The forest stood for centuries,
In peace made permanent by trees
Whose roots sucked deep of earthen milk,
Whose branches guarded all.
And then came humans and their ilk
Who made the trees to fall.
Mankind pushed on for centuries
Through mountains, deserts, woods, and seas.
From cave to tent to town, they rose
With wonders underway.
Too often, nature did oppose
And kept progress at bay.
Both stories hold an equal truth.
Both man and nature from their youth
Have wished romantically for truce
That ended in conquest.
Cooperation or abuse—
We choose which path is best.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Hayao Miyazaki has a filmography full of films considered great cinema, and each of them seems to fit a particular target age group. While they are all beautifully drawn, the maturity level for his features could be generally ranked something like this: Ponyo (5 years old and up), My Neighbor Totoro (6 and up), Kiki’s Delivery Service (7 and up), Castle in the Sky (8 and up), Porco Rosso (9 and up), Spirited Away (10 and up), Howl’s Moving Castle (11 and up), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (12 and up), The Castle of Cagliostro (13 and up), The Wind Rises (13 and up), and the one most clearly meant for adults, Princess Mononoke (14 and up).
Princess Mononoke is different from any other Studio Ghibli film, both in its narrative complexity and its level of violence, and when I discovered the Ghibli films and had myself an anime marathon, it caught me completely off-guard. I was shocked that heads and arms were being lopped off within the first fifteen minutes, and I turned it off then and there. It took me some time to give it another try and look past the savagery of certain scenes. Luckily, those scenes are the exception rather than the rule, and I found that Princess Mononoke was something few animated films can claim to be—an epic. From the sweeping landscapes and moving Joe Hisaishi score (he really is one of my favorite movie composers) to the huge cast of characters and nuanced themes, it’s a film so ambitious that I don’t know if there’s anything else to compare it to.
The story follows Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup in the English dub) in ancient tribal Japan, before forest gods and demons became mere legends. While defending his village from a demon boar, his arm is infected with a curse, and he must journey to a distant forest in the hopes of a spiritual cure. What he finds is an ongoing struggle between industry and nature, as the hardworking folk of the lakeside Irontown battle against the forest gods, led by the giant wolf Moro (Gillian Anderson) and her adopted human daughter San (Claire Danes).
Before Spirited Away came along, Princess Mononoke had every right to be called Miyazaki’s masterpiece, and while it’s far from my favorite of his films, I certainly see why it is deserving of that distinction, more so than Spirited Away, to be honest. Princess Mononoke is as expansive an experience as one can find in an anime film, with Ghibli’s ever-detailed artwork transporting viewers to another time and place full of action, beauty, and menace. It’s not a film I connected with personally, and certain things detract from it in my eyes: the aforementioned violence, the heavy pagan mythology, some grotesque imagery, an ending that doesn’t seem to punish the character most deserving of it. Yet there’s so much to impress that objections like these seem small by comparison.
The plot and characters are the most impressive ingredients on display. The conflict between humans and nature has resonances of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, from the strong female characters right down to the final scene of both, but there are more than two sides to the dispute, and every side has its own distinct motivations that are far from black and white or simple good and evil. There’s Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and her Irontown loyalists, who are embattled with San and the wolves, while a herd of vengeful boar also joins the fray, while a devious monk (Billy Bob Thornton) plots to steal the head of the Great Forest Spirit, while some iron-greedy samurai make war too. And in the middle of everything is Ashitaka, urging peace on all sides as he seeks to heal his cursed arm, which gives him super-strength but will eventually kill him. How all these various factions clash is key to the film’s epicness, yet Miyazaki’s knack for character is also on display. Lady Eboshi, for instance, isn’t a typical villain, trying to act in the best interest of her people and demonstrating concern for the lepers and women under her care. It’s unfortunate then that the multitude of characters proves too much to negotiate by the end, where the strife is wrapped up a bit too neatly, but the bulk of the film balances it all amazingly well.
The sheer length and scope of Princess Mononoke are enough to make it a landmark anime, even if it’s not for all ages. It played a role in bringing Studio Ghibli to greater attention in the West and, like Akira, showed audiences that anime could be intricate and mature and more than Saturday morning cartoon fare. Though I find several of his films more engaging than Princess Mononoke, if you want proof of Hayao Miyazaki’s talent as a filmmaker, this is it.
Best line: (Hii-sama, the wise woman of Ashitaka’s village) “You cannot change fate. However, you can rise to meet it, if you so choose.”
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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