flesh surging throughout the forest, killing everything it touches. Humanity finally stands tall above nature, and it is a mindless god of death.
By all accounts, Miyazaki is a hard man to live with and work for. “Animation work isn’t something that is over when a certain amount is done. One has to pursue it until one is satisfied,” he once wrote in an article called “I Left Raising Our Children to My Wife.” Miyazaki was never particularly involved in his children’s lives, preferring to obsess over his films. He left his wife Akemi Ota to deal with the kids, at the expense of her own career in animation. He says he tried to at least not be a strict parent, but that his kids would later say, “Father didn’t scold us with words, he scolded us by showing his back.”
Even knowing Miyazaki’s capacity for grumpiness, it might surprise Ghibli fans which character is most similar to him in terms of demeanor. In the middle of all the bloodshed of Mononoke is Jigo, the monk leading the effort to take the Forest Spirit’s head to the emperor. Jigo is the closest the film comes to an antagonist, though he doesn’t seem like one at the outset. Jigo is introduced in the film’s first act, and his defining characteristic, at first, is friendliness. He takes pity on Ashitaka, defuses a tense situation to appease everyone involved, and travels with the outsider to learn more about him. It is only when he speaks about the state of the world that we see the first inkling of Jigo’s fatalist, cynical side: “So you say you’re under a curse? Well, so what? So’s the whole damn world.”
If nothing else, Jigo reads as a thwarted idealist. He maintains his friendly, helpful air, perhaps from a time when he believed more whole-heartedly in human decency. He never hurts anyone out of malice, but he is absolutely ruthless when anyone gets in the way of his self-serving ambitions. Jigo’s disregard for human life comes from a stony certainty that it doesn’t matter what he does, because the world is cursed and there’s nothing to be done about it. “Everyone wants everything,” he pleads during the climax, finally revealing his contempt for his fellow man’s sense of morality. “But I might actually get it!”
If you watch Jigo side by side with Miyazaki, the similarities are clear: the matter-of-fact cynicism, the casual references to how the world is doomed, all said with a smile and a self-deprecating joke. Socially, Jigo is actually the more likable one of the pair, as he can reserve his pessimism long enough to be charming. But that fatalism still simmers. If Jigo is a thwarted idealist, then so is Miyazaki. Both men know that the world is fundamentally unfair, both men have seen those in power trample anything in their way in service of selfish goals, both men know that it doesn’t matter how fervently one holds one’s ideals, society at large will continue to ravage the planet.
Miyazaki’s anger doesn’t simply influence his writing of characters like Jigo; it defines him and his work as much as the light-hearted magic for which Studio Ghibli is famous. But if Jigo is an accurate reflection of Miyazaki’s personality, so too are the more hopeful characters. At the point in the story in which Ashitaka is angriest at the world around him, he meets Osa, a leper given a home by Lady Eboshi. Osa is bedridden, covered in bandages, barely able to breathe. He is nothing if not an example of the cruelty of the world, but he chides Ashitaka for threatening the villagers. “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed,” he says, seeming to echo Jigo until he adds, “But still you find reasons to keep living.”
Hayao Miyazaki is a relentless person. Stubborn in his beliefs and obstinate about his work, there’s a reason the most recent documentary about him is called Never-Ending Man. This is the man who refused to go to the Oscars while the United States bombed Iraq, who called an innocuous AI-generated animated sequence “an insult to life itself,” who mailed a katana to Harvey Weinstein to discourage Miramax from cutting any part of Mononoke, who angered Japan’s right wing with The Wind Rises and never backed down an inch. If you knew nothing about Studio Ghibli and saw a film made by a man like that who believed the world was doomed, you might expect a bleak ending.
But Princess Mononoke doesn’t end with the human half of the Nightwalker killing the world. It ends with Ashitaka and San, standing together, returning the head of the Forest Spirit and bringing life back to the forest. San still refuses to forgive the humans, but she loves Ashitaka, and the two of them plan to rebuild both sides, together. There is no guarantee that the two sides will actually come together, and nothing has changed about the core conflict, but there is a reprieve for at least a moment. Jigo looks on, disappointed. “Well, I give up,” he mutters. “You can’t win against fools.”
Knowing all that it has done, it is foolish to believe that humanity is inherently good, or that it will find a magical solution to the problems it has created. But for all his pessimism, Miyazaki can’t help but find beauty in individual people. Evil persists, but beauty is resilient, and beauty is everywhere in Princess Mononoke, rebelling against violence and hatred with gentle affection and quiet compassion. It’s in Ashitaka saving a wounded ox driver; it’s in the Kkodama leading Ashitaka through the forest; and it’s in Osa the leper, still finding reasons to keep living in a world cursed by bloodshed and suffering.
Miyazaki might agree with Jigo’s conclusions about the moral bankruptcy of the human race, but his ideals lie with Ashitaka and San. In the 1995 planning memo for Princess Mononoke, he wrote:
Princess Mononoke does not purport to solve the problems of the
entire world. The battle between rampaging forest gods and humanity
cannot end well; there can be no happy ending. Yet, even amid the hatred and slaughter,
there are things worthy of life. It is possible for wonderful encounters to occur and for
beautiful things to exist.
I will depict hatred, but only to show that there is something more valuable.
I will depict a curse to show the joy of liberation from it.
I will depict the boy’s understanding of the girl and the process by which the girl opens her heart to the boy.
In the end, the girl will likely say to the boy: “I love you, Ashitaka. But I cannot forgive humanity.”
Smiling, the boy will probably say: “That’s all right. Let’s live together in peace.”
This is the kind of film I want to make.
Miyazaki—an idealist, pacifist, and environmentalist—recognizes that humanity doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. Its sins, against itself and against the planet, are too old, too fresh, too many, and too great. And he isn’t so arrogant that he can’t see similar failings writ in miniature in his own personality. But he also recognizes a duty to the young people of the world, and an enduring responsibility to protect and nurture whatever small good he can, even though he keeps trying to retire. Why else would his upcoming film be titled How Do You Live?
Though he rages against the evils of the world, his love for people, for nature, and for life is what made Miyazaki the artist he is. Love is evident in every Studio Ghibli movie, every frame of them. Miyazaki may find his ideals thwarted, but unlike Jigo, he is not so selfish as to stop believing in them. Rage may be the only sane reaction to humanity as a whole; if you cannot forgive it, Hayao Miyazaki agrees with you. But as long as you keep trying to live in peace, he’ll keep making art for you.
All quotes from Princess Mononoke are from the translation adapted by Neil Gaiman originally released by Miramax.