Anyone who’s a fan of animation is probably a fan of Studio Ghibli films, and anyone who’s a fan of Studio Ghibli films has heard the name “Princess Mononoke.”
It’s one of the most popular animated films of all time. Heck, it’s one of the few Japanese animated films that Roger Ebert truly loved.
But what does the Mononoke in “Princess Mononoke” really mean?
Well, that’s what we’re going to look into here today. Let’s begin with our quick overview.
What does mononoke really mean?
A mononoke is a Japanese word (among several) that refers to a—usually wrathful, but always ineffable—supernatural spirit.
The real meaning of mononoke in more detail
Mononoke is a somewhat broad word in the Japanese language these days. It’s simplest to think of it as a word that refers to supernatural spirits.
When people think of supernatural beings in Japanese nowadays, they usually come up with the words yurei, yokai, onryo, shiryo, henge, ikiryo, bakemono or oni.
In practice, mononoke is something of an umbrella term for all of these, and perhaps even covers some special concepts itself.
If something is beyond explanation because it’s in the realm of the supernatural, you could call it “mononoke.”
How mononoke is written in Japanese
How mononoke is written in Japanese is extremely important for coming to grips with its true meaning.
You see, mononoke is actually comprised of three smaller parts. It is usually written as a mix of kanji and hiragana as 物の怪, although sometimes as 物の気. Let’s break down what that means.
The first character 物 covers the sound “mono” and means “thing.” The next character is の, which is a particle that relates two things together and is pronounced “no.”
And the final character is 怪, covering the sound “ke” and meaning mystery, wonder, and sometimes spirit.
So, we get that mononoke means “mystery of things.” See how vague that is?
When it’s written as 物の気, it’s more specific to the supernatural since 気 specifically means “spirit.”
That’s not all, however. In the past, the character 鬼 could be pronounced “mono,” and so we got 鬼の気.
Why is that interesting? Well, 鬼 refers most commonly to a demon. Nowadays it is pronounced oni, but still means demon. So, in this case, it’s the “spirit of a demon.” Spooky.
All that said, it can be written in hiragana alone as もののけ, which is how you’ll see it on the Japanese poster for the film “Princess Mononoke.”
History of the word mononoke
The word mononoke entered the scene in the Heian period, appearing for the first time in the Nihon Koki, a history of Japanese commissioned by the Emperor himself.
The word is seen regularly in the literature of that time. “Genji Monogatari,” “Makura no Soshi,” and “Murasaki Shikibu Nikki” all have references to it.
In “Makura no Soshi” in particular, the word is even used to refer to illness. This makes sense in a pre-modern time, before the germ theory of disease.
At those times, a sickness could easily be considered to be some sort of possession or the effect of an evil spirit.
Over time, this native Japanese word, mononoke, would be replaced by the fancier, Chinese related words, like yokai and yurei.
By the time the Edo period came around, nearly eight hundred years later, mononoke had become a less common word, replaced by the newer, and more varied terms.
The meaning of mononoke in “Princess Mononoke”
So, anyone who’s seen the film “Princess Mononoke” will note that there is no character specifically referred to as Princess Mononoke. So, what gives? Who is the titular princess?
Well, it’s almost certainly referring to the main female protagonist, San. She fits the role in a few different ways.
She is, herself, ineffable—one part human, one part wolf-spirit, but not really either either.
She exists in a liminal space between the human world and the spirit world, and that makes her truly a mononoke, a “spirit of things.”
But she is also the young, female heir to the dying spirits of the forest. She is the princess of the beings who could more directly be called mononoke.
Expressions related to mononoke
Let’s go over a few different short phrases that can be used with mononoke.
“I’ve lived in Japan on-and-off for the last five years, travelling to (almost) every corner of the Land of the Rising sun. I’ve deepened my love of the language with big hauls from Sapporo book stores, by chatting in Shinjuku coffee shops, drinking in Osaka “snack bars,” exploring distant Okinawan islands, and hitching rides with monks in Aomori. Japanese is a wide and deep language, and I’m always eager to dive in deeper.”