2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
A bit of a warning: this won’t really be criticism.
Not that it’s a perfect film, though I’d say it’s close, but because this film is so deep inside me, so much a part of me that I can’t really discuss it in any way but as something that shaped me and made me who I am.
I mean, how could it not? There are gods everywhere and a few of them are wolves. Nature and humanity are at war. Love exists and shines but isn’t the focus.
I didn’t think of it while writing my novel Twilight of the Wolves but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t share elements with Princess Mononoke. The stories and worlds aren’t particularly similar, but the influence is unmistakeable. So deep in me is this film that I never even questioned these similarities while writing the novel or even after it was published.
It’s only recently, after returning to Princess Mononoke for probably the tenth time, that I’ve realised how much of my best novel I owe to Miyazaki.
Princess Mononoke is, I think, the best representation of Miyazaki’s beliefs and worldview that exist in cinema. It’s very similar to his manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is way darker, larger, and amazing than the film he made that bears the same name.
See, that manga presents the same world as the one you know from the film, but it’s about 2,000 pages long. Everything gets more depth, and in those depths are the darkest moments of Miyazaki’s career. It’s a brutal story taking place in a brutal world where human extinction is a real threat and war and violence spreads everywhere. The earth itself is dying due to human action.
Princess Mononoke takes place in a world that resembles our past but is very similar in tone and theme to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. While still a beautiful film with gorgeous moments, it’s ultimately quite dark and violence permeates every human interaction in ways that were never present in Miyazaki’s other Ghibli films.
Princess Mononoke was released in the US in 1999 and came out as a rental in 2000. That’s when I first saw it. Fifteen years ago. Over half my life has happened since then.
It was my first experience with Miyazaki and a full length anime film. My only other exposure to anime was Pokemon and Dragonball Z, which are of a much lower quality and are generally pretty childish and silly.
Princess Mononoke is none of those things. I still remember that opening voice over of the english dub and then the violence that happens next. How a prince is forced to fight a dying god to save his village. While fighting he is touched by the decaying monstrosity that was once a god and he becomes cursed. Then exiled.
I was twelve. This film would last a lifetime. It would burrow inside me. I knew it then, but I didn’t know how deep.
This curse is what interested me most. Probably it’s still what draws me most to this film.
There’s no good reason for Ashitaka to be cursed. He’s not a villain. He doesn’t become cursed for behaving like a villain. In fact, Ashitaka behaves heroically. He saves the life of everyone in his village, his dying clan, a shrinking ethnicity in Medieval Japan.
He saves his clan and is forced to leave because of the curse that will consume him.
In your average film or story, this would be a film about redemption. Ashitaka would become cursed for committing some act of evil or at least something generally perceived as bad or incorrect.
In another version, it would be a film about revenge. Ashitaka would find those responsible and bring heavy justice down upon them.
In this film, he becomes cursed by pure chance. Had the dying god ran in any other direction, he would have lived out his days among his people, the Emishi, and he would have remained their prince.
Instead he searches for an answer. What and who killed the god, and for what purpose? He leaves with only his clothes, his weapons, and Yakul, the elk he rides.
Even here, the film doesn’t really go the direction you expect it to. The film doesn’t end when he discovers where the iron ball that poisoned and killed the god came from. He doesn’t even try to undo the damage done to him. There’s no vengeance in Ashitaka.
He only wants to understand.
He wants to understand what turns gods into monsters. What turns humans into monsters. Why they commit such violence against each other and the earth itself.
In trying to save others and end violence, he commits acts of violence. Reluctantly but with immense force, he maims and kills.
Ashitaka is not our usual hero. He takes no joy in violence but sometimes sees no way around it. He doesn’t even seem to want to be the hero of his own story. He wants to remove himself, but can’t help from trying to protect people. In protecting those without power, he must use his own. Or at least that’s what he seems to believe he must do, however reluctantly. It’s worth noting how often he tells people to stop fighting or to leave him alone before he kills them with all the powers of a demon.
He fights with the power of a demon.
That’s another thing of particular interest to me. Not only is he cursed by coincidence, but he gradually becomes a demon, the curse eating away at his humanness.
