Princess Mononoke (1997)

I may have misjudged Studio Ghibli. While it’s unlikely my opinion of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind will change, it’s hardly the barometer for the rest of Ghibli’s work. While there certainly are thematic, tonal and narrative similarities between Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, there’s more maternity, thought and development behind the storytelling here, crafting a dark, gripping fantasy tale.

The film, strangely enough, is not about Princess Mononoke but Ashitaka (Yôji Matsuda), a young warrior forced to leave his village after a fight with a demonic boar. The demon got a hold of his arm and now the demon resides in him, slowly growing. Ashitaka seeks a cure in a distant mythical woods but finds a problem there when he discovers that the local town and the creatures of the woods are at battle with each other.

Ashitaka, tired of the hate he’s seen throughout his journey, tries to mediate between the two groups, tries to reconcile them. In a lesser movie it would be clear that one group was worse than the other but in this film things are complicated. While nature might appear more innocent, there’s a bloodthirsty vengeance in the heart of the wolves and San/Princess Mononoke (Yuriko Ishida), the strange young girl, who attack the caravans that travel throughout the woods.

It’s the industrial humans that would naturally be wrong, destroying and burning the natural land. While they do have a disregard for nature, they’ve come to use many of the natural resources to build a better community for the people, bringing them out of unsavory situations. While there are many who cry out for unspoiled forests and untouched nature, the question becomes how much of nature must be given up for humans to live a decent life?

Therefore, Ashitaka finds it hard to deem either side as right or just. Both sides have their merits: The woods have the beautiful and age appropriate Princess Mononoke while the town is full of doting prostitutes. Hard choice. Yes, once again Miyazaki seems to think pedophilia is a bit funny but keeps it more “tasteful” if it can be called that, sticking to dialogue and character personalities to pull it off.

But joking aside, Ashitaka has this great inner conflict personified through the demon inside him. This thing is consuming him, filling him with hatred and rage. How can he (or any human being) mediate two groups when hate festers within? If anything, he should be the last person trying to reconcile these two groups. But by trying to bring these two groups together, he attempts to reconcile himself as well to the paradox of his existence.

But the film is more than just a constant build of conflict. There are many peaceful scenes that take in the world and simply craft a beautiful image. They might seem self-indulgent, but they’re a nice break from all the violence (often graphic) in the film, a display of the good in the natural world to counteract all the displays of the worst of nature throughout the film. These scenes provide beautiful, artistic vistas that showcase some of the finest 2D animation crafted.

Princess Mononoke might look like a silly animated flick (that’s certainly what I thought of most of Miyazaki’s films before I saw them) but there’s an unexpected amount of nuance and complexity to the story and characters, crafting an unforgettable tale that tries to get at the heart of the human condition, addressing the savage and civilized within each person and attempts to understand and reconcile the two.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Princess Mononoke [DVD]