A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 197 – Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke – September 13th, 2010

Last night we decided we really need to be better about putting in our subtitled movies. We’ve got a good number of them and we don’t want to get to the end of the project and have only subtitled movies to watch. I admit, when I started this I didn’t really consider the logistics of running times and subtitles and having to parcel things out over the course of the project. It’s meant putting a lot more thought into choosing a nightly movie than just looking to see what’s next on the pile. So anyhow, tonight we were looking for something on the longer side and subtitled. I picked this, having never seen it before, and I have to say I was very pleased.

Of course, this is yet another overhype victim. There was a point when I don’t think I could turn around without someone telling me how amazing this movie was. And I won’t deny, it is a gorgeous piece of art. But it’s also something I needed to come to on my own, with no prompting or cheering or fawning adoration. I think if I’d watched it at someone else’s bidding I’d have resented it and focused on finding things to critique. And I do have critiques, but I didn’t let them get in the way of my enjoyment of the movie.

About half way through, I decided the movie had some interesting parallels with The Lord of the Rings. Look at the Ironworks of Lady Eboshi and their consumption of the surrounding forests and compare that to Saruman at Isengard. Look at Ashitaka, cursed and forced to leave his idyllic village on a quest to far off lands, bearing a taint that will eventually kill him and compare that to Frodo and the One Ring. The various animal tribes could be put up against the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor and the Elves. This is the sort of stuff anime fans write papers on in college. And this isn’t a bad thing. Certainly, I’m not saying it’s a ripoff or anything. It just has some similar themes and elements. The pro-nature, anti-industrialization, changing of a world, ending of an era stuff. Plus the quest element, which is a widespread trope the world over. But I like that I could see the similarities. After all, I love The Lord of the Rings, so I enjoyed seeing similar subjects handled in such a different way.

One of the key things to this movie is the idea that the wild woods of Japan at the time of the movie were ruled over by animal gods, each god having a tribe. In the movie we see the Deer God, the Wolf God, a Boar God and a Gorilla tribe, though I’m not sure which of them, if any, was their god. I loved that each tribe and god had a personality distinct from the others. They all had their own quirks and I have to wonder if there’s more to them that I don’t get, not being from or knowing enough of Japanese culture. Enough, though, is either shown or explained. The boar are a proud tribe and will fight even knowing that the fight is in vain. The gorillas are shy, coming out at night to replant lost trees, but also darkly dangerous, wanting to eat men to gain their strength. The deer are silent, saying nothing and living hidden in the woods, peaceful and uninvolved. And the wolves are persistent and vicious but canny enough to know when to bide their time. It makes me want to know other tribes and gods of the land.

The whole movie is about the struggle between the wild world and the creatures who live in it and humans and the human desire for progress at all costs. Human destruction of the forests the animal gods live in has turned some of the gods into angry, grieving, vengeful demons. When one attacks Ashitaka’s village, scarring and cursing him before he kills it, he must leave to find the source of the demon and find a way to rid himself of the curse. This brings him to a forest and mountain far from his home where Lady Eboshi has built a foundry, smelting iron from the sand of the mountain and using it to make guns. While she treats her people well, and is beloved by them, her ambition has caused the wild gods of the woods and mountain to rise against her, and Ashitaka wanders smack into the middle of their battle. There are the apes, who appear and make threats, then disappear again. There are the boar, who arrive from another forest in search of the one who slew a related boar god. There is the mysterious deer god in the deep woods, whose blood is said to cure wounds. And there are the wolves. Three of them. A mother and two sons. And with them a young woman whom they have claimed as family.

Of course Ashitaka falls for Sen, the girl. That was kind of inevitable, you know? But it’s not really a love story. Their feelings for each other figure into things, but they don’t provide a miraculous happy ending. I really liked that about this movie. Love doesn’t get to conquer all. It doesn’t fix everything. It takes hard work and determination and even then, when things seem to have been fixed, it’s not like a do-over where everything’s reset to how it used to be. Lives are still lost. Things are still going to be hard. There’s still an Emperor with warriors. There are still guns. There are injuries. And Ashitaka and Sen don’t get to ride off into the sunset on wolfback. I like that too.

