Gods and monsters

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By Noel Vera

Princess Mononoke
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

(Warning: article does not summarize the film’s story — there are websites for that — and goes into detailed discussions of plot and narrative twists)

CALL Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997) Studio Ghibli’s biggest production to date; call it a serious attempt at a sequel to the 1984 classic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, spun out of control and grown to monstrous proportions; call it Hayao Miyazaki’s attempt to directly take on Akira Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics, in particular Seven Samurai. The animation outfit would go on to do bigger efforts monetarily speaking but in terms of sweep and complexity and ambition this may be the greatest feature they would ever accomplish.

An argument I think can be made that Princess Mononoke is, if anything, more complex than Kurosawa’s epic. Where Kurosawa was careful to sketch vivid portraits of samurai and farmers and their uneasy alliance, his bandits (basically rogue samurai fighting on the other side) are a faceless horde, the single most memorable character — the bandit chief — marked by his crescent moon helmet and the matchlock rifle in one hand. Miyazaki has humans versus animals in a pitched battle for control of vast woodlands (inspired by the Yakushima forest, one of the largest — and most mysterious — subtropical evergreen growths in Japan) but the animals are hardly united: the wolf clan stages guerilla strikes on the humans who venture out of their fortress village; the boar clan intends an all-out assault; the ape clan keep their distance pelting beast and biped alike with sticks and stones. On the human side is Lady Eboshi’s Tataraba community, a group of riflemen, prostitutes, and lepers who produce iron from their elaborately constructed forge; Lord Asano and his samurai army, who scheme to seize Tataraba; Jigo and his hunter-assassins, on a secret mission from the Emperor to take the head of the Shishigami — the forest’s presiding spirit.

Asano (who never makes a personal appearance) can be dismissed. He represents the outmoded mindset of the feudal lord (The male machismo?) still fighting with the swords and spears and arrows of the previous era; I suspect Miyazaki’s cursory attitude towards his faction says everything that needs to be said about him. Jigo is more intelligent, with a streetsmart sense of humor; the filmmaker reportedly couldn’t decide if the man was a secret agent, a ninja, or a priest, decided on a mix of the three — an unfortunate decision, as our feelings towards him remain equally unfocused. His intelligence is limited by his mercenary greed — his vision confined to what the Emperor’s gratitude can give him.

Lady Eboshi starts out villainous — first we see of her she’s wounded Moro the wolf god in the shoulder — and as the film progresses we uncover different facets of her ruthless and radical nature. She’s a noblewoman — possibly the only way in feudal Japan to be a freethinking female able to carry out her ambitions; she’s also unfailingly courteous, another sign of highborn status (well — it’s a trait that suggests more than any other her highborn status). She sells the iron produce of her mill — a stinking belching but nevertheless effective engine of industry — for food, weapons, influence, entering into lucrative trade deals and intricate agreements with neighboring shoguns and the Emperor (Jigo of course is somehow involved) She’s an enthusiastic proponent of technology — she uses what look like Chinese handgonnes and fire lances to fight the forest gods, constantly pushing her people to develop lighter more compact versions (eventually she wields a shoulder-mounted matchlock, a far deadlier weapon). But she also employs lepers and prostitutes — outcasts of society — giving them a safe place to live, winning their trust. She’s a cunning tactician, a capable strategist, her implied ultimate goal: to create an army of rifle-bearing women on equal if not superior footing with traditional samurai; and to become a significant military and economic force in the region. She’s also a courageous and caring leader who only seems to want the best for her people.

Eboshi is an evolutionary step beyond the character of Lady Kushana, particularly in the later issues of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa manga, a formidable military and political leader who inspires fanaticism in her followers; Nausicaa’s dark twin if you like. She is also answer to a question that must have weighed on Miyazaki’s mind: how do you create a truly interesting adversary? Why, instill in him — in her — all the good and admirable abilities a person might possibly have, make her charming and witty, make her compassionate, at least to her folk; make her in effect so noble she hardly seems villainous at all. If Eboshi has a flaw it’s (as with Jigo) in a smallness of vision: her concern stops with her own community, and woe to the outsider that stands in her way. Other communities — Lord Asano’s, the Emperor’s realm — are to be treated with suspicion. The forest clans? Not human, hence not to be recognized as anything other than enemy.

Of all the alliances — between Eboshi and the various human factions, between the forest clans — the one between Ashitaka and San (the eponymous Hime) is arguably the most intense, and most troubled. They meet in a state of mistrust and anger (San’s adopted mother Moro had just been wounded), they are drawn to each other across vistas of suffering and carnage, they end up as with all the other factions in an uneasy truce: recognizing they’re from two different worlds they part ways, but with a declaration of lasting affection, and a vague promise to visit each other regularly.

You wonder at this arrangement — does Ashitaka intent to someday take a wife in Tataraba, perhaps have his own family? Are they to stay friends, perhaps with benefits? Thinking in those terms feels vulgar — they are of different communities; different species, almost — yet love each other. Perhaps the analogous relationship might be between Plaxy and her dog in Olaf Stapledon’s tragic novel Sirius — a spiritual connection with physical aspects, a hopelessly incompatible pairing that despite everything insists on persisting.

Two incidents suggest the intensity of their connection: early in the film Ashitaka is wounded, and San brings him to the Shishigami to be healed. He wakes, alive but weakened; she feeds him a meat jerky, but he has difficulty chewing. She rips off a piece, chews on it, presses her lips to his, feeding him the well-ground mush. It’s a highly practical gesture, found throughout early human history (the first mention is in ancient Egypt, where mothers are advised to premasticate medicine before feeding it to their children — but the practice has probably been popular long before written history) and in various animal species (wolves, wild dogs, certain birds, apes). It’s also not a little repellent, and perversely erotic — a precursor to the French kiss if you like, with tongue pushing food (moistened by the giver’s saliva) into the receiver’s mouth.

San watches as Ashitaka recovers. At a certain point she falls asleep and San wakes; he in turn watches her. She wakes looks at him sleepily asks if he’s all right; he says “yes, thanks to you.” She blinks and falls back to sleep.

That blink I submit puts the lie to the accusation that Miyazaki’s characters lack the expressiveness of Hollywood animated characters. On a far smaller budget, using far cruder tools (pen and ink as opposed to a mouse or computer keyboard), he’s able to distill a thought, an emotion, a nuanced gesture that suggests pages upon pages. In this case: “I’m grateful and relieved and not a little delighted in my not-quite-awake state; now I’ll go back to sleep.” Trust is such a given, it’s not even mentioned; they act like lovers or a married couple having a brief exchange in the middle of one night in the rest of their lives.

Princess Mononoke will be remembered for its outsized battles, its monumental setpieces (Tataraba destroyed, the Daidarabotchi unleashed) but lives (for me at least) in throwaway little moments like these. One of Miyazaki’s best; arguably one of the finest animated features ever made.