Princess Mononoke: Violence and Leprosy in the Muromachi Period

[english translation of: Prinzessin Mononoke: Gewalt und Lepra in der Muromachi-Zeit]

Serious illnesses, physical disabilities and similar tragic fates rarely appear in modern anime. Whenever these topics are pictured, it seems to be more or less trivial. In the best case this happens in a symbolic way of representation. Often only as a means to an end. Of course that’s in the nature of the genre. Finally, most animated films are created with the aim of pleasing and delighting a young audience. Violence and death are also difficult to enact on a non-fictional basis, even if they constitute an undeniable part of our humanity and the world in which we live. Hayao Miyazaki, in one of his masterpieces called Princess Mononoke (1997), was able, to the surprise of many critics, to meaningfully integrate each of these themes into his movie about the coexistence of humans and nature.

The breathing share: human life

Exactly, as with a qouted stock, the value of a human life stands and falls with the determining factors. In this case: the nature of the habitat and the social environment. The story of Princess Mononoke pictures the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which coincides with the so-called period of the warring empires (from 1477). The latter was shaped by a century of warfare in which there was no central order at the national level. To put it in a nutshell, the heyday of the Japanese Middle Ages. A moment in the history of mankind, which was characterized by poverty and violence. Already at the beginning of the anime, the main character Prince Ashitaka is involved in brutal fighting. After being kicked out of his home village and only a few miles of traveling, he encounters a village looted by enemy soldiers. Both the defending men and the fleeing women are murdered. The visualization of the damage is drastic. Body parts are separated. The attackers know no mercy. Ashitaki is discovered and involved in a fight as he seeks to escape the scenery. In an act of self-defence, he beheads a soldier with the shot of an arrow. One could still say that these are shocking portrayals of violence for an animation movie, but there is no need for that. The director himself explained his decision aptly.

„If there is a fight, it is inevitable that blood will flow and we can not avoid showing that.“ – Hayao Miyazaki

An absolutely logical train of thought. In the Middle Ages, a human life had only the shadow of the value of a present existence. That means: in most regions of our world. Even today there are similar incidents almost daily, just not in the industrialized countries, but where there is still true poverty and the right of the strongest rules behind closed doors. By contrast, it would have been presumptuous to fool young adults with the tale of a not barbarous act of killing instead.

The doomed

At that time, however, a person had not only to fear cruel attacks, but also unknown and incurable diseases. In the Muromachi Period, one of the most worrisome diseases was leprosy. The chronic infectious disease, also known as Hansen’s disease (discovered by the Norwegian Gerhard Armauer Hansen), was described as early as the 9th century in documents of the Japanese government:

„It is caused by a parasite that eats five organs of the body. The eyebrows and eyelashes come off and the nose is deformed. The disease brings hoarseness and requires amputations of the fingers and toes. Do not sleep with the patient as the disease is transmissible to those nearby.“ – Ryounogige

People who were visibly infected with leprosy were now considered outcasts who were no longer tolerated within society. Thus, they were forced to live in places beyond villages and towns among their peers. Symptoms of the disease were and are the dying of the nerves, the obstruction of the arteries and veins by the thickening of the blood and the loss of the sense of cold, heat and pain. This should later develop the myth that people would repel parts of their body, because of the disease. In truth, they hurt themselves without realizing it, causing their wounds to worsen later. Today, leprosy is known to be difficult to transfer by droplet formation and also curable. Reasons for an infection are emergency conditions, such as: Long-term contact with an infected person or animal, borderline hygiene and malnutrition.

In the film, the young Prince Ashitaki meets mummed people who build rifles in a remote workshop of the fortress of Tatara. Some of them seem to have stumps where their limbs should end. One of them only speaks in a weak voice and is confined to bed. His suffering is not a question of imagination. Although they live inside the city, they exist separately from the rest of the people. But they are given attention, even by the ruler Lady Eboshi personally.

For a long time, it was a mystery to many fans what exactly the condition of the characters was. Earlier this year, the director revealed the secret. Hayao Miyazaki gave a lecture and commemorated Hansen’s illness and its victims as part of Japanese history on January 27, 2019 in Tokyo, on personal experience with a leprosy patient. In this regard, he commented to Princess Mononoke as follows:

„Miyazaki said he wanted to freely create a period piece“… „so I drew not only samurai warriors and peasants, but people who had disappeared from history or had been discriminated against.“ – asahi.com

A question of context

In conclusion, Hayao Miyazaki’s straightforward but above all clever stagings of difficult topics such as violence, illness and even death are to be praised in his award-winning work Princess Mononoke. These work in the colorful animated fairy tale despite their harshness or complexity due to the always comprehensible integration into the temporal context and give the overall picture an authentic undertone.


© featured image: Studio Ghibli

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