There’s a great opening scene in Princess Mononoke where a quiet, pastoral village is attacked by a crazed, gigantic boar. The creature is covered with a thick skin of blackened tentacles that snarl and snake with wild abandon, and it becomes more than a second skin. It’s monstrous and foreboding, like something Ray Harryhausen would cook up if he had a bad trip while watching The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
Ashitaka, the young chieftain of the village, launches into pursuit, and we’re hurled into a chase sequence. It’s thrilling to watch, and the camera swoops and dives right in the action. There’s an almost desperate momentum at play, as this enormous, mutated thing stampedes on, while the boy vainly tries to calm it down. He is reluctantly forced to bring the creature down with two well-placed arrows, but not before one of the black tentacles latches onto his arm; Ashitaka saved his people but is left burned, scarred.
For many of us in the United States, this was our first introduction to Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and we were instantly hooked. Back home, Japanese audiences who loved his work would flock to theaters, break all box-office records and make Princess Mononoke a blockbuster smash. They also had an added advantage of knowing the score, knowing that the opening chase is a clever reenactment of an early chase scene in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.
In that film (and the graphic novel on which it’s based), the heroine successfully calms down a stampeding Ohmu, a giant, green bug with claws and a dozen eyes. Now, in the new version, the tone is different, and the mood is shockingly bleaker. The setup is the same, but the payoff is tragic; the hero is fatally cursed, and doomed to walk alone in search of answers. The adventure serial has collided into the anti-war picture.
Miyazaki’s earlier works, Animal Treasure Island and Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Future Boy Conan, for example, carry a romantic idealism at their core. But now, in middle age, we see the emergence of the serious, somber Miyazaki. Miyazaki, the heartbroken idealist. Miyazaki, the cynic. Nausicaa marked the beginning of that shift; Mononoke is a much darker picture, wrestling with complex themes and issues, one that clearly has no patience for simple solutions or easy answers.
Mononoke is often referred to as a movie with an “environmental” theme, humans and nature should get along, but that’s not really accurate. It’s a movie about how man and nature don’t get along. Nobody gets along with anyone, negotiations have collapsed, the knives are drawn and everyone wants blood. When the title character is finally introduced, Ashitaka has traveled to the edge of a mythic forest and walked into the middle of a full-scale war: San, the “Princess Mononoke,” her adoptive wolf pack at her side, fighting to preserve the forest; Lady Eboshi, her women equipped with firearms, on the other, their ironworks village clearing the land to mine their ores; the Shogun and his armies, eager to steal the land Eboshi has made valuable.
Within each side lie several factions, all pushing and pulling in different directions. Everyone grows distrustful of each other. The Ape Tribe, who plant seeds and grow in despair; the Boar Tribe, who seek slaughter on the battlefield; the rival samurai clans who seek to capture the ironworks for their own; Jigo, a conniving monk whose army is hired by the Shogun; the men of the ironworks, quietly resentful of the woman who marched in and took over their town, succeeding where they never could.
At the center of everything lies the Shishigami, the Deer God who calls the mystical forest his home, who comes and goes with the wind. This is a God who is ultimately unknowable, intimately connected at one moment and distant the next; its motives and reasons, even its identity, are always in question.
There are really two movies at work here. Western audiences can enjoy Mononoke on a purely visual level, marveling at the astonishing detail, the terrific animation, the lush and varied color tones, and the swift movements of the camera. CGI is used to great extent, mixing with the cell animation, and it all looks stunning. But notice how the computer animation is used to support the action; note how its use in scrolling and panning allows for more dynamic camera work, capturing compositions and landscapes straight from John Ford and Akira Kurosawa.
Japanese audiences are far luckier; they got to see the real movie. This is the first film Hayao Miyazaki directed since completing his Nausicaa manga comic. Nausicaa the novel was very successful, first appearing in Animage magazine and then selling ten million copies as a seven-volume series of books. What makes it great is how the story grows and expands as it goes along, and this is because Miyazaki took long breaks when working on his feature films. Each time he returned to his comic, its scope widened, its themes became more complex, its issues became more nuanced. What began as a Buddhist spaghetti western evolved into a serious examination on feminism, the environment, war, pacifism, human suffering, life and death, and the nature of God.
Miyazaki had finally retired the novel he spent nearly fifteen years writing, hoping to leave that world behind, but here he was again, plunging back into these themes and adapting them to a story set in 14th Century Japan (and deconstructing much of its history and mythology in the process). This is why I think of Princess Mononoke as his Ran; it’s a grand summation, the final statement from his serious side, and the fingerprints are all over the picture.
Like that early chase scene, many of the key moments in the film are taken from Nausicaa; minor moments like camera shots, scenes that draw parallels, even the characters themselves. Ashitaka and San truly are Nausicaa’s children (goodness knows they have the haircut — the moment when Ashitaka cuts his top-knot is almost comic). One child is the spiritual pacifist, the other the fierce warrior. Notice how, even here, the gender roles are reversed; it’s the girl who goes for the knife, and the boy who pleads for understanding.
That defiant feminism has always been a Miyazaki trademark, and it shines brighter here than any other Ghibli production. These characters are allowed dimension, nuance. Where is the melodrama? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? There is no “good” or “evil” side, only flawed living beings trying to do the best they can, controlled by circumstance and driven, inevitably towards the final violent climax. San is driven by her obsession to kill Eboshi, compelled and repulsed by her attraction to Ashitaka, confused about her identity. Eboshi, in turn, carries her own obsessions – she seeks to kill the Deer God and take the forest – but she also displays compassion and empathy; she takes in prostitutes and lepers and identifies closely with them.
And poor Ashitaka, the conscience of the film (his name literally means “tomorrow?”), is pushed aside. Nausicaa asked, “Can’t we all get along,” and people listened; this wandering prince makes the same plea and gets beaten down. Nobody wants to listen, because this is opera; everything must end in tragedy. Despair and hope lie intertwined in its final message: no matter how difficult it is, we must live.
Princess Mononoke is a violent movie, with lots of blood and severed limbs, but doesn’t revel in it. The mood is one of sadness, of loss. The tension is ratcheted up and up (Miyazaki is a master of action cinema), and when it explodes, the results are stunning. There are crucial moments when I was shocked to my core as the climactic bullet came. One such scene is when San infiltrates the ironworks and into a death trap; Ashitaka literally walks into the middle of a knife fight between the two women. The other is when all the parties converge, in the final act, on the Deer God’s lair. The Shishigami appears, shots are fired, bodies fall.
Great moments in that stay with you: the Shishigami walking through the forest at night, drawn like a Native American painting and greeted by tree spirits; peaceful transitional moments, rain falling on rocks; watching three kodama mourn a cut plant; the whole subplot involving Ashitaka’s gold dagger (cruelly cut out of Miramax’s overrated American dub); the battle scenes, which are wonderfully stylized; the iconic image of San, riding against a fiery red background; the two lovers realizing that they cannot live together. Mononoke is grand opera in the fullest sense.