Before I saw Princess Mononoke, it was recommended to me by a lot of people—in anime blogs, on Facebook, by friends and classmates. Most of them were women like me who said the movie made them feel hopeful and brave, which to me meant that I would either love the movie or hate it. For a movie to appeal to me as a woman, female characters had to be more than just caricatures and stereotypes. They had to make mistakes and learn from them; they had to have bad hair days. Without that, I couldn’t connect with them and it made their story seem more wishy-washy, as if it was made to just placate viewers who happened to be women instead of actually making them think and feel.
“Perspectives” is a brand-new AniFem article category, where writers focus on the feminist-relevant impact a particular series or character had on them. These are personal essays meant to highlight a variety of voices and experiences.
So many anime series and movies made me feel uncomfortable about how the female protagonist was stellar at everything simply because she was good looking. So what? The movie made her smart, and nice, and she also had boobs. Series like those always made me cringe. If I had wanted a typical Disney movie, I would have watched Snow White. I wanted weird women, awkward women, dangerous women, women with crappy hair days like me. I liked awkward protagonists, like Sunako in Wallflower who resisted being turned into a cookie-cutter girl, or the offbeat, not-trying-be-cute women in NANA.
I think that’s why I fell deeply in love with Princess Mononoke when I first saw Lady Eboshi. Even though she was purported to be the antagonist, she was the one who spoke to me the most. She had a commanding presence on the screen and was powerful in a subtle way. I was absolutely enthralled by how she was so many things at once: kind with the former brothel workers who kept the flames going and merciful with the lepers who helped develop her weapons.
She felt like some sort of Machiavellian Mother Mary figure for the people of Irontown. That was, until I saw her battle with the natural world around her town. She did work hard and have a vision for the people under her, but at a cost to the forest and the animals inside it. I was shocked that seeing a character like Lady Eboshi made me almost try to forgive her actions. It was exciting to see a woman at the helm of an entrepreneurial endeavor, and a part of me wanted to justify the danger she was putting her merchants and the surrounding environment in.
Throughout the movie, I’d go from loving Lady Eboshi to wanting one of the creatures of the forest to come out and maul her. I practically cried when she shot the Forest Spirit, but also commended her for being one of the only in her group to not fear the spirit or the forest itself. If anything, Lady Eboshi was a leader during the battle that led to the Spirit’s death. She dominated every scene she was in with a quiet presence, even the one where she led an army of men.
I was especially transfixed when she turned to the group of men and said, “Now watch closely, everyone. I’m going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him.” I sobbed when the forest began to destroy itself, but I was enthralled by the image of Lady Eboshi running towards the creature to shoot it. And though I hated her choices, I wanted to be like her. Or at the very least, befriend someone like her.
Lady Eboshi confused me. She made me curious about why she had taken certain choices and why she wouldn’t give up on trying to push back the forest. I wondered if her kindness to the workers in Irontown was due to the money they made her, or if she really wanted to help people down on their luck. Not being sure of her intentions fascinated me all the more. She came off as merciful and caring, but also shrewd and calculating. Lady Eboshi used the money and the weapons that her workers made for her against the forest animals and to destroy the surrounding forest… but she gave the women and lepers an opportunity to work and become independent. She gave them a purpose. She also gave herself a purpose by becoming their leader.
As frustrated as I was with all the conflicting perspectives on her, it made me love Princess Mononoke so much more. Lady Eboshi wasn’t a minimal part of a plot; she helped move it forward. But most importantly, she was complicated but human. She was a businesswoman and a force of nature.
Characters like Lady Eboshi are one of the reasons I fell in love with anime and Studio Ghibli films in the first place. Like Lady Eboshi, many of the women of Ghibli are well-rounded characters who are interwoven into a narrative. They aren’t manipulated by it, but they guide it. Lady Eboshi set a standard for me that led to other great movies like Howl’s Moving Castle, which endeared me to Sophie’s bravery.
Characters like Lady Eboshi are why I refuse to settle for less in manga and anime. Thanks to her, I actively look for series with strong female leaders. I won’t waste another second of my time on a fetishized ideal or a stereotypical portrayal of women. I’ll just be more like her: stand my ground, and demand what I want.
Angely Mercado is a native NYer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in DNAinfo, Lenny Letter, Vivala, and more. She’s a fervent otaku, and a lover of all things platano. Reach out to her on instagram @angely_mercado or Twitter @AngelyMercado and send links to anime music videos, animal gifs, and food.
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