Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre
Previous life lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Part 2: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Part 3: CASTLE IN THE SKY
Part 4: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Part 5: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Part 6: PORCO ROSSO
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his various films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. And this is, as they say, The Big One.
Not in that it was the first Miyazaki film to find an audience in America (those of us old enough to remember infomercials can tell you about the VHS marketing campaign for the localized release of Kiki’s Delivery Service), but in that it’s impossible to ignore the crater-sized impact this film had. Not only was it the most successful movie in Japanese theatrical history until Titanic, but it was cited as a direct influence on James Cameron’s follow-up project, Avatar. If you’re at all familiar with anime, you’ve at least heard of the movie, and everything from kids cartoons to AAA video games have been cribbing notes from this particular page of Miyazki’s work for 25 years.
Because it’s probably — if not the best — the “most” Miyazaki movie ever.
And I don’t just mean because it’s his longest film, which it is, but that this was clearly a “leave everything in the ring” project. Princess Mononoke is a summation of the broad thematic strokes of his previous body of work, and even an echoing answer to a couple specific recurring questions that he had on his mind all the way back to Naisucaä.
Similar to his post-apocalyptic masterpiece from the previous decade, Mononoke opens in an idyllic village where a brave youth is called upon to aid their people against an attack from a terrifying outside force (in the form of a monstrous boar demon). Unlike the princess from the Valley of the Wind, the fallout of Prince Ashitaka’s selfless actions lead to him being afflicted with a deadly curse on his right arm, and he’s subsequently banished from his home.
Given a choice between accepting his death as an immutable destiny and rising to meet the challenge, Ashitaka embarks on a Big Old Quest to discover the origins of the demon and winds up smack in the middle of a three-sided war on the outskirts of the Forest of the Deer God. The forest gods and their kin (giant intelligent animals) fight to protect the Forest Spirit that protects the land while the people of Lady Eboshi’s Iron Town mine for ore while fending off animal attacks and greedy samurai. Allied with the forest gods is a girl named San, adopted daughter of the Wolf Clan, dubbed “Princess Mononoke” (a term alluding to shapeshifters who possess people for malicious ends) by the people of the ironworks.
When Ashitaka discovers that the humans’ iron bullets are what cursed the boar god and turned it into a demon, he resolves to throw himself between the combatants until they can reach a peace, or until his body gives out. The catch being that the curse has also imbued him with extraordinary strength to compliment his already-honed combat abilities, but at the cost of the curse spreading a little further each time they’re used.
Here is where Miyazaki finally unleashes the full weight of his abilities as an action director, to horrifying results. Earlier films mitigated his hatred for armed conflict with either comedic shenanigans (and also flying) or easy targets (and also flying). Here, everything is blades, bullets, fangs, and blood — but no flying. The camera will zip through the air, not to catch the path of an aircraft gorgeously breaking free of the earth’s pull, but of an arrow ripping a soldier’s arms from his body, or an eagle-eye view of a charnel house battlefield. While the film has no love for the soldiers of the iron-grubbing Lord Asano, even their lives are never wasted in the film’s combat sequences, but used as sobering reminders of the fragile bodies the expansive cast of characters inhabit. Miyazaki’s talent for exhilarating animated action are on full display, but it all comes at a terrible cost.
Because if this movie didn’t care so much, all that kick-ass violence would just be the coolest shit to watch — but it does care, seems unable not to. Princess Mononoke spends its epic run-time learning about the folk (can’t really call Moro and Okkoto’s tribes “people”) both in the forest and in Iron Town — not to “both sides” the whole Don’t Kill the Thing You Live On, Idiot issue — but to show the cost in lives of blindly perpetuating conflict. We get to learn and care about the women who run the forge and the lepers Lady Eboshi shelters just as Ashitaka is falling in love with San and her forest, and we’re given multi-faceted character — often with deliberate counterparts — to let even the iron-fisted Eboshi seem occasionally sympathetic.
If you’re noticing a pattern, duality is at the heart of this film, and how it both presents its worldview while also grappling with its own thematic conclusions. Iron Town is deliberately modeled on western frontier towns like those giving “civilization*” a foothold in the American west. While the film is set in sometime roughly in the 16th century, Miyazaki took inspiration from the westerns of John Ford in the design and story purpose of the ironworks. There are characters who’s goals and alignments you can practically plot across opposite sides of an intersecting graph (Eboshi and Jigo one one side, Moro and Okkoto on the other, Ashitaka and San right near the middle), with the film really digging into the consequences of the choices that differentiate these pairs.
(*industrialization, capitalism, and genocide)
And naturally, there’s the literal manifestation of this duality in the Forest Spirit — a being that’s a deer god with a human face, taking physical form during the day while walking as a giant spirit at night, and presiding over the domains of life and death. What’s ultimately terrifying about the Deer God isn’t the uncanny valley of its design or the mortal consequences it can bestow, but the unknowable nature of its whims. The Forest Spirit gives life, and it takes life, regardless of the most well-laid plans of wolves and men. It’s the world, with terrifying troubles and equally terrifying beauty around every corner, and no knowing for sure which you’ll find.
If this seems a round-about way to get to this entry’s lesson, that’s because the lesson is in the debate the film is having with itself for nearly its entire 134 minutes. The world is cursed, it says, over and over again, and the movie never really belies this statement. In fact, given how frank it is about mortality and how world-ending the finale threatens to be, it seems to agree. The minute we’re born, we’re already dying, and the best we can ever do is prolong the process.
But like the oracle said, life isn’t about escaping that fate, but how you rise to meet it.
For every haunting image that will sear itself into the closet of your nightmares, this film throws so many more into your eyeballs that will take your breath away. Ashitaka and San, two kids who can’t even be out of their teens, are told over and over again by those older or in higher stations — all the way to literal gods themselves — that they’re struggling in vain. But the film positions them as the dropped pebbles that alter the course of the river, becoming themselves instruments in the fates of gods and warlords because they understand and accept that “my end” and “The End” are not the same. The dirty secret of life isn’t that it can be so easily snuffed out, but that — in spite of its fragility, in spite of the statistical improbability of its existence in the first place — it’s still here.
Yes, the world is full of terror and wonder in equal measure, but that wonder is worth something. That’s why the film takes its time to revel in so many small details and quiet interludes. It’s worth the struggle, whether it’s the next sunrise or a final farewell or a new friend or even a quick nap atop the battlements. Princess Mononoke argues that it’s not called “the good fight” because it’s easy, or that fighting is good, but because it’s good to rage against the dying of the light, to steal a few more moments of life from the unnatural greed of those who would hoard everything they could.
You’re still here, right now. That’s worth fighting for.
Next time, Brendan Foley will take us down the rabbit hole and into a world of witches, monsters, and ornery little girls with Spirited Away.