Princess Mononoke 02/22/2010
This was originally published in conjunction with The Cineastes
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Those acquainted with the work of Hayao Miyazaki have witnessed the splendor of a boundless imagination. Stanely Kubrick once claimed that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed”, but Miyazaki’s animation seems to portray that which never could be filmed. The plethora of wondrous characters; be they insect, plant or animal (or in some cases a mix of all three) could not be anywhere but in the world of animated filmmaking. As a lover of the cinema I believe most strongly in the filmed image; creating one’s art through a lens, a third eye, casting a unique gaze on our world. However, I am also a champion of animation. Certain ideas can only reach fruition with pencils, ink and a paintbrush. While some animated films simply serve the purpose of being a cartoon so as to be digestible by children, Miyazaki ennobles the art form. The purpose of animation, from his perspective, seems to be to articulate the furthest reaches of mankind’s ability to dream and create. Why make an animated film if you’re not going to take advantage of the simple fact that it is limitless?
Princess Mononoke is the pinnacle of Miyazaki’s canon, as it represents not just the largest accomplishment in terms of animation, but also the culmination of the themes he had been exploring his entire career. The story is of Ashitaka, a cursed prince who seeks his cure and in the process comes across an ever-escalating war between a town of people (known as Iron Town) and the creatures of the forest. Once he is caught in the middle of this conflict, he attempts to work with both sides in order to instill some sort of balance. At first, it may seem that Ashitaka is the standard hero, but his journey deserves a more critical eye.
The film begins in a nondescript village on the edge of a forest. Prince Ashitaka rides on Yakul, an elk, towards a watchtower. Something is in the forest, and it isn’t human. A beast covered in disgusting writhing tentacles emerges; the tentacles separate, revealing what was once a giant boar god. This is a once majestic creature now infected with an evil madness. Ashitaka defends the village and kills the animal, but not before being infected by the tentacle-like substance. A village elder determines that Ashitaka will not survive his infection and that it will spread from his arm and take him over like it did with the boar. An iron ball was found in the fallen creature. It must have been the cause. Ashitaka leaves the village in order to find the source of the iron.
Ashitaka does prove to be heroic, but not until he is forced to be by this infectious disease. The conflict he encounters between the town and the forest is one he would otherwise be ignorant to if he had not been directly affected by it. He is a demonstration of a tragic human shortcoming. We don’t strive to make a difference until the difference is something we personally require. One of the first people Ashitaka encounters on his journey tells him that the whole world is cursed. Miyazaki suggests that Ashitaka’s curse is a metaphor for our turbulent relationship with nature; that it is something we should each be confronting on our own; otherwise we are in a constant state of complicity.
Ashitaka’s journey is intercut with calm shots of landscape, with birds, or some butterflies in frame. Miyazaki makes sure to make these observations of beauty no matter which stage his story is in. He never forgets that nature operates at all times, according to it’s own struggle, not just ours.
Miyazaki is famous for the creatures he creates. The title character and the cat-bus from My Neighbour Totoro, the fox-squirrels of Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky etc. In Mononoke, most dazzling are the tree spirits known as kodama, found by the hundreds in the forest. Nearly indescribable, they are small white figures that make a rattling noise when they shake their heads. Their presence is a sign that the forest is healthy. Later in the film, they will begin to disappear.
Ashitaka finds the town that created the iron ball that sealed his fate. It is a town led by Lady Eboshi, a character who in a simpler film would be a cardboard villain. Here her malicious attacks of the forest and its habitants are counter-acted by her compassionate treatment of her people, including many with leprosy. Miyazaki shows us a leader who is harming another world in order to help her own. Her intent can even be seen as noble, but the consequences of her actions are too large, and even end up harming human beings as demonstrated by Ashitaka.
The people see the forest as nothing more than a resource, and wasted space. Ape-like creatures continuously attempt to plant trees on a mountain that was cleared of its life by Lady Eboshi who continuously has to stop them. This cycle is a simple demonstration of two opposing worlds constantly working towards their own betterment, which is a key part of one of Princess Mononoke’s central themes: the impossibility of harmony.
The main figure on the side of the forest is San, a human girl raised by wolves to be an animal. She and Eboshi are enemies that desperately want to kill each other. Ashitaka wants to meet San and see her side of things. In one breathtaking scene, San attacks the town and Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka ends up between them holding them back from fighting. The infectious tentacles manifest on his infected arm, becoming a symbol of hatred between the two women, the demon inside both of them.
One of the grandest visuals of the film is that of the forest spirit, a giant god, translucent and sparkling, walking through the woods at night. In the daytime it takes the form of a majestic animal, a cross between a deer and a dinosaur with the face of a baboon and graced with many antlers. As it walks, the plant life it steps on grows and dies. This not a being that is simply life but life and death simultaneously. Miyazaki embraces the natural order of things, and rejects only what is unnatural. Lady Eboshi wants to kill the forest spirit. Apparently the only way to do so is to cut off its head. Eboshi will succeed, but at what cost?
The conflict between man and nature is a central preoccupation in Miyazaki’s films, but not until Mononoke did he fully explore it. In an earlier film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the conflict was somewhat simplified. That film was extraordinary for it’s endearing heroine, one of my favourite of all characters, and its overwhelming compassion, but it didn’t truly investigate its own ideology. In Mononoke, Miyazaki realizes that in this conflict, both sides are simply doing what seems right for them. This parable begins to expand beyond just man vs. nature, to man vs. man. All those fighting for the forest want is what is best for the forest, all those fighting for the town want what is best for the town. We observe that there is no possibility of harmony between these two opposing forces, because they will always be opposing.
The film is far more violent than Miyazaki’s other films, and indeed it is not designed for young children. Unlike what we are used to in mainstream animation, Miyazaki never panders to a young audience. Even Pixar, a studio I highly respect, is sometimes guilty of considering their demographic before their stories. Unlike in Disney films, characters in Miyazaki ‘s work are complex and well rounded. Often he portrays women as strong-willed and self-sufficient, as exemplified by Iron Town, where females seem to be the dominant sex.
Miyazaki rejects the technological advancements of modern animation, instead using that which he considers pure. CGI is minimally used only as a touch-up element in some of his films and he has publicly vowed never to make a computer-animated feature. Almost as a sort of protest, his latest film, Ponyo, has no computer-generated content, and is entirely hand-drawn and painted, largely by Miyazaki himself who is always hands on with his films. In a genre littered with musical numbers, fairly tales and simple morals, Miyazaki gives us compelling and complex stories with unique characters that beg the viewer to explore a world and themselves. Filled with stunning sights such as gorgeous watercolour backgrounds, his films possess the magic once promised by animation.
Comparing Miyazaki’s films to Disney is not all that fair. While Princess Mononoke is what I consider to be the pinnacle of animation, it is also one of the crowning achievements of the 1990s, and cinema in general. In fact, when I conducted an online poll asking nearly 100 voters to submit a list of what they considered to be the ten best films of all time, I included Princess Mononoke on mine. Indeed, Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese auteur to be ranked among the masters Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu.
In Princess Mononoke, every frame is filled to the brim with creativity so large; that its realization is indeed a miracle. The examination of perspective and the conflict of industry and nature is illustrated in a wholly original and thought provoking manner. It contains Miyazaki’s most complete investigation of his themes, as well as the most realistic outlook. At the end of the film, Ashitaka returns the head of the forest spirit that Lady Eboshi had shot off, and the final image is of a kodama appearing, rattling its little head. There is, at least, some hope.