“For me, the truth of life is that nothing is either black or white; there is good and evil inherent in everything, and I think people should learn this as soon as possible.”
“Children understand intuitively that the world they have been born into is not a blessed world.”
First, an apology. It’s been a while since I’ve written about a children’s film in this column, so I thought this was the month. Tuck Everlasting was my first choice; it’s just out on video. But I was hoping to re-read the book before I watched the movie, and that never happened. So I went to my back-up: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). How could I go wrong picking one of the best animated films by perhaps the greatest living creator of such films? Well…..I started to have my doubts with the first decapitation.
Don’t get me wrong. There aren’t a lot of decapitations. Three, maybe? Nor are there a lot of severed limbs. Probably about a tie with the decapitations. It’s just that even this modest amount of mayhem makes it a little difficult to recommend bringing the whole family. Hence, my apology. A more appropriate children’s film review will have to wait for another day.
Princess Mononoke is, however, stunning. It’s just not Toy Story or Ice Age or Shrek. Imagine an animated version of the second Lord of the Rings film, but more intense and less rational. From the opening scenes of a gigantic, monstrously mutated boar crashing through the forest, to the final scenes of apocalypse and renewal, Princess Mononoke is a heart-pounding wonder. A recent TV survey in Japan placed it second (after Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai) on a list of all-time favorite Japanese movies. The fact that Miyazaki fully intended it to be a children’s film, and that it was the most popular film of all time in Japan prior to Titanic, is evidence of a pretty big cultural divide. An animated feature like Princess Mononoke could never have the success in North America that it had in its native land.
Or perhaps I’m just being a wimp. Many reviewers commented that young people today, raised on a diet of violence in video games and in the media, wouldn’t be phased by the cartoon violence of Mononoke. I find that hard to believe. I was raised on a diet of Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Hammer Horror and John Woo, and I still found Miyazaki’s story unsettling. It’s a dream running just shy of a nightmare.
The setting of Princess Mononoke is late medieval Japan. Although much of the country is still covered in primeval forest, mines are opening up everywhere and the first guns are starting to shift the balance of power between warring clans. A renegade aristocrat, Lady Eboshi, has set up a massive wooden fortress within whose walls hundreds of workers are smelting iron ore to help kick-start a new wave of civilization— forcibly weaned from the timeless rhythms of forest and field. Lady Eboshi has stripped bare the nearby mountains to provide fuel for her fires; she’s hunted down and destroyed the animals that once lived there. Other warlords sense the threat she poses to their power and the countryside is plagued by conflict: “The land teems with the twittering of bitter ghosts dead from war, sick or starved and fallen where they stood.” In the forest which remains, a young girl, San, the Princess Mononoke, who has been raised by a race of giant white wolves, becomes Lady Eboshi’s sworn enemy. Either forest or fortress must fall.
Lady Eboshi is not a stereotypical villain. Most of her workforce consists of brothel girls she has pulled from lives of servitude and abuse in the larger towns. They toil in her foundries, but as workers, not slaves. Lady Eboshi’s gunsmiths are lepers whom she’s trained in the craft. She’s earned her people’s loyalty. Tyrants are deserted by their people as soon as there’s a shift in power; in Lady Eboshi’s case, despite her ecocidal tendencies, she’s to die for. When her smiths present her with a new rifle designed for use by her women, her appraisal is, “Very well made. Perfect for ruling the world. But still a little heavy.” Major character flaw: she wants to kill a god. To be precise, the Deer God, the forest’s resident spirit.
You can see that we’re not exactly in Disney territory here. Miyazaki’s storyline and visuals are deeply rooted in Shinto, the ancient native religion of Japan, where magnificent natural settings become the homes of spirits older than either nature or humanity. Princess Mononoke’s animators actually traveled to several of the most beautiful forested areas of Japan to glean details for the film. Although Miyazaki used computer animation for the first time here, he still personally redrew or retouched some 80,000 of the picture’s 1,440,000 animation cells. His forests are great shrines, with grim red-eyed apes for priests, wolves and boars for guardians, weird little ghosts (“kodama”) with heads that rattle and spin, and kabuki-faced gods. Boars and wolves die, but can gods and spirits die or be killed? Miyazaki’s film asks the question; his answer is ambiguous. What do children make of all this? I do not know. What do they make of the Passion of Christ, or Raven’s and Coyote’s curious adventures?
