Do you ever feel like watching something beautiful? Maybe with glistening lakes and luminescent spirit animals? The only appropriate answers here are “Hells yeah” or “Every damn day.” While Joss Whedon brings us action and Tim Burton has shadow puppets under control, Hayao Miyazaki is God’s gift to animation. Like the spirits in his films, I wouldn’t be surprised if at every step he takes, imaginative creatures spring to life in his footprints.
Studio Ghibli has given us equal doses of some pretty depressing (Grave of the Fireflies) and pretty adorable (Ponyo) films over the years. Princess Mononoke, while an absurdly fun title to punch out on the keyboard, is neither. Above its glorious artwork and expansive character development, Princess Mononoke has a very deep environmental message. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Westerners live in harmony with the wilderness until a fancy lady with a posh accent bursts into the village and introduces them to weapons. The people are totally smitten with her vision of power and begin to destroy the woods in their hunt for iron ore. Meanwhile other villages get jealous, war breaks out, the forest starts dying, etc. I’m being told to stop; you’ve heard this one before. But what if the forest not only shivered at the humans’ actions, but decidedly fought back? What if the forest had its own soldiers to combat the humans’ fire with their own metaphorical fire? Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) is our neutral party in this human/nature struggle for dominance. The elders of his remote eastern village expel him after he is cursed by a rampaging demon. Ashitaka travels to Iron Town for two reasons: 1) To discover why its leader, Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver), is infecting forest gods like the one who poisoned him; and 2) If the local forest spirit (currently chillin’ in the woods) is able to cure his violent curse. What Ashitaka finds is barren hills, toxic rage from both sides of the conflict, and a bizarre girl stuck between her human kin and her wolf family.
Nonbelievers, stay with me now. First of all, animation does not mean “for kids”. If you need proof: Akira. You have been warned. Second of all, Princess Mononoke has the kind of story you can sink your thoughts into like a squishy tub of Playdough. We initially believe that the people of Iron Town are power-hungry, ignorant slaves obsessed with growing their industry. And they are. But they’re also generous, kind, funny, and will stand by a leader who promises them a better life. On the other side, when you first hear of the forest’s residents they sound vicious and blood-thirsty. Which of course they are too. But their anger comes from the pressure put on them by the humans. Both sides are loyal and defensive, but openly push for the extinction of their enemy. Princess Mononoke takes “an eye for an eye” to a whole new extreme. The importance of Ashitaka as a neutral party means that he can hate the forest gods for cursing him and also hate the humans for poisoning the gods in the first place – yet his mission is “To see with eyes unclouded by hate.” Ashitaka finds a kindred spirit in the wolf girl, San (voiced by Claire Danes). She and Ashitaka do whatever they must to stand between the two enemies on the side of peace and reason.
Meanwhile the almighty forest spirit lurks behind trees like an all-powerful stalker. He has no dialogue and never moves faster than a cautious stroll, but he is the source of so much beauty in the film. Miyazaki floods Princess Mononoke with an unbelievable amount of texture: liquids, windy valleys, fur blankets, burning wood, rubble, decay, infection… every shot is designed to make you feel something just by the texture of the animation. Water can be a soothing remedy, a violent weapon, or cool cup of ice-cold delicious. Miyazaki brings seamless direction and animation together to show things like a nervous breeze or the impossible weight of a fortress gate. He is a magician.
Within this glorious landscape, Princess Mononoke illustrates dynamic, diverse characters. Aside from the vicious Tarzanette that is San, Princess Mononoke’s other female characters obviously rule the house. The men are still soldiers and farmers, but it is the ladies who have the final say, who protect the village, and who work week-long shifts. Environmental activism is a strong message, but “you can’t trust men” is also a prominent theme.
Thanks to Ashitaka and two sides that would die for their cause, we get a film that demonstrates not only strength of body in its characters, but also strength of heart. On top of the stunning animation that feels like a yoga class for your retinas, Princess Mononoke energizes its audience with Joe Hisaishi’s inspiring music. While some lines like, “I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow,” drop Princess Mononoke down a point for blatant idiocy right after basking us in a perfectly serene moment, I am still eager to rank this masterpiece as a 9/10.