If Princess Mononoke is a story about good versus evil — and maybe all great stories have to be about that in some way — it's not about it in the limited sense that some over here are good and some over there are evil. Rather, it's that good and evil nestle comfortably within all of us and any of us, and that no one of us ever imagines himself as a blight upon the world. It seems downright counterintuitive that this sad and realistic wisdom has been expressed in the form of an animated adventure of great spectacle and joyous vision, but there you are. Greatness is large, it contains multitudes, in this case both beauty and truth. And as much as I detest hyperbole, it only seems proper to call Princess Mononoke one of the greatest films of any kind, animated or otherwise.
It seems fitting that Mononoke was the movie that awakened a more general awareness of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in the West. That came thanks to Miramax distributing the film in the United States — albeit poorly, saddling it with an amazingly ugly, ill-fitting one sheet, and almost not including the original Japanese audio on the home video version until fans complained. Then it fell out of print for a time, as Walt Disney Studios obtained the rights to the majority of the Ghibli back catalog in the U.S. Now the film has returned on Blu-ray Disc and DVD as Disney reissues most of the key Ghibli titles — in both the original Japanese and with good-to-excellent English dubs — for a new generation of very lucky viewers. If there is a single Ghibli title to own, this (or My Neighbor Totoro) may well be it.
Children of men and nature
Japanese fantasy films borrow liberally from across that country's own rich history, but Mononoke invents at least as much as it borrows, perhaps more so. It opens in the village of the Emishi, a tribe patterned after Japan's pre-feudal past, living in seclusion and isolation. One day a demonic creature, a boar ensheathed in a writhing hair shirt of red tentacles, comes charging out of the forest. A young prince of the tribe, Ashitaka, brings down the demon with a few well-placed arrows, but at the cost of having his arm wounded by it. The vizier of the village understands Ashitaka is now afflicted with the same curse that poisoned the boar's spirit; soon the curse will devour both his body and his spirit. For the sake of the rest of the village, he must be banished. On hearing this, Ashitaka stoically slices off his topknot and rides away on his gazelle, the better to seek the source of this contagion and find a cure. It is only the first of many times he will be shunned.
Ashitaka's journey leads him away from one kind of strife and right into another. Samurai warriors marauding across the countryside attack him, and he discovers that his "wounded" arm can launch arrows that sever heads and tear off arms — but the more he relies on such strength, the more it dehumanizes him and hastens his death. He captures the attention of a wandering monk, Jigo, while cluelessly trying to pay for a measure of rice with a nugget of gold. Jigo's overall shiftiness and cynicism is lost on Ashitaka but not on us, although the monk does seem to know something about one clue towards the possible origins of the curse — the bullet extracted from the dead boar's corpse. Such a thing could only come from Iron Town, a fortress-city on the outskirts of a forest where the spirits are said to still dwell.
Iron Town has good reason to guard itself closely. The beasts of the forest attack it time and again, in the vain hope of stopping the humans from felling its trees and digging the iron ore out of its earth. Too often the beasts lose out to the town's matron, Lady Eboshi, whose powerful hand cannons make short work of humans and animals alike. But now the animals, the wolves in particular, have a new ally: San, a human girl raised by the wolves, who stages fearless raids on the city and its supply caravans as revenge for the destruction of her forest. When Eboshi and her men barely repel one of San's attacks, several of Eboshi's men fall into the ravine below and are left by her for dead — only to be found by Ashitaka. But there he also encounters San, sucking out the wound left on her wolf comrade by Eboshi's guns, and the sight of her in all her blood-smeared ferality entrances him. Perhaps he senses a bond with her in how both of them are all the closer to nature than the other humans, but she doesn't return the sentiment; her resentment of the human race is absolute. The only words she has for him are echoes of those uttered by his own villagers: "Leave this place!"
It's in Iron Town that Ashitaka finds something like an actual welcome for the first time since his wanderings have begun. He returns Eboshi's wounded men to her, and in return she shows him the home she's built — a place not only for herself, but many others who are outcasts. Women liberated from brothels work the massive bellows of the forge; lepers do the precision work on the rifles and cannons. All are grateful to Eboshi for giving them ahome, and Ashitaka himself can't deny feeling an attachment to the place even after only a short time there. Then San and her wolf brethren attack once more, and Ashitaka is thrust into the middle of the conflict between human and beast. Both sides have legitimate grievances: San has killed many people — husbands of the very women with whom Ashitaka helped pump the bellows — and Eboshi has ravaged the countryside and slaughtered countless animals. Neither side will back down; both court destruction.