Of course, San is not your typical princess either. In our first close look at her, her face is smeared with blood from having sucked the poison out of a bullet wound in Moro, the great wolf god. She rides into battle like a Valkyrie. Love-sick swooning is not her forte. A true Wild Child. Can she foil the plans of Lady Eboshi? Can anyone turn back the momentum of history?
The third major human character in Mononoke is a young prince, Ashitaka, from a remote village unaware of the march of so-called “progress.” The “demon boar” I mentioned at the beginning of this review nearly destroys Ashitaka’s idyllic home, leaving him with deadly scar which begins slowly leaching the boar’s madness into his body. He leaves home on his extraordinary “red elk,” Yakkuru, to find the source of the madness. Ashitaka is the film’s most conventional character. Young and fearless, he falls in love with San the first time he sees her. If this were anyone else’s story other than Hayao Miyazaki’s, you’d know how this part of the tale ends.
Two other important human characters are a very spirited young woman named Toki, one of Lady Eboshi’s workers, and a Machiavellian priest called Jiko. Jiko is a Falstaffian schemer whose true motives remain forever obscure.
On the supernatural side, one finds the horse-sized wolves, magnificent and lethal, led by Moro. They are an endangered species, vanishing with their habitat. The boars, larger even than the wolves, are led by their massive, grey-haired, stone-voiced patriarch in a suicidal last-ditch defense of the forest. The carnage is appalling. The Deer God is an unfathomable power like the ancient Greeks’ Pan. And like Pan, his passing signifies the advent of a new age.
If possible, rent the DVD version of Princess Mononoke. The DVD gives you the choice of watching the movie in Japanese with excellent sub-titles, or seeing it in the dubbed English version written by the British comic book master Neil Gaiman.
John Lasseter, the director of the two Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life, has said of Hayao Miyazaki that “Not a day goes by that I do not utilize the tools learned from studying his films.” ‘Nuff said.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
With my latest viewing of Princess Mononoke, what made an indelible impression on me this time around was the level of violence in the film. It has a PG-13 rating for “violence and gore,” and that’s not an understatement. Within the first 15 minutes or so there’s a pair of arms severed by a bowshot, a decapitation via bowshot, and a demonic rampaging boar that’s dispatched with arrows into its eyes. All this accompanied by copious blood loss. The intensity doesn’t let up for the remaining two hours of run-time. There’s almost enough madness and death here to do justice to a Mad Max film. How old would my grandkids have to be before I would feel comfortable letting them watch Mononoke? I’m really not sure. This is definitely not Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro. Nor did Miyazaki intend it to be.
Ultimately, of course, Mononoke is still an awesome piece of animation and storytelling. Miyazaki and his collaborators have once again created worlds unlike any we have seen onscreen, including a primeval forest such as the one which covered Japan a couple of millennia ago, and a mountain-based iron foundry unlike anything in the historical record. The wild boars and wolves and apes constitute speak in the powerful voices of their own tribes. The forest is haunted by thousands of clockwork Caspar-the-Ghost-like kodoma spirits, all ruled over by a shape-shifting, all-powerful Deer God. We all want animation to give us something that regular cinema can’t, and Miyazaki’s reputation is based on his ability to consistently make that leap into the never-before-seen.
Villains are conspicuous by their absence. What we have here are human beings looking after their own self-interests, blinded to the damage they may be causing to their environment. The iron workers are just trying to make a better life for themselves, even if it means stripping the mountains of every last tree for their forges. The wild animals of the forest declare war on the humans, even though their resistance is suicidal in the face of newly-perfected guns and explosives. Hunters pursue the Deer God because their Emperor has ordered them to do so, and that’s simply their job. Since Mononoke first was shown in 1197, the climate crisis, various wars, the pandemic, and a rising wave of divisiveness and intolerance have only made the director’s stoic acceptance of human fallibility seem more thought-provoking. Miyazaki’s Lady Eboshi could be a medieval Japanese version of Henry Ford. With Ford, there was a commendable vision of a better life for industrial workers combined with an active promotion of anti-Semitic theories and the inevitable long-term consequences of mass-produced automobile on the health of the planet. Lady Eboshi rescues women from the servitude of brothels and lepers from lives as pariahs (how to explain this to younger children watching the movie?), resurrects their pride in themselves and their work, while at the same time utterly devastating the forests and wildlife around her industrial townsite to feed her forges.
