Princess Mononoke, or “Possessed Princess” already sounds like a Gothic tale but it is not so straightforward to translate ‘Japanese Gothic’. In fact, Charles Shirō Inouye goes so far as to say that ‘the term [Gothic] did not exist because the Japanese did not need it’ because theirs is a culture aligned with the supernatural - and, as the opening of the film describes, the Japanese people live alongside their beasts, spirits, gods and demons[i].
The film follows Prince Ashitaka, who is marked by an infectious rot upon his arm that he contracted whilst defending his village from a demon. On his travels to find a cure he becomes embroiled in a conflict between the forest spirits, and the humans. San, a human girl raised by the wolf Goddess, Moro, and her pack, is introduced fighting against the destructive humans who seek to consume the resources of the forest for material gain. When Ashitaka discovers her, San is sucking the blood from her ‘Mother’ Moro’s wound, she turns to silently face him as blood drips down her face and onto her wolf-pelt cloak. The image is at once strikingly ambiguous; San is aligned with the monstrous, a blood-sucker, and yet the act itself is done out of love for her Mother.
San is outcast for her many skins - even Moro tells Ashitaka “my poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither human, nor wolf”. The liminality of her skins rupture the narrative itself as she is caught between the worlds. This does however mean that it is possible to ‘map’ tropes of the Gothic onto San’s skins: spectral, abhuman, and haunting. Not forgetting when she is momentarily rotted by touch of the corrupted forest-spirit, Shishigami! Obviously ‘Gothic’ is San’s own wolf-skin that she wears upon her back, it is both a concealment of her human figure, and masquerade of a more monstrous, bestial form. Curiously, I find myself wondering how she acquired this skin; presumably, a ‘fallen’ wolf? In which case, although she wears a ‘dead’ skin, in taking on this wolf pelt apparel, she also animates it. San, through clothing (which could be considered a distinctly ‘human’ form of ‘skin’) ironically achieves and embodies the liminality of the spirit-wolves, neither alive nor truly dead: Princess Mononoke incarnate.
Another world in which San is caught between is that of the past and the present. Symbolised through bodily adornments, San is depicted as primal, animalistic, barbaric even with her facial markings, piercings, talismans, and decorative teeth. Eboshi, the leader Irontown, is the only other woman besides San who wears jewellery, although she is fashioned very much as a ‘modern’ woman very distinct in style from San. In this way, their adornments locate the women within specific, stylistic, temporal moments; San takes on a costume of the ancient past, and Eboshi in bold prints becomes an icon of the progressive, industrial future.
Much of Gothic is fearful of the past; family curses, lost manuscripts, forgotten ruins, but Princess Mononoke, although in many ways tormented by the remnants of past beliefs and practices with San serving as almost a spectral embodiment of the past, appears much more fearful of the future. San is, perhaps, quite a fashionable- even modern, monster? She looks very much the part, covered in blood, stalking her enemies like a beast, but, she is ultimately a girl, abandoned by her family, devoted to her wolf-kin. The gift of Ashitaka’s necklace, however, is as transformative as her wolf-skin. It humanises her by re-fashioning her as a monster befitting our modern age, who wears a token of love.
San as a character perfectly captures Gothic ambiguity, being a monstrous body and a figure of sympathy who forces us to re-think the ‘monster’, and instead think upon the modern horrors we have inflicted upon our own green spaces. A horror, that is unambiguously, global. Princess Mononoke remains one of the top ten highest grossing films in Japan, along with other Ghibli anime films, and two Harry Potter films. The film clearly reaches a broad audience and at a time when ‘our’ Gothic is critiqued for its proliferation within the mainstream, and yet Japan’s popular culture is dominated by stories of magic, spirits, and ghosts- despite the absence of a ‘Gothic’ term to describe them.
Perhaps then, what Princess Mononoke does so brilliantly is to drawn attention to absence; the absence of borders, boundaries – but more pressingly, the consequences of the absenting of spaces entirely. Mujō is the Japanese concept of leaving things incomplete and we see this both in San’s choice to remain in the forest, fragmented between Ashitaka and the spirits, and in the fate of the story more broadly. San however, is somewhat completed by the end of the story, she is monstrous but she is also strong and owns this identity, staying true to where she belongs, with the spirits…and the monsters. Like many of our own Gothic tales, the film falls short of a completely ‘happy ending’ but there is the space for future transformation, hinted at in the potential of regrowth within the forest. Clearly, Gothic has an immense impact upon how people view, and live, within the world, wherever that may be – but it is possible to map this impact, through monsters, and their transformations.
Stephanie Reid is a PhD Researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on representations of skin in Post-Millennial television series – and she welcomes recommendations of strange, scary, or supernatural ‘skin stories’!