We start our list off with a Miyazaki flick — because come on, you should know me by now. This 1997 film was Japan’s biggest blockbuster of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic came along. But if you don’t recognize his name, you might recognize some of his titles, because he’s got quite a hefty animated resume working for him. Let’s start with childhood. Remember My Neighbor Totoro?
How about Kiki’s Delivery Service? Naussica, Valley of the Wind? The newest of the batch, The Wind Rises. And moving into the older audience, there’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and surely you’ve heard of the big one, Spirited Away? All animated and directed by Hayao.
Now before I go any further, I have to make the animation defense, and I’ll do it by highlighting this specific movie’s relationship with my husband. Now, my husband studied film at BIOLA University in California, a school that knows the craft of film very well. He was still in school when this incident happened, and he told me he had never seen a Hayao film before.
After I questioned our relationship, I decided to be excited that I’d get to share a different form of film with him. I begged him for weeks to watch this movie. WEEKS. All the while, we’d been watching the typical films on a “film major’s” list. The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal, Blue Valentine, A Clockwork Orange, and one night, I finally cornered him about why we hadn’t seen it yet. And although he didn’t mean to, he made it sound as though animation was a form of film that just couldn’t compete with others, because its characters weren’t real.
The child inside me that watched My Neighbor Totoro nearly every day, who cried with Kiki when she lost her witch powers, and who read books upon books of character molded from a writer’s subconscious wanted to swiftly and maturely kick him in the junk and run away. But instead, I led the gentleman upstairs with the promise of chips, dip, and a slew of whatever movie he wanted — if he only watched this one.
So, we sat down and began our journey into the plot of Princess Mononoke (I should also tell all of you that I plan on typing out “Mononoke” every time it shows up because it’s fun as all get out. And you just tried it. Point proved.)
So, the movie begins with an immediate showcase of the animation Hayao is capable of. The lush landscape of medieval Japan unfolds around us, letting us enter into the dawn of the Iron Age, when nature was at war with civilization — a regular “Gilgamesh.”
But in the midst of the gorgeous animation, we are immediately confronted with a problem. There is a watchtower guard who shouts that he has noticed something “wrong with the forest.” From this point on, a giant creature, revealed as a boar-like creature covered in black leech-like worms, comes crashing out from the woods and begins to attack. Here we meet our hero, the brave Ashitaka, who is the prince of his isolated people, those who still live in accordance with nature, and who are peaceful towards it, not encroaching on its space. We also meet Ashitaka’s noble steed (who’s actually more of an ibex, but you understand), Yakkuru. Ashitaka and Yakkuru do battle with the creature, and he is finally able to slay it, but not before the worms attach themselves to his skin and leave a deathly-looking scar.
A wise shaman of the village is able to interpret what went on. The monster was a boar god, until a small iron bullet casing was embedded in its flesh and drove it mad. We are left wondering where the bullet came from, until Ashitaka is suddenly told he must cut his hair (a symbol of being cut off from the others) and leave the village, because he too has been infected with a demon of hate inside his arm, a curse. And so Ashitaka obeys. We watch him have a wrenching goodbye scene with his sister and he rides off towards to West to find the source of the bullet and to find out why nature is acting so strangely.
From here on out, Ashitaka is thrust into a world of violence and war. Nature versus Civilization, humans versus gods, and he is caught in between to find some balance. He finds an area that is rule by Moro, a wolf god of an entire pack of gorgeous white wolves, and sees a human living among them, one who has been raised by them since birth. She is introduced as San — or Princess Mononoke
And San’s intentions seem wild, but noble. She is out to destroy Lady Eboshi, an iron-willed ruler whose village is manufacturing the very bullets and guns that are causing nature to revolt.
Ashitaka also ventures into Eboshi’s village to ask that she stop this production. Although her townspeople are gaining profits and land, they are loosing the ability to know the language of the gods (and animal gods are literally only being able to speak in animal sounds, rather than being voiced by actors). Their land is stripped of trees, slaves work in their factories, and lepers make weapons for Eboshi. Ashitaka even meets a slick-talking Jigo who wants to take the head of the Spirit of the Forest to have full control over nature.
But before you go pointing out the obvious “bad guy” here, Hayao throws in elements that make things far less black and white. Emperor Eboshi is adored by her people, and the lepers are accepted members of society (unlike Ashitaka was when he was pronounced diseased) by helping keeping the economy afloat, and she genuinely cares for her people and wants them to be wealthy and powerful. Even Jigo’s motives make sense at times. It becomes obvious — there are risks to each side, there are heartbreaking deaths that happen to major characters on each side of the problem, and everyone has their own reasons for justification. Pretty complex for moving drawings, don’t you think?
All of this action includes an extreme depth and scope of human nature. For example, Ashitaka and San, who admit love for one another, see that they can never “lead the life of the other” and must sacrifice their love for freedom and see one another in passing glances. How many live-action love stories have been so deep?
The animation is stark, real, vivid, and appeals to the realistic view of the audience — no character is an afterthought. The white wolves are wonderfully crafted and detailed. They are not Disney-friendly. When they bear their fangs, they are shown as violent gods, ones who can and will kill for their ideals.
….As for my husband?
“I forgot that was an animated film well over an hour ago.”
Now I do not give you this review without pointing out a couple of things that might’ve distracted me. First off, it is a bit long (a little over 2 hours). I feel as though Ashitaka’s journey really, really takes him awhile, but when he meets San, things pick up considerably.
Also, it really does reflect “Gilgamesh” quite a lot — not that this is a bad thing, but it can make the plot a little predictable about motives and wether or not everything will come out alright in the end.
Speaking of which, I didn’t plan on sharing the entirety of the plot with you, because I want you to watch this for yourself. I want you, the reader, the follower of this blog, to have an experience. I want you to see that animation is not just reserved for Saturday morning cartoons; it can make the world of the animator come alive — he or she can bend time, space, reality, and get away with it all because they convinced you their characters were as real as Tyler Durden was to the narrator in Fight Club, and they can affect you just as much.
I honestly think Roger Ebert (who gave this film FOUR STARS) said it best:
“Animated films are not copies of “real movie,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.”