Miyazaki May: “Princess Mononoke”

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 


And here we reach the granddaddy of Miyazaki movies. I’ve never been able to adequately describe to anyone the experience of watching perfection. The best explanation I have is that you know it when you see it, because it will be extremely rare. It doesn’t help that perfection is objective, particularly in the realm of artistic expression. With those caveats in place, “Princess Mononoke” is indeed a perfect movie, or at least the apex of director Hayao Miyazaki’s creative talents, taking his most potent animation skills and themes and weaving them into a truly epic tale that stands along in the pantheon of all-time great movies, animated or otherwise.

The story is more of an epic adventure fable than anything else the director has done, taking place in a fantasy world of gods, demons and men. Ashitaka is a warrior in a small, isolated village who is given a fatal curse by a demon he kills while protecting his village. When he finds out the demon was a god infected by a ball of manmade iron, he sets out to find the city of iron where the ball was made as well as a way to lift his curse. Along the way he comes across San, a girl raised by wolf gods and a protector of the forest, as well as the people of Iron Town, led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi.

The people are intent on expanding the kingdom of man by cutting down the forest and killing the fabled forest god, while the gods of the forest want to protect their domain by killing the humans and driving them out. At the same time, the people of Iron Town are in battle with invading samurai armies. As Ashitaka realizes he holds a special bond with nature, it is his fate to instigate peace with the warring clans and re-forge the bond between man and nature that existed long ago.

When I describe the film as “epic,” I don’t mean it simply throws a bunch of cool, grand things on the screen (although it does do that). When I think of “epic,” I think of the quiet moments as much as the moment of grandeur. There are so many scenes here of quiet despair, such as when Ashitaka leaves his clan and realizes he can never come back, or a quiet reflection overlooking a forest landscape. These help to break up the grander action scenes.

The film has more action that other Miyazaki films, which is much more violent than anything the animator has done. The movie is bloody but not distractingly so; the characters and setting are aimed squarely at adults anyway. From an artistic perspective, this is Miyazaki’s most visually impressive work; the wooded landscapes and verdant green hills pop, as do the many explosions and battle effects. Most overwhelming are the creatures that inhabit the forest, from giant wolves and boars to tiny forest sprites. This is the best creature design of any Miyazaki film, and that’s really saying something.

The film is also Miyazaki’s most powerful antiwar and pro-environment statement. The boar god at the beginning of the movie is turned evil by a ball of iron, an invasion of the world of man into the world of nature. There was a time when man and gods got along (it’s telling that the gods are all animals inhabiting the natural world), but when a mighty emperor heard a rumor that the head of the forest god would grant eternal life, the kingdoms of men began fighting for the opportunity to hold such power. The film reflects poignantly on the power of hate and how it can destroy all that is good and natural about our existence.

Humanity’s lost connection to nature and peace is held together by the dual protagonists of Ashitaka and San (aka Princess Mononoke). Ashitaka is a largely archetypal hero in both word and deed, but his desire to avoid violence (and his revulsion when he must resort to it) is powerful for this type of film. San is much more aggressive and violent, but is determined to fight to sustain her way of life; her back-story, which I won’t spoil, is also pretty awesome. They remind me very much of an earlier Miyazaki hero, Nausicaa.

Miyazaki’s heroes refreshingly play against the cinematic type of the “hero” who does what he has to do to reach his goal, even if it means compromising his ideals or getting his hands dirty. Miyazaki’s heroes always stay true to who they are, even at the risk of failure. They are very flawed, but are aware of their shortcomings and work hard to redeem themselves. To anyone raised on American action movies, it’s difficult to describe how incredibly refreshing and vital this type of hero is. If most heroes (or antiheroes) reflect how we often are, Miyazaki’s heroes reveal what we have always wished (and know) we could be.

If the film has a human villain, it’s Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town. She is not so much evil as misguided, believing that mankind can rule over the forces of nature. She also seeks peace, but, unlike Ashitaka, she does not believe she will find it. She feels she resorts to violence out of necessity, rather than choice. By the end of the film, she has realized that we always have a choice, and so have we.

What else to say? “Princess Mononoke” easily earns a coveted spot at the top of the heap of animated classics, alongside the likes of “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Spirited Away,” “Wall-E,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Akira.” It coalesces everything great about Miyazaki into one movie: noble protagonists, unparalleled animation, spectacular music (Joe Hisaishi again) and powerful indictments against war and the destruction of the environment, not to mention flat-out epic, unforgettable storytelling. Best of all, it reveals a storyteller at the peak of his creative talents, pouring out every ounce of his passion, skill and dedication into his craft. Would he be able to sustain this level out output in the future? Join me tomorrow to find out.