Hello again fellow users. I’ve got another Studio Ghibli protagonist I’d like to propose, and this one hails from a movie that’s often seen as one of their very best, which is saying something considering their consistently high quality (though be warned, it’s also one of their least family-friendly and is not for those who are sensitive to violence). It had been a while, but after revisiting it after so many years, I think I can safely say this character is one of the most admirable in their whole filmography; a shining beacon of light at the center of a violent, messy, and not so black-and-white type of conflict that’s sorely in need of it.
What’s the work?
Princess Mononoke is an acclaimed epic fantasy anime film from 1997 that was animated by Studio Ghibli and both written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It takes place in the late Muromachi period of Japan, but of course, includes some fantasy elements as well. The story follows Ashitaka, a young Emishi prince who is forced to leave his village and people when one day, he saves it from a boar god who has been turned into a demon, but at the cost of having his right arm cursed by it before he defeats it. He is then instructed by the wise female elder to travel to the western lands that the boar god came from with Yakul, his faithful red elk, where he may find a cure for it. However, there is also a lot of violent conflict going on there, particularly between the gods of a forest and a particular town of people who are trying to burn it for important resources. Therefore, on his quest for a cure, Ashitaka finds himself getting increasingly involved with this conflict, as well as the only major player involved who’s working towards finding a compromise so both sides can live together in peace. And of course, our featured guest of honor is none other than him.
Who is he and what does he do?
Prince Ashitaka is the main protagonist of the movie and the last prince of a tribe called the Enishi. He starts off the film by saving his village from a vicious attack by a demon, which turns out to be a boar god named Nago who had been corrupted by wrath and hatred. While he initially tries to convince it to leave them in peace, when it spots a trio of girls, including his sister Kaya, it goes after them, and when one of them trips, they’re forced to stand their ground. It is only when they’re in danger of being killed that he uses force against the demon and brings it down with a couple of well-aimed arrows. However, as mentioned before, it still touches his right arm and curses it before he defeats it, and in the aftermath, he is told by the female elder it will keep spreading throughout his body, cause him agonizing pain before eventually killing him. However, he is also instructed to travel to the western lands where Nago came from to seek a potential cure. Regardless, sadly, he must leave the tribe for good, at least until that happens, so he cuts his hair and sets off on Yakul.
While travelling, he comes across some samurai who are attacking, raiding and massacring a village. While he tries to avoid conflict, when one samurai refuses to relent attacking and tries to kill an unarmed woman right in front of him, he’s forced to shoot, which thanks to the enhanced power the curse gives his arm, makes him release the arrow with such force that he takes their arms off. He’s then forced to kill one more man in self-defense by similarly taking his head off with an arrow, but only after he tries imploring them to let him pass through and they still shoot at him. Later, he comes across a couple of men from Iron Town, one whose name is Kohroku, and the other an unnamed friend, who are badly injured from an attack by a wolf pack that was led by the wolf goddess Moro (they were trying to herd ox carrying rice back to their town). Taking a path straight through the forest and receiving some guidance from spirits that reside in it called Kodama, he’s able to get them back quickly and safely, as well as before Kohroku’s more badly injured friend perishes from his injuries. There, he meets Lady Eboshi who expresses gratitude for saving her men. Her bodyguard Gonza is more suspicious and hostile since he doesn’t like how easily he got through that more direct route of the forest, but pretty much everyone else warms up to him quickly.
During his stay, Ashitaka learns a lot about what’s going on. While Lady Eboshi is well-liked among the residents of the town since she has taken in many social outcasts and given them a home of refuge, like a bunch of women who used to work in brothels and lepers, she is also the source of the conflict with the local forest and the deities within it. See, she’s been leading efforts to burn parts of it to claim iron sand and produce iron in the hopes of making Iron Town wealthy and prosperous. She was also the one who shot and wounded Nago with the iron ball that was found in him, which caused his corruption into a demon from his anger and hate. Ashitaka is quite angry with what she’s done, but decides that hurting or killing her would not help the conflict, especially after hearing from the lepers what she’s done for them, and even goes to help the women who were recruited from brothels with their work.
