Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1997)

7. Princess Mononoke

When Hayao Miyazaki’s seventh feature film, “Princess Mononoke” was released in Japan, it immediately became a phenomenon and would go on to become the highest grossing film made in the country. The film’s success in its native land was so overwhelming that Hollywood had to come calling. “Princess Mononoke” was the first of Miyazaki’s films to receive a major release in America. Produced by Disney and released under their Miramax heading, the English version was written by Neil Gaiman with a voice cast full of name actors. Some of them, like Minnie Driver or Keith David, were natural choices while others, like Billy Bob Thorton, were baffling. Instead of giving the film the major release it perhaps deserved, Miramax stuck it on the art house circuit where it failed to break through to the mainstream. As a teenager in 1999, whose growing interest in anime was fed by Toonami and similar programs, I immediately grabbed the movie as soon as the VHS cropped up on my local video store’s shelves. It was my first exposure to Miyazaki and blew my mind at the time, with its epic storytelling and gorgeous animation. Even if the Weinsteins had given the film a decent release, I doubt it would have been successful. “Princess Mononoke” is the darkest and most violent of Miyazaki’s films and features quite a lot of cultural specific mythology and themes.

The film is Miyazaki’s version of jidai-geki, a phrase that is usually translated as “samurai movie” but more accurately means “historical fiction.” Or, in this case, historical fantasy. Set during the rarely explored Muromachi period – 13th century Japan – the film follows Ashitaka. A warrior of an Emishi village, Ashitaka’s life is disturbed when a boar god, mutated into a demon by some unknown force, attacks his village. Though he kills the boar, Ashitaka is poisoned by the creature’s disease, which grants him demonic strength but will, in time, kill him. Seeking answers, he heads west. Soon, he finds Irontown, an encampment and ironworks led by the tenacious Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is clearing the forest which has enraged the animals and spirits that live there. San, a girl raised by the giant wolves of the forest, leads the attacks on Irontown but soon catches Ashitaka’s eyes. A conspiracy, involving an army of enraged boars, the great Deer God of the forest, and a team of mercenaries working for the Emperor, is soon uncovered.

The primary theme of “Princess Mononoke” is the conflict between man and nature. Ashitaka’s village lives in harmony with nature, in simple huts on a grass plain. Eboshi and Irontown, meanwhile, are on the technological vanguard. They use massive billows to power huge iron forges. They cut down trees to build their forest and raze more of the woods to gain access to ironsand. They are also, pointedly, building guns that are highly advanced for the time. All of this is presented as a violation of the balance between nature and humanity. When the animal gods are struck with iron bullets, they transform into squirming, twitching masses of body horror who infect those around them with a life-sapping cancer. In the final act, it is revealed that the Emperor of Japan desires the Deer God’s head, in hopes that it will grant immortality. This is the ultimate betrayal and shows that men are willing to kill the literal god of life and death to further their own, petty needs. The ecological themes of “Princess Mononoke” is something Miyazaki had been building towards his entire career.

Like much of the director’s other features, the film also harshly criticizes war. Ashitaka is, essentially, a pacifist who abhors taking life and only does so as a last resort. The other characters around him desire war for conflicting reasons. The wolves and the boars want revenge for the destruction of the forest. Eboshi desires their land for more profits and more power. The forest spirits are driven by rage. They are slaughtered by the human’s guns and bombs. The humans, from Eboshi to the opportunistic mercenaries who disguises themselves as monks, are driven by greed. Countless human lives are ended by the stampeding boars. Then there are the roving bands of samurai who only seem interested in raiding village and killing anyone who gets in their way. None of the characters are interested in balance and instead seek to destroy the other side. Miyazaki is repeating a thesis he has stated throughout many of his films: That war is fruitless and only leads to more death and destruction.

At the center of the film is one of the most fascinating characters Miyazaki would ever feature in his films. San, the titular Princess Mononoke (which roughly translate to “Spirit Princess”), is one in a long line of fictional humans raised by animals. She is literally raised by wolves and doesn’t even consider herself human. Like Tarzan, living with animals has given her abilities beyond those of normal people. Having seen humanity be cruel to animals all her life, she has a deep-seated hatred of people. However, after encountering the kind and virtuous Ashitaka, she begins to change her mind. Her character arc could best be summed up as an animal slowly realizing she’s human. It’s notable that, unlike Mowgli and many others before her, she doesn’t end the film by returning to civilization. Instead, San stays with the wolves, becoming the much-sought balancing point between the woods and Irontown. She’s an involving, mysterious character and cast an unearthly pall over the whole film.

The film features many inspiring fantasy creatures. It’s notable, though, that some of the most memorable creations in “Princess Mononoke” do not appear especially strange at first. The wolves and boars of the forest, from a distance, would seem to be normal specimens. Their something mythic about the film turning them into fantasy creatures simply by increasing their size. The only explanation the audience is given for these changes is that, in the distant past when magic was still alive, gods took the forms of everyday animals. Moro, San’s adopted mother and the leaders of the wolves, cuts a memorable figure. Though she talks, her mouth never open and closes like a person’s. Instead, her growling voice reverberates out of her half-opened jaws. Moro is bigger than any of her children and even sports two tails, signifying how powerful and old she is. Her frequently expressed desire to crunch heads adds some levity to the serious film. That her head returns from death to deliver the finishing blow to her enemy is another fantastic touch. The leader of the boars is Okkoto, a massive, white pig whose face is covered with scars and whose blind eyes leak yellow pus. The film goes a long way towards establishing what enormous, powerful creatures wild pigs can be. It’s a very Japanese idea that if animals can grow big enough and old enough they can, essentially, become gods.

