Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) was a project which had been in Miyazaki’s mind since at least 1983, when he had written a manga called The Journey of Shuna. Though the plot and characterization in that manga were different from what would become Mononoke-hime, there are some obvious similarities between them. After completing Porco Rosso, Suzuki and Miyazaki had to decide what Miyazaki’s next project would be. Suzuki felt that a project like Mononoke-hime would be very taxing, and taking into account Miyazaki’s age, it was something he should do now while he could still direct within his usual level of involvement (After the completion of Mononoke-hime, Miyazaki did indeed announce that he would have to decrease his directorial load in future films, and in making Spirited Away, more and more tasks that Miyazaki once did himself were delegated to younger staff). Thus the pieces fell into place for what is arguably the peak of Miyazaki’s career and one of the most beautiful films created in this medium.
Mononoke-hime was very different from the films which preceded it, a fact that was emphasized quite strongly by Suzuki’s marketing team. If one were to compare with his previous works, the obvious resemblance is with Nausicaa. Both stories forgo the lighter, endearing qualities of Kiki or Porco Rosso for a weightier, more dramatic story, and both stories involve a theme of conflict between man and nature. Nausicaa had to be shortened into a two hour film from Miyazaki’s original manga and thus lost a lot of its complexity, but with Mononoke, Miyazaki was free to create a story from the ground up with the film format in mind. Although my “favourite” Miyazaki film tends to be whichever one I watched most recently, time and time again, Mononoke-hime manages to crawl back up to the top of the list, and my appreciation only seems to grow with each revisit.
The simplest representation of the plot is of a conflict between encroaching industrialization and nature, and Miyazaki builds several layers onto this core, creating a rich, mythological epic with an ultimately ambiguous moral message. The story begins as Ashitaka, a young boy from the ancient, isolated Emishi tribe, must defend his peaceful village from an attacking demon. Having been forced to kill it, he discovers the demon to be a boar god who had been cursed with rage, and finds himself now bearing that same curse. He must leave his village and search for the source of the boar’s curse if he ever hopes to lift it. He is eventually led to a remote settlement, sustained by its production of iron and weaponry, led by a woman named Eboshi. He discovers that it was a gun from this town, fired by Eboshi, which harmed the boar god, driving him to the rage which led him to Ashitaka’s village. But on the night of his visit to this town, it is attacked by the wolves of the nearby forests, and among them, a human girl who is called Mononoke-hime (Princes Mononoke, where Mononoke is a term for a type of supernatural creature) by the villagers.
Although the battle of the ironworks with the forest form the primary conflict, the viewer, as with Ashitaka, are neutral observers of this battle. The beasts and gods of the forest are not entirely benevolent beings, and the humans are not portrayed as innately selfish creatures either. Nor are the two sides free from internal conflict – the boars, wolves, and apes all quarrel within the forests, and Lady Eboshi openly disobeys and mistrusts the Emperor and his armies. Lady Eboshi is cunning and manipulative, but her ambitions come in the hope of creating better lives for her townspeople, many of whom she takes in despite their being shunned by most of society. We are given a window into the life of this town, we see its inhabitants working and living happily. But we are also taken into the forests with Ashitaka, seeing the life of the forest that is being destroyed slowly by the human encroachment. Our window into this world is San, the above mentioned “Mononoke-hime”, who is a human girl who had been left for dead in a previous battle. Having been adopted and raised as a wolf, she dislikes humans and dislikes Ashitaka even more when he helps her escape with her life.
Ashitaka, like the viewer, finds himself in the middle of everything, but his idealistic desire to pacify all sides is as naive as it is commendable. Miyazaki does not resolve the ultimate question of man and nature, as his perspective is probably as ambiguous as the film itself, and he goes to great lengths never to idealize either side. Both sides have their share of noble intentions but distressing actions, both sides elicit sympathy, and both sides include characters that the audience grows to care for. Ashitaka is alternately friend and enemy to both the humans as well as the forest, driven only by his own strong morals which cannot be reconciled fully with either side. He holds no firm allegiance to either side of the battle, perhaps only to San, the girl caught in the middle. What we have in the end is a film which neither preaches any message nor vilifies anyone, instead content to tell its story and leave us to think of its implications.
