Take a Drink: every time the worms make you squirm.
Take a Drink: each time a new spirit appears.
Take a Drink: when violence fails to solve a problem.
Do a Shot: if and when a travel montage, the score, or both make you misty-eyed.
Finish Your Drink: when San makes her move.
By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
The great thing about animation is its freedom. It doesn’t have to represent the world as we see it, but how we feel it to be. This can and often should involve anvils failing on hapless coyotes. But it can be put to different uses, as well. All the soaring aerial shots of all the mountains of New Zealand would be hard pressed to match the pen of Hayao Miyazaki. In Princess Mononoke he combines his eye for beauty, mythic folklore, and John Ford’s frontier – and if that last one seems like a bit of an outlier, don’t worry. It’s actually a breathtaking combination of an evocative tone and limb-ripping action.
Set in a Japan at the dawn of the Iron Age, when shoguns and forest spirits alike are struggling to secure their place in an uncertain world, our hero Prince Ashitaka’s village is one in harmony with nature – the walls which separate them from the forest are earthworks, as lushly green and affectionately brushed by the wind as the tree leaves. But something evil lurks in the forest, and a demon crashes through the woods, mad and insatiably bent on destruction. It’s a boar spirit named Nago, and some of his slimy, writhing skin of worms wrap around Ashitaka’s arm. Nago’s poison gives Ashitaka super-human strength, but will eventually kill him. Enter the journey: the young man goes west, to the realms of the Emperor and the Deer God, to find a cure.
Ashitaka’s goal, it’s no spoiler to say, leads into a classical hero’s journey. As goes his soul towards violence or compassion, so goes the whole world’s soul; as he stands, so are we, our best selves, capable of defeating evil. But what makes the film so substantial is that ‘evil’ is complex. The conflict here is very close to Westerns – how do we reconcile technology and preservation, individual autonomy and community strength? The settlement Ashitaka comes across has some very decided ideas about that, as do the forest spirits around it. The Ironworks is a fortress on the edge of the Deer God’s domain, peopled by hardy outcasts and ruled by the driven Lady Eboshi. Minus the straw hats and bowls of rice, it could be a Tombstone or a Dodge City, a place still navigating the balance between civilization and nature. Eboshi uproots trees and uses guns against the spirits of the forest, particularly the clan of the wolf goddess Mono. Yet she leads from the front, liberates prostitutes, and defies the authority of the emperor.
The world of spirits is equally beguiling – the glade of the Deer God exerts the kind of magic that you can sort of feel working in your bones. Which can be awesome or terrifying, as the raids by Mono and her kin undoubtedly are. The hand-drawn animation meshes very well with 3D rendering, most notably on Nago, and later Ashitaka, but also in the environments and weaponry. The action is as immediate and dynamic as the landscapes seem ephemeral and sublime. What sets the film’s scope and tone is the moment Ashitaka inadvertently beheads a hostile samurai with an arrow. Part of Miyazaki’s humanism is in showing the horror of being inhumane. Limbs are lost, wounds bleed, and leprosy afflicts the innocent. So there’s a real sense of consequence and importance, even as people ride animals and wood sprites rotate their heads 360 degrees.
In this conflict we meet San, a human girl raised by a bunch of snarling, sinewy wolves and sworn to kill Eboshi. No “Colors of the Wind” number for her. San is vicious, riding bareback astride a giant white wolf and wielding a spear with lightning agility. She attacks the Ironworks alone at night, and even after Ashitaka saves her life, taking a bullet for his trouble, she means to kill him. Then he tells her she’s beautiful, and she hesitates, maybe for the first time in her life. Princess Mononoke may or may not be a kissing film, but the romance here isn’t only between Ashitaka and San – though, real talk, ‘Ashitaka and San’ is the MVP track on the soundtrack. It’s between different ways of life. Both characters have a little bit of human and demon in them. They walk between worlds. The tension involved in the question of will they get together and make that combination work is slightly more intense than your average Meg Ryan flick.
Like all good epics, there’s an final battle between the Emperor’s men, the Ironworks, the spirit clans, and the Deer God, with Ashitaka and San caught up in the middle. I won’t spoil how it ends, but Princess Mononoke itself conquers on multiple fronts: it’s transporting, thrilling, and thought-provoking, providing all the hope and loss of a legend. No matter what our age or our place in time, that’s something we seem to need.
Princess Mononoke is a fiercesome, gorgeous adventure in the High Fantasy tradition, but also more than that. It’s suggestive of how we live today, even as it shapes an elemental, intuitive sort of past. It is, in other words, a fantastic fantastic epic. See it on as a big a screen as you can.