Also central to the film is the romance between San and Ashitaka. Not only do they fit the tradition of someone from the human world winning the wild child’s heart. They are also classic star-crossed lovers, torn apart by the very nature of their identities. In one notable moment, Ashitaka implores San to work with him. She, burying her face in his chest, angrily tells him that she is a wolf but in a self-denying way, that makes it clear she’s uncertain. There’s actually very little reason for Ashitaka to fall in love with her. She’s beautiful but is unerringly hostile to him at first. However, the film makes his affection for her clear strictly through his actions. Ashitaka watches her sleep during a lovely, lyrical moment set to the beautiful “Nobody Knows Your Heart.” The guy leaps onto a giant, demonic boar in order to save her life, for goodness’ sake! In the final act, the two accept their feelings for each other which is shown when they stand together, both of their body’s riddled with the demons’ cancer.

The conditions of Ashitaka’s curse provides some interesting moments, as well. When the spirits are corrupted, bizarre black tendrils grow out of their bodies. They burn human skin upon contact and leave a black scar that continues to grow. After being infected, Ashitaka’s arm pulsates and contorts in bizarre, unnerving ways. Sometimes, he has trouble controlling it, Dr. Strangelove style. However, it gifts him with incredible powers. A great moment is when he breaks up the conflict in Irontown. His corrupted arm glows, transparent tendrils floating over it. When Eboshi’s head general tries to fight him off with a huge sword, Ashitaka grabs the blade and gently bends it into a circle. He pushes a massive wooden door open with ease and takes a bullet to the gut without flinching. Slowly dying from demonic boar poisoning probably wouldn’t be much fun but having all sorts of crazy superpowers might be.

While many of the fantasy creatures on-screen are larger versions of normal creatures, the film makes the most powerful of all the forest god deliberately strange. The Deer God, or the Great Forest Spirit in the English dub, does resemble a deer. Multiple rows of antlers grow from its head and back, looking more like plant life the further down they go. It’s face is strangely expressive and human, despite its baboon-like coloration. As its three-toed feet touches the ground, new life grows from its footstep before immediately dying again, visually illustrating its mastery over both life and death. Strangest of all, at night the Deer God grows into a spectral being called the Night Walker. Inspired by the Daidarabotchi of Japanese mythology, the creature looms over the forest and mountains. Its shape is amorphous and its skin is transparent, a loose skeleton floating inside. Long tendrils grow from its back, its body and limbs morphing as it sees fit.

It’s hardly the only strange creature in the film. The cutest spirit in the film are the Kodama. Their child-like bodies and playful behavior makes them likable. Their faces are vaguely humanoid and their heads click back and forth mechanically. This behavior is uncanny enough to remind the viewer the Kodama are spirits and not cuddly toys. (They’ve still made them into cuddly toys.) In addition to the wolves and boars, there are also apes living in the woods. When they first appear, they don’t look human. Their bodies are vague and the only defining features on their faces are huge, red eyes. It doesn’t help that they want to eat Ashitaka’s body. When the apes appear again later, they look more like normal apes which I’m sure was a deliberate move. The forest is successfully sold as another world, beautiful but mysterious and strange.

One of the bravest aspect of “Princess Mononokee” is that neither side is completely evil. Lady Eboshi is ambitious and dangerous but she’s far from evil. Irontown, honestly, seems kind of nice. She invites misfits and outcasts to live in her village. Former prostitutes rescued from brothels work the billows. Despite their checkered past, the women of the ironworks are strong and independent. One example, Toki, even bosses around her nincompoop husband. Eboshi also invites lepers to work in her factory, designing guns despite being covered in bandages. The billows and the ironworks are brought to vivid life, as you’d come to expect from a Studio Ghibli production. The world of man is as gorgeously created as the lush forest.

“Princess Mononoke” is an epic fantasy and a mythic parable but it’s also an action movie. It had been a while since Miyazaki directed a full-blown action film but he clearly hadn’t lost a step in those years. The opening conflict with the possessed boar is intensely orchestrated. The creature is covered with swirling tendrils, disguising what it is at first, and it doesn’t move like a normal animal. The camera follows Ashitaka’s arrow as it flies into the monster’s face. After gaining his special abilities, Ashitaka has an encounter with a band of samurais. His magically-charged arrows take off arms and whole heads, a startlingly violent moment. San’s raid on Irontown displays her abilities too, as the wolf-girl leaps across the roofs and quickly flashes her blade, all while wearing a dehumanizing mask. Even smaller moments are dynamically directed, such as Asitaka leaping over a group of soldiers and skillfully bouncing off the rocks in the lake.

The apocalyptic finale that closes “Mononoke” is perhaps its most impressive sequence. Beginning with a group of mercenaries crawling around under boar skins, it leads up to the Deer God having its head blown off by Eboshi’s gun. Notably, the neck ripples like water before the head flies off. With the Deer God dead, nature is out of balance. A sickened version of the Night Walker rampages over the valley. Everything that touches it immediately dies, the God of Life being perverted into a juggernaut of death. Lifeless kodama fall from the trees while the forge of Irontown is crushed. The way the creature moves is unforgettable, shimmering like cloudy water as its body morphs in multiple directions. The film’s heroes are surrounded on all sides by the death-creating waves, making the scenario seem bleak. When the head is return to the god, it collapses to the ground, a life-returning wave blowing over the whole valley. The final image is one of hope, a single kodama walking across a tree, showing that life continues.

With a gorgeous and varied Joe Hisaishi score and animation that is as incredibly detailed as you’ve come to expect, the film is one of my all-time favorites and one I’ve revisited many times. It’s huge and epic but still strangely personal, resonating with many of the director’s reoccurring themes. The action is impressive and the fantasy elements are inspired yet the film still generates pathos and emotion. “Princess Mononoke” is Studio Ghibli’s crowning achievement and Hayao Miyazaki’s undisputed masterpiece. [Grade: A]

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