I remember when I was talking to an acquaintance of mine about the films of Hayao Miyazaki, most specifically about Princess Mononoke. I was in the middle of gushing over the man’s imagination and knack for reenvisioning the most basic of things, talking about his color schemes and his sense of movement. I still remember her saying, “Well yeah. But they’re still just cartoons.” I remember having to pause at that comment. Just a cartoon. It’s funny. I can think of no bigger insult for the animations.
Picking a favorite Miyazaki film is something akin to picking a favorite Disney movie. You may be able to react instantly, but as soon as someone comes in and calls another title, a strange defensiveness rises within you. That’s how it was for me when Nick declared a state of Miyazaki week. I knew which film I wanted, right off the bat – Princess Mononoke. Yet when Nick took Spirited Away and Michael called Howl’s Moving Castle…I felt like some small part of my spirit had drained away. I felt like I’d betrayed those films, becaue I love those titles. They are wonderful. In the end, however, I do feel in my heart that Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s strongest – and most mature – work.
Like any of Miyazaki’s other movies, Princess Mononoke is a very strange film. Set in an unspecified world, clearly bound by magical laws and mythologies of its own, Princess Mononoke is more a meditation on the nature of violence than a children’s film. This movie is heavy – it’s laden with adult themes like death, war, surrogacy, leprosy, and in the end, the idea of sacrifice. This isn’t to say that the film is without flaw. It has clear flaws, some of which are more apparent than others and almost a theme throughout Miyazaki’s films.
The images that fight their way to the forefront of my mind are almost universally dark. I think of a solitary crescent moon, hung in a starry sky, seen from the mouth of a wolf’s forest cave. I think of dark lavender clouds rolling over a line of riflemen marching down a hill, their faces hidden, obscure. I hear Lady Eboshi quietly listening to a leper who tells her “Life is suffering.” I watch a strange god melt into liquified hatred, roiling about like a current of darkness.
The story follows Ashitaka, prince from the Emishi tribe. Ashitaka rides a red elk who, for the record, is named Yakul and is my favorite character in this film. Not much else is known about his people, and frankly, not much else needs to be known. We accept his culture as completely and quickly as we accept anything else about Miyazaki’s films. He has an odd capacity for inspiring belief in his audiences, belief in bizarre and seemingly random magical cultures. His village is attacked by a demon boar, poisoned by hate. The demon possesses him, he has to ride and find a cure for his…disease? I don’t know. That’s the basis for the film.
The story that unfolds is convoluted, complex and seemingly without a direct villain. This is another trait of Miyazaki films, one which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There are characters we like more at some moments than others, yet everyone has moments where they are either redeemed or at least tolerable. Princess Mononoke is a film where this approach works wonders. The lack of any discernible villain leaves us with a cast of gray characters, each by turns light and dark, the only true enemy being hatred and violence.
I think what I love most about Princess Mononoke is, besides it’s characters, the fact that it is relatively unpredictable. Things don’t really follow their logical progression beyond a certain point. Sure, Ashitaka falls in love with the Princess, he sees through her wild and unruly exterior to the beautiful girl underneath. But that’s such a small part of this film that I would hardly count it as a plot point and more of a plot gesture. These characters fall in love because it’s what these characters would do were they real.
The love sequences in Princess Mononoke are strangely moving. One touching scene involves Ashitaka telling/revealing to Princess Mononoke that she is beautiful, something no one has told her before. Another involves an extremely sick Ashitaka lying in grass near a magical pond, unable to chew his own food because he is so weak. Here Mononoke chews Ashitaka’s food for him and feeds him the way a bird might feed her hatchlings. While at first this makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing, the tenderness and the intimacy works wonders. The relationship between Ashitaka and Mononoke never even brushes the surface beyond these quiet understandings.
This is what I love about Princess Mononoke. It’s a film that celebrates quiet moments and pushes back against the loud ones. It’s a film that is exquisitely drawn, shafts of light piercing the leaves of a forest so real that I could almost reach out and touch it. The magic throughout this film is surreal, beautiful, strange, insightful, and sad. The scene I think of in particular, wherein the Spirit of the Forest heals Ashitaka’s bullet wound, is truly resonant.
