The title of Princess Mononoke

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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 title of the film, but is the female lead a princess? What is a mononoke, anyway?


A still from Princess Mononoke (1997). San stroking her sibling's nose.

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, and therefore not a proper king. Sheeta is technically a queen, but does not know it, has not been crowned, and does not rule. They’re all mainly figurative princesses, including the heroine of Princess Mononoke.

In this case, the Japanese word translated to “princess” is “hime” (姫). That is the usual translation, and for good reason. There is a lot of overlap in their denotations and connotations. The Japanese term is mainly 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 “princess” entered the English language from the French in the late 14th century.

Both “princess” and “hime” are commonly used today to epitomize specific notions of the feminine: pretty, pleasing, passive, often vain and caring. Whereas both “prince” and “queen” connote an interest in Realpolitik, “princess” does not. Using it to mean “powerful woman” is rare. It is not a coincidence that the term entered English by modification of the masculine “prince”. Femininity has generally had a lower cultural status, and that is partly what the film is about.

All of that is what first got me thinking about the English title for Miyazaki’s Mononoke-hime (もののけ姫) from 1997. Judging 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 name. Her family calls her “San”, meaning “three”, because she was adopted as the wolf Moro’s third cub. San is a princess mononoke, but we need to scratch the surface to see how that works.

A princess?

The English and Japanese terms for a girl of the nobility 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. “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. She is strong-willed and arguably regal in her bearing, but savage.

Mononoke-hime eschews stereotypes. It does not show monarchs or other lords, nor their daughters, but it does acknowledge sexism. San is at war with Eboshi, the woman who has established Tataraba as a relatively decent place for women to work. Eboshi is intelligent, ambitious, capable and charismatic, but not a princess.

This prompts the question why the word “princess” appears in the title of the film. The most obvious answer comes from the production’s long history. The film reworks, almost totally, a narrative Miyazaki wrote in picture-book form, to pitch the movie before Studio Ghibli was founded. In its English-language edition, the original is now subtitled “The First Story” (1980), but its actual title is identical to that of the film. In a 1995 “Planning Memo” (1995), the studio was considering the alternative title “Ashitaka Sekki” for the film, but the older title won out.

The title character of the picture book is the daughter of a feudal lord. That lord is not obviously a vassal, but nor is he obviously a monarch. The book is more like a folktale than is the film; details are not resolved. In any case, the title character is definitely a hime in the literal sense. The English translation refers to her as a princess, not a lady, throughout. One may imagine that Miyazaki liked the title and stuck with it even after the story had changed so much that the hime part no longer fit.

A page from a 1993 book of 1980 production materials by Miyazaki Hayao. The project, much revised, would lead to a film in 1997.

In the 1997 film, San’s mother Moro states that the girl was discarded as bait by fleeing people, presumably workers. San is therefore not a princess by human standards, but you can try to save the title as a figure of speech. San would be a metaphorical princess if, for example, Moro is a metaphorical queen. 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 more realistic worldview of Princess Mononoke.

Moro does not 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 guardian spirit (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 weaker metaphor, for any number of reasons. She is young and female, at least. Despite Moro’s own skepticism, and having two older siblings who are Moro’s biological children, it is conceivable that San could have inherited Moro’s position. Also, 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 weak reasons to call San a princess, there are reasons to find even 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 Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), 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, and align her instead with monsters.

A mononoke?

In the 1980 picture book, the princess protagonist is not a monster, but she accompanies a monster on a supernatural quest. Her monster was originally human, then transformed into a catlike beast by his own sins. It is not clear why Miyazaki picked the word “mononoke” even for that creature, who does not appear in the film. Its closest equivalent, by a long stretch, is Moro.

In the diary The Pillow Book (1002), the word “mononoke” appears to mean “mental illness”. A few more years into the Heian period, in the classic novel The Tale of Genji (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 Miyazaki’s picture book is like a whimsical Edo-period yōkai, but the creatures of the film are not. They come from the earlier usages. Tanaka continues, putting her finger on a crucial point:

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.

Like “princess”, the term is never defined in the film, nor in the picture book. 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: mononoke as mere goblins, not to be feared.

When he reworked the story from the picture book, did Miyazaki mean for the original princess and mononoke to merge into a single character? It seems so. San was abandoned to die, making her a figurative ghost. She has taken on some power through her association with the gods. 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.

Close reading

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:

Eboshi: 古い神がいなくなれば、もののけたちもただの獣になろう。森に光が入り山犬どもが鎮まればここは豊かな国になる。もののけ姫も人間に戻ろう

Ashitaka: もののけ姫

Eboshi: 山犬に心を奪われた哀れな娘だ。私を殺そうと狙いつづけている。

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.

Ashitaka: Mononoke-hime...?

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.

Ashitaka: Who?

Eboshi: Mononoke, the wild girl whose soul the wolves stole. She lives to kill me.

A still from Princess Mononoke (1997). The conversation between Ashitaka and Eboshi.

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 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:

That’s it: the phrase never comes up again. Not much material to work with.

Insult and alternative

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 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 to the civil dead. In a comparison between San and a respectable girl of the nobility, San is likely to be found wanting.

On the other hand, Eboshi herself is a rare woman of power. 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 does not 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”, “lady of the 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 an epithet by way of 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 DVD can leave the impression that “Mononoke” is like “Jimmy Carter”: a real name. Strictly speaking, while this impression is wrong, the translation is not. As noted by Tanaka, 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. Disregarding the earlier story in the picture book, I can’t say which aspects of the word are supposed to have inspired Eboshi’s people to choose it, or how little respect it’s meant to convey. 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, but obviously not in all ways. 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” only to 50%, as “Princess Mononoke”. When the foreign 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, like the reasons for the other half of the epithet.

The character’s “real” name, San, is literally a non-human thought. You can’t very well call her San-san in polite conversation. In truth, she has no formal name, and no clear position. The ambiguous title assigned to her by Eboshi underlines this more thorough ambiguity. If she is a mononoke and a princess, she is at once human and non-human, knowable and unknowable, sheltered and wild, forever in two worlds and none. This is precisely what her mother Moro laments.

Bonus rant: If you must have a different title

Fans have proposed alternative titles, but there is no clear winner. 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.