Ashitaka is a gentle man with the raging maelstrom of a demon inside him.
Upon meeting Lady Eboshi, we believe we’ve met the antagonist of the film. She fights the wolf gods. She teaches her people how to fight and kill gods. She forges the iron balls that unleash this destruction and chaos. Even the iron ball that killed the god who cursed Ashitaka comes from Lady Eboshi’s forges.
Ashitaka meets her as an equal and begs her to stop fighting the forest and the gods. She mostly shrugs him off. Her survival and the survival of her people depends upon their ability to fight off the gods and the forest so that they can continue forging iron.
There’s no callousness in Lady Eboshi. Rather, there’s a fearlessness. An impetuousness. She see the gods as obstacles to be overcome rather than deities that must determine her life and fate.
One thing worth noting, is that the gods in this film are actually kami, which has a different meaning than what we think of as gods in the west. They’re more like forces of nature and they’re worshiped in the Shinto religion, the native religion of Japan.
It’s also worth noting that this is a very Shinto film, in many ways.
In Shinto, humans are descendants of the gods, but so are animals, plants, and the land itself. It ties all elements of life together as brothers and sisters. It’s really a beautiful thing and I could say a lot about it here, but I’ll get back to the film.
Lady Eboshi is not really a villain. She’s just the hero of a different story. A hero that saves lepers and prostitutes from the malice, greed, and ugliness of the rest of humanity. She gives them a purpose and a life worth living. She even gives them wealth and happiness.
Nothing in Princess Mononoke is simple.
In any other film, the rest of the story would be Ashitaka and the gods warring against Lady Eboshi. But this isn’t that kind of story.
It gets back to what I talked about a few months ago. Miyazaki makes films about common people. Lady Eboshi isn’t royalty, despite her title. Ashitaka is royalty, sure, but he’s the prince of an ethnicity driven extinct by the Japanese ethnic majority. So while he’s a prince, his royal status really only applies to the few hundred Emishi who remain. Even within that, he’s been exiled, giving up his status as well as his people. Irontown is populated by prostitutes, their husbands, and lepers.
Because this is a film about common people, we see how limited their choices are in the grand scheme of things. How limited their ability is to change the world around them.
Jiko-bō is the closest thing to an antagonist here, and even that’s putting it too simply. Jiko-bō is a monk and spy on a mission from the Emperor to take the head of the Forest Spirit so he can become immortal.
Much of the chaos that happens in the film is caused by the Emperor, who exists far away and never appears on screen. He sends samurai to conquer Irontown and hunters to kill the gods of the forest, including the Forest Spirit. It’s even by his design that the boar gods wage war at all. A war they’re unprepared for. A war they will lose.
But Ashitaka’s journey moves from them for a while.
He falls in love with San, also known as Princess Mononoke. Lady Eboshi wages a war against her and the wolf gods, including the goddess Moro. San was raised by the wolf gods and she grows up hating humans and fighting against their conquest of the forest.
She exists in a sort of twilight between god and mortal, between humanity and nature. She is all of these things. She is none of these things.
The people of Irontown fear her as a demon, and San’s only desire is to kill Lady Eboshi and burn Irontown to the ground.
While Ashitaka is in Irontown, the wolves attack and San makes another attempt on Lady Eboshi’s life, leading to the two of them fighting in the center of Irontown.
The demon power surges in Ashitaka and he stops their fighting, knocking both of them unconscious. He carries San away and is shot through by an iron ball.
Only the Forest Spirit can save him, and it does.
The Forest Spirit who has two forms. The Nightwalker, a sort of gigantic shadow creature that comes at night, and then its daylight form, an enormous elk with an almost human face. The Forest Spirit is both the god of Life and Death, granting and taking both.
This is why the Emperor wants its head. It’s believed that taking the god’s head will allow him to control life and Death, granting him immortality.
This is the real narrative thrust in Princess Mononoke, but it’s not really the most important story. It’s just what drives the action in the direction it goes.
This story is, I think, about what it means to be human. What our place in the world is. Who we are and how we fit into nature.
Nature doesn’t belong to us.
We belong to it.
