For many American moviegoers, 1997’s Princess Mononoke is the anime epic that introduced them to the groundbreaking work of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. On the surface, the film is about a man’s quest to find a cure for a demonic curse that gives him superhuman abilities, and will also eventually kill him. But there’s a longstanding Japanese urban legend that suggests that Princess Mononoke is really about leprosy (or Hansen’s disease), and Miyazaki has just confirmed the popular fan theory is true.
There’s a point in the movie when its protagonist, Ashitaka, meets some former brothel workers covered with bloody bandages at a factory in Irontown. They use the factory as a refuge because it’s the only place where they’re not discriminated against.
In its original Japanese, the characters are described as “gyobyo,” which in English translates to having an “incurable disease” or “suffering the consequences.” The word leprosy doesn’t appear anywhere in the original Japanese version—unlike the American one—so over time, the theory that the characters are suffering from leprosy has grown with every new generation that has watched the film.
In 2016, Miyazaki talked about his inspirations for Princess Mononoke in relation to World Leprosy Day on January 31. He confirmed that the characters at Tatara factory do, in fact, have leprosy and that he met with patients at a hospital in Tokyo for people with Hansen’s disease during the film’s production. “While making Princess Mononoke, I thought I had to depict people who are ill with what’s clearly called an incurable disease, but who are living as best they can,” Miyazaki said.
There you have it: Another truth behind another movie urban legend revealed.