Miyazaki’s vision of the mythical forests filled with creatures and spirits and gods is a wonderful creation and the most riveting aspect of the film. The forests feel alive, and the spirits which reside within, including the mysterious deer god (shishigami) who serves as its mysteriously ambiguous guardian, are inspiring products of his imagination. Particularly interesting is the way that Miyazaki conjures a feeling of majesty and spirituality in the portrayal of the shishigami, who never speaks and whose intelligence or benevolence feel as mysterious as the creature itself. The wolves which lead the film are drawn elegantly, their movements are beautiful, their violence fierce and fear-inspiring. When San’s adopted mother, Moro, converses with a boar god in the a lake deep in the forest, the effect of two gods conversing with each other is astounding. One of the important decisions Miyazaki has made is to not have animals speaking anthropomorphically – rather, they growl as animals would, and their speech seems to reach the viewer as an echo alongside it. Other highlights include the beginning of the film – when the demon boar attacks Ashitaka’s village, we can almost feel the creature’s rage as it chases blindly after him. There is no lack of interesting, beautiful ideas in Mononoke.
The climax of the film, which involves several different factions, each with their own way of reaching their goal, involves conflicts occuring at numerous places at once. It is a gripping peak in the story and is compounded further by several moments of relative calm and contemplation between dramatic confrontations. These moments have a sense of tension and looming danger, particularly helped by the use of silence, something that many filmmakers, particularly those of animated films, don’t recognize as an actual technique able to lend a distinctive atmosphere to scenes on its own. The only downside to the extended, riveting climax is that the final scene of the film which follows has a feeling of abruptness, as if in a hurry to end.
The artwork in the film is a fantastic testament to the possibilities of animation in storytelling. Mononoke-hime reminds us the greatest use of the medium – to bring out stories that are brimming with such imagination and creativity that they couldn’t be depicted in live action without sacrifices and accommodations. One brief example of something that I found particularly exceptional, visually, was the giant boar god who appears in the latter half of the film. The beast manages to inspire fear, disgust, and respect all at once. As I alluded to earlier, this was the last film which had Miyazaki directing in his distinctive and very active way – personally checking and correcting every frame – and the care that went into every shot and movement is obvious.
Mononoke-hime is also one of my favourite scores by composer Joe Hisaishi. It is one of the most thematically powerful of his Ghibli soundtracks, and the occasionally pentatonic overtones give his music an overarching cohesiveness, lending a very distinct musical tone to the film in comparison to other Miyazaki films. Though not as musically intricate as some of his later scores (such as Ponyo), it has become an inseparable part of the film for me, and I cannot imagine Mononoke-hime without Hisaishi’s moving theme for Ashitaka. His song for the film, also called Mononoke-hime, is excellent as well, though the chord progression will feel a bit familiar. I’ve never been a big fan of interjecting vocal music in the middle of a story, but the way its done in Mononoke-hime presents a very convincing case. Listen for the whispered quality with which the singer delivers the song, as a voice emanating from within Ashitaka himself – that is the intentional meaning behind the song, and the singer’s delivery was the result of advice given by Miyazaki personally. I highly recommend viewing the backstage documentary for the film to learn more of such insights.
Mononoke-hime was given a semi-serious localization attempt in this continent, and was the first introduction of Miyazaki’s work to many. The film received a mostly positive response from critics, disrupted occasionally by people who were either unable to understand the film or were hypersensitive to any mention of ecological themes, however ambiguous. There are admittedly also some cultural barriers which may confuse viewers at first glance – such as the immense difference between the film’s concept of Gods and spirits versus those of Western cultures. Mononoke-hime is an achievement, a consistently compelling story with excellent artistry and a moral depth. For what it’s worth, as a devoted fan of Studio Ghibli, I personally have always felt that Mononoke-hime and My Neighbor Totoro are his two masterpieces, and that Mononoke is the most refined and brilliant of his creations.
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