However, during this time, San, a young woman who also goes by “Princess Mononoke” and the “Wolf Girl’ infiltrates Iron Town to try to kill Lady Eboshi. See, she’s a human, but she was abandoned by her parents as a child to save themselves, and the wolf goddess Moro raised her as her own. Therefore, she acts and behaves like a wolf, feels very strongly about protecting the forest alongside them, and is driven to kill Eboshi to end the conflict. However, as she gets close to Eboshi and things heat up, Ashitaka intervenes and tries to prevent the two from killing each other so the conflict between the two sides won’t escalate further, as well as so neither side will lose an essential figure, even showing his curse to everyone in town to show how it’s consuming him and is made stronger by negative emotions, imploring them all not to let it do the same to them by being consumed by hate. When he can’t get the two of them to stop fighting, he knocks both of them unconscious and tries to carry San out of town personally. However, he gets shot almost fatally through the lung by a villager (it’s kind of an accident since they didn’t want to and ended up pulling the trigger unintentionally), but despite how much he’s bleeding, he makes it all the way out of the village and delivers her back to the wolves.
Soon after leaving with her, he collapses off of Yakul from a combination of exertion and blood loss, with San angrily threatening to kill him for preventing her from taking out Eboshi. However, she isn’t able to go through with it, especially after he faintly remarks how beautiful she is. She then takes him to the Forest Spirit, who heals his injury, but not his curse. She then begins to trust him more as he recuperates, but Moro tells him he has no place in her life and laughs off his attempts to convince her that humans and the forest can find a way to live together in peace. She also tells him to leave the following morning now that he’s fully recovered as a war between the humans and the boar clan approaches. While he initially leaves as San and the wolves are joining the boars in battle, he decides to check on Iron Town, who are under attack from samurai who are the underlings of some unseen figure named Lord Asano. As it turns out, Lady Eboshi has made a deal with a monk named Jigo he met earlier, who turns out to also be a mercenary of sorts who works for the government, and they’re working together to track down the Forest Spirit, kill it, and deliver its head to the Emperor, with Eboshi doing this in exchange for protection against Lord Asano. However, with her and most of the town’s able-bodied men away fighting the boars, they’re not so well-defended, hence why the samurai are attacking them. Therefore, Ashitaka promises to find Eboshi and tell her about the siege.
After being forced to deal with a few samurai who pursue and try to kill him, he finds the men from Iron Town and tells them about the attack. He then finds one of the wolves stuck, but very much alive between the dead corpses of some boars, whose clan was unfortunately massacred in an ambush. With some help from Iron Town’s men, he frees it and the two head off to find San as well, who’s with the badly injured Okkoto, who’s a boar god and the leader of the boar tribe, as well as the only survivor of their suicidal attack. Unfortunately, despite tracking down Eboshi and trying to convince her to help her town rather than try killing the Forest Spirit, she feels she’s come too far to turn back and that they’re on their own. Meanwhile, Okkoto goes insane from the loss of his clan and despite San’s attempts to stop it, he becomes corrupted into a demon and she gets trapped within the blood-red tentacles that envelop him. Thankfully, he and Moro eventually save her, but the corrupted Okkoto still leads Jigo’s men to where the Forest Spirit is just like they planned. After euthanizing Okkoto, putting him at peace, and doing the same to the already dying Moro, unfortunately, despite Ashitaka trying his best to convince her not to, Eboshi shoots off the Forest Spirit’s head just as it’s transforming into the demonic form it takes at night. This causes it to go berserk and bleed black ooze that kills everything it touches. Ashitaka then leads Eboshi and Gonza to safety after Eboshi gets her arm bitten off by Moro’s still alive head, and prevents San from making another attempt on her life.
After calming her down by assuring her he’s still on her side too, he and her then go after Jigo to retrieve the Forest Spirit’s head and give it back to him. Along the way in their pursuit, he also instructs the residents of Iron Town to evacuate and flee to the river where they’ll be most safe from the fatal ooze, and just in time since even as they’re doing so, the town is completely overrun by it. Finally, he and San confront Jigo and his men, which kicks off a brief fight. However, they are then surrounded by the ooze with Ashitaka, San, Jigo and one of his men getting to safety onto an elevated rock. At this point, Jigo concedes since there’s really no choice left, allowing Ashitaka and San to get the Forest Spirit’s attention and give its head back. The spirit then technically dies, but due to being appeased, the black ooze goes away, its form washes over and heals the land, and Ashitaka is finally cured of his curse. In the aftermath, San admits that while he means a lot to her, she still isn’t ready to forgive the humans for everything they’ve done, so she resolves to keep living in the forest. He, meanwhile, decides to stay with the residents of Iron Town to help them rebuild, but resolves to visit her often since they’ll still be close to one another. Elsewhere, Lady Eboshi reunites with the survivors of Iron Town and asks about Ashitaka since she means to thank him for opening her eyes to what’s really important, and resolves to rebuild a better town that is more in harmony with the forest, while Jigo decides to give up on completing his mission. Meanwhile, the forest begins to regrow and a single new Kodama is seen before the film ends.
The only issue some people might have is that in certain situations when he’s forced to, Ashitaka does use lethal force, as seen with Nago at the beginning and a few samurai warriors. However, he always uses words and diplomacy first, does it solely in self-defense or to protect someone else, and derives no pleasure from it at all. Besides, it’s been previously established that Pure Good heroes can kill when left with no other choice, and he’s definitely an example of someone who only does it as a last resort when it’s the only practical option left. Otherwise, he tries to avoid and prevent it at all costs. Unlike almost every other major character, Ashitaka is not blinded by anger, hate, personal ambition or the need for vengeance; he only wanted to find a way to help establish peace between the humans and forest animals/deities, shows a great amount of compassion and kindness to those on both sides, and helps people he doesn’t even know out of genuine care, like Kohroku and his unnamed friend when they were badly injured. And he manages this all despite having a cursed arm that’s consuming and threatening to kill him.
The closest he came to letting himself give in to anger was when Eboshi revealed she and her people had burned down an area of the forest and personally shot Nago, which caused his corruption into a demon, and the fact she was still trying to create more powerful weapons, sowing more hatred and pain. When his cursed arm starts acting up, he restrains it and admits if it would end his curse, he’d let it tear her apart, but he acknowledges that wouldn’t end the killing. Obviously though, this doesn’t end up being a problem since very shortly after that, he ends up preventing her and San from killing each other and later helps save her from the Forest Spirit’s ooze. So ultimately, despite having very good reason to be angry with what he witnesses, he remains fully committed to his goal of not using violence when it isn’t needed, knowing it will only makes things worse, ending the conflict altogether, and not leaning to one side or the other.
Admirable Standard/Goodness Zone
If it isn’t obvious already, Ashitaka is the film’s most admirable character, hands down. While many of the other characters (unless you include those at the beginning from his own village) fall somewhere on the grey spectrum of morality, having both understandable intentions and goals, but very morally objectionable methods as well, he’s the film’s moral center and voice of reason/peace. Before we reach the 10 minute mark, he saves his village from a demon, and even then, not before trying to implore it to leave them be. Later, he goes on to do everything he can to stop the bloodshed occurring between Iron Town and the various groups of forest animals/deities, as well as help both sides, such as trying to convince Eboshi to stop destroying the forest, stopping Lady Eboshi and San from killing each other, informing Iron Town’s men about the samurai’s assault on Iron Town so they could help support the women who were holding down the fort, trying to get Eboshi to go back as well and lead them in helping her people, rather than go after the Forest Spirit, saved one of San’s wolf “brothers” from being stuck, and went with it to save San from Okkoto’s demon form.
And of course, by the end, while they probably still suffered a decent number of casualties, he saves a good chunk of Iron Town’s population by instructing them to evacuate to the river from the decapitated Forest Spirit’s fatal ooze where it couldn’t reach them as quickly, and by returning the Forest Spirit’s head to it with San, he saves both everyone left altogether and the forest itself. While much of the forest is destroyed by the ooze, returning its head causes it to heal the land, rejuvenate it and allow everything to start to grow back. Finally, his kindness and pacifism end up having a positive influence on many of the people he meets, most notably San and Lady Eboshi. By the end, San sees that not all humans are bad and is more willing to live alongside and cooperate with them, even if she hadn’t forgiven them, while Lady Eboshi sees the error of her ways and intends to start from scratch by building a town that presumably won’t be iron-based and won’t require them to destroy the forest to get by or make a living.
Needless to say, I think he does more than enough to qualify, especially for constantly advocating for peaceful resolution, almost single-handedly stopping the war and saving many people, as well as the land/forest itself. He’s just a very all-around ideal hero who gives an otherwise dark, violent and morally complex movie a strong moral center. Princess Mononoke is one of both Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s most epic-scale movies, and appropriately, he’s one of their most admirable characters who best embodies Miyazaki’s pacifistic values in real life that he uses to get that message across while denouncing war and the “us vs them” mentality. However, let me know if for whatever reason, you’re not convinced. Thanks so much for reading and have a good day!