Why Lady Eboshi is One of the Greatest Antagonists of All Time

Every story needs an antagonist. There has to be some kind of force that works against the protagonist, preventing her from reaching her noble and lofty goal until the story's epic climax. An antagonist can be a person, a circumstance, a force of nature, an oppressive society, a hungry bear, a glittering vampire, a tornado full of sharks, or any other unpleasant thing you can think of to throw at a character, but without an antagonist present, all you have is a plotless mess of aimless wandering and banal, asinine navel-gazing from a self-absorbed protagonist. 

And really, who would publish such a thing?

The best kind of antagonist, in my not-so-humble opinion, is a villain. It's all well and fine to have your hero struggle with poverty, or morality, or a crotch rot disease previously unknown to science, but there's just something indescribably delightful about packing all the world's evils into one kick-able, punch-able, flammable human being. Every great franchise has a great villain. Harry Potter has Voldemort. The Lion King has Scar. The Avengers has Loki. Star Wars has Darth Vader.

Game of Thrones has an inbred, mouthbreathing sociopath with a face that screams "please bludgeon me to death with my own foot and feed my remains to the dragons".

But with so many great villains running around, stealing from orphans and kicking puppies, who should claim the title as 'greatest villain ever'? I'd cast my vote (assuming such a title was awarded democratically) for Princess Mononoke's Lady Eboshi.

Seen here using her ponytail as bangs, for some reason.


For those of you who aren't familiar with late-90s feature-length anime movies, Princess Mononoke is the guilt-tastic story of a forest in danger, a greedy mining corporation putting said forest in danger, and an exiled prince who would very much like not to die from his arm-rotting curse.

Specifically, the story is about Askitaka, a young prince whose reign is cut short when he attempts to save his village from a demon/giant angry thing made of worms, and gets himself infected with a curse for his troubles. Closer examination of the dead demon reveals that it was actually a boar god driven to infectious insanity by corruption from an iron ball lodged in his side. Unfortunately for Ashitaka, the boar's curse is fatal, and will take over his entire body at some indeterminate point in the future. On the upside, while he waits to die a horrible, writhing death, Ashitaka also gets to enjoy some nifty, demon-strength fighting powers.

It made sense in the movie.

What happens when you shoot a boar with an iron pellet, apparently.

Naturally, Askitaka's villagers are extremely grateful to him for saving their lives, and they all vow to ensure that his final days are as comfortable as they can possibly be. 

Oh, no, just kidding. That doesn't happen at all. They just cast him out of the village to wander around until he dies. At some point on his aimless quest for death, Ashitaka learns that the Great Forest Spirit has the ability to cure him, and he takes off into the woods to search for him. In the process, he stumbles across Irontown, an oh-so-subtly named settlement devoted to the extraction and processing of iron. Since they aren't living in 'Treetown', or 'Happy Organic Crunchy Quinoa Earth-Hugging Commune', the residents of Irontown spend their days clear-cutting forests so they get at more of that sweet, sweet iron. Naturally, the forest gods aren't exactly thrilled about this; as a cunning, last-ditch effort to save their homes and their lives, they send a random feral teenage girl into Irontown to assassinate the town's leader, Lady Eboshi. 

Nature's last hope, seen here marveling over a shiny object.

Since the movie is more than ten minutes long, San the Wolf-Girl's efforts to assassinate Lady Eboshi fail miserably. In retaliation, Lady Eboshi just continues the clear-cutting and profiteering that she's known and loved for, recklessly murdering enormous swaths of forest in the name of the almighty dollar. If you've ever paid attention to world news, or if you've ever noticed that most able-bodied adults are not frequently at home between the hours of nine A.M. and five P.M., you might recognize this system as 'capitalism'.

This cartoon will explain everything.

