For six films over the span of nearly 20 years, Hayao Miyazaki had proven himself to be a visual master and a proponent of the spirit of fun and adventure in anime, which had been lessening as the cynical 80s and the cyberpunk 90s wore on. He’d found major successes with movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service which are both about the power of childhood and remaining uncorrupted while growing up. However, after a break of five years post Porco Rosso, Miyazaki returned with what is easily his angriest, most violent, and least innocent film to date. This was the first film after which he declared he was retiring and if that had been the case, this movie would have stood gloriously as a crowning achievement. As it stands, 1997’s Princess Mononoke still might be.
The making and marketing of Porco Rosso took a lot out of Miyazaki, and he took a break after its completion. In that time, still angry and having lost some of his filmmaking glamour, he began to see the horrors of the war in the former Yugoslavia and realized that he’d never make a movie like Kiki again. The world wasn’t that innocent and children needed to know that. He also took his inherent love and respect for the environment and began to get mad about how people weren’t as respectful as they should be. He set his new film in feudal Japan in historical fantasy backdrop, but this is easily his most contemporary and political film.
In Muromachi Japan, a village is being attacked by a giant, slithery demon. Prince Ashitaka rides on his trusty antelope creature and attempts to kill the demon before it gets to the villagers. He does manage to kill it, but not before he’s infected on the arm by the demon’s oil-like disease. After the beast is dead, the oil crawls away revealing it to have been a giant boar god named Nago who had been corrupted by an iron ball lodged within his body. Ashitaka is instructed to go to Nago’s home where he might find a cure for his affliction. The oil will eventually kill him, but until then it makes him a most formidable fighter, his arrows easily severing limbs and heads and what not.
En route, Ashitaka meets a wandering monk who tells him that he might find help from the Great Forest Spirit, who looks like a deer-man during the day but becomes a massive bipedal walker at night. Later, he spies men herding oxen beleaguered by large white wolves led by Moro, the wolf goddess. One wolf is being ridden by a young girl, whom we later find out is named San, and she appears not to associate with humans at all. Ashitaka takes some injured workers to Irontown which is controlled by Lady Eboshi and the prince learns that Eboshi has built the city through clear-cutting the forest, incurring the wrath of the forest gods and animals. She also employs former prostitutes, lepers, and other pariahs to manufacture firearms to fight the gods. In fact, it was Eboshi who turned Nago into the demon which infected Ashitaka. Eboshi says that San, whom she calls Princess Mononoke, was raised by wolves and hates all humans.
Speak of the devil, San arrives and tries to kill Eboshi, but Ashitaka intervenes, knocking them both unconscious, and taking San away from the village. However, while fleeing, he’s shot by one of the villagers and falls unconscious himself. When San awakens, she very nearly kills the dying Ashitaka, but stops when he half-consciously tells her she’s beautiful. She spares the prince and takes him to see the Great Forest Spirit who saves the boy’s life. Meanwhile, the blind Boar God leads an army to Irontown to defend the forest but Eboshi and her mercenaries have their own plan: to cut off the head of the Great Forest Spirit to give to the Emperor of Japan. The wolves join the battle but Eboshi succeeds in beheading the Forest Spirit during its transformation, causing it to spew corruption from its neck while it searches for its head, which has been stolen by the mercenary. Ashitaka and San must work together to stop the carnage and return the head of the Forest Spirit to its rightful place lest the entirety of the forest and surrounding areas wither and die.
Just from the summary, it’s easy to tell that this movie is much more serious in tone and much more about social awareness. There’s an urgency to this film that Miyazaki’s other movies simply don’t have. Totoro and Kiki both feel like they could go on forever; Princess Mononoke feels like there’s a ticking clock the whole time. The unrest of the world is present in nearly every frame, and even the wondrous magical creature we see can’t make us forget that for too long. Ashitaka is the only character who is seemingly trying to make peace and not simply escalate the war, but even he’s corrupted from the outset and can’t help but kill or maim people, cutting off the arms and head of soldiers during a chase scene with an arrow. San, the human who feels no kinship with humanity, represents Miyazaki’s anger toward that part of mankind that would destroy a forest to build a factory, or slaughter hundreds for some political control.
This being a Miyazaki movie, though, there is still a lot of beauty to be had, especially from the Great Forest Spirit itself and the surounding mythical creatures. In these scenes, the filmmaker explores his love of nature and his wish that it remain pure and untainted by man. When the Spirit’s head is removed, its face contorts slightly to look a bit more like a human, implying even a god can be just another dead person in the wake of greedy people. He also gives us a bit of hope at the end of the movie, once the Spirit’s head is returned; Eboshi and the mercenary aren’t killed but they instead learn from their ways, or at least agree not to continue down their current paths. San and Ashitaka cannot be together, but they do remain friendly and will surely see each other again, while she goes to protect the forest, and he goes to help rebuild (for the better this time) the village of Irontown.
Princess Mononoke was the first Hayao Miyazaki movie I saw, and its impact hits me even harder today. From the title, it seemed like it was just going to be a light fairy tale, but I quickly learned it was more than that. It’s one of Miyazaki’s most personal films and each of his complex and mixed emotions is palpable in every frame of the film. When it was purchased for American distribution by Miramax, Harvey Weinstein (true to form) planned to cut a great deal out of it, but a samurai sword mailed to his office with the accompanying note “No Cuts” seems to have helped that. It’s a movie, like all of Miyazaki’s work, that doesn’t have an ounce of fat. Every bit of it is Miyazaki and it all needs to be there, lest it become like the headless Forest Spirit.
As you may have guessed, Hayao Miyazaki did not retire after Princess Mononoke, but didn’t make his follow-up for another few years. With his eighth film, 2001’s Spirited Away, Miyazaki finally earned the kind of international recognition he was always meant to have, and won himself a very deserved Academy Award in the process. Spirited Away next week!
How do you think Princess Mononke stacks up to the rest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter!