“The Princess Mononoke” is part Western, part Lord of the Rings, part Samurai tale, part enviro-fable and part Mowgli. In the US it was released in 1999. “Anime” (Japanese animated) in genre, this beautiful film can be seen as very contemporary, especially since the provoked evil form of the forest spirit looks very much like a BP gulf oil spill. It can also be interpreted historically as the coming of the industrial age to Japan, including the invention of the gun. The confusion and deadly mixed motives of the consequences are very much like the American frontier. Or even the shift from hunting/gathering to the first walled cities in the Old Testament. In fact, the issues are still relevant: can we keep on fueling Iron Town or must we preserve the life force of the forest? Can we reconcile the two? The movie doesn’t tell us how. That would be a lot to ask of an animated movie.
The American voices of the characters include many famous names: Billy Crudup as the hero, Claire Danes as the wolf girl, Minnie Driver as the elegant leader of the city (veddy English), Billy Bob Thornton as an ambitious monk (actually the drawing looked more like Ernest Borgnine) and Jada Pinkett Smith as a sassy former brothel girl, now a wife and iron-monger. There are a lot of lepers but they are background cast. There are no real villains, just stupid or vengeful people. Occasionally someone speaks out against hate.
Miyazaki, the beloved innovative director, said:
“Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done - killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans' viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself.”
Miyazaki’s next movie “Spirited Away” was action-packed and starred another brave and feisty girl, but I didn’t like it as much as “Princess Mononoke.” “Spirited Away” is more in the style of Disney with extraordinary but doll-like monster-spirits. In the earlier film, especially in his depictions of the Forest Spirit, which has a day aspect and a night aspect, Miyazaki was inspired. The Night Walker is a sort of leopard seal filled up with stars and frilled down the back like an iguana. The Day Spirit is -- oh, I’d bet money on this being connected to the early Disney animation classic! -- a sort of Japanese Noh mask version of the Great Stag of the Forest except with a many-spiked candelabra on his head. Remember how Bambi’s father appeared at the crucial moment when his mother had been killed and Bambi was devastated? Remember how that noble stag posed on a crag and spoke to Bambi in a thrilling voice? The book on which the sentimentalized Disney movie is based is a German mystical forest fable, the kind of tale that has fed directly into modern environmentalism. I’d love to see what Miyazaki could do with it. Maybe he could rescue us from Flower and Thumper, beloved as they are.
When a Japanese person speaks of a human mistake that invokes a deadly curse, it is not all metaphor. Pearl Harbor surely led to Hiroshima. But just as surely vengefulness cannot go on without reducing the planet to desert and volcano. The message of this movie, withstanding grievous and unintended harm, is highly relevant for young people who have made a mistake or been forced into circumstances that have left them with consequences far out of proportion -- the threat of death. But Miyazaki simply presents the problem, the injustice, in terms of characters that are mixed in their abilities and allegiances -- some admirable and some not.
The charging demon monster of the first scene, covered with tentacles of fire, attacks the hero and leaves him marked with something like Kaposi’s sarcoma. It turns out that the demon monster was inadvertently created by the lady ruler of the City of Iron when she shot a boar in an effort to clear the forest of wild hogs. The pellet of lead is removed from the pig’s body and carried to her by the hero, so she’ll see what she’s done, but she is not repentant. In this tale there is only one guru sitting on a pinnacle, which is a bamboo tower easily smashed by the demon hog. The guru has no magic wand, no spell to mutter, and no philosophical interpretation to offer. Luckily, he falls into brush, presumably surviving. But he’s not really in the story.
Some people demonize anime, though I’m not sure why. They seem to find it shocking or immoral, perhaps because there is a long history of manga (comics) behind the animated versions and, like all Japanese literature, they take a far different attitude towards sexual matters, far more liberal and matter-of-fact. But Princess Mononoke is PG-13.
The closest act to something sexual is when the hero is desperately wounded, too weak to eat, so the wolf-girl chews up the food and passes it from her mouth to his, mother-wolf-style. A wounded hero being tended by a strong and previously resistant heroine is a favorite motif in Westerns. So is the faithful horse, which in this case is described as a “red elk,” but looks like an eland to me. Faithfully, he stands by his rider, nibbling him awake when necessary.
One form of ethical thought, “aretaic,” proposes that a good way to guide oneself in life is to choose a heroic or admirable figure and do what he or she would do. The Christians have been using this to say, “What would Jesus do?” But you could also ponder what Abraham Lincoln would do. In fact, I’m sure Obama does quite a bit of that. This is the opportunity that Miyazaki offers us: a chance to think about what “a melancholy boy who has a fate” would do when challenged and likewise how a wolf-girl might react.
There is a set of little forest creatures in this film, sort of stone-headed cherubs. They made me think of the little stone piles that are a world-wide historical phenomenon and which have recently become popular as a symbol of good intentions towards the earth. Up at East Glacier they are everywhere around the Big Hotel, little balanced stacks. Forest spirit children. Anyone can make a little pile of stones to signal something unspoken. Few can create a film like this.