The 1997 film Princess Mononoke is a landmark for its director Hayao Miyazaki. For six films over the span of nearly 20 years, Miyazaki had proven himself as a visual master and a proponent of the spirit of fun and adventure in anime, an ethos lessening as the cynical ’80s and the cyberpunk ’90s wore on. He’d found major successes with movies like My Neighbor Totoro about the power of childhood. However, following a break of five years after 1992’s Porco Rosso, Miyazaki returned with what is easily his angriest, most violent, and least innocent film to date.
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 innocent and he needed children 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 an historical fantasy backdrop, but this is easily his most contemporary and political film.
The film begins in the middle of action. Prince Ashitaka races on the back of an antelope-like creature after a giant monster made of oil. During a battle, the oil infects Ashitaka, but he manages to kill it, revealing the oil had actually taken over a giant boar god. It’s quickly apparent that the oil is an infection, a blight upon the serenity of the natural lands. Ashitaka traces the oil to Irontown, where industrialization means clear-cutting the forests and using up the resources. Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Irontown, wants to use her machines to get the head of the great Forest Spirit. Moro the wolf goddess and a young human girl named San (given the nickname Princess Mononoke) stand against Eboshi. Ashitaka will have to find a way to make peace between humanity and nature or the future of the land will be ashes and cinder.
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 creatures 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 as he flees. 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.
Miyazaki also directly deals with Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, which focuses on nature spirits and ancestors. Though Japan is one of the least formally religious nations in the world, nearly 80% of its population practice some form of Shintoist rituals. Miyazaki’s earlier films, especially Totoro, deal with the idea of nature spirits and communing with Mother Earth, but here he weaves the narrative around its practices. We must, Mononoke says, be kind to the world and revere its history and teachings, lest we die. While the 1984 film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind shows us a post-apocalyptic version of machinery versus nature, in Mononoke, Miyazaki is pointing a finger at the possible downfalls of Japanese modernity.
It’s hard not to sense Miyazaki’s conflict in this story. He’s clearly enamored of machines, especially planes and flying contraptions. In all of his movies, flight is seen as the most beautiful and profound means of transportation. Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, and Porco Rosso relish in futuristic yet simple flying machines, that are nevertheless instruments of war. In Mononoke, the beauty of flying machines is absent and replaced with the destruction of rolling deforesters.
Despite the darkness and violence, though, there is still a lot of beauty, especially from the Great Forest Spirit itself and the surrounding 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 like a human, implying even a god can be just another dead person in the wake of greedy people. Miyazaki 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; she goes to protect the forest, and he goes to help rebuild (for the better this time) the village of Irontown.
Princess Mononoke has remained on of Hayao Miyazaki’s most lauded and reappraised films. In celebration of its beauty and continued majesty, GKIDS and Shout! Factory have released a collectors edition set. The deluxe disc portfolio includes the Blu-ray with hours of special features and the original soundtrack, available on CD for the first time in North America. Joe Hisaishi’s music is unfathomably gorgeous and make Miyazaki’s movies what they are. You also get a new 40-page, full-color book full of art and essays.
There’s no better time to catch up with Princess Mononoke, a film that continually looks forward while making sure we respect the past.
Images: Studio Ghibli/GKIDS