Edit 1/08/2017: There’s now an updated version of this article on my channel
Who hasn’t heard of Princess Mononoke?
A Hayao Miyazaki movie and one of Studio Ghibli most beloved classics: it tells a tale of human vs nature, where no even gods are safe from the human’s quest for progress.
Many are the elements worthy of analysis and reflexion, and one of them is the character of Lady Eboshi.
Poised and graceful on her feet, yet lethal on the battlefield. Resourceful and calm in the face on danger, she truly is a force to be reckoned with.
But Is she truly wicked? What makes her an antagonist?
As the leader of Irontown, Lady Eboshi is a woman of progress. She’s revolutionary for her time, with her sigh always set on how to go even beyond.
She certainly has ambition. One that sets her as a major obstacle for Ashitaka and San’s wish to save the forest (the main hero and our princess Mononoke, respectively).
For San the forest is her home and its creatures, her family. Her mind-set is the opposite of Lady Eboshi: she values nature the most. And like the many creatures of the forest, she respects its sacred deity: The Deer God.
For Ashitaka, to see conflict with eyes unclouded is his mission. As he witnessed the hatred consuming both sides, he yearned for a peaceful solution, a common ground between them. Although he lacked the deep attachment that San has for the forest, he respected both nature and the gods.
Still he’s willing to face an enraged God when it comes to defend others.
At the beginning of the movie, a God consumed with hatred tried to attack Ashitaka’s villa. Prepared to face the consequences, he rushed to defend his people, killing the God and gaining a deadly curse in the process.
That’s the turning point of the movie. But while Ashitaka’s curse it’s what sets the events in motion, it’s fundamental to take a look to what caused it in the first place.
Lady Eboshi comes into play
Nature is no priority for Lady Eboshi.
She had her sights on the land of the forest and the potential riches it could provide, to the point it make her uncaring of the potential collateral damage.
She took a hold of a mountain to build her town, and when its inhabitants attacked, they were either murdered or expelled… Which caused the hatred of the God that lived there, the same that tried to attack Ashitaka’s village after.
It could be said that indirectly, Lady Eboshi had her own part in Ashitaka’s fate.
But taking that mountain wasn’t merely an action of greed: It was the human desire to survive, whatever the cost.
Lady Eboshi as a role model
In times that showed no mercy to the sick and the women (even worse for those with unhonorable social position, like prostitutes), Lady Eboshi took them all in.
She gave them the tools to build a new home and treated them all, in their eyes, fairly.
She encouraged women to be strong and independent: she taught them self-defence and gave them work. It was hard, but it keep them safe from starvation. It also saved them from the denigration and the danger that came with being a prostitute at the time.
Lady Eboshi herself, as a leader, become an inspiring role model.
But these women weren’t the only people Eboshi looked after. When everyone else feared and rejected them, she washed and bandaged a group of lepers. She gave them a refuge: a little house inside of her private gardens where they could be at peace.
Although it can’t be denied that she used their work to pursue her ambitions. They help her achieve her goals with their work and she offers them her protection in exchange. From the outside, she can be seen as exploitative, but she also has good intentions. Compassion for humans guide her actions.
You can notice it in the way they speak to her, in the look of their eyes: the townsfolk have nothing but respect and love for her.
When they explain to Ashitaka Lady Eboshi’s desire to rule the world, they do it fondly, smiling. They speak of it while they built weapons for her, and it becomes clear that If she wants to rule, they would follow her without objections.
In Lady Eboshi desire to rule is a wish to take human’s destiny in her own hands, and take action to improve the quality of their lives. Because the people of Irontown might have it better than in other places, but their lives are not one of luxury. It’s hard work and constant fights against the forest creatures and other lords that want the land and their iron, respectively.
Lady Eboshi quest for improvement (technology improvement, to be precise) also contemplates getting rid of the obstacles and enemies of Irontown.
That’s where it gets trickier. Should she stop, her town would be invaded and robbed, and her people would probably end up either murdered or enslaved. If she continues, it’s the forest and it’s creatures who would get the short end of the stick. And if we learned something from the modern era, it’s that we cannot sacrifice nature for the sake of progress. There must be a compromise.
The argument for her side looks solid, and it makes one wonder where truly is the line between greed and survival instinct.
With the emperor’s orders, Lady Eboshi goes to kill the Deer God. Ashitaka warns her of being used, but that doesn’t stop her.
One could argue that she was already aware, but didn’t mind since it aligned with her interest: with the gods out of the way, the rest of the creatures were merely wild animals.
And as someone who fears no gods nor emperors; wild animals are no match for her. With the Deer God dead, it would be easy to claim the land.
But her actions against the wildlife are condemned. She slain the God with no regards towards no one but humans. She narrows her sight toward her goal, either uncaring or unaware of anything else: and she pays the price.
In wishing to gain more than what she already has, she ended up losing everything she had worked for. The creatures, in their resentment, failed to kill her. Yet she’s not left without scars.
At one point in the movie she says “Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite”. Her own words resonate when Moro, the Wolf God decapitated head, attacks with the last of its strength, leaving Lady Eboshi crippled.
When all is said and done, rather than a traditional happy ending, we get something more ambiguous. But there is a sense of peace. A sense that there is something to look forward.
Irontown is destroyed, but in Lady Eboshi, there is hope, confidence and strength. There is the promise of rebuilt: a better town, a better life.
She, who showed annoyance and even mocked Ashitaka and his views at some point, is left with a wish to thank him. And she said with sincere smile, with a little of humility, showing that her shortcomings has only served to make her grow into a better person.
It makes sense, because Lady Eboshi isn’t evil. And she certainly isn’t your conventional antagonist.
In fact, it’s only in the view that nature must be protected at all cost that her character becomes one that must be opposed.
But from a human standpoint, Eboshi can be hero of her story, and for the stories of many others. Her desires and her quest for progress resembles ours. That’s the richness of the film, what hits so close to home. It’s what makes this character so interesting. It’s just a matter of perspective.