Princess Mononoke (1997)
‘Princess Mononoke’ Mythological References Explained
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
A landmark in the world of animation, Princess Mononoke’s epic story and extremely complex philosophical script—while enjoyable—still leave a lot to uncover and understand. For that reason, this discussion will break down the real mythology and folklore referenced in Princess Mononoke, one of Miyazaki’s most celebrated works.
The Title and Meaning of ‘Mononoke’
Starting with the original Japanese title, Mononoke-hime is a general term for vengeful ghosts or spirits, and when fully translated, it is ‘princess of the spirit of vengeance.’
The Demon Nago
In the startling opening sequence, Prince Ashitaka’s village is attacked by a demon who we later learn was once a bore-god named Nago. Ruined by his own rage and fear after being shot by lady Bo and poisoned by the iron bullet in his body, Nago is noticeably covered in black worms.
A reference to the Japanese folklore, where sorcerers were known to use poisonous worm spells called koduko (worm toxin), was derived from poison spells used in Chinese black magic. To create koduku, sorcerers would mix several insects in a jar and let them kill one another until only one survived. The fluids of the insects that survived would be used to poison an individual with a curse that would control, torture, and eventually kill them.
Thus, the worms appear to be a visual representation of a tatari or curse; when the watchmen first see the demon, he calls him a tatari spirit. In Japanese folklore, a tatari is generally created by a vengeful spirit called who became this by holding on to a grudge. Nago’s hatred of humanity transformed him into a vengeful demon where his tatari infected Ashitaka and imbued him with the demonic strength we witness later in the film. However, the worms later appear more like snakes or eels, which could be influenced by Tsuchinoko—a malevolent snake-like spirit creature from Japanese folklore.
Ashitaka’s Village Origins
The place in which Ashitaka and his people live is based on a true historical group called the Emishi from Japan’s Northeastern regions, which is generally referred to as the Tohoku region. The Emishi tribe was known for their archery skill from horseback and not the red elk as in the film. Mainly because they are not native to Japan; however, it resembles a type of antelope from southern central Africa, where Miyazaki confirmed Princess Mononoke is set during the Muromachi period from 1336 to 1573.
Lady Eboshi’s Weapon’s
Lady Eboshi and her men use guns based on real weapons originating in China called fire Lance’s. A very early form of a gun was adopted and used in Japan long before the Portuguese introduced matchlock guns in 1543.
When the wolves are first introduced, the men call them inugami, the name for an evil dog spirit usually associated with black magic. Though, it is used as a derogatory term in the film. They are similar to the Japanese wolves called Okami, who went extinct around 1905. They were named Okami for their role in Japanese mythology as divine messengers or vehicles of the mountain gods, who were also thought of as guardians or guides. Moreover, their double tail is similar to a belief in Japanese and Chinese folklore typically attributed to fox spirits in Japanese folklore called the Kitsune and are known to grow extra tails the older and wiser they become. Although, other folklore specifies that for every century of the fox’s life, they can gain as many as nine tails.
The Kodama or the tree spirits in Japanese folklore inhabit very old or special trees in the mountains and curse or bring death to anyone who cuts those trees. These spirits may appear as ghostly light, an animal, or a human.
San’s Tribal Design
Miyazaki has said in interviews Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky was influenced a more innocuous place compared to his usual references: a manga. The title is Mudmen, named after the real-life Asaro Mudmen tribe of Papua New Guinea, where the manga takes place. So, written and illustrated by manga artist Daijiro Morohoshi, the tribe is known for their masks and body-paint, which Miyazaki used elements of in the design of San’s mask and face paint.
Moreover, the forest is inspired by a trip that Miyazaki and the rest of Studio Ghibli took to the Japanese island of Yakushima, where Sika deer roam all over as in the movie.
In Japanese, Irontown is called tatara; a furnace used to smelt steel and iron in traditional Japanese ironwork similar to what we see portrayed in the film. This form of ironwork was essentially the most advanced technology of its time in Japan. Therefore, it served as a great statement of man’s gradual deviation from nature and corruption of it—the central theme and conflict at the heart of Princess Mononoke.
Then soon after San and Ashitaka leave Irontown, they encounter the ape tribe Japan who have a peaceful temperament and do not want to interfere between the gods of the forest and Irontown. Their dynamic is similar to monkey spirits in 8th-century Japanese folklore, which depicts them as mediators between humans and the gods.
Nightwalker & Forest Spirit
In the form of a gigantic nightwalker, the forest spirit is called a Deidarabotchi, a giant yokai of Japanese folklore. It is rumored to be so huge; its feet created lakes or ponds each time it took a step in one. Soon after the nightwalker spirit is introduced, the forest spirit can be seen in the form of a deer called Shishigami, which means deer god and is known for being the god of life and death.
Additionally, in Shinto, deer are thought of as messengers or vehicles of the gods akin to Okami. Altogether, the forest spirit can choose to give life and represents a mystery of wonder and danger—something needed to be both respected and feared.