So why, exactly, is Lady Eboshi so concerned with aggressively expanding her profits? Was her entire family murdered by trees? What does she plan to do with the money? Is she building herself a fortress? Hiring an evil army? Saving up to purchase herself a set of fancy clip-on bangs? Of course not! She's up to something far more sinister. You see, Lady Eboshi uses the money she earns from raping Mother Earth to care for the lepers and former prostitutes that she takes in and provides for. In fact, the lepers she cares for are so grateful for being treated like human beings, that they engineer super-weapons to help her shoot forest gods right in their tree-hugging faces. Everywhere Ashitaka goes in Irontown, residents sing her praises and hint at the unimaginable horrors they faced before Lady Eboshi saved the day.

The villainous Lady Eboshi, seen here with the disadvantaged women she single-handedly rescued from a life of sex slavery. 


And that's what makes Lady Eboshi such a great antagonist. Don't mistake her for a cuddly humanitarian - it was Lady Eboshi herself who lodged a bullet in that boar demon, and she's not particularly remorseful about what it did to Ashitaka. She's blunt, she abrasive, and she commits environmental crimes that would make the Lorax hang himself, but there's no way to beat her. If Ashitaka and Wolf-Girl choose to obliterate her, the hundreds of lepers and disadvantaged women she's rescued will starve to death, turning Ashitaka himself into the great villain of the story. If, however, Ashitaka chooses to stand by the Iron Lady's Leper-and-Whore Resort, he'll guarantee himself an early death when Lady Eboshi slaughters his only chance for survival. 

Oh, did I mention that Lady Eboshi is planning to behead the Great Forest Spirit? Because she's planning to behead the Great Forest Spirit. 

In fairness, if you ran into this thing in the deep woods, you'd probably behead it too.

Everything Lady Eboshi does, right down to lopping off the head of the Almighty Red-Faced Deer himself, is done to directly benefit the people she cares about. Yes, all villains have to have some sort of motive, but in that regard, an awful lot of other antagonists are on pretty shaky ground. The Joker is evil because he's, uh, a disenchanted lunatic, I guess. King Joffrey is evil because... inbreeding, maybe? Even the struggle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the good-and-evil struggle by which all other good-and-evil struggles are compared, can be summed up as "something, something, Dark Side".

Apparently the Death Star's employee benefits package doesn't cover visits to a dermatologist.

This isn't a case of a well-meaning, but incompetent, ruler accidentally causing mayhem, either. Lady Eboshi knows what she's doing, and she's damn good at it too. If someone needs to be thrown under the bus so that her goals can be met, she'll drive the bus over them herself, and save three dozen lives by doing so. As a character, she's a rich soup of villainous intent, heroic outcomes, and enough realistic utilitarianism to make everyone watching feel uncomfortable and ashamed. You want her to die, but you don't. You want her to stop her assault on the planet, but she can't. You want there to be some hero out there, ready to step in and save the day, but she's the best they've got.


If you're so bad at governing that you make the rains dry up and the sun burn out, you may want to consider an alternative career path.


As much as I hate to spoil the ending of a sixteen-year-old children's movie, as it turns out, there really is no way to defeat Lady Eboshi. She gets the happiest ending that we can ever expect to get out of our own forest-pillaging industries - she recognizes that she's perhaps doing a bit more environmental damage than is strictly necessary, gives the Great Forest Spirit his severed head back, and promises to do better in the future. Does she completely cease her mindless capitalism and replace iron mining with tree-planting and flute-playing? Of course not. She still has leprosy-riddled mouths to feed. On his part, Prince Ashitaka chooses to stay in Irontown and help rebuild a better, more sustainable city, making Lady Eboshi the only antagonist whose "the villain stays in power" outcome is considered a "happily ever after" ending. 

Who is your favourite antagonist of all time? Leave it in the comments.

2 comments

  1. She's not an antagonist... She literally is doing just what she needs to survive, and was manipulated. The wolf spirit did just as much damage and harm as she did, if you consider Lady Eboshi a villain then so too is the wolf, so too is Mononoke.

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  2. She was my favourite character from Princess Mononoke.

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