Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/28/2013

Last week, Clara and I watched From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), which was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, from a screenplay co-written by the elder master who is soon heading into retirement, if he has not already.  It was in discussing the newer film and the coming retirement that recollected to me that I had never watched Miyazaki’s great Princess Mononoke with the kids.  

It’s his most “adult” film, most graphically violent with decapitations, dismemberments, and blood.  It’s still not all that gory, but I had held out when Clara was younger.  Felix in the meantime had seen it elsewhere.  But it had been ages for me and I thought it a good time to go for it.

It’s a funny thing but a few years back it played theatrically and I was going to go see it but it didn’t work out for whatever reason and a couple of my friends who had never seen it did go and thought it was stupid.  I was kind of surprised to hear that.  It’s pretty generally well-appreciated.  But in going back to watch it, I kept that dissonance in mind.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Princess Mononoke is critically emblematic of Miyazaki’s themes, particularly in looking with it along side My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).  These are the films that focus significantly on traditional Japanese mythologies, relating to magical spirits that inhabit all natural elements, and quite specifically the threat to those powerful, ancient beings through the destruction of the natural environment and disdain and disregard that humans have for those entities.

In Princess Mononoke, it is ruthless industrialization, the destruction of a forest and habitats, for greed, war, and the desire for eternal life that stokes those that seek to conquer the gods and spirits.  But it is also the human, Ashitaka, who realizes the need for humans to live in balance with nature and the old gods, and the human princess San, adopted by a wolf god mother, who ultimately help restore that balance and hopefully change the mentality of those who would destroy all.

The film is violent for Miyazaki, and I think that is significant in the statement at the film’s core.  The battle to live in harmony with the natural world, to respect those traditional spirits and beliefs, is a brutal one.  It’s a rather stark image, the first one of San, the “spirit princess” as she sucks blood from her wolf mother’s wound and wipes a bloody hand across her face, smearing it.  She is fierce and strong and bloody.

I think as well, this film really ties together Miyazaki’s “environmental” themes to his spiritual traditional ones.  Ancient beliefs in the magical life of nature bind the protection of the natural world and the respect and observation of older belief systems and uniquely Japanese culture.  Ultimately, alongside his strong female protagonists, these are some of the most compelling ideas in his films.

It’s interesting that though Princess Mononoke is the film’s title and iconic image, the real protagonist is Ashitaka, the boy.  San is strong and powerful, but she is a smaller character in the film, albeit a pivotal one.  The film also features the character Eboshi, the lady industrialist who has built “Iron Town” as a town largely run by women, ex-prostitutes, who she has empowered in hard physical labor and independence.  The women of Iron Town are free, empowered, and strong.  Again, this echoes consistent themes throughout Miyazaki’s work, though here, in some ways, it’s made more explicit.

I’ve said before that I think Miyazaki’s female protagonists are so remarkable because they are characters, people first.  They aren’t “girls”.  They happen to be female and that is a big part of each character’s uniqueness and spirit and world view, but in a way is so matter of fact that the use of female protagonists is a tacit statement.  It’s also why his protagonists don’t feel contrived as so many animated feature films do.  It’s certainly a remarkable quality of Miyazaki’s world and work.

It’s interesting to note that working on the English translation of Princess Mononoke was no less the great Neil Gaiman, one of the best fantasy writers of this generation.  This film was the commercial breakthrough for Miyazaki in the United States.  It was after this film that Disney bought up all of his titles and began distributing and promoting the films in America, which I think is simply a great and wonderful thing.  The fact that more children, more people all over, have Miyazaki’s films as readily as all the dreck that American animation houses pump out is simply wonderful.  These films are so fantastic and quite accessible to American audiences, this is actually one of those rare times that commercial, corporate promotion and exposure really pays off for everyone.

Miyazaki is for everyone and it’s wonderful that it’s so widely available.

So, to my two friends who didn’t care for the film?  Whatevs.

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