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Princess Mononoke
Nature is presented in both its glory and fury in Hayao Miyazaki's epic
Princess Mononoke
Miramax Films
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan, 1997
If you read entertainment magazines, you've probably heard about Princess Mononoke, an anime feature film by director Hayao Miyazaki. You may have even heard a few mutterings from animation fans. It's also possible that you're wondering, So what?

If you don't know why you should care that Princess Mononoke is coming to Western cinemas, then you've never seen a Miyazaki film, which is a shame--I happen to think he's the greatest living animation director on the planet. And I'm not the only one. Legions of animators and artists the world over pore over his works; more than a few Disney animators and directors have made their admiration clear; and his storytelling skills are praised by the creative staff of popular animated TV shows like Batman Beyond. John Lasseter has been a fan for almost twenty years, and the Pixar staff studied his films as they worked on Toy Story and A Bug's Life.

In short, Miyazaki's influence is spreading into what you watch. You might as well find out what all the fuss is about.

During this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Miyazaki was the focus of a journalists' round table. Sitting across the table from him, my first thought was how different his demeanor was from my mental image: a little gruff, sometimes harsh in his words, lighting up cigarettes and extinguishing them after one or two puffs--I suspect he went through his whole pack in the space of the hour. But one thing quickly became apparent: he's always thinking. You could almost hear the gears turning. And the results of those constant thought processes end up on the big screen.

The six journalists at the table and the eight or so in the audience came to the round table with varying levels of experience. Some were familiar with his work, some less so. Some probably knew little of anime at all. But all of us had seen Princess Mononoke in some form or another, and we had all come away from it amazed by what we had seen.

Princess Mononoke takes place during Japan's Muromachi era, around the fifteenth century. Most of the populace is still rural, with a feudal system more or less in place but very little like the Akira Kurosawa-inspired images we're so familiar with. Iron smelting is a burgeoning industry, and guns are starting to proliferate. For many, it's a time of startling change.

It's also the twilight of a time when gods and spirits still walk the earth.

Ashitaka, the main character, is one of the Emishi--a people who have been banished after their defeat by the Yamato government. When a boar god is driven mad by a curse, Ashitaka is forced to kill him to save his village and ends up touched by the same curse. He is banished from the village forever, and he makes his way to find the source of the curse. During his travels, he discovers Iron Town, where Lady Eboshi smelts iron and manufactures guns, making her a formidable power in the region. He also encounters San, the so-called Princess Mononoke. Orphaned as a child, San was raised by the wolf gods of the neighboring forest; with the wolves and other creatures, she now wages war on the people of Iron Town, who are encroaching on the forest that is their home.

When people think of environmentally themed animation, they tend to think of Ferngully, Captain Planet, or overly earnest and treacly episodes of cartoons like Animaniacs. Usually, the situation is pretty clear-cut: bad and greedy humans pollute for no good reason; cute, dewy-eyed animals suffer; nice kids help them out. The day is saved in the end, and if we just use those blue boxes and don't cut down trees, everything will be okay.

Princess Mononoke has none of this. All of the characters are painted in shades of gray, making easy labels like good and evil impossible. To pick a random example, look at Lady Eboshi. Her actions are bold and dangerous: ultimately, she intends to kill the Deer God, the diurnal manifestation of the forest's spirit. But she doesn't want power for its own sake; she sees Iron Town as a way to take care of her people, many of whom are lepers and former prostitutes she has rescued from worse fates. She's ruthless, but acts out of a genuine compassion; her people are unswervingly loyal to her not out of fear, but respect.

Nature, too, is not represented quite so simply. The natural world of Princess Mononoke is gentle and beautiful, but it is capable of defending itself with an awesome ferocity. (So much so, that the violent imagery might not be suitable for some younger viewers. See the film before deciding to bring the tykes and decide for yourself.) As a result, the questions being raised by the movie are not simple, nor are their answers.

The themes from Princess Mononoke aren't quite cut from whole cloth. These are ideas that Miyazaki has explored in animation since 1984, when he completed work on Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, an adaptation of his serialized manga. In Nausicaä, the titular heroine tries to juggle her desire for peace with the reality of a feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which the "sea of corruption"--a growing network of mutated, miasma-spewing plant life--renders the air unbreathable. Complicating matters is her village's prime location (the Valley of Wind, where clear air flows), the gunship that serves as their aerial defense, and the machinations of those who want both. Here, too, he avoided having characters who were absolutely good or absolutely evil; even the sixteen-year-old Nausicaä is capable of a murderous rage.

In 1986 came Laputa: Castle in the Sky, ostensibly a straightforward "boy's adventure story" set in a mythical eighteenth-century Europe where steam is the dominant power source. Two children race the military, air pirates, and a mysterious figure named Muska to find Laputa, the mythical airborne city. It's an enjoyable story in the style of Jules Verne, but like Jonathan Swift (from whose Gulliver's Travels Laputa originates) there is a touch of social commentary within, about our obsession with chasing after the latest and greatest technology without carefully considering its consequences.

Nineteen-eighty-eight's more optimistic My Neighbor Totoro, set in 1950's Japan, takes a more lighthearted approach to environmental tales as two young girls discover forest spirits near their new home. The goal here is simple: by presenting events through the eyes of children, Totoro asks us to reawaken to the beauty of the world around us.

Unlike other themes that Miyazaki revisits repeatedly in his work, the thoroughly delightful Totoro represents Miyazaki's only other venture into this kind of animist world, and in Toronto I asked him about the relationship between Totoro and Princess Mononoke.

"Actually," he said, "I take the exact same approach in both films, which is that there is an invisible world that is surely as real as the world we can see with our eyes, and that we cannot live ignoring the invisible world." Whereas Totoro was a gentle reminder of the world outside, Princess Mononoke serves as a warning.

Miyazaki has always been clear about his goal in the past: entertainment first, lessons second. But while Princess Mononoke features his most visually appealing work to date, it was made with its messages foremost in his mind. During the round table, he elaborated: "We've made many films in the past, and our goal with those films has been to send a message of hope and the possibility of happiness to growing children." But children, he eventually realized, were quite conscious of--and worried about--the crises around them. "What we realized was that by continuing to make movies that only taught them about hope and happiness, we were in fact turning a deaf ear to their very urgent needs and pleas, and that if we did not make a movie that directly addressed their needs and pleas, we no longer would have the right to make films that would encourage them to be hopeful and happy. So we made this film knowing that we would need to step outside the boundaries of what you call entertainment; we made this film from a sense of mission."

As in his other films, he'd like for the audience to think about what they've seen. So far, he's been disappointed. "When we made Totoro, I made it so that I could encourage little children to walk out into the woods and pick up acorns. Instead, I get letters from them telling me about the dozens of times that they've watched the film, which means they're sitting in front of their television sets." He's hoping for a more profound and long-lasting effect with Mononoke: asked about Japanese children's reaction to the film, he replied, "What did they see, and what did they encounter in this film? I think you'll have to wait for about ten years for them to be able to grow up sufficiently to be able to articulate their emotions about it. I think that the last word on this film is not in yet at all."

Originally printed on Softimage's Web site (November 1999)
Eight people - eight lives - one universal groove