Miyazaki has said in interviews that he also wanted to take the focus away from the longstanding samurai-versus-peasants plotlines that had come to dominate popular culture in the post-war period. Medieval society wasn’t just made up of aristocrats and farmers–there were also merchants, loggers, miners, blacksmiths, industrialists, fishers, packers, etc. With Mononoke, Miyazaki succeeded in putting on the screen elements of Japanese society that hadn’t previously been the focus of attention.
I could say more about Hayao Miyazaki’s intentions with Princess Mononoke, but Miyazaki’s own anthology Turning Point: 1997-2008, translated by Beth Cary & Frederik L. Schodt, contains over 150 pages of interviews with the director about the creation of Mononoke and the visions behind the film. I’ve included a few excerpts below, but this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Miyazaki’s life and work. These are all his own words, forthright and eloquent, rather than someone else’s interpretations. Read on:
AMINO: Did you have a particular reason for including a group [ironworkers] that we would consider to be outcastes?
MIYAZAKI: As I thought about how to depict human beings, I realized they would have ended up being like groups of construction workers and real estate brokers if I just showed them as destroyers of nature. I didn’t want to make a film criticizing civilization by depicting human beings in that way and placing the guilt on them. As much as possible, I wanted to show the good side of humans. I didn’t want to show them in a negative way since it is the efforts of human beings to try to live a decent life that has brought about our current energy crisis and other problems…Part of me does dislike human beings, but it wouldn’t turn out well if I showed that feeling.
MIYAZAKI: This [problem with children not being able to start on their own lives] was fated from the time when television, or manga, or video games, or even photo print clubs came to fill in for something children had lost and became more exciting than reality. This tendency is clear in the generation under thirty-five years old now , and I think it will become stronger in the future. Why? Because that generation will become parents.
They buy videos of our films to watch again and again. They think their children are fine because they are viewing good quality films over and over. That’s outrageous. Rather than watch a film fifty times, their children should be doing something else for forty-nine of those times. During the forty-nine repeat viewings of Princess Mononoke, they are losing out on something. And the adults don’t realize that it’s something that can’t be regained.
MIYAZAKI: Since we’ve had so many failures [in education], we could try an experiment. [laughs] I would like to make over nursery schools, kindergartens, and elementary schools by turning them into places where children love to be.
Kindergartners are the customers, so make a kindergarten that meets customer demand. It shouldn’t be a place for serious thinking or teaching how to write. It would be senseless to have the pupils who complete this kindergarten go to the kind of elementary schools we now have, so we must remake he elementary schools. Children are now told at around second grade that they are no good, that they can’t recoup what they have missed learning. This used to occur around fifth grade, but now it happens much earlier. I wonder who made it so. Whoever instituted this is the enemy of the people. If it was the Ministry of Education that decided to teach writing in kindergarten, we would be better off getting rid of the Ministry of Education.
What makes for the happiest childhood? It seems to me that this question is ignored, as childhood has become a time to invest in becoming an adult. What is important, for example, is not disallowing children the use of knives, but rather teaching them how to use knives well….
Every summer my friends’ children come to visit my cabin in the mountains. I look forward to seeing how the kindergartners turn out when they start elementary school. Two years later, they tell me they are already learning their times table. That infuriates me. Why do they teach the multiplication table to such young children and make them suffer? If they are taught it in fifth grade, they’ll learn it quickly. Why do they try to teach it when they are too young?
–Today, I hope to hear from you about children and education, culture, and nature, among various subjects.
MIYAZAKI: Actually, my wife told me that I’m not qualified to talk about education for children, since I didn’t do anything for my own. But when my children were in elementary school, I made sure to attend the fathers’ class observation day held once a year, even it it meant I had to practically crawl there after working through the night. Not many other fathers were there, but at least I went. As I walked unsteadily from our house toward the school, I realized I didn’t remember which grade or which classroom I was headed for, and when I called home I was scolded roundly. That was the kind of father I was. The other day, when I was talking with my son, he told me he had no memory of seeing me during a certain period of his childhood.
