A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , , , ,

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