Let us kick off Miyazaki March with the eponymous animation feature that made the names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli known to international audiences outside of Japan: Princess Mononoke. There’ll be flying heads, dying beasts and shooting women, but most of all: a tale about nature and unlikely friendships.
Mononoke Hime was released to theaters in Japan in 1997 and became the top-grossing film in Japan of all time…until it was taken over by Titanic later the same year. Which was in turn taken over by another Miyazaki feature, Spirited Away. It was released to international theaters in 1999 and put Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into the international spotlight for the first time. Not that people hadn’t noticed mainly Totoro before, but Princess Mononoke marked a transition. All of a sudden Japanese Anime became a market force to be reckoned with at box-offices and Studio Ghibli became practically equivalent with high quality animation feature films. After the massive smash that was Mononoke, Miyazaki announced his retirement from making animation features, which, as we all know, didn’t last very long.
Princess Mononoke has grossed around 160 Million US-Dollars worldwide and remains one of the studios best known and most beloved features. And now let me elaborate on why that is, ‘cause that’s what y’all been waiting for, right?
More so than any of the other movies Miyazaki directed, Princess Mononoke is clearly set and clearly rooted in Japan and its culture. On the one hand we have references to the Muromachi era, with feudal lords fighting each other and Lady Eboshi denying the authority of the emperor. It seems to be her who has imported the first guns to Japan, changing the way battles are fought, both against samurai and against the beasts of the forest. Ashitaka and his village are of the people named Emishi, a people thought to be the native population of northern Honshū, but also a people that slowly merged with the conquering Yamato people.
On the other hand Princess Mononoke is clearly rooted in Japanese culture due to its conception of deities. There are manifold gods, which are powerful, but not infallible, they are not even immortal. Drawing on the animistic concepts of Shinto, these Gods are spirits in the form of extraordinary beasts, bound to some extent to the locale they inhabit and not necessarily friendly amongst each other or towards humans.
I think one of the biggest draws of Mononoke lies in the fact that nature and its struggle for survival against the seemingly unstoppable technical progress of humanity is embodied by gods in the form of beasts. These beasts give the struggle and the anger a face. The boars, the wolves, the apes, they all are afraid and they all have their way of reacting to the encroaching human habitations that fell their trees and hunt them down. Saying that this is a draw does not equal saying that it is in any way novel or surprising. These kinds of stories have been told this way before. What is truly novel about Mononoke (which is a general Japanese term for a vengeful spirit or monsters and NOT the name of the girl in the movie, though it is of course implied that she is the princess of spirits) is that the humans in the story make a conscious decision to battle nature. To kill and corrupt its leading forces in order to control and rule it.
Which is a very interesting move in telling this particular story. It is precisely here that the historical setting becomes important. A setting where technology is something new and rudimentary, where industrialization has not kicked in and not made clear how terrible this whole development is going to be for large parts of nature and the animals that inhabit it. For the Iron Town, technology is something exciting and thanks to the driving force behind the settlement, Lady Eboshi, also a tool for empowerment and independence. And these concepts are not just selfish indulgence in this case, Lady Eboshi makes sure that misogyny does not have any place in the town, the women are not only headstrong, but active agents for their own well-being and survival. Eboshi makes sure they are independent, and by what we’re told, she is giving the chance to those who were worst off before, prostitutes who had to sell themselves in order to make do. Those who produce her guns are lepers. She takes them in, looks after them and gives them a purpose beyond their illness. She is not a monster and she is not evil. But nonetheless she has decided to kill a god.
And so she does. With the gods in Mononoke being actual mortal beings, they can be killed. Not only do we witness the death of one god in the first few minutes of the film, we also get to witness three other gods dying. Another boar, a wolf and a sort of superior deity, the god of the forest. It is a god over death and life, yet it can be killed. And with her shotgun in hand, Eboshi manages to do so, unaware of the disaster she is about to bring on herself. Reading her shooting the head off the god of the forest as a metaphor for humanity losing the respect for nature and its regenerative cycles, the subsequent disaster caused by the headless monstrosity destroying all life in the forest, fields and close to town can be read as what awaits humanity if it does not set limits for the submission and perversion of nature itself. And by the end of the movie, Eboshi has come to realize that as well. Technological progress needs boundaries, otherwise the negative effects will in turn not know any boundaries upon the lives of men and women.
