The Emishi: Japanese Culture Meets The West and Africa

Princess Mononoke is one of the most successful animated films in Japan and around the world, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film features a great deal of Japanese historical information and introduces an innovative historical perspective, which makes us rethink the culture of Japan, and explores ethics of life. The film is multilayered with thorough details including the tribes and technological advancements that occurred in the Muromachi era, which corresponds the years 1336-1573. The film depicts a teenage boy, Ashitaka, living in the village of Emishi and his journey to the west to remove his curse casted by a giant boar-demon.

The Emishi

The Emishi

The Emishi, called “the tribe of trees”, were the minority group in the Muromachi era. They practiced nature worship and wished harmony between humans and nature. Since their inhabitants were far from other tribes, the Emishi nurtured unique culture and isolated themselves even further creating several communities within the common tribe. The Emishi are said to be the decedents of the ancient tribe, the Jomon, who first built civilization in Japan. After the political war in the 800’s, the Emishi started to lose its power and were at a risk of dying out. The head of the tribe, Aterui, was killed during the war and the rest were forced to leave their inhabitants and live in even deeper forests. The protagonist of the film, Ashitaka, is the prince of the Emishi and, although it is not clearly mentioned in the film, he is the descendent of the head, Aterui, according to Miyazaki.

Because Ashitaka came from the Emishi, the music needed to be different from the typical Japanese classical. There could not be any use of Japanese traditional instruments such as “shamisen” or “shakuhachi” in its music because that would trigger the feeling of the typical historical image of Japan, which often prompts Samurais. Miyazaki wanted to depart from this stereotypical lingering picture of Japan and swerve to a world where humans and nature coexist in harmony. However, this attempt was not a simple task for the composer, Joe Hisaishi. He was expected to compose music that provides a historical and tribal feeling without using instruments that the Japanese do not think as traditional. Furthermore, since the era in which the film featured is very old that there was little left about the Emishi’s music. Despite these challenges, Hisaishi could not disregard the importance of its music. A film like Princess Mononoke can be greatly influenced by its music due to the fact that viewers will sense the time period and atmosphere from its music. In Global Soundtracks, Rey Chow says,

“folk music complicates any simple analysis of the film’s politics. (Page 55)”

In this chapter, Chow talks about how folk music gives depth to film, which is difficult to achieve through dialogue. With this in mind, one can state that bringing folk music with an ambiguous purpose and sense could end up leading to wrong understanding for the viewers.

Princess Mononoke in Germany

Princess Mononoke in Germany

To cope with this obstacle, Hisaishi chose to insert western classical music. This may sound like nothing original, but he had right intensions. The structure of the music is certainly western classic, but the music also embraces elements of European folk music and African traditional music, making it sound worldly tribal. Additionally, this technique adds not only a tribal feeling but also gives depth to the world of Princess Mononoke. Viewers might not be familiar with Japanese classical music but if the music has a global quality which sounds tribal and historical to larger audiences, the world of Prince Mononoke becomes boundless. It is no doubt that this style of music helped Princess Mononoke to become popular in various countries outside of Japan.

Works Cited

“Analyzing Princess Mononoke.” Analyzing Princess Mononoke. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <;.

“Beats21 – 『もののけ姫』と喜納昌吉.” Beats21 音楽評論、ポップ・ミュージックの総合サイト. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <;.

Slobin, Mark. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.


One thought on “The Emishi: Japanese Culture Meets The West and Africa

  1. Being fairly familiar with the musical style of Joe Hisaishi myself, I am intrigued by the idea that the western musical style in which he writes is actually a device to connect to a larger audience. This also makes me wonder what music is considered standard throughout the world. People in countries such as Japan and the United States are well acquainted with western classical music. What, however, makes western classical music more accessible or more “global” than any other classical music tradition? Why do we find it so hard to understand or relate to music that is foreign to us? It is all (for the most part considered to be) music, in the end, something that we hear all our lives. How can one style really be that different from another?

    –Meghan Demirer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: