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Miyazaki Hayao has used his fair share of princess characters: Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) is the daughter of a feudal lord, and becomes a leader. Sheeta in Castle in the Sky (1986) comes from an ancient royal lineage. The title character of Ponyo (2008) is the oldest known daughter of the goddess of the sea. Setting those three aside, the most prominent of Miyazaki's princesses is Princess Mononoke (1997). That's if you go by the English title of the film, but is the female lead a princess? What is a mononoke, anyway?
Traditionally, a princess is the consort of a prince, or the daughter of a king or sovereign prince. Under this definition, Nausicaä is the only princess in Miyazaki's films, and that's only the movie version. In the graphic novel, her father is a vassal, not a sovereign. The rest are only figurative princesses, including the heroine of Princess Mononoke.
The Japanese word for princess is “hime” (姫). The overlap in literal meaning isn't perfect. The Japanese term is older and broader, encompassing all young ladies of noble birth, in much the same way that noble women were given the title of “lady” before the narrower and more technical term of “princess” entered the English language from the French in the late 14th century. According to Japanese Wikipedia, “hime” was one of the kabane, hereditary titles of ancient Japan.
Historically, female nobles were marginalized by males, which is why the term “princess” entered English so recently, by modification of a masculine term. Femininity has generally had a lower cultural status, and “princess/hime” is commonly used today to epitomize notions of the feminine: pretty, pleasing, passive, often vain and caring. A metaphorical use of “princess/hime” to mean “woman with genuine power” is regrettably rare in this climate of sexism.
This train of thought is what first got me thinking about the English title for Miyazaki's Mononoke-hime (もののけ姫) from 1997. Judging only by the title, it looks like a story about a princess named Mononoke. Indeed, in the English subtitles by Steve Alpert, Moriyoshi Haruyo and Ian MacDougall, the character Eboshi names the heroine “Mononoke”, in a piece of dialogue about 42 minutes into the DVD version.
In my view, this is a little misleading. Eboshi's phrase, which is “mononoke-hime” like the title of the film, should indeed be interpreted to mean a figurative princess, but none of the characters believe that Mononoke is her actual name. Her family calls her “San”, meaning “three” (Moro's third cub). San is a princess mononoke, but we need to scratch the surface to see how that works.
The English and Japanese terms for princess saw an explosion in metaphorical uses through the 20th century, as material living standards in the developed world met and surpassed those of medieval royal families. Both terms are now widely applied to anything, in proportion to the femininity, cuteness and sheltered sophistication of the referent. Very often, the usage is patronizing. Whereas both “prince” and “queen” connote an interest in Realpolitik, “princesses” in modern stories typically hold power through magic, wealth, emotional blackmail of their parents, or fleeting popularity as a result of good looks and fashion sense, if they hold any power at all. San is very different from that modern image.
In 1980, before Studio Ghibli was founded, Miyazaki produced a story in picture-book form, for a project titled Mononoke-hime like the 1997 film. This story and the actual film have very little in common, but it's interesting to note that the title character of the book version is a samurai's daughter, though not a princess. One may imagine that Miyazaki liked the title and stuck with it even after the story had changed so much that the hime part was only figurative, and not a very good match for the new contents.
San's mother Moro states that the girl was discarded as bait by fleeing people, presumably workers. San is a princess in the literal sense only if Moro is a queen in her capacity of nushi, or guardian spirit. Similar monarchical relationships are explicit in many fantasies, including Tezuka Osamu's Jungle Emperor (1950). There, nature is so tightly structured that it's hierarchical, like the mythical ideal of medieval societies. This has little in common with the far more realistic worldview of Princess Mononoke.
Moro does not appear to command large numbers of the Japanese wolf, which was pushed to extinction in 1905. She fights with her children, not other wolves, and nobody in the film ever states that Moro is a nushi, unlike Okkoto the boar god. One guardian spirit among many in the area would be a poor equivalent to a monarch anyway.
San can still be called a princess in metaphor, for any number of reasons. She is young and female, at least. Despite having two older siblings who are Moro's biological children, it is conceivable that she could have inherited Moro's position. She eventually forms a connection to Ashitaka, who was a prince of sorts, although the term “mononoke-hime” is applied to her before this connection is made. She does get some political power, mainly as a diplomat, but power is not typical of princesses, in fantasy or in the real world.
Just as one can find reasons to call San a princess, there are reasons to find the metaphor jarring. San is a hateful, vindictive, violent misanthrope, and probably a murderer. Susan J. Napier notes the atypical gender roles of the film in Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle (2005), commenting that San's first meeting with Ashitaka suggests “the sexual primordial female” through blood and fur. These characteristics are directly opposed to the stereotypical form of femininity normally assigned to princesses in fantasy fiction.
