Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Princess Mononoke is known mainly for addressing the issue of environmental sustainability vs. industrialization. San, Ashitaka, and the Wolf Clan must stop Lady Eboshi and Jigo from destroying the entire forest and obtaining the head of the Great Forest Spirit.
Princess Mononoke conveyed an admittedly important message about the environment. However, there is one other theme that deserves to be addressed. This theme is about the stigmatization of disease and how disease can isolate individuals in society.
Lady Eboshi's Helping Hand
In Princess Mononoke, Lady Eboshi is labeled as the antagonist. She was the leader of Irontown and ambitiously planned to expand her iron business by cutting down the forest trees. As a result, San and the Wolf Clan tried to stop her. Although Lady Eboshi may appear to be an enemy in the eyes of San and the Wolf Clan, her character is a bit more complex. Lady Eboshi isn’t all that cruel as she demonstrated humility by helping individuals who were powerless and ostracized by society.
Lady Eboshi helped two underrepresented groups: women and the lepers. She bought out several women from the brothels and gave them a second chance at life, where they work in the iron mining business and were trained in using a gun to defend their households. As for the individuals living with leprosy, they also had an opportunity to live fulfilled lives. When Ashitaka visited Iron Town, Lady Eboshi explained the iron mining business to him. She showed him to her secret hideaway, where she introduced him to the people who make the rifles and guns. The people she “hired” have leprosy and had been cast aside from the rest of the world.
At first, Ashitaka saw Lady Eboshi as the enemy for destroying the forest and attacking the spiritual forest creatures as if they were monsters. However, one of the lepers, Osa, defended Lady Eboshi. Osa claimed that Lady Eboshi was the only person who saw them as people when the rest of the world thought of them as monsters for their rotting flesh-like appearances. Like the brothel women, Lady Eboshi gave them a purpose to live.
Princess Mononoke's Important Message About Hansen's Disease
Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s disease, is an infectious disease that can cause individuals to have discoloration to the skin and disfigurement of the toes and hands. The lepers describe their illness as the rotting of the flesh. They hide their physical disfigurements by wrapping their entire bodies with bandages so that they look “normal.”
Ironically, though, Ashitaka is similar to the lepers. Both Ashitaka and the lepers were banished from society because their “illnesses” are curses that cause disfigurement in their physical appearances. Ashitaka had a curse mark on his arm that he covered up with clothing. When Ashitaka felt deep hatred towards Lady Eboshi for destroying the forest, his arm reacted as if it had a mind of its own, reaching for Ashitaka’s sword so that it can kill Lady Eboshi. Upon seeing that cursed hand, many lepers feared him. In this particular scene, it’s ironic that the lepers would fear Ashitaka since they, themselves, are also cursed with physical disfigurement and can easily relate to him. However, one thing is clear. Regardless of whether it’s a disease or a curse, there is still a stigma behind physical disfigurement and serious illnesses.
Although the issue of leprosy is subtle in Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to highlight it in the film so that audiences are aware of the disease and how such a disease led those living with it to face discrimination in Japan. In addition, when crafting a story about samurai warriors and farmers, he thought it would be wrong to exclude people with Hansen’s disease since they are also part of society. By showcasing a group of people that lived with leprosy in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki brings awareness of the disease and how we, as a society, shouldn’t stigmatize and dehumanize individuals who live with specific illnesses and deformities.