Miyazaki's Action Trinity: Princess Mononoke

Welcome to the final entry in “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity”! For those who need some major catching up, my previous entries on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky are here and here. For everyone else, it’s time to officially wrap this up! (Also, spoilers inbound.)

If Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was Hayao Miyazaki’s big break, and Castle in the Sky was a continuation of that, then Princess Mononoke feels like a culmination of his life’s work into a giant, personal epic. It took well over a decade to complete, and while not my favourite of the man’s works, or even my favourite of his trinity, it definitely feels like his most-passionate to-date. This is because, despite being a relatively overdone topic by that point (environmentalism), the film takes an interesting angle on it.

Princess Mononoke is about Prince Ashitaka, an Emishi warrior whose arm is cursed after defending his village from a demon boar. The only way to lift the curse is to find the god of life and death, or Shishigami, and beg for its help. Because leaving his village is forbidden, Ashitaka goes into exile, whereupon he meets a town at war with the nearby forest. Said town is run by Lady Eboshi, an imperialist with a heart of gold, who’s constantly butting heads with San, a human raised by wolves. Thinking that mediating will win him favour, Ashitaka plays the part of peacemaker in the battle that’s yet to come.

One of the biggest compliments I can give is the Shintoist approach to environmentalism. The common flaw with environmental films is their heavy-handedness and lack of nuance. Not that this is always a bad angle, I like Avatar, but that ignores the reality that humans are important to the ecosystem. Princess Mononoke, while not subtle, acknowledges this, hence standing the test of time better than many environmental films released today.

Perhaps the best example is through its characterization of the humans and the animals. The people of Iron Town are dedicated and loyal, yet frequently act selfish when faced with external dilemmas. Conversely, the animals of the forest, majestic as they are, are violent and completely distrusting of humans. Even Lady Eboshi, who could be considered the film’s antagonist, is more tragic than anything, being forced to do villainous deeds as a result of blackmail. And the film shifts back-and-forth between humans and animals via Ashitaka’s, hence our sympathies are frequently in question.

This does, unfortunately, bring about one of Princess Mononoke’s biggest, flaws: because of the back-and-forth, we rarely get a chance to attach to any characters. The people of Iron Town blur together, while the animals of the forest mostly act the same. It becomes hard, therefore, to fully-sympathize with any one side. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, Toki and Kuroku are easy favourites, but it’s not enough.

The film also cheapens out slightly in its resolution. The film presents a secondary-antagonist, Jigo, to bounce off of Lady Eboshi and amp up the stakes. Jigo’s the puppet-master behind the assassination of Shishigami, yet aside from a moment of reflection, he never gets penalized for his behaviour. This wouldn’t be unfair had Lady Enoshi’s entire arm not been ripped off by the head of Morro, San’s mother, so it’s disappointing.

Fortunately, Princess Mononoke compensates with its feminist themes. Far too often, women in movies are relegated to side-characters and items of rescue, even in Japan. Miyazaki, and subsequently Studio Ghibli, is no stranger to empowering women, but it’s here that that comes out fully. Not only are the women of Princess Mononoke competent leaders and figures of power, but they frequently out-do their male counterparts. It’s a nice change of pace.

On the note of power, the weight of the violence is at full-force. Miyazaki, ever the one to show restraint even during fight scenes, doesn’t hold back on carnage and bloodshed here. People are maimed brutally, limbs are hacked-off and there's even a scene of a badly-injured Okkoto, the leader of the boars, vomiting blood after being injected with a iron ball. It’s quite a shock for those expecting children’s fare, making this the first, and possibly only, Miyazaki movie meant strictly for adults. If you don’t believe me, judge it for yourselves!

Princess Mononoke also boasts excellent music and animation. Joe Hisaishi returns yet again to score the film, and, despite having scored every Studio Ghibli-created Miyazaki movie, the years since Castle in the Sky have been kind to him. Gone are the synth jingles of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, instead replaced by a symphony. It’s music to the ears, and it’s wonderful. I’d even argue that the tracks are worth listening to solo, but that’s a subject for another day.

Of course, there’s the animation. Even after 20 years, the hybrid of cel animation and occasional CGI mesh beautifully. This isn’t easy given that the 90’s was a decade of experimentation with computers, and many attempts, even in anime, don’t hold up. My favourite example of this subtle integration of CGI is in the demon tentacles. They're so beautiful that you wouldn’t even know they weren’t hand-drawn if I hadn’t pointed it out.

So what makes this movie work so well, especially amongst the other entries in “Miyazaki’s Action Trifecta”? I think much of it’s in the way it presents in its story. If Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s strength is emotional innocence and Castle in the Sky’s strength is familial accessibility, then Princess Mononoke’s strength is graceful maturity. It’s a common practice for adult-oriented animation to be edgy for the sake of shock value, pushing boundaries without needing to (see Akira), but this movie’s dark while never feeling a need to pander to its audience. That’s something I definitely appreciate.

Its underlying message is no different. Like I said, it’d have been really easy to ham-fist its message down our throats for shock value. Yet it doesn’t, instead taking its time to let the audience sympathize with its characters in spite of their horrible deeds. That alone is gutsy and difficult to pull off, and I applaud Princess Mononoke for doing so successfully. Especially since, at 134 minutes, it’s the longest Miyazaki film to-date.

Honestly, it’s the grace and maturity of the subject matter that makes this stand out. In an anime world filled with action, it’s nice to see something tackle environmentalism with grace. It’s not perfect, its ambition sometimes overshadows its storytelling, but I appreciate that it takes its time to tell a big story that simultaneously feels small and intricate. You don’t see many feature-length animations do that. It’s also a fitting entry in “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity”, as well as a well-earned choice for Toonami’s “A Month of Miyazaki” marathon. I highly recommend that you check it out.

And that about does it for my three-part analysis. As it currently stands, here’s my personal ranking of the three films I've discussed:

Castle in the Sky > Princess Mononoke > Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

This, admittedly, is all subjective, illustrating how worthwhile these films really are for any anime fan to watch, new and old-alike. So give them a watch/re-watch, and I’ll see you next time!


Popular Posts