Ashitaka fully understands the temptation to destruction himself. Every time his own rage rises, it fuels the diabolical contamination on his arm. "I only want to see with eyes unclouded by hate," he tells Eboshi at one point, and only later does it seem the reason he wants to do this is so that others might be able to do the same as well. But there may be no opportunity for anyone to unlearn their hatreds. The beasts of the forest — the boars in particular, for whom one of theirs was the first victim — are planning one last suicidal charge on Iron Town, one which San seems only too willing to lend her strength to. Worse, Eboshi is being gradually in a plot hatched by Jigo to kill the spirit of the forest and deliver its head to the Emperor, allegedly because it will confer immortality — when all it will do is leave Ashitaka doomed to succumb to his curse, and touch off a war between animal, man, and spirit that might annihilate all of them.
Beyond heroes and villains, but not beyond good and evil
It's been said, correctly if not completely, that there are no formal villains in any of Miyazaki's movies. There are simply people, some with motivations that clash with others, but all with motives that make sense. But if there are no formal villains in Miyazaki's works, that does not mean there are no formal heroes in them either. What makes Miyazaki's protagonists stand out is not that their enemies are worse than them (since that would be morally meaningless; you aren't better just because someone else is worse), but because those protagonists refuse to let themselves sink. It's peace Ashitaka wants for all concerned, even if no one else wants it. He is the only one who wants to transcend his position instead of simply leverage it. For him, compassion vs. hatred is is not an abstract moral argument; he has come to embody it. At one point he shows everyone his cursed wound with the warning: "This is what hate looks like. It's eating me alive, and soon it will kill me. Fear and anger only make it grow faster."
Of all those Ashitaka meets in his travels, it's San he connects with most, and with whom he in time comes to share a mission. The movie finds quiet, unobtrusive ways to show their deepening bond. At one point when Ashitaka is badly hurt saving San from Eboshi, he's too weak to even chew, let alone swallow, his food. She chews it for him, and only after she's pushed the food into his mouth with hers do we realize how an intimacy like that could be read more than one way. Her first allegiance remains with her wolf family, and there's a wrenching monologue by San's "mother" about how San's real, human family threw the infant San at the feet of the wolves and fled for their lives in terror. But even they can see how Ashitaka is drawn to her, and perhaps they also intuit how also the reverse becomes true. Neither of them deserve to be in such bondage to fate and circumstance.
Glance back through Miyazaki's filmography and you can find any number of striking, powerful, memorable female characters: Nausicaä, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind comes most to mind here, inasmuch as she and San are reminiscent of each other, and perhaps also because the broad outlines of that movie map onto this one (right down to a hidden enclave of nature that is also a place of healing). But it's Lady Eboshi who also stands out even more as a fascinating example of a strongly feminist character, albeit one who is not necessarily one of the good guys. That said, there is a great deal about her that is noble and laudable: she protects her own just as fiercely as San and the beasts defend theirs; she gives them chances that the rest of the world deemed them unfit to have; and she has a degree of honor and courage that others do not — specifically, the cowardly, double-dealing Jigo. She's even willing to face down San one-on-one, without the aid of her hand cannons, and when she's humbled at the end by the loss of an arm (payback courtesy of the wolves) and all of Iron Town, she vows to pick right up where she left off. The only real callousness she shows is to the men who fall off the cliff, but most anyone else would have left them for dead, and I suspect having Ashitaka bring them back to her provides her with some food for thought about how much hope to keep alive for others.
