The Miyazaki Retrospective: “Princess Mononoke”

Today’s article is a guest post by my sister, Mariel Marchetta. You can find her stories in “God, Robot”, where she was also assistant editor.

As regular readers may have noticed, my brother and regular writer Anthony Marchetta has begun writing a series of reviews as he works his way through the Miyazaki canon. After convincing me to join him and successfully turning me into a Miyazaki fan, he has graciously taken a step back and let me take the floor to pen my thoughts on the next movie on our list, Princess Mononoke.

Having watched Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky before this, the movie in some ways feels very much in line with what I have come to expect from a Miyazaki movie; stunning animation (the best I have seen so far, in fact), an understated but effective romantic arc, an imaginative plot, and of course a message about living in harmony with nature.

The differences are much more striking. Castle in the Sky was an adventure flick, almost Indiana Jones for kids, with goofy pirates and an almost cartoonishly evil villain. Spirited Away was a Japanese Alice in Wonderland.

Princess Mononoke has the titular character drinking the blood of wolves and has more than a few instances of dismemberment in some pretty violent fight scenes. But the scenes don’t feel gratuitous, one of the biggest grievances I have against a lot of adult oriented cartoons in the west. In fact, these scenes rank among the best in the film.

There’s also a certain level of moral ambiguity in Princess Mononoke I haven’t seen so far. Miyazaki is famous for his extreme environmentalism, but there’s much more nuance in the film than it’s given credit for. The most obvious antagonist in the film seems to be Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown. When we are introduced to Eboshi, she is a ruthless and cunning leader who dreams of manufacturing enough guns and weapons to take the forest for herself. She has no regard for the lives of the animals she is killing or the gods of the forest, and in fact was responsible for the demon that cursed Ashitaka in the first place. What makes her compelling is that what she lacks in compassion for the forest, she has in spades for the people of Irontown.

Eboshi buys women from brothels and gives them work to save them from prostitution. She helps lepers who were otherwise shunned from the community. The people of Irontown all follow her, not out of fear, but because they genuinely love and respect her. There was one particularly effective moment when San, after breaking into Irontown to kill Eboshi, comes face to face with both her and two women armed with guns. Eboshi calmly tells her that she can try and kill her–but she’ll have to face two women whose husbands were killed by the wolves that raised San. The idea is clear: Eboshi has a point. The forest spirits are no saints. And, in what was one of my favorite parts of the movie, Eboshi actually sees the error of her ways and promises at the end to ‘build a better town.’ The message of the movie doesn’t demonize the humans or the spirits, but rather tries to find a middle ground that has the optimistic message that humans and spirits can learn to coexist–and that even power hungry Eboshi can learn to do better. Despite all of the violence, it seems that Miyazaki just can’t help that streak of superversiveness that seems to be present in all his films.

I mentioned the imaginative plot before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t think Miyazaki could get more creative than he did with Spirited Away. But between talking forest spirits, a protagonist cursed with a demon mark that imbues him with powers, and a girl raised by wolves that fight to protect the forest spirit from the humans, this has to be one of the most ambitious concepts I has ever seen in an animated film, if not the most ambitious.

However, its high concept also makes it that much harder to execute, and while Miyazaki is definitely successful for the most part, Princess Mononoke had some noticeable flaws, mostly centered among the townspeople. The characters of the town are used often as comic relief, but poorly; between the dim witted henpecked husband and the group of feisty flirtatious women, it all felt a little too goofy. This might have been somewhat intentional on Miyazaki’s part, to show the differences between them and Ashitaka’s people–a serious people who lived in harmony with nature, as compared to the bumbling, loud people of Irontown–but if it was it fell flat. This is all a pretty minor gripe once the main conflict really picks up though, and certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie all that much.

So would I rank this as the best I’ve seen so far? Compared to Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, two films that I honestly think were flawless, this would actually probably rank as the worst. But that’s a difference of one or two small flaws compared to none, so that’s definitely not an insult by any means. And if Princess Mononoke lags behind the other two in execution, that’s only because the incredibly ambitious concept would have completely fallen apart in all but the most capable director’s hands. In that sense, it may not have been my favorite to watch, but it’s definitely the one I’m most impressed by. So if you’re looking for a movie with incredible visuals, and an epic, compelling story (not to mention giant wolves and boar demons), you should definitely pick this one up.

Anthony’s Notes:

While I do agree with the gist of my sister’s review, I do disagree that it is the worst of the films so far. “Castle in the Sky” was an excellent movie that executed what it was trying to do just about flawlessly, but ultimately it was a very straightforward adventure movie, not too far off of “Indiana Jones”. “Princess Mononoke”, in contrast, was a vast and sweeping epic; as my sister pointed out, there were flaws (and I agree with them), but the successes outweighed them by so much they’re barely worth mentioning.

My sister hasn’t yet seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighbor Totoro”. In some ways it’s not fair to compare, as those movies are trying to do vastly different things. At the same time, it seems only right to take ambition into account, and “Princess Mononoke” is incredibly ambitious. I would – as I generally do – go farther than my sister here and say that “Princess Mononoke” is one of the great epics ever made. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.