In the diary The Pillow Book (finished in 1002), “mononoke” appears to mean “mental illness”. A few more years into the Heian period, in the classic novel The Tale of Genji (finished in 1021), a human spirit possessing a woman is a mononoke. From there, the word has taken on more meanings, trending toward the banal. Here's an excerpt from the English translation of Tanaka Takako's overview, “Understanding Mononoke over the Ages” (Japan Echo, Vol. 33, No. 5, October 2006):
Watching this film, I found myself wondering about this use of the word mononoke in the title. As it is used in the Heian period, mononoke is something highly elusive, intangible, and unfathomable. In the film, however, it assumes a very concrete form, often appearing as an animal, such as a great wolf or wild boar. It is unclear why Miyazaki chose the word mononoke, but partly due to the influence of the film, the term has recently come to be used to refer to any concrete thing with a strange or eerie aspect, and is sometimes used interchangeably with yôkai, a monster, ghost, or apparition.
Yôkai itself is a word that was rarely used until the Edo period (1603—1868). In the isolated cases in which it occurs in earlier writings, it means a strange or menacing occurrence. However, the yôkai of modern times are specters with a very concrete form, as typified by the manga (comics) of Mizuki Shigeru. Their origins can be traced back to eighteenth-century illustrations, including such pictorial works as the woodblock prints titled Gazu hyakki yakô (Nighttime Procession of 100 Demons) of Toriyama Sekien (1712—88). Yôkai also appear in Edo-period picture books in the form of humorous cartoons portraying such specters as the one-eyed goblin, the tôfu goblin, the long-necked goblin, and so forth. These whimsical monsters cannot be traced back any earlier than the Edo period and are quite distinct from the mononoke of the ancient and medieval periods.
The mononoke of the Heian period were horrifying precisely because they were unknowable. Once such ghosts and other spirits took on a visible form, however, they lost the horror of the unknown, and this is why the yôkai created in the Edo period have been able to take their place as the pets, mascots, and playmates of today's Japanese schoolchildren. Mononoke, by contrast, are always dangerous entities that not only terrorize people but can even cause injury and death.
The term is never defined in the film. It may have been picked for the title to suggest the unknowable and mysterious in nature, and the threat it poses to the besieged population of Tataraba. However, it may also be interpreted as a deliberately dismissive choice by Eboshi.
San was abandoned to die, but is not literally a ghost. She is a dangerous avenger, and otherwise a poor match for the mononoke of folklore. Nonetheless, she has taken on supernatural physical power through her association with Miyazaki's mononoke. Eboshi's lieutenant, Gonza, refers to Ashitaka as “a kind of mononoke” (mononoke no tagui) when he reveals his curse. Most likely, Gonza looks at San in the same way.
What we have so far are several weak parallels between San and princesses, and San and mononoke. Time to look at the script in more detail. 42 minutes into the film, Eboshi is explaining her project to the visiting Ashitaka. The original Japanese:
Here is my translation, to give the highlighted key words a literal context:
Eboshi: If the old gods disappear, the mononoke will turn into ordinary beasts. If we light up the forest and get the wolves to quiet down, this will be a land of plenty. Even mononoke-hime will be human again.
Eboshi: A pitiful girl; the wolves took her heart. Even now, she is trying to kill me.
Finally, here is the DVD translation of the exchange:
Eboshi: Without the ancient gods, the wild ones are mere beasts. With the forest gone and the wolves with it, this will be a land of riches. That girl will be human.
Eboshi: Mononoke, the wild girl whose soul the wolves stole. She lives to kill me.
In this short piece of dialogue, “the wild ones” is the DVD translation of the word “mononoke”. Used this way, without “hime”, the word never refers to the girl. What Ashitaka sees as forest gods, the people of Tataraba prefer to see as evil monsters. Eboshi expresses this preference by likening the beast gods to Heian-period ghosts, which in her view may be old superstitions. It is only “mononoke-hime” as a phrase, meaning “the mononoke princess” or “the noble mononoke girl”, that has come to serve as a name for San among Eboshi's people.
The script has only eight mentions of mononoke-hime in total:
Two are shown in the dialogue above.
Shortly after the scene above, a village lookout in one of the towers shouts “mononoke-hime” to warn the others. Eboshi goes out to face the intruder, addressing her directly as “mononoke-hime”, but getting no answer. Various minor characters also utter the name.
