Monday, May 17, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Princess Mononoke" (1997)

It was time to introduce my two boys to the anime genius of Hayao Miyazaki, and I thought it a good idea to start with one I hadn't seen myself: the 1997 film widely regarded as a masterpiece, "Princess Mononoke," perhaps second only to "Spirited Away" in his filmography.

Despite the 2¼-hour runtime, dense spiritual themes and surfeit of bloody/oozing imagery, the kids were absolutely enthralled by "Princess." I was, too.

Like many of Miyazaki's feature films, it combines a sense of high-minded mysticism with a very grounded connection to the natural world. Our machines and dirty industry are an assault on the spirits of the earth, he seems to argue, which physically manifest themselves into gods or demons to contest against the vile intrusion.

In "Princess," the Great Forest Spirit is passively fighting against the nearby human village of Irontown, run by Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver in the version released in America), who is stripping the forest to get at the ore underneath. The spirit takes the form of a stag-like creature by day, but after the sun goes down transforms into the Nightwalker, a giant amorphous creature whose underlings, tiny spirits called kodama, plant new trees to replace the destroyed ones.

Eboshi is cunning and determined but not necessarily evil, and in fact in some ways is a visionary leader. She has gathered together female brothel workers, unwanted lepers and poor male laborers and forged them into a rather idyllic little society, one in which women are not chattel but mouthy, empowered individuals who own their own sexuality. The lepers are the engineers, crafting their advanced flint guns. The men are the worker drones.

Eboshi's archenemy is San (Claire Danes), the feral "wolf girl" who attacks their trade convoys. She is the adopted daughter of Moro (Gillian Anderson), the wolf god who has sworn to bite off Eboshi's head. The metaphysics are a little fuzzy, but it seems that the various animal tribes each have one or more supersized leaders who can speak with humans and have some degree of invulnerability.

San loathes the humans, possibly even more so than Moro and her two wolf pups, and hates it whenever anyone points out she is one herself. It should be noted that Mononoke is not her name, just what the humans call her, it being a Japanese word for a supernatural shape-shifting creature, roughly the equivalent of "were-" in English.

Alas, if there's a weak spot with this movie it's that the titular character is rather underwritten and tertiary to the story. With a few tweaks she could even be written out of the script entirely (which Miyazaki wrote, assisted by Neil Gaiman for the English version).

The real main character is Prince Ashitaki (Billy Crudup), a stranger from the near-extinct Emishi tribe far to the east. When the boar god Nago, turned into a demon after being shot with an iron bullet by Eboshi's men, attacked his village Ashitaki was forced to kill him, being infected with the evil taint in the process. It gives him superhuman strength, but will eat his body and soul if he does not prevail upon the Great Forest Spirit to lift the curse.

There are shades of "Yojimbo" in the narrative, as Ashitaki comes upon the war between Irontown and the forest gods and acts as a destabilizing neutral party, helping one group and then the other. Rather than using the situation for his personal gain, he tries to act as peacemaker, largely unsuccessfully. 

At one point he gets shot straight through his torso near his heart, yet is able to continue for some time before succumbing to weakness from massive blood loss. 

There's quite a lot of frisky byplay between Ashitaki and the women of Irontown, particularly Toki (Jada Pinkett Smith), who see the smooth young newcomer as a prime sexual object compared to the squat, vaguely ape-like men of the village. I don't recall there being so much fleshy displays and flirting in Miyazaki's oeuvre. 

A few other notable players include Keith David as Okkoto, the blind ancient boar king who leads an assault on Irontown (David also serves as narrator); John DiMaggio as Gonza, Eboshi's bullying but unfailingly loyal right-hand man; and Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo, a mercenary monk who allies himself with Eboshi in a bid to kill the Great Forest Spirit and take its head to the emperor, it reputedly having properties to heal or make one immortal.

Jigo is a real piece of work, exceedingly friendly to everyone and yet also willing to cut anybody's throat to get what he wants. There's mention of terrible crimes in his past requiring the emperor's pardon, but all he says of himself is that he's "just a simple monk trying to make his way in the world." He meets Ashitaka during his journey west, and somewhere along the way recruits an elite force of hunters who disguise themselves with animal pelts to move among the forest tribes.

He is short and squat, about the size of a dwarf from fantasy mythology, though he supplements his height with towering geta sandals with a single huge block that would seem impossible to balance upon for even normal walking, let alone the running and acrobatic fighting Jigo is shown to be capable of. They are common in the films of Miyazaki and other anime.

The animation of "Princess" is gorgeous but also fairly simplistic, with most characters drawn with bold, umembroidered lines that would not seem out of place in a children's comic book. Miyazaki puts the denser imagination into the natural world, so the forest background behind San or Ashitaka might actually contain more detail than the human figure.

I'm mesmerized by the depiction of the Great Forest Spirit, who in its day form almost appears to be wearing a human-like mask under a crown of countless antlers. It does not seem to possess more than rudimentary intelligence, and does not communicate with anyone directly. The Nightwalker is depicted as vaguely menacing, unable to control its instinctual actions. 

When Jigo and Eboshi succeed in cutting of its head, the creature breaks down into a writhing mass of ooze that threatens to sweep over the land, killing humans, animals and gods alike. 

San and Ashitaka's romance is utterly asexual and not terribly convincing, them both being depicted as closer to child age than full-grown adult. Indeed, the story ends not with them living happily ever after, but agreeing to remain in their separate communities.

There's a fair amount of violence and gore in "Princess Mononoke," including severed limbs and heads. My sons were a little shocked at first, but soon settled in and didn't report any nightmares. 

This film is one of dreams, sometimes dark ones, that stand alongside the real world and comment upon its failings. Miyazaki's truly is a world of magic.



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