dir: Hayao Miyazaki
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In an ideal world, people would be watching the animated films produced by Studio Ghibli, especially ones produced by Hayao Miyazaki, every day of their lives. Most of the channels on TV would play the films one after the other. Other channels not playing films like Spirited Away, this one, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso, or Laputa: Castle in the Sky would be running documentaries about the films, or about Miyazaki, or just a parade of interviews with people, Nihonjin or otherwise, saying how great he is.
Sure, most of the interviews would amount to giggly people saying “Um, oh gosh, he’s like, so great, he’s like the total best, um, like, I totally love him,” except it’d be in their chosen language. Swahilis chanting his name, Laplanders and the headhunting tribes of the Papua New Guinea highlands: all united in their adoration of the master of animation.
I know how ridiculous it is to speak about how great Miyazaki’s flicks are. To people who can’t stand animated flicks (like a good friend of mine: the Courageous Canuck Big C), all this blathering is meaningless. If you can’t get into animation, then you’re not going to get why he’s so good at what he does.
Princess Mononoke is one of the peaks of his career. Note that I said ‘peaks’ and not ‘peak’. The film simultaneously incorporates all of the common elements of most of his films (visually stunning animation, young, plucky main characters, one of them being female, a deep reverence for nature, oozing stuff with tentacles), and strikes out on its own to be something unique even for him.
Ashitaka is a young guy living in the hills with his other hillbilly compadres. When a giant wild boar covered in what looks like tentacles bursts out of the forest, tainting everything it touches, Ashitaka does his darndest to protect his people and his village.
The boar is no ordinary boar, and the tentacles are not some octopus the boar ate as a pre-main course snack (I think it’s called takosu, at least on Japanese menus). The boar is a forest god, and the demonic darkness it carries arises from something inside which fuels its rage. In downing the boar god, Ashitaka’s arm contracts the curse, and he is forced to leave his people in order to protect them.
The village oracle tells him he is doomed, and that he might as well find somewhere quiet to die. He travels east to discover the source of the corruption, and finds a place where humans are in direct conflict with the natural, spirit world.
The film uses the word ‘god’ quite freely, but it shouldn’t necessarily be confused with ideas of monotheistic gods like those in Christianity, Islam or Scientology. The least blasphemous way to look at them is as powerful nature spirits.
Anyway, the forest in this particular region is populated with nature spirits, all of whom are fighting against the human intruders lead by Lady Eboshi.
Lady Eboshi is a practical enough woman who runs an ironworks. She has no time or sentimentality for the nature spirits preventing her from exploiting the resources of the forest. Her business is to build the best guns she can, and if any of the nature spirits, gods or other denizens of the forest get in her way, she’s happy to shoot them.
She sounds like a villain, but she’s not. It’s to the film’s credit that she comes across more as misguided than evil. Her ironworks employs women previously indentured to brothels, whose contracts she bought to give the women their freedom and a job they are fiercely loyal to. She also employs outcasts with leprosy, who no-one else will touch both metaphorically and industrial relationsly.
The nature gods aren’t particularly nice either. They have a deep hatred of the humans encroaching upon their territory, and do what they can to kill Lady Eboshi and her people. Her main opponent is Moro, the Wolf God, and her adopted daughter San, the Princess Mononoke of the title. Though human, she has a strong hatred of her species, and who can blame her. They do smell terribly so.
The forest is ruled by a Deer God, whose touch can either bring life or death. Eboshi, and, it turns out, the Emperor of Japan, wants the Deer God dead. The gods and spirits of the forest want the humans dead, but their newfangled technology in the form of guns, explosives and bullets is quite effective against even the gods.
Ashitaka meets everyone that’s a player throughout the story, but seems to have no team loyalty to any crew. He tries to act as the UN mediating this conflict, but he has as much success as the UN does in real life. The Deer God helps him out at one stage after suffering a terrible wound, and Ashitaka tries to return the favour. He helps out some of Eboshi’s crew, he tries to protect the villagers, he tries to protect the forest-dwellers, he tries to protect San, and earns the thanks of no-one. But he always tries to do the right thing.
Who can say what the right thing is in this circumstance? Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in this turvy topsy world? Of course Lady Eboshi takes a harsh stand against the forest dwellers, but she, um, really needs the cash. How else is progress going to be achieved? Those rifles and cannons won’t build themselves out of trees and tofu. She is under attack on one side by the nature gods, and on the other by the minions of the Emperor, who wants the precious lands and their iron deposits for themselves.
Whilst this goes on, the corruption in Ashitaka's arm spreads. Whenever he gets angry, the arm threatens to go berserk, but even when he’s not angry, the arm does some pretty kooky stuff in battle. Quite early on when he is attacked without cause, he fires an arrow at one of his assailants, ripping both of the guy’s arms off. It’s such a surprising scene for a Miyazaki film, especially since violence rarely intrudes upon Miyazaki’s universe.
Princess Mononoke is slightly more violent than regular Studio Ghibli fare, but it benefits from being matched to the themes of the story. The theme of Man Versus Nature: The Road to Victory may seem fairly generic and cliché, but it’s handled in such a creative way, with deep connections to Japanese mythology, and with developed characters, that it plays out as anything but a cliché. It is still a story where the conflict between man and nature, or man and the spirit world, is a bloody and violent endeavour, kind of like in downtown Baghdad
It is a long film, and except for the action sequences, it takes its time getting where it wants to go. No Miyazaki film ever hurries getting to its destination, so anyone who’s not into thoughtfully paced animation need not apply. There’s enough CGI stuff out there that moves at a cracking pace with the requisite pop culture references and Top 40 hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s for their needs to be met.
Princess Mononoke is a timeless classic, and looks good enough visually (except maybe for the way the ‘demon’ taint is represented, and the amorphous gooiness of a certain being at the end) to still look great ten years after it was released. Produced at a time when hand-drawn animation was still king, it’s a visually sumptuous feast for the eyes, and benefits from a great musical score too, being a feast for the ears, too.
It’s not just about the production values (though it’s the complete package); it’s about good storytelling, which this flick has buckets of. So many scenes stand out that listing them sounds like a shopping list, a deranged one at that: Ashitaka defending himself on Yakul’s (his pet elk) back with his bow and arrow, San’s attempt to kill Lady Eboshi, the last stand of the boars, the strange little kodamas (whose kooky appearance belies their importance in indicating the health of the forest), the whole bizarre Deer God stuff, the women of the ironworks and their naughty ways, the beginning, middle and ending. Such a list is pointless: it is in the experiencing of it that one truly gets it, not in the cold dissecting of it after the fact.
I hope it’s not lost on anyone that I just admitted how pointless my review of this flick, if not every other review as well, truly is :)
In his devotees, Miyazaki’s work inspires the kind of slavish worshipfulness that would be embarrassing in any other instance. It’s a level of groupiedom that would disgust me or at least unnerve me in anyone else for anything else. All I can say is that Miyazaki represents on of the few times where someone is called a master of the form, and it’s actually true. Princess Mononoke is all the justification he needs to do anything in his life that he wants to do as far as I’m concerned, and that includes with my sister.
8 ways in which you wonder whether Miyazaki ever slapped some prostitutes around out of 10
“Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god.” – Princess Mononoke