Much later, an hour and 35 minutes into the film, Ashitaka is wondering whether the girl participated in the boars' attack on the rock formation. He gives her wolf name first, calling her San, and then remembers that the villager he is speaking to knows her only by the human sobriquet, so he offers “mononoke-hime” for convenience.
In the next scene, an anonymous scout of the Imperial forces reports to Jiko, saying that mononoke-hime and Okkoto are going deeper into the forest. Eboshi is listening. Presumably, Eboshi has described the girl and given Jiko the sobriquet.
That's it: the phrase never comes up again. Not much material to work with.
The eight mentions in dialogue are consistent with the idea that Eboshi, or one of her people, has pioneered the metonymic use of “mononoke” in place of a name, out of ignorance of the wolf name San. To avoid confusion with other mononoke, it's necessary to limit this usage to a larger phrase. Having a name for the attacker is both convenient and reassuring, but why choose “hime”, specifically, to make it work?
Metonyms are frequently dehumanizing. San's affiliation with the mononoke is literally dehumanizing in Eboshi's eyes, making this name for the girl an insult in Tataraba's pro-human culture. The choice of “hime” can similarly be understood as an insult. In a comparison between San and a respectable girl of the nobility, San is likely to be found wanting.
On the other hand, Eboshi is a woman of power, and must know this is rare. Perhaps she finds something noble and therefore princess-like in San's strength and determination, mirrors of Eboshi's own. Her people may see something similar in their fear. Perhaps they are trying to show a measure of respect for power, in the same superstitious way as the Emishi oracle at the beginning of the film, who tries to appease the mad and dying Nago. A transgressively savage princess can fill many roles: An enemy worthy of pity, contempt and terror in equal measure.
Having learned the phrase from Eboshi, Ashitaka refuses to use it himself. When he addresses San during her attack on Tataraba, he first uses the polite pronoun “sonata”, then invents the phrase “yamainu no hime”, “princess of wolves”. The exact same phrase is also used by the orangutans in the forest. Note the use of the genitive particle no to combine the nouns politely, without metonymy.
“Mononoke” is the heroine's name in this film, in the same way that “White House” is the name of the President of the United States. It's a metonym. This is impossible to learn from the American DVD if you don't speak Japanese, because there is no attempt to explain mononoke in the subtitles. The result is usually the impression that “Mononoke” is like “Jimmy Carter”: a real name. Strictly speaking, while this impression is wrong, the translation is not. It is merely convenient. The concept of mononoke has a complex and elusive history in classical literature, and an original usage in the film. To explain it in subtitles, with little exposition in the original Japanese, would be difficult.
The “Princess” or “-hime” in the title comes from the need to distinguish an individual from a broad class of creatures who are all mononoke. I can't say which aspects of the word are supposed to have inspired Eboshi's people to choose it. Their phrase for the heroine is rude, but Ashitaka and the apes use “hime” in a different phrase, for respectful purposes. They regard San as noble or princess-like in some unironic way, though she is refreshingly unlike a typical princess character. This departure from mere stereotype is not a reason to avoid the word in translation. No alternative—such as “lady”—would be much more appropriate.
Ultimately, it is reasonable to translate “Mononoke-hime” as “Princess Mononoke”. It is only a little peculiar, and not necessarily bad, that “mononoke” is untranslated. When the word is understood, the title of the film connects neatly to its central motif of liminal existences, explored in Napier's analysis: San is probably one of the mononoke, but the borders of that group are deliberately undefined. The term is an insult anyway, and so the character is denied a name. Recall that “San” is just a non-human animal thought; you can't very well call her San-san in polite conversation. In truth, she has no name, and no clear position. If she is a mononoke and a princess, she is at once human and non-human, sheltered and wild, forever in two worlds and none. This is precisely what her mother Moro laments.
Fans have proposed several alternative titles for the movie. Simply replacing “mononoke” with a common translation of that word, as in ”Ghost Princess”, would clearly contradict the plot. On the other hand, attempting only to translate the novel use of “mononoke”, as in “The Forest Gods' Daughter”, would lose the connotations of mystery and menace from literature, as well as Eboshi's anti-religious attitude, a possible reason for her choosing the name.
One should attempt to include both branches of meaning in an English phrase, but it's tricky. “The Monster Princess” seems to be a popular choice, but requires a sense of mystery about monsters that has been dwindling since the death of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and is spiraling the drain in our age of heavily computer-animated blockbusters. Napier offers “[P]ossessed [P]rincess”, where the double meaning is quite appropriate, but the reference to mononoke as a group is diluted. The official artbook suggests ”The Spirit Princess”, which I quite like, though it has no menace.