Another thing I like is how much grey area the movie has. As I mentioned, Lady Eboshi is well liked. Sure, she’s mining the mountain’s resources and goes haring off to hunt down the deer god and chop its head off, but she’s also taken good care of her people, taught them how to defend themselves against armies. She took in lepers and cared for them, giving them a home and work when no one else would. The women of her settlement are empowered and not at all shy about showing just how strong they are. They do hard work and they train to defend their home and they’re proud of it, as is she. I really don’t think she’s supposed to be seen as a villain. She’s merely part of the tide of humanity washing up the mountain’s sides. If I have one real criticism of the movie it’s that her motivations are left a little vague. At the outset she seems like a reasonable and level headed person who’s well capable of working out what’s in her best interests. But then she leaves her settlement to go off on her hunt, apparently because a hunter in the employ of the Emperor says the Emperor wants the deer god’s head. Sure, that might be in her best interests politically, but it’s not really made clear, and not in a good way. It muddies her character a little, I think. Makes her seem more hotheaded and given to getting carried away with brash ideas than she was made to appear before. And that’s a pity, given how well the movie does with female characters overall. There’s Eboshi, Sen (who kicks a ton of ass), Toki (the de-facto leader of the settlement’s women) and then the wolf god herself: Moro. I wish Eboshi had been given the chance to firmly make her decisions on screen, with strong motivations, even if they were misguided.

All that aside and going back to what I enjoyed about the movie, let’s end by talking about the movie’s artwork. Everything about the story needed to communicate a real world setting but with a hidden fantastic world being revealed. The movie is full of perfect images, from the odd little rattle-headed kodama who show the health of a forest, to the gorgeous night-walker embodiment of the deer god who drifts through the woods and mountains as an ephemeral body of stardust. The demons are terrifying creatures that evoke images of rotting corpses devoured by maggots and worms. The lush greenery of the forests and ponds sets the browns and reds and oranges of the foundry well apart. And the animation complements it all perfectly. It’s a lovely movie, full of things that could have been cliched in lesser hands, but which become beautiful when someone like Miyazaki is in charge.

September 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Princess Mononoke

September 13, 2010

Princess Mononoke

I have said before that this movie is my favorite Studio Ghibli film, but I would go a lot farther than that. It is probably my favorite animated film of all time and amongst my favorite movies. It’s not just that it’s filled with animation of an unparalleled caliber or that it has a score that instantly brings tears to my eyes. It’s that it’s a movie with a deep resonance in my soul. It has important things to say about humans and their relationship to nature. It’s a story of old gods, the hubris of men and the destruction we bring upon ourselves.

It’s all thanks to Hayao Miyazaki. This is his masterwork and his greatest achievement. Miyazaki has created an entire world here, somewhat based on feudal Japan, filled with gods and demons and samurai and hunters. It’s the world that I’m in love with more than anything else, and it’s the plight of the forest gods as humankind encroaches on their domain that so captures my imagination.

The movie follows the adventures of a heroic young man named Ashitaka. When a demon beast plunges out of the woods one day towards his village he stops it, but pays a heavy price. The demon was a great boar – a god from a forest far to the west – cursed by its pain and anger and overwhelming need for vengeance towards the people who injured it and drove it mad. In killing it Ashitaka comes into contact with the curse of the god’s rage and it burns into the flesh of his arm, scarring him. This curse, says the wise oracle of his village, cannot be cured. It will eat at him until he is destroyed himself.