But we rage, rage against its dominion over us. We want to be more and so we thrash and scream and rend the earth apart to prove we are subject to nothing. That we are the gods we always dreamt of while looking into the starry sky.
Both Ashitaka and San travel similar paths. They now exist between humanity and nature, between mortal and god, and their decisions shape the world around them in ways Ashitaka never would have imagined.
They fall in love, but this film isn’t about their love. Not really. I think one of the most powerful and significant things about the film’s ending is that they do not come together as one.
San remains in the forest. Ashitaka remains among humanity. More than that, he remains in Irontown.
It’s beautiful and perfect but also sorrowful.
There’s no easy victory here, and there’s no real ending to the conflict. Only the promise to work together, to try to change the relationship between humans and the gods and the forest. The Forest Spirit is restored after having its head removed and it cures both Ashitaka and San of their curses, but the animosity still exists between humanity and nature. Though Lady Eboshi and Jiko-bō decide to do better, there will still be more who feel as they did at the beginning of the film.
The only resolution is that humans will try to do better.
It’s clear to me that Miyazaki sees little hope in humanity. This is most clear in this film and the Nausicaa manga. Humans are the antagonists, the destroyers, the chaos and disease of the earth.
The best that humanity can do is try to stop murdering the planet.
Let me say that again because I don’t think it sinks in the way I want it to.
The best that we can do is try to stop being a force of unimaginable destruction.
Despite that, he does leave us with hope, at least for the people presented here. The Emperor will likely never change, but these average humans have become transformed, in certain ways.
And while this is Miyazaki’s most brutal and violent film, it also contains some of the most beautiful images he’s ever made. At least in my opinion.
There are gentle and happy and quiet moments nuzzled between scenes of war and carnage.
There are the kodoma and even the glorious wolves and the Forest Spirit. Even San is beautiful in her rage, Eboshi awesome in her defiance, and Ashitaka glorious in his sorrow. All of these creatures shine in awesome ways.
In ways that have helped shape me into the person I’ve become.
Princess Mononoke is the most complex of Miyazaki’s films and the most mature. It’s morally ambiguous in ways that few animated films even attempt to be. Even few live action films are this morally sophisticated.
Miyazaki explores the nature and roots of violence, what it means to be human, what it means to live at all. He looks at the world with almost childlike eyes and explores it. He gropes with environmentalism, spirituality, capitalism, greed, innocence, love, desire, hate, and change. The way time transforms not only us but the world itself.
What makes this better than most films is how it raises so many questions but answers none of them. It pins very powerful ideas against one another and doesn’t put either one as the winner.
The ways of Irontown seem to be incorrect, but the film doesn’t only rationalise them, it justifies them. Like I said before, Lady Eboshi is the hero of her own story. Ashitaka is the hero of his story. Even Jiko-bō is a hero, in a way. He risks it all to succeed and enter the world of myths and legends.
What’s significant is that they all kind of fail.
Sure, Ashitaka becomes cured, but he doesn’t solve any of the problems he set out to. At best, he simply understands the world around him and his place in it better. When it comes down to it, the curing of his curse by the Forest Spirit isn’t so significant because the world around them remains the same.
Because Ashitaka’s curse isn’t really something that has to do with him. It’s a blight caused by humanity. A spiritual disease that eats away the land of the gods and even turns on humanity itself.
The Emperor is still out there. The local daimyo is held off but not defeated. The world remains at war.
Ashitaka and San just try to mend the deep wounds between humans and gods and the forest.
Princess Mononoke made me who I am. It continues to be a reminder of who I want to be. I’ve seen it so many times and while I change over time, it reveals more of itself to me.
There are a lot of films that I carry inside me. A lot of films have rewritten who I am and helped define who I want to be and who I will be. Princess Mononoke is very dear to me.
I came to it still very young, already in love with wolves, already studying mythologies from around the world, already grappling with what it meant for me to be a human.
While I was most taken by the visual awesomeness of the film, it’s the story and the characters that stick with me most. It’s Ashitaka who beats in my blood and San who holds my heart.
It’s a film I’ll never grow tired of.
Next week we discuss My Neighbors the Yamadas by Isao Takahata.