The struggle between nature and industrialization is not the only thing visualised in Princess Mononoke. The hatred against one or the other appears in very concrete terms as well, as a demon consuming those who give in to the hatred and despair. The hatred is contagious, obviously, since Ashitaka gets infected when fighting the boar. But it is also Ashitake to defeat the infection, to withstand – for the most part – the temptation to kill those who destroy nature. Or to kill the one who limits the progress of human technology. Cause not only does his infected arm react to other people (most noticeably when his arrows easily behead his attackers), but it also reacts to the god of the forest.
Why? would be a legitimate question to ask. For the demons we see are primarily the two boar-gods who are consumed by their hatred for humanity. But I would argue that this is exactly why the demon-infection reacts so strongly to the presence of the god of the forest: it stands for equilibrium, for making peace with what is and what exists. It is a forgiving, gentle god. A god of life and death, bringing literally with every step new and luscious life, but also witnessing it wither away within seconds. The demon cannot accept its presence, because the demon cannot exist in a peaceful equilibrium. It needs the hatred, needs either side as a foe to go after and kill. The demon’s very existence is called into question by the presence of the god of the forest.
Princess Mononoke is not only remarkable for the complexity with which it approaches its subject matter and how its message and conclusion is not an easy and definitive one. It is also remarkable in that it delivers sub-plots that are both interesting, entertaining and ultimately just as complex. Where 99.9 percent of western animation movies would have ended with San and Ashitaka being a couple riding off into the sunset, Mononoke ends with them parting ways, remaining friends. Despite all the attraction, despite all curiosity, despite everything endured. And make no mistake, they are both melancholic about it, but they both obviously feel it’s right.
And even the potential love-affair subplot feeds into yet another larger theme of the movie that other subplots illustrate so well: female agency. Lady Eboshi is not only a complex and sympathetic character, an active female in control of her own life without having to rely on a man (and I am fully aware that this is where you can all potentially cry out and say: But in the end she needed Ashitaka to come around! Which would be a very good point to make for a discussion in the comments). San is obviously pretty much the same, only on the other side of the struggle. Her feelings, her relationships and her descent are just as complex and conflicted as those of Lady Eboshi. And in the village we have the women who are active agents of their own destiny and might I add – hilarious. I love how Mononoke confidently brings the lewd humour with all the Iron Town ladies lusting after hot young newcomer Ashitaka. Which is just another point to illustrate how I as a member of a western audience am used to experiencing the total opposite in animation, namely pretty girls being the object of desire by the male characters, which seldom happens in a Miyazaki movie. What practically never happens in western animation is what happens here: female characters asserting their positive sexuality and being in the position to find a male character hot. And it’s actually kinda shocking how very refreshing that is, even still in 2012.
Some things go without saying, I’ll say it nonetheless:
The animation is of course beautiful. Detailed, nuanced, awesome color-palettes, breathtaking sceneries, and modest but effective use of CGI (e.g. the black worms representing the demon). Some images are just painfully pretty, like the sunset behind the passing deer and god of forest, the god’s appearance by night as it wanders through the forest, the pool in the middle of the luscious green forest.
And the tree spirits, they are ridiculously cute. How can anyone not instantly fall in love with how they look, how they behave, the sounds they make and the hope they give in the very final scene of the movie? Their role and airtime is miniscule, but the impact of their appearance lingers for long.
I am also a fan of the move for not shying away from the violence – and the violence in Mononoke is pretty graphic, from beheading people to massive amounts of blood erupting from the wounded boar-god. I also love, as I professed above, how the film does not avoid sexuality. The characters are all the more believable for being aroused and for blushing when feeling that their bodies are a little too exposed in front of strangers.
And finally, major shout-outs for Yakul. Yakul is awesome. Yakul looks awesome. Yakul acts awesome. Yakul is awesome loyal. Yakul deserves his awesome own feature that will blow Bambi awesomely out of the water.
Princess Mononoke is rightfully ranked among Miyazaki’s finest. It is a masterpiece in connecting flawless animation with complex characters and a layered story that doesn’t give in to the temptation to provide an easy and gratifying ending for the sake of it.
You should totally watch it. Or you should totally rewatch it. And then watch it again.