Since his fate is bound to the god he destroyed Ashitaka is reluctantly banished from his village and sent to the west to observe what is tainting the world there. To “see with eyes unclouded.” It’s this notion of unclouded vision that really defines Ashitaka as a character and the film as a whole. In the west there are men at war, literally, with nature. Using primitive guns and flamethrowers the powerful Lady Eboshi has wrested control of a portion of woods from the boar-god that once ruled there. She has a clan of people gathered around her, working in an iron foundry that smelts iron from the sands on the side of a mountain. To do so they have to keep the old gods at bay and pull down the forest on those slopes.

Fighting against her are a clan of wolf gods led by the mighty Moro and her adopted daughter San. San was an orphaned human child taken in by the wolves – the Mononoke-hime. Princess Mononoke. She wishes only to avenge the forest and kill Eboshi and all her followers.

Ashitaka, as an outsider with no pre-conceived notions, is able to walk in both worlds. He has no fear to walk through the enchanted forests of the mighty forest-deer-god (a sort of messianic being that holds sway over all life and death in the deep woods) with the cute little kodama woodland spirits, nor does he fear to walk straight into the iron forge town. He makes friends with forest creatures and townsfolk alike and thus finds himself very much in the center of this war. I think that’s kind of the role that Miyazaki-san places himself in when telling this tale. Humans will be humans, he seems to say, and their ways are shortsighted and full of avarice, but there is some way that they can still live in harmony with nature. It’s never stated outright, but I think Ashitaka sees San as another emissary who is of two worlds since she is a human who lives among the forest gods. She’s never really able to accept her human side though, she’s never going to be a part of the world of men.

Things get more complicated though. There are several different factions at work here. The Mikado has provided Eboshi with soldiers and money in her endeavours, but not just to protect a little mining town. He wants these lands for himself, and he craves the head of the forest-deer-god. He sends his samurai to capture the little outpost that Eboshi has. And there’s also the enigmatic little monk Jigo, who commands a troop of hunters and ninjas. On the other side there’s the ancient boar-god Okkoto who has brought a vast army of boars to fight in a glorious vengeful battle with the humans.

It’s got a grand and epic scale that’s not often to be found in animated movies. Probably because huge confrontations between armies is not something easily accomplished in hand-drawn animation. But this is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about here, and again this movie defies everything that should be possible in the medium. Early on in the movie when the boar-demon attacks Ashitaka’s village it becomes clear what kind of wonders we’re to be witness to. The demon is a writing mass of worms which kill and destroy the ground as it passes. In one shot as it approaches the village it shambles along at first with four legs, then with six, then with seven, then with eight. It’s a simple tracking shot of the beast lumbering over the ground that in any other studio’s hands would be a quick cycle of animation repeated as the background scrolls past, but here it flows organically as it moves and morphs its very shape as it goes. One effect used extensively and to great effect throughout the movie is using detailed hand-painted scenes done in two forms (one green and growing and one brown desolate and dead) and morphing between the two. It makes even the static backgrounds something that can be animated along with all the characters in the foreground. It’s only a hint of the astonishing animation to come. And as the movie goes on it just never lets up. There are crowds of people, with little characters here and there doing their own thing as the action unfolds. There are armies of boars and later ninjas creepily slithering along in boar skins. By the time I reach the climactic and apocalyptic scenes when the confrontation with the forest-deer-god finally takes place I’ve simply stopped even trying to figure out how Miyazaki works this magic. I’m just in this world, caught up in the action.

I won’t deny that part of what gives this movie such power in my eyes is that its message is so very close to my heart. I desperately want to believe that some harmony between the technology of the human world and the magic and majesty of the natural world can exist. I think they can, and this movie speaks to that longing in my soul. Amanda tells me that in the library children are taking this movie out all the time. It gives me hope that children captivated by the more kid-friendly tales of Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro are being drawn into this much darker world, and that they want to go here too. In the years since this film achieved international success and acclaim Miyazaki has continued to produce wonders of astonishing beauty, (we’ve already reviewed Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) but nothing he’s done has ever touched me like this movie here. I want to walk under these trees and treat with these gods myself.

September 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment