San, the titular Princess Mononoke, is a force of nature, uncompromising and undaunted by violence. Raised in nature, she sought to become its hand of vengeance against humanity. A young woman pursuing her own goals against ignorance and petty enmity is a typical (albeit early) example of Hayao Miyazaki’s dedication to well-rounded female characters.
But in Princess Mononoke especially, the heroine reflects a duality of potential for which women are feared and demonised: compassion balanced with a fierce courage and a raw instinct that can be honed, recklessness curbed, but never erased. San stands opposed to the hero Ashitaka, whose privileged human ignorance moves him to believe he needs to cure the curse of nature.
In striking at this truth, Princess Mononoke manipulates the ancient fear of women with power and challenges the traditional archetype of the witch who lives in the woods and crafts vengeance from unkempt, twisted nature. An angry woman is an unwanted thing, most of all when she mirrors and thereby magnifies our failings. San has chosen this same sisterhood, as wild, glaring, and wronged as nature herself, owning her fury against humanity as her purpose.
San kindles shock and awe in willingly taking on the mantle of the spinster, choosing physical and spiritual independence over culturally acceptable self-sacrifice. She revels in the fear that leads humans to call her “witch,” wielding her bond with nature to become a force for destruction against those who destroy for power. She becomes that which humans most fear: a threat to their dominance, unmoved by mankind’s violence.
The hero, Ashitaka, falls in love with the princess at first sight as per usual, but she rejects him, her fury not so easily assuaged. In that scene, she is spitting blood from her wolf mother’s wound, a symbol of all she will give to the humans who have made the natural world and “untamed” women bleed across generations. San is resolute in her belief that humans and nature are past the point where learning to love will heal them, while Ashitaka still believes it will.
Playing peacekeeper between San and Lady Eboshi, whose Irontown is on the frontline against nature’s frenzied stampede, Ashitaka takes on a perceived feminine role of the lover with the innocent will to heal. But his princely privilege shows beneath his good intentions: he preaches the evils of hatred between San, Eboshi, and their realms as though his word is law, without knowing what it means for these two women to claw their way back from destruction.
Ashitaka must learn to reconcile his willingness to love with real knowledge and experience of the broken world he barely knows exists, and acknowledge that he’s not more enlightened than these women simply by virtue of being a man and having an outside perspective. His devotion to unity is admirable but puerile, and San is justified in not heeding him when they first meet.
He is the boy prince, and unlike the traditional savior hero from another world, it is only by learning to empathize with and understand both sides that he is able to turn his peaceful ideals into something truly useful. A chivalrous heart, no matter how loving, is worth nothing without work and sacrifice. In the end, our heroines are still the ones who will guide their respective worlds.
Both women—San, who renounced her humanity, and Eboshi, the adopter of a masculine malice—understand, unlike Ashitaka, that something must be sacrificed for either way of life to survive. The clash between the two is one rarely braved in fiction: a battle of honour between women of heart and principle who are opposing titans, one of nature, the other of industry. Eboshi and San represent a greater call to action, a bond with nature that knows destruction is inevitable because of man’s mistakes.
Eboshi becomes the most striking, relatable example of the need for feminine power in times of calamity. In the world man has ruined, she is a leader of outcasts: iron workers and weapons makers, prostitutes and lepers, the dogged and wounded, who must band together to find and reach for their own survival. Nobody is going to give power to them, so they build it for themselves.
It is here that mankind and nature find a parallel at the core of their conflict. Despite their shared belief that they must destroy one another to undo this inherited chaos, there is a survivor’s bond between Eboshi and San. Like San, Eboshi has given up security and mutual companionship for power. Both have been made brutal by mankind’s lack of appreciation for their instinct and initiative.
San doesn’t need to be liked by Ashitaka, or any human, to know her forest’s rightful place in the world. And even though Eboshi enables humanity’s malice, she also knows her own power and the safe place and purpose it provides society’s outcasts. Both realms of nature and humanity are at the precipice of a fundamental shift; the difference is that San’s culture faces extinction from the mechanisations of mankind.
That’s why San is the warrior we root for, instinctively yearning for the return of nature’s rule, to break the cycle of destruction. Eboshi, knowing that her workers are victims of the current cold-hearted system, should see that as well as San, but she’s trapped by man’s curse of thoughtless violence. Working within the masculine power structure binds her to pride, and drives her to uphold a damaging system even while trying to protect the helpless within it.
San completes her heroic arc when she acknowledges that ignorant violence on either side is an injustice to the forest she loves. Realising that, by removing herself from human civilization, she has been part of the problem, she breaks from her furious rule and turns to teaching others. She comes to understand that seeking to achieve through domination only causes further wounds; there is only isolation for someone who lacks the courage to be kind.
Ashitaka in turn makes his own sacrifice. Instead of spouting empty words against hatred, he listens to San and chooses to submit to her cause when he knows she’s in the right—even if that means “betraying” his own kind. The two come to rescue each other in equal measure by banding together to save the forest, finally striking a balance between nature and man.
San, though, is not self-immolating in her compassion. She does not forgive and fall into Ashitaka’s arms. Though she now trusts humans to learn their lessons from nature, she does not forsake her principles. Her admittance that she still can’t forgive humanity for its collective wrongs comes from a different place: there is much work yet to be done, on both sides, if she and Ashitaka are to live in the same world.
True villainy is dividing and ostracizing rather than putting in the effort to empathize and understand. That is the feminist moral at the core of Princess Mononoke. But the lesson—found in Eboshi’s morally ambiguous conquests, in San’s wise and wild violence, and in Ashitaka learning to leave his own way of life to aid a struggle he never knew—is that what may look like cruelty and villainy is all part of a higher conflict, a struggle to find a balance in symbiosis.
Ashitaka comes to realise that only in knowing the nature of the violence at hand can he achieve his noble goal for harmony. Eboshi, after cutting herself off from the kindness of others, has a bittersweet realisation of the damage she has caused even as nature symbolically returns her compassion to her in the regrowth of dead grasses and flowers.
And San, in being a cipher for nature, stands as a bloody consequence and a symbol of potent femininity. She takes the teachings of the wild and becomes her most powerful by showing compassion when the rest of the world refuses. She recognises that loving and nurturing is strength, and does so without being subsumed by Ashitaka or losing the will to fight, finding a middle path in a world built on violence, hatred, and destruction.