In retrospect, Princess Mononoke arrived at a culturally inauspicious time. By 1997, the slew of epic fantasy films that followed in Star Wars’ wake had been relegated to the domain of lowbrow, B-movie cheese; it would still be a few years before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations would raise the genre to a level of cultural cache on par with the sword-and-sandles epics of the mid twentieth century.
While Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s seventh film, is far removed from the world of sword and sorcery, it is indeed a fantasy epic that tackles the Hero’s Journey schtick that Star Wars popularized. And it approaches those themes with a level of artistic and moral ambition unique among the popcorn blockbusters of the 90s. Mononoke, more than any other film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, feels like a self-conscious Important Film. We are supposed to leave the theater not just feeling entertained, but also enlightened.
And it is for the most part successful – indeed, it’s a very beautiful film. But the weight of its gravitas is heavy, and I find myself missing the charm, whimsy and humor that other Miyazaki films are so abundant in.
The film is set during a war torn period of Japan’s history (my knowledge of said history is too spotty to pinpoint exactly when from internal evidence, but Wikipedia informs me that it is the late Muromachi period), and centers around prince Ashitaka of the secluded Emishi tribe. When a boar demon attacks his village, Ashitaka finds himself placed under a curse that will ultimately prove fatal. He sets out on a journey to find the cause of the demon’s hatred in the hopes that it reveal a means of lifting the curse. This takes him to Lady Eboshi’s ironworks, an industrial settlement at war with the gods of a nearby forest (all lead by a regal, otherworldly deer god) and the local samurai. Among the forest-dwelling wolf tribe is San, an orphaned human (and the titular princess) raised by the wolves with a fierce desire for vengeance against Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka naturally gets sucked into this conflict, and most of the plot tracks his attempts to pacify all sides.
Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s environmental concerns (and, really, with most animated films of the 90s) would easily assume that our sympathies are supposed to lie with the forest critters, with Lady Eboshi emerging as the ignorant, unrepentant villainess. But Mononoke lacks any clear antagonist. Miyazaki goes out of his way to establish Lady Eboshi as a charitable woman who frees prostitutes from brothels and puts them to honest work, and who loves and accepts lepers that no one else will take in. She is a ruler concerned primarily with the welfare of her subjects. But that, combined with her irreverence and her ruthless expansionism brings her into conflict with the forest. Meanwhile San and the forest gods, although wronged in many ways, have a vicious, vengeful streak that only accelerates the conflict.
Mononoke is, if anything, almost too on the nose in its attempt to underline its own moral complexity. It’s not a bad problem to have (paging Mr. John Cameron), but it isn’t entirely without an element of didacticism – this is an Important Film, after all. To its credit, the film avoids the fake, utopian “now here’s the Answer” ending where all grievances and wrongs are swept away under the carpet of gooey sentimentality. The ending is more of a stalemate than a triumph, and the film is all the more powerful for acknowledging that some wounds may never heal in this life.
Visually, the film has all the lushness and splendor that we have come to expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The colours are more muted than usual, as befits Mononoke’s more serious tone. This allows for some interesting usage of light: the ironworks, for instance, is often depicted with stark lighting and chiaroscuro, while the interior of the forest has unlocalized light and often a faint glow, calling attention to the teeming life within it.
In spite of it all, some of Miyazaki’s whimsy does seep through in the toddler-esque character design of the kodama spirits who populate the forest. The other denizens are quite the opposite; although there are a lot of talking animals, none of them are subject to bambification and none are particularly cute. The film is more than willing to remind you that these fearsome beasts could quite easily maim and kill you. Character design-wise, the real star of the show is the deer god, who at night assumes a giant, luminescent form that resembles a star constellation come to life, and who at day has an eldritch, alien to his four-legged form.
The unsentimentality also appears in Mononoke’s depiction of combat, which is often sudden, brutal and bloody. Unlike most films of its ilk, it takes no discretion shots and always makes the audience see the grim effects of violence. This makes it the only Miyazaki film I wouldn’t recommend to the squeamish.
And, it may simply be a side-effect of its epic scope and action, but the film in general seems to have more kinetic energy than usual for Miyazaki (or anime in general) whether we’re watching Ashitaka riding his elk, or San sliding down a roof, there’s a strong element of characterization-via-motion at work.
Joe Hisaishi’s score is excellent as usual and is perhaps the one aspect of the film that indulges in romanticism (and it is interesting to track his development from the prog stylings of his earlier scores to the wistful, melancholy orchestrations of more recent fare).
Mononoke is not my favourite Miyazaki. But it is his grandest film, and returning to it after what must be over a decade has only increased my appreciation of it.