Kirin (Left) and the Forest Spirit (Right)
Group Mononoke is hard at work putting the pieces together as to how Studio Ghibli’s film Princess Mononoke relates to Asian history and mythology, and in the process of analyzing entries about youkai and the like, it became apparent that a particularly crucial figure in the film drew considerably from certain legendary creature. Princess Mononoke‘s central deity in its mythos is the placid yet ominous Forest Spirit, a shapeshifting elk-like being which holds dominion over nature and therefore serves as opposition to all in the film who conspire against nature. As it has multiple forms, it is somewhat an amalgam of different mythological ideas from Asia, with a healthy portion of Studio Ghibli’s originality added in to keep with the stylistic senses of the rest of the film. But even so, the Forest Spirit’s underlying manor bears a striking similarity to an Asian mythological creature of similar status: the Kirin. The Spirit’s likeness to the Kirin isn’t exactly one-to-one, and looking at both creatures might prompt someone to ask if they have any real similarities whatsoever, but what similarities do exist between them are very important to the film, and hearken to myths in a way that requires further study to comprehend. As such, it seems appropriate to give greater attention to this creature and its place in Asian myth, in order to better understand how its inspiration manifests in the film proper.
Origins of the Myth and Historical Context
The Kirin (or Qilin if you want it romanized in Pinyin) is a creature that was first referenced in the old Chinese narrative, the Zuo Zhuan, which was a well-regarded commentary on parts of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. In it, the creature’s arrival is said to have marked the impending birth and death of Confucius, an event that thenceforth closely associated the Kirin with the concepts of mortality and – following the widespread adoption of Confucianism throughout China in later centuries – good omens. Its connection to life and death eventually earned it the status of a being connected to the gods, or even a divine being itself. It gained a reputation as a beast of purity and justice, able to peer into people’s hearts and judge their moral character, and only punishing the wicked while never harming the innocent. Later Buddhist influence on the creature’s lore went so far as to describe it as never partaking in another creature’s flesh or stepping on greenery for fear harming the plants, and gave it the ability to walk on water or air instead. Today it remains as powerful symbol of morality and respect for nature, which is clearly evident in the Forest Spirit’s role as protector of nature and the veritable linchpin of life or death in the film.
As would be expected for a creature that’s existed in human consciousness for over 2000 years, the Kirin’s appearance has seen some changes over time due to inevitable shifts in aesthetic, influence of the appearances of real animals, and intermingling of myths from other cultures. However, there are some features that have remained fairly consistent. The Kirin is almost always depicted as a hooved and horned animal with a body shape similar to that of an ox, horse, or deer. Traditionally it borrows much from the appearance of Chinese dragons by having scales, a fearsome leonine visage with tapering whiskers, and sometimes the ability to manipulate fire. This interpretation persists today, but permutations of it became popular once the Kirin’s name was adapted as a term for a particular real-life animal that was foreign to historic Asia: the giraffe. According to legend, giraffes were to referred to as Kirins once they were brought to Asia from Africa, on the grounds that they were magical creatures not unlike the Kirin itself. As such, their appearance gradually seeped into interpretations of the Kirin as a more mammalian animal, akin to a reptilian steed rather than a draconic beast. This trend was reinforced by the influence of European myths about creatures like the unicorn, which spread to Asia centuries later. The Kirin thusly underwent a “westernization” of sorts to the point where it is now often referred to as “the Chinese unicorn”; it’s quite common to see the creature depicted as an equine or cervine being with a single horn instead of multiple ones. Again, depictions vary, but it goes to show that Kirin is certainly capable of inspiring a creature that may not resemble it clearly, and in time that inspired creature may even become part of the Kirin’s lore.
Thematic Connections to the Forest Spirit
Furthermore, the idea to take away from this is that the Kirin’s inspiration for the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke is less physical and more practical. The Forest Spirit mirrors the Kirin’s legacy accurately by being a divine being which concerns itself intrinsically with the birth and loss of life. Its every footstep grows and then kills plants in its wake, which may be a reference to the Kirin’s aforementioned aversion to stepping on plants for fear of unjustly harming or killing them, and it can also walk on water. It is trusted to be able to judge the purity and content of others’ hearts, just as the Kirin can, and just as it protects life, it takes away life only in situations where innocence is in danger just like the Kirin is said to do. Summarily, while the Forest Spirit is not quite as explicit in its judgement of others’ moral righteousness, its wrath which is incurred on the entire cast by those who wish to harm nature can be seen as a form of punishment not unlike how the Kirin is reputed to punish the wicked. Only an act of bravery and kindness is able to sate its destructive rampage, and once it’s been appeased, it immediately sets things right as a symbol of justice would.
In conclusion, Princess Mononoke‘s forest spirit can be interpreted as another modernized incarnation of the Kirin with some other elements mixed in. This is far from the only instance of correlation between the film and real-life context (historical or mythological), but given the Kirin’s long-standing legacy and the Forest Spirit’s integral part in the movie, it looks like a particularly latent yet profound reference is made.
Alexander, Skye. Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Adams Media Corporation, 2015.
Chan, Joan. East Meets West. Author House, 2009.
Zuo, Qiuming. The Chronicle of Zuo (Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan). JiaHu Books, 2013.