There's a long-standing urban legend that part of Princess Mononoke is really about leprosy. Now, the film's creator, Hayao Miyazaki, confirmed that this was no legend. It's a fact. The thematic element in Princess Mononoke that is most commonly discussed is nature, but there are other subtextual themes running through the work.
[Image via rshijima [Studio Ghibli]] In Japan, this urban legend appears to be more common. A Japanese Studio Ghibli urban legend site recounted the Princess Mononoke leprosy interpretation in English, pointing out that the characters who are covered with bandages at the Tatara factory are believed to actually have leprosy (Hansen's Disease).
The original Japanese version doesn't use the word "leprosy", and instead uses the Japanese word "gyobyo" (incurable disease). The previously mentioned Ghibli urban site adds that the word "gyobyo" (incurable disease) also means "suffering the consequences", but that this is the same as the leprosy patients who have dealt with discrimination. Via the same site:
There was a scene where one of patients said, [Eboshi was the only one who saved us, and let us stay here when we didn't have anywhere else to go]- This references that they have incurable disease and are discriminated against by others anywhere they go.
Urban Legend Magazine, likewise, mentions this urban legend.
[Image via rshijima [Studio Ghibli]] January 31 is World Leprosy Day, and the All Nippon News Network is reporting that in light of that upcoming event, which is designed to raise awareness for leprosy, the famed animator has confirmed that the disease and how people with it are treated was the inspiration. This is apparently the first time he's discussed this publicly.
[Image via All Nippon News Network]
"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 recently said. While making the film, Miyazaki visited a sanatorium for Hansen's Disease in Tokyo and met with former patients that had been cured, drawing upon his experiences for the film. Top image: Itaishinja [Studio Ghibli]