Why I Love… #43: Princess Mononoke

San (voiced in the US dub by Claire Danes) stands in defiance of those who threaten her home
San (voiced in the US dub by Claire Danes) stands in defiance of those who threaten her home

Year: 1997

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Genre: Animation / Fantasy

I’ve been slacking. These pages have been a little sparse on new content the past couple of weeks compared to the usual stream of updates and waffle. The cause is not a lack of enthusiasm. The gamer inside me, buried for the best part of a decade, has been resurrected thanks to the UK release of Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch; a PS3 role-playing game beautifully animated by the talented folk at Studio Ghibli. Their respected brand has paid dividends drawing me back into the fold, yet at the same time has reminded me of the great work on which their reputation is based. And no film of theirs is more impressive than Princess Mononoke.

Ghibli’s output can be divided, more or less, into a handful of different archetypes. There are the warm fantasies which focus on themes of family (My Neighbour TotoroPonyoArrietty), understated relationship tales based in an essentially believable real world (Grave Of The Fireflies, Only YesterdayWhisper Of The Heart) and then there are the sweepingly ambitious epics (Nausicaa, Laputa, Spirited Away). Princess Mononoke sits firmly at the head of the table in the latter category, yet combines elements of the other two, working like a symphony. It is their defining statement. My personal favourite may be Totoro, but Mononoke is their flagship piece. Japan even submitted it as their contender for Best Foreign Language Film for the Oscars over any other live action offering that same year.

It didn’t get the nomination, but it ought to have won.

Princess Mononoke tells the tale of cursed young warrior Ashitaka in the late Muromachi period of rural Japan. He is doomed to become a demon after suffering a disfiguring burn on his arm. He leaves his village and travels, only to discover a feud in progress between the people of Tataraba (a.k.a. Iron Town) and the supernatural spirits of the surrounding forest lands. Iron Town’s leader, Lady Eboshi, is plundering the surrounding hillsides, forging powerful weapons which are responsible for Ashitaka’s curse. Eboshi asks Ashitaka to side with her cause, yet he is drawn to a girl raised in the forests named San who defies Iron Town, and attempts to bring an end to the struggle.

The resulting film is quite simply extraordinary. Dispelling the notion that animated features are first and foremost aimed at children, this is a sophisticated film with far greater goals. Indeed younger viewers may be upset by some of the violence and overwhelmed by some of the weightier subject matter when compared to other, easier animated features. Whilst warm, rich and colourful, there is a dark malevolence that permeates Mononoke. Characters are consumed by hate and resentment. San fights to kill the people of Iron Town – there is no middle ground for her; Lady Eboshi cannot be simply forgiven for her crimes against the forest.

Ashitaka’s cursed arm is the physical embodiment of a vengeful hate rotting its host. Hayao Miyazaki’s story hopes to teach us that we need not hang on to these resentments, that they will devour us. Never is this more pertinent than when boar-god Okkoto-nushi is ‘infected’ with a demon, oily worms riddling his rotting flesh as he leads his subjects into a suicide mission against Iron Town. Such blind hate leads to his destruction. It is heartbreaking to watch. Ashitaka is strong of heart and knows that such hate leads to ruin. He battles against his inner demon, for the most part keeping it at bay.

And as with much of Ghibli’s output, a commendable environmental message plays out across Princess Mononoke‘s sprawling 134 minutes. Harmony between man and nature is Ashitaka’s seemingly futile goal. Miyazaki has great reverence for the land and the trees, and it is Lady Eboshi’s industrial revolution that has brought so much strife to the countryside. The demon that cursed Ashitaka was once an animal, but once pierced with an iron bullet it was changed into something evil and contaminated. Industry as incurable infection. Whilst none of this is particularly subtle, it is expertly woven into the story, and as such doesn’t play as heavy-handed soap-boxing. Food for thought as opposed to plain lecturing.

The supernatural creatures are spellbinding. From the cute little forest spirits with their rattling faces to the night-walking Great Forest Spirit. They are as vivid and beautiful as any other Ghibli creations, sumptuously realised in some of the studio’s finest, smoothest animation. Princess Mononoke‘s story is engaging, but it is rendered through a technical tour de force. Contrast this with the majority of anime and you’ll be struck by the supreme fluidity of movement and attention to detail. You could pause at any moment and find something with enough rich detail to hang on your wall.

And a moment, inevitably, to talk about Joe Hisaishi’s score. He has worked with Miyazaki many times (he scores Ni No Kuni which has stolen so much of my time these past couple weeks). Princess Mononoke may arguably be his finest work. The music here is by turns rousing, plaintive and emotive. Imbued with sadness and longing, it delicately coats the film like dew, making it fresher, more alive.

Princess Mononoke is not just a great animated film, but one of the very best fantasy films. It succeeds because of its emotional resonance, its grandeur. Miyazaki invites you to take animation seriously, to engage and listen and think. His medium may be different to his live action contemporaries, but his work is no less credible.

There have been some very good Ghibli movies since this one, but none have felt like quite such a powerful mission statement. One hopes to be surprised. Maybe Princess Mononoke will be surpassed. If it is we will have been truly blessed. As it is we have this, and that is something to be thankful for. Certainly well worth putting down a video game controller for.

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