Miyazaki’s films are almost universally gorgeous. To look at his movies is like watching a moving watercolor or watching a book play out vividly in your head. Miyazaki has not only a wonderful grip on “factual” things, but can also render things which no living man has seen. Things like a red elk plunging underwater and charging its way across the floor of a pond, silt rising in clouds from beneath his hooves. Things like a Forest Spirit, turning blue and translucent as he’s touched by the first rays of moonlight. Or a boy catching an arrow fired at him with his bare hand, re-notching it and shooting it right back as he holds a sword between his teeth. Or the death of a god.
Most important, I think, is its depiction of war. Violence in this movie is startling and bloody. For a children’s movie there are extremely graphic battle sequences, involving hacked off limbs and heads, men screaming on bloody fields of battle over their arms, bullets tearing through skin, and blades that feel very, very sharp. Miyazaki is a man who hates war – and justifiably so. He grew up in Tokyo during World War II, and I think that background is important to take into consideration when watching his films. I think also of the bombing sequence in Howl’s Moving Castle here.
The war as depicted in this film is horrifying. It’s harrowing, oftentimes disturbing and upsetting. There’s a simplicity in the battle sequences that gives me chills, a sort of matter-of-factness about the nature of violence that speaks louder than most movies could even dream of. Miyazaki’s warfare is grisly, rooted in fear and disgust. I’m thinking here of a sequence wherein human warriors approach the blind and wounded boar God wearing the skins of fallen boars so he’ll lead them where they want to go. The scene is horrifying. It makes my stomach turn.
I think back on that conversation I had with someone who I will leave unnamed, someone who described Miyazaki’s films as being “just cartoons”. I hope that I’ve illustrated at least a little bit of why this was such an insult. This isn’t to say that this film, like Miyazaki’s other films, is without flaw. It’s not. My two biggest complaints about the film may seem small, but to me they are important ones.
For one thing, the soundtrack is inconsistent, ranging from being haunting to…well…stupid. Again, there are plenty of people who will find this to be a ridiculous thing to complain about, but soundtracks are incredibly important to me. They can make or break a film. And while I wouldn’t even remotely go so far as to suggest that the soundtrack in this movie breaks it, it certainly hurts. Another thing that Miyazaki films have in spades is characters monologuing about their internal thought processes. While this isn’t a huge deal, it’s enough that I have to kind of stare at my fingernails until their finished every time they do it.
My other – and far larger – complaint is that the film’s ending feels incredibly incongruous with the rest of the movie. The ending, not to spoil anything for you new viewers, is way, way, way too happy. It’s a bubblegum conclusion to a brutal and demanding film. In some ways, I feel that Miyazaki either ran out of ideas or he felt terrible about subjecting his audience to such a heavy and depressing film. What’s worse is that the moments right before the ending are some of the best moments in any film ever, involving the climactic struggle between a dying God and meddling humans too arrogant for their own good.
All in all, Princess Mononoke is a film whose qualities far outweigh its weaknesses. It’s a film that brushes with true greatness but settles for being a truly spectacular animation with an unconvincing conclusion. Bringing in these negative points at the tail end of my review feels totally wrong, so I’m gonna cut it out. Long story short – this is one of the best animations I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. I make it a point to watch this film at least once a year to remind myself of the lessons it teaches, to celebrate its astonishing capacity for imagination and to quail in the face of rendering skills that leave most professional artists in shame. Each and every frame is a painting, and as a consequence, the film is truly art.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a fan of excellent filmmaking, do yourself a favor and forget that you’re watching an animation. Let the tragedy that is Princess Mononoke transport you, haunt you, horrify you, inspire you, move you and help you grow. When I get a Blu-Ray player, this will be the very first title that I own. It is truly one of my favorite films.
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Four and Three Quarters Totoros out of Five