Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Princess Mononoke - Movie Review

Today, the middle ages are nearly synonymous with superstition and bigotry. Decrying witch trials and corrupt priesthoods, we hook our ideological thumbs through our progressive suspenders and sit back, having successfully shifted the focus from the death toll of the 20th Century. But I tend to think medieval times get a hard rap. G.K. Chesterton said that modern man expects to find in the middle ages “a pessimism that is not there, a fatalism that is not there, a love of the barbaric that is not there, a contempt for reason that is not there.” What they do find is a respect for the spiritual completely absent in modern life.

And that’s my favorite part of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film, Princess Mononoke. It combines simple visual beauty (on a level only mocked by flashy CGI) with incredibly creative fantasy. The first third of the film is spent, mostly, in world-building, establishing an alternate reality that gave the impression of spilling off the edges of the map. I would never have predicted it, but this anime world reminds me of nothing so much as Tolkien’s Middle Earth in its intriguing depth.

It’s important to note that while it's anime, it’s not Pokémon. Miyazaki is a serious filmmaker, and to all intents and purposes, it’s a thoughtful, adult movie touching on much deeper themes than your average Hollywood flick. Fantastic creatures and verdant landscapes rear upon our sight, yet still their loveliness possesses the ability to surprise (a quality lacking, for instance, in Peter Jackson’s latest, post-card perfect vistas—his first trilogy felt less faultless, and more real.)

Accompanying this medieval sense of wonder at a creation pulsing with spirituality, we have what is essentially the story of a knight (or, more accurately, a rōnin), traveling the land in search of adventure and ascribing to a code of chivalry that prompts him to defend the oppressed. He is a man apart from the world, elevated by his virtue and his fate, a citizen of another kingdom. His name is Prince Ashitaka.

It is notable that we know next to nothing of Ashitaka’s life before he sets out on his quest, instead observing his character through his moral choices. When the story begins he is patrolling the perimeter of his village, and is suddenly faced by a demonic beast emerging from the depths of the forest. He slays the beast, but at a cost, being stricken with a mortal curse. Because of this, Ashitaka is exiled from his village, to wander the earth a dying man. The village elder tells him: “You cannot alter your fate, my prince. However, you can rise to meet it, if you choose.” This event sets in place two paradigms which will define the story: curse and honor.

All of this old-fashioned clarity is very refreshing, but the second act begins to muddy the water. Partly, this is because we settle down to a fixed location and plot—I would have been just as happy if Ashitaka had just wandered around aimlessly through the whole movie. A larger cast of characters is introduced, including a town of capitalist, militant feminists, a herd of wild boars, a fierce woodland princess, and a silent, deific presence in the heart of the forest. Meanwhile, there are bounty-hunters, the Emperor’s army, and a pack of giant wolves, and they’re all massing up for a climactic finale. All this is somewhat overwhelming, and, like the dull politics of the Star Wars prequels, begins to leech the life of the narrative.

Somewhat inevitably, a conflict arises between the looming, elegant, Fangorn-like forest and the plucky, productive former prostitutes of a quickly industrializing city. 

Full disclosure: As a theme, I’m not a huge fan of environmentalism. It tends to be oversimplified and imbued with an importance beyond its merits. Princess Mononoke doesn’t do that, but it reverses an essential rule of narrative—that story comes before message—and is weaker because of it. The film would have served all purposes more effectively if it had assigned the nature vs. man theme to subtext—instead it feels like the story stems from the message, with plot points closely following a set ideological track, rather than truths coming to light through a story about people.

That said, the characters are still fascinating. The film does a good job of creating a villain who is sympathetic and interesting, though it loses some credit by throwing in a consolation miser with—it appears—no good qualities whatsoever. All the same, the preponderance of characters in the second and third acts shift the focus from Ashitaka, who has little to do but moralize about the excess of hate in the world (for some reason he thinks hate is the cardinal sin in the film’s conflict, when it actually seems to be an amalgam of greed and pride) while romancing the extremely cool heroine Mononoke.

And now we come to the title character, who is caught between the two worlds. From the moment she meets Ashitaka, Mononoke is a wild and volatile beauty, an embodiment of the menace and grace of the forest. Ashitaka reaches out to her, taming her violence with his grace, and revealing a more mature, healthy relationship between man and the environment—a wordless romance. Still, even this is diminished by the politics—when the magnificent wolves and boars begin to have a discussion about policy, I started to lose suspension of disbelief, and the forest itself sheds its mystique and tangible sense of otherness.

On the other hand, the forest spirit never loses an aura of inscrutable power and elegance—portraying a God figure much more effectively than many films taking a shot at a more Judeo-Christian deity.

And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:12-13, NLT)

This basis in a spiritual, magical reality is another of the film’s strengths. Throughout the story the characters mourn, living under a curse. Ashitaka, is of course, literally given a death sentence, but he is not allowed self-pity—another character comments: “So you say you're under a curse? Well, so what? So’s the whole damn world.” Later the same man says “Everybody dies—some now, some later—from brothel girl to Emperor” and describes the latter’s plan to cheat death (which becomes a somewhat half-baked subplot). It is not just Ashitaka who is cursed, but all of creation, shackled by the weight of fallen man. Princess Mononoke, much like the work of Tolkien, is inundated with this sorrow, though punctuated with glimpses of a higher path. 

And if that’s not reason enough to see it, it’s a great fantasy epic, with well-developed characters and world, gorgeous music, and an abundance of creativity that's held up extraordinarily well over 16 years of animation. So there.

4/5 stars.

Hannah Long


  1. Hey, there it is! It's so "you" to see this in the framework of a medieval knight story :-) Interesting point about the story being driven by the theme rather than the theme emerging from a true-feeling story. I am very much a theme person, so I tend to prefer movies on the theme-heavy side of the spectrum. But in theory, I suppose an emerging theme would be better, or more like life. I don't find Princess Mononoke overbearing, anyway. Miyazaki's later movies are much more story- and character-driven, I think, and they definitely don't get as tangled up in complex politics. I suppose he matured as a storyteller... But I haven't! My favorite are Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, his two most message-driven films. I love your point about the Deer God. I just can't get the image of his footsteps out of my head, that energy..! Great closing paragraph about the curse.

    1. Oops, meant to email this to you yesterday, but I quickly finished this review so I could go ahead and write about Noah, and happened.

      To be honest, I'm rather guilty of writing message-driven stories. And let's be honest, ALL of Chesterton's stories were like that (but at least he embraces it - there's no mystery there.) Perhaps it's just that I found Ashitaka's diagnosis of the problem rather lacking, and Jedi-esque.

    2. Haha, I can see that. Maybe a little more show, don't tell? I blame the translation. X)

  2. Also, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel that you might find interesting. Check out the video essays. Here's an example:

  3. Not often that I hear of a good anime film--will certainly consider this.


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