–Do you mean at school?
MIYAZAKI: No, no, at home. I would get up in the morning after the children had gone to school and return at night after they had gone to bed. There was a while when I went to work even on Sundays. That meant we didn’t see each other until the film I was working on was done.
ROGER EBERT: But Princess Mononoke was the biggest hit in Japan, wasn’t it? Until Titanic came along.
MIYAZAKI: Yes, frankly this phenomenon left me baffled. [laughs] I have no idea why that happened.
Of the films we made at Ghibli, the first films, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, Castle in the Sky, and Totoro weren’t able to recoup their production costs from the theatrical releases. We were finally able to make a profit from secondary rights. That switched with Kiki’s Delivery Service. So it wasn’t as if we had a warm, receptive audience for animated films in Japan from the start.
MIYAZAKI: In treating the subject of forests, whether broadleaf evergreen forests or beech woods, we are discussing the vegetation of Japan at a certain historical time, with a certain climate, aren’t we? An NHK program the other day presented a theory that global warming is not due to man-made causes, but to the fact that Earth itself undergoes drastic temperature changes, and that is has only stabilized during the last ten thousand years, a nearly miraculous ten thousand years. It is this ten-thousand-year span that produced agrarian civilization. In the future, agrarian civilization may be wiped out. Further beneath what we consider the foundation of the forest is the existence of an even more fearsome Mother Earth. At times she becomes a goddess of destruction and at times a goddess of creation.
MIYAZAKI: The major characteristic of Studio Ghibli–not just myself–is the way we depict nature. We don’t subordinate the natural setting to the characters. Our way of thinking is that nature exists and human beings exist within it.
That is because we feel that the world is beautiful. Human relationships are not the only thing that is interesting. We think that weather, time, rays of light, plants, water, and wind–what make up the landscape–are all beautiful. That is why w make efforts to incorporate them as much as possible in our work. At times, though, we do wonder why we make it so hard for ourselves. [laughs]
–I would like to ask about animism. What are your thoughts on religion?
MIYAZAKI: There is a religious feeling that remains to this day in many Japanese. It is a belief that there is a very pure place deep within our country where people are not to enter. In that place clear water flows and nourishes the deep forests. I share this feeling–an intense religious sensibility–that returning to this place of purity is the most marvelous thing. There is no holy book and there are no saints. This feeling is not recognized as a religion on the same level as the world’s religions, but for Japanese it is definitely a religious feeling.
The forest that is the setting for Princess Mononoke is not drawn from an actual forest. Rather, it is a depiction of the forest that has existed within the hearts of Japanese from ancient times.
–In the film’s last scene, the forest regenerates. Why did you end the film that way?
MIYAZAKI: Nature doesn’t become completely barren like a desert after humans have destroyed it. Nature repeatedly regenerates itself. What is important is what humans learn from that process. If we cannot recover from one mistake, most likely the human race would have become extinct a long time ago.
When Japanese nowadays talk about nature, they often say nature has declined and that fifty years ago nature was much richer. But nature fifty years ago was one in which many trees had already been cut down and other trees planted in their stead.
True nature contains much that is fearsome. It is not nature that has regenerated by the efforts of civilization.
If, when we talk about ecology, we say that the nature before our eyes has been destroyed, it shows that we have not thought deeply about the relationship between human beings and nature.
Nature regenerates at the end of the film. This is the same process that occurred in Europe due to reforestation efforts after the industrial revolution had decimated forests, and also in Japan after many trees were felled to make iron. These forests may be full of light, but they are not the same as the primeval forests teeming with life. Unless we bear this in mind in thinking about nature and human beings, I don’t think we can correctly think about the future.
–Do you think the Japanese audience sees [Princess Mononoke] as a message on the natural environment?
MIYAZAKI: The people who see that message are most likely those who had decided to do so before they watched the film. I didn’t make this film to be a message about the natural environment. In fact, I meant to state my objection to the way environmental issue are treated. That is, I didn’t want to split off the global environment from human beings. I wanted to include the entire world of humans and other living creatures, as well as the global environment, water, and air. I also wanted to delve into whether people can overcome the hatred that has gradually grown inside them.
Available on YouTube? Not really. I found one dubious site I’m not recommending.
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