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Hatred as the antithesis to nature: a review of “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

Studio Ghibli has been on the frontlines of defending animation’s status as an art form rather than a children’s genre for decades. A close friend of mine put it best when they said that Ghibli movies often operate on two levels: on the surface, they’re whimsical adventures, but they’re also dead serious deep within. Princess Mononoke, screened by SUMO this past weekend, seems to be a stark exception, placing all of its chips on drama, which is nine-tenths true. In its blend of fantasy and Japanese historical fiction, bits of Miyazaki’s signature charm and humor appear. From the moment the film begins, its magnificent orchestral soundtrack pulls you in with the force of a hand-drawn black hole. Princess Mononoke is a beautifully crafted, nuanced war drama which will drain you as much as it fills you. Every animation studio currently in the game needs to go back, pay their respects and clean up their act. My humble request is this: less Minions, and more giant wolves with deliciously deep voices. Please and thank you.

         Ashitaka (Youji Matsuda), the prince of a small village, must travel west. He seeks a cure, hoping for The Deer God to remove a curse put on him by a boar demon, and an answer, looking for the origin of an iron ball which was lodged in the creature, causing it to become possessed in the first place. He stumbles upon a war between Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka), the leader of an expanding industrial city, and San (Yuriko Ishida), the adopted daughter of a tribe of gigantic wolves who live in The Deer God’s forest. Eboshi’s Ironworks develop guns and destroy the forest for resources, and San and her animal family brutally attack the denizens of the city in retaliation, earning her the cryptid title of “Princess Mononoke.”

         This conflict between man and nature is hardly as simple as that, as Miyazaki’s character writing doesn’t let us off easy by siding with nature. The individual men and women of The Ironworks are written as realistic and humorous characters; though Eboshi’s imperialist dialogue comes as easy to her as breathing, it also arises from the political pressure of an unseen emperor, as well as gangs of samurai who have been assailing the countryside. The destruction of the forest, to Eboshi and the people of The Ironworks, is necessary for both their political and physical survival. I never felt that the humans were in the right at all during this picture, but the writing intentionally complicates how the conflict is viewed. The individual tribes of the forest are also a divided political force. There are the wolves, who approach the war with strategy, but there are also the boars, who want to take on the humans head on, and the apes, who desperately attempt to replant the trees that the humans have been destroying. San is caught in a paradoxical position, being a human who hates humans, and often accused of being incapable of truly sympathizing with nature due to her humanity. Though Miyazaki and myself ultimately agree with nature, his writing shows us that on the level of the individual, war is often more complicated than meager questions of binary morality. 

         Ashitaka isn’t a tremendously interesting protagonist, but I still think he’s the neutral perspective which this story needed to feel properly orchestrated. You can tell that his constant pleas for peace between the two are complicated by what he gradually learns about both sides, as well as his romantic feelings for San. He’s always trying to convince everyone that hatred isn’t the answer, but the irony lies in that his curse, spawned from the boar’s resentment, amplifies his fighting abilities. All of the combat in this movie is so satisfying to watch because it never dwells on the sheer brutality of any given action for too long. Limbs and heads fly off like it’s nothing: the film shows us visually that hatred in action makes destruction easier than we’d think. He is correct in asserting that hatred is a disease for both sides: Eboshi enables her to create weapons which allow her to destroy the forest without thinking, and it’s what allows the animals to become susceptible to demonic possessions. However, it’s the natural balance of nature, represented by The Deer God’s control of life and death, which bears the brunt of the exacerbating conflict.

         In this clash of nature and industry, Miyazaki shows us that hatred is a poison which only results in death, and it is only ecological succession, a return to nature, which can provide true healing. Princess Mononoke is a film which doesn’t shy away from the costs of war; few films have me welling up over a pig, perhaps except for Miyazaki’s very own Porco Rosso. Such an engrossing, fantastical story of this kind could only be done in the medium of animation because the sheer majesty of its visual ideas is what keeps you from looking away from any of it. Its world keeps you entranced, and hence, vulnerable to experience all of its moral tug-of-warring and the weight of what is lost. Not only does the restoration of nature, the creeping renewal of green, look beautiful onscreen, but it stirs something in a viewer. Hatred has only proven to become more ingrained in our instincts as social animals, manifesting as increasingly callous and destructive treatment of the environment, and perhaps the call of The Deer God to return to the forest has only grown louder with time. It takes a very special film to get a viewer to hear that call, and Princess Mononoke is that film. I struggled to stand after the credits began because the gravity it exuded kept me gripping my seat. As you can see, it’s hard to encapsulate it in 1,000 words, and perhaps its animated majesty is beyond words period. All I can ask is for you to watch it immediately, and to see what animation is truly capable of.

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