It's this balance between two extremes — the sense of the perpetual ephemerality of life, and the struggle to protect what we do have — that forms the core themes of the film. Miyazaki presents spirits of nature as forces with the indifference of gravity: they simply exist, and care little that we are sometimes in their way. (The also-excellent Mushi-shi posited a similar attitude.) When they do have something like an awareness of humankind, as the wolves and boars do, it is contempt for the way human greed and exceptionalism triumph over everything else. But the story's counter-argument to both indifference and contempt comes in the form of Ashitaka. He knows too well that nature does not care about our ideas, but that doesn't mean we deserve to be cold to it, or to each other, in an attempt to preserve our own standing. Nor does it mean we should throw our lives away stupidly for the sake of a mere principle; at one point Ashitaka implores San, "You must live!" (a line repeated on the Japanese one sheet for the film), right as San prepares for what will most likely be a futile attack on Iron Town. But it's not as if San is not also animated by the same desperate spark; we see it when she frantically wipes away the infected demon blood from the body of the boar king — something Ashitaka in turn does for her as well.
On the other side of the balance, the side of discompassionate humanity, stands Lady Eboshi. She believes she is entitled to the forest and its riches merely by dint of being able to do something useful with it — useful to her, and to other humans, that is — and it's unclear at the end if her defeat has taught her that any use of the land has to be in balance with it. She sees the lepers and the prostitutes as worthy of salvation, but nature to her is just something to be conquered. The fact she has been a savior to many of her own kind does not give her the unalloyed right to do so at the expense of the rest of creation. Maybe that is what makes many people see Eboshi reflexively as the villain, and San as the heroine, since the scope of the movie is wide enough to show us what, exactly, Eboshi is trampling underfoot. But above them all stands Ashitaka, humbled and animated into action by his refusal to let the worst of him get the better of him.
The nature of a masterwork
One thing that sets high-order fans of something apart from casual consumers of it is some degree of understanding how its creators go about their business. I suspect most of the people who watch animation casually (e.g., suffer through it with their children in a movie theater) don't think of the director of an animated film in the same terms as the live-action counterpart. But if "director" means the one who shapes and controls the end result of a film to make it reflect his vision, Miyazaki exhibited all the meticulousness — if not more — of any live-action director, right down to redrawing tens of thousands of the key animation frames by hand. There's never any doubt that the film is a collective project, but there's also no doubt that everyone else's input is a reflection of, or in the light of, the vision he had in mind.
There's not been one of Miyazaki's movies (and any from the Ghibli stable generally) that wasn't beautiful to look at, and Mononoke is all the more lovely for being one of the last of its kind. At the time of the film's production, digitally composited animation was replacing the painted-cel variety, meaning that it was all the easier to cheat and replace certain hand-drawn elements entirely with computer-generated ones, but the studio didn't succumb to that temptation. A few shots in the film are clearly digitally-assisted — e.g., a POV shot as Ashitaka rides with his bow in hand — although only as a way to enhance what has already been produced, not as a substitute for it. All the most magnificent animation in the film is the painstaking product of human hands, whether it's the subtle shifts in expression on a character's face or the thousands of writhing tentacles on the boar-demon's body. The way Miyazaki stages and blocks action, too, is notches above: watching the amazing scene of San, Ashitaka, and Eboshi all trading sword-blows is a reminder of how one well-placed action is worth a flurry of ten indistinguishable ones.
It feels peculiar to call Princess Mononoke a fantasy, even though that's the most nominal label for it. Spirits, demons, curses, gods, and feats of legendary daring-do fill the screen, but all that is counterbalanced by its realism — realistic in the sense that it understands human nature all too well. It gives its characters what they deserve, rather than what they hope for. It does not tell us that everyone lives happily ever after. It does, however, tell us that everyone who does live, will live well and be all the wiser for having lived. It rewards Ashitaka for being the one to bridge both the human and animal worlds, but only at the cost of great pain to both him and those around him. And while the story leaves Ashitaka and San free to be together, they remain separate by choice, for it will take more than one man like Ashitaka to change San's mind about the human race. Anything less than that, I suspect, would have been wish-fulfillment, and that may be what I respect most about the film. It does not lie to us, it does not flatter us, it does not use its imagination as an excuse to avoid hard truths, but rather as a way to embrace them and understand them all the more completely.
It's difficult not to think of the film as an epitaph of sorts for the careers of those that made it, now that Miyazaki has retired from feature direction and Studio Ghibli is being either restructured or shuttered entirely. But one could scarcely ask for a better memorial. The film was timeless when it came out in 1997. It's twice as timeless now. It was never, however, less than a masterwork.