The story of humanity’s war with nature is a long and sad one; nature always loses. Was there ever a more innocent, more harmonious time, when Men and Beasts spoke the same language? When did the Great Spirit of the Forest die—and who killed it?
Very rarely can I begin a review with these words: if you love animation, you must try to see Princess Mononoke. This movie is just now finishing its tour of theaters in the United States and Canada, and there isn’t much time left—but Mononoke is a masterful film in every sense of the word, and a must-not-miss experience for anyone who loves and appreciates the form. In fact, it may very well be the best and most important animé feature to hit Western theaters since Akira.
This is an exquisite adventure, which brings us the best of both worlds: the sensual beauty that only hand-drawn cell animation can deliver, and the smooth transitions and dynamic movement that you can only get with computer assistance. It comes from the hand of the Japanese grand master Hayao Miyazaki, who has been working at his craft for over 35 years. Other titles which western animé fans might recognize? Well, there’s The Castle of Cagliostro, which he directed in 1979, and Nausicaa of the Vally of the Wind, a film which he both scripted and directed in 1984—both of these are recognized classics, and highly prized by collectors. Nausicaa not only won the grand prize at the Japanese animé festival that year, but also received a commendation from the World Wildlife Fund for its harsh depiction of ecological catastrophe–and the consequences of humanity’s greed. More recently, animé fans may have seen My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Porco Rosso—just to name a few.
Although Miyazaki has produced a truly amazing body of work, Nausicaa is probably the film from which Princess Mononoke has evolved; the themes of the two stories are closely linked. But whereas Nausicaa painted a grim portrait of humanity’s near future, when our disruption of the environment has reduced the world to a poisoned hell, Princess Mononoke looks to the distant past, when the war between humanity and nature was just beginning. It is set during a time of flux in Japanese history, the Muromachi Era (1392-1573), a fluid period when new doors opened and the traditionally rigid societal norms of Japan were briefly relaxed. Women enjoyed unprecedented freedom, frontiers expanded, and there was room for fresh ideas and innovation—but as Princess Mononoke shows us, nothing comes without a cost.
When humanity advances, something must retreat; fresh ideas thrive when the old ways are abandoned. The struggle between progressive humanity and the ancient powers of Nature is the meat of this movie, with the two sides embodied by two beautiful women: the Lady Eboshi, leader of the Tatara clan, who is a believer in women’s liberation, new technology and progress; and her nemesis San, a.k.a. the Princess Mononoke, a half-grown feral child raised by the Wolf Goddess in the wild, and a tireless defender of the living Forest.
Miyazaki does not soft-pedal the conflict between these two sides.
San is a valiant fighter, but the raids she leads against the humans and their settlements are brutal; she tries to kill as many humans as she can, and cares nothing for the loss that wives feel when a husband doesn’t come home. Lady Eboshi is a cunning tactician and a cold, practical leader, always willing to break a few eggs when she wants an omelet—but she has also liberated most of her followers from brothels and leper colonies, giving disenfranchised people a chance to build a community of their own.
Who is right, and who is wrong? Both of them are. That’s the beauty of this story, and what makes it so refreshing to watch. There are no absolute heroes, no absolute villains; everyone has reasons for the evil that they do, and a string of rationalizations for even the most despicable act.
The only blameless individual in the whole mess is the viewpoint character, Ashitaka—the last prince of the Emishi people, and a classic Taoist archetype of harmony and balance. Ashitaka uses arrows tipped by stone, not iron, and rides a wild elk instead of a horse. His good sense, gentleness and impeccable manners are enough to win him friends on both sides of the war, and throughout the film he moves effortlessly between the fortified human village called Iron Town and the deepest, most sacred heart of the forest.
If Lady Eboshi represents humanity and San represents Nature, Ashitaka represents the desire to heal the breach between them. Throughout the action he desperately tries to make peace between these two, and he’s the living metaphor for the possible truce–a human in harmony with his surroundings, longing for an end to hatred and destruction.
In short, Miramax Pictures has brought a genuine treasure to the screens of North America—and it should be noted that they have done so in spite of being an arm of the Disney Corporation, a company which normally battles any non-Disney animated feature which is released on American soil savagely. The tactics that Disney used to stifle and kill some of the more original animation from US competitors—like Warner Brothers’ lyrical The Iron Giant, for example—would probably have worked just fine against the Japanese-created Princess Mononoke. Nonetheless, the movie has already been ousted from the larger theater chains. And it’s a shame, really…because North American animation desperately needs to escape the Cage That Walt Built.
There is a wall of perception in our culture, which bars our animation from addressing serious subject matter and adult themes…and prevents us on this side of the Pacific from embracing any Japanese import more challenging than Pokemon cartoons. It is, always and eternally, our loss! And films like Princess Mononoke are the reason that it must end. Go see it while you can, folks; this is a work of art.
Originally published as “Our Lady of the Beasts: a review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke”
written for Entertainment Tomorrow
by Arinn Dembo, 2000. All rights reserved.
Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-Hime)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
English language adaptation by Neil Gaiman
Animated feature: voices by Gillian Anderson, Clair Danes, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton