Outcast Lepers: How Miyazaki showed the leper colony in Princess Mononoke (Topic)

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Outcast Lepers: How Miyazaki showed the leper colony in Princess Mononoke


In 1997, one of Hayao Miyazaki's famous films, Princess Mononoke, was released. In it, the author touched upon the themes of the destruction of the environment by man, age-old for his work, and tried to convey to people that between nature and technical progress, which the author himself is a supporter of due to his passion for aviation, balance and harmony are needed. But in addition, another topic was the stigmatization of sick people who took refuge in Ms. Eboshi's shelter. Hayao Miyazaki invented it after visiting the Tama Zenshoen [or Tama Zenshon] leper colony. Despite the fact that leprosy is considered a neglected disease, people who were exposed to it were stigmatized in Japan. In his film, Miyazaki decided to fight her by showing a leper colony in Princess Mononoke

A bit of history

Leprosy itself or leprosy [the academic name is Hansen's disease] has accompanied mankind throughout its history since the times before our era, when Hippocrates wrote about it. The skin and face of people with leprosy were distorted and they became "ugly" in the eyes of society.

Throughout human history, people with leprosy have been treated inappropriately, calling them damned gods, isolated from society, driving them to a leper colony. In fact, these were colonies of the sick, such a ghetto. Now this is the name of special medical institutions where disease prevention is carried out. In the Middle Ages in Europe, people with leprosy were even buried in a special way. For this, several people gathered at once, among whom were doctors and priests, they performed a special liturgical rite, dressing the deceased in special clothes that cover the face, after which they isolated the body, and put a rattle or a bell in the coffin.

Isolation and special measures continued throughout the world until Gerhard Hansen discovered the causative agent in 1873. In 1940, the drug Promin was discovered, which, although it did not provide a guarantee of full healing and did not act as a vaccine, became a significant impetus to the development of disease prevention and part of its comprehensive treatment. In Japan, the law on the compulsory isolation of patients with leprosy was in force until 1996. After its adoption in 1907, patients with this ailment were forcibly separated from their families and taken to a leper colony. There they were given new names, forcibly treated, sterilized and aborted pregnant women.

What does Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke have to do with it

In Japan, there are 13 state sanatoriums for patients with leprosy, and one of them is Tama Zenshoen, located in the city of Higashimurayama. Life in it is based on the principle of self-government and the patients themselves provide for their needs, solve problems, contacting from time to time with the city government. Also, its residents create a green area there, which they call the "Forest of Human Rights". This is where Hayao went when he was creating Princess Mononoke.


Hayao himself spoke about this in 2016 at the "World Conference on the Heritage of Humanity: Legacy of Leprosy" in Tokyo.

In 1996, Miyazaki worked on the next cartoon, which was set in medieval Japan during the Muromachi period. In the world of the picture, there were also elements of fantasy. Thinking over the main character, Miyazaki was looking for a person who would not be a samurai or an aristocrat, but more attached to people. He looked for inspiration in old illustrations that depicted the life of ordinary people, among them were lepers. So he wanted the plot of his paintings to be driven by such simple characters.


The director wandered down the street, thinking about how to build a plot, until he accidentally came across the very sanatorium located not far from his house. Miyazaki himself lived in the city of Tokorozawa, bordering Higashimurayama and knew that there was a sanatorium for patients with leprosy not far from his house, but did not visit it. Having stumbled upon it by accident, he realized that this was exactly what he was looking for.

Miyazaki was struck by the atmosphere of suffering that reigned in that place, and subsequently went there again many times. Soon, as the director says, he began to go to the crypt of the sanatorium, where thousands of people forgotten by the world are buried. There he prayed not only for those who were buried, but also for his deceased relatives and friends. This became a kind of ritual that the author followed during the entire process of creating the painting.

Hayao was especially impressed by the Lepra Museum, which was located near the Zenshoen building. There, from all over Japan, exhibits from other sanatoriums were collected, including personal belongings of patients, special money that was part of the internal economy of sanatoriums, as well as many documents telling the story of what these people went through. He was overwhelmed and realized one important thing for himself - he should not live aimlessly.

While visiting this place, Hayao realized that he wanted to capture the image of these people in the film. They all suffered from ceramic disease [this is what the patients themselves call their disease], but they still strove to live life to the fullest.

In the cartoon at a metallurgical plant, we are shown workers who are bandaged from head to toe. According to the plot, it so happens that the struggle of the main character of Asitaka's painting symbolically echoes the way these people are fighting against their disease.


So, at the beginning of the picture, he fights with a demonic boar, as a result of which he receives a wound and becomes cursed with a certain disease, which, on the one hand, gives him strength, and on the other, slowly kills. The way the hero is expelled from his village, and how he is forced to fight the curse until the end of his days, echoes the fate of a leprosy patient. As a result, he begins to live in the Iron City with this curse, because he has no other way.


Now the Zenshoen leper colony is getting smaller and smaller as the number of patients is decreasing. Many old people die, and as of 2016, the number of people does not exceed two hundred. However, over the entire period of its existence, a huge forest with a total area of 350 thousand m2 was planted. They want to leave this forest for future generations as a symbol of the struggle for human rights, so that the history of discrimination for centuries is not forgotten.

Miyazaki himself supports this initiative and in every possible way provided support to the settlement and its people. He even made friends with some of the residents of the leper colony. For example, with the chairman of the settlement Osamu Sagawa, who told him a lot about a seemingly incurable disease. He died last year, and already in 2019, in memory of this man, together with the art director of Studio Ghibli, Noboru Yoshida, they created a picture that depicts a beam emanating from his hands. Hands are a symbol of medicine, and a ray is its light, illuminating the city depicted in the distance in the darkness. Now it weighs in the very National Museum of Hansen's Disease, near the leper colony.


Miyazaki can rightfully be called a director who is not afraid of prejudice. Creates stories for children that touch the hearts of adults, focuses on female characters, for which he can rightfully be called a feminist; defends the ideals of balance and a peaceful life with nature. And even touches upon the themes of the sick, isolated from the society of people, showing them as strong personalities fighting for their happiness.

The Topic of Article: Outcast Lepers: How Miyazaki showed the leper colony in Princess Mononoke.
Author: Jake Pinkman