Gods and monsters
(Warning: article does not summarize the film's story--there are websites for that--but does go into detailed discussion of plot and narrative twists)
Call Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997) Studio Ghibli's biggest production to date; call it an attempted sequel to the 1984 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, spinning out of control and grown to monstrous proportions; call it Hayao Miyazaki's attempt to directly take on Akira Kurosawa's jidaigeki films, in particular Seven Samurai. The animation outfit would go on to bigger efforts monetarily speaking but in terms of sweep complexity ambition this may be their greatest accomplishment.
An argument I think can be made that Princess Mononoke is if anything more complex than Kurosawa's epic. Where Kurosawa sketched vivid portraits of samurai and farmers and their uneasy alliance, his bandits (basically fellow rogue samurai fighting on the opposing side) are a faceless horde, the single most memorable character--the bandit chief--marked by rifle in one hand and crescent moon helmet on the head. 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 guerrilla strikes on the humans who venture out of their fortress village; the boar clan plan an all-out assault; the ape clan keep their distance pelting beast and biped alike with pebbles and sticks.
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 and its mill for their own use; Jigo and his hunter-assassins, on a mission from the Emperor to take the head of the Shishigami--the forest's presiding spirit.
Asano (who never makes a personal appearance) can probably 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, has 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. His intelligence is limited by his mercenary greed, his vision confined to what the Emperor's gratitude can give him. As with Asano, Miyazaki seems to begrudge the character a full measure of sympathetic imagination: Jigo is amusing with hidden abilities (that we learn about belatedly) but functions as a mere villain, without a seriously considered point of view.
Lady Eboshi starts out villainous (first we see of her she's wounded Moro the wolf god in the shoulder); as the film progresses we uncover different facets of her ruthless yet 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...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 agreements with neighboring shoguns and the Emperor (Jigo of course is somehow involved) She's an enthusiastic proponent of technology, using 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 deadlier far more accurate weapon). But she also employs lepers and prostitutes--outcasts of society--as workers and craftsmen, giving them a safe place to live in exchange.
Eboshi's leadership style is a study in deft persuasion, understated manipulation, subtle social structures. The men brag and strut, throw insults at the prostitutes, loudly complain about how females are given free rein but the noise is something Eboshi merely tolerates, mostly for show; the women feel comfortable knowing the true status quo. Eboshi is on their side, with an implied goal (jokingly expressed by one leper craftsman) to create an army of rifle-bearing women on equal if not superior footing with traditional samurai; an army with which she can ultimately become a significant military and economic force in the region.
Eboshi is an evolutionary step beyond the character of Princess Kushana, particularly as found in the later issues of Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga, a formidable military commander who inspires fanaticism in her followers--Nausicaa's dark twin if you like. She answers the question that must have weighed on Miyazaki's mind: How does one 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) the smallness of her vision: her concern stops with her own community, and woe to the outsider who stands in her way. Other communities--Lord Asano's, the Emperor's realm--are to be treated with suspicion if not open hostility. The forest clans? Not human, hence not to be recognized as anything other than enemy.
That blind spot is what ultimately brings her down: given the choice between returning to Tataraba to defend its people and continuing the hunt for the Shishigami, she muses: "The women are on their own; I've done all I can for them." She sounds like a parent resigned to allowing her children to fend for themselves--or like a parent trying to justify abandoning her kids to achieve her ambition. There's a narrowing of her eyes, a glitter in her gaze that one recognizes in other figures in literature and film: in Fred C. Dobbs weighing the bag of dust in his hands; in Trina McTeague, fondling her gold coins; in Lady Macbeth, lusting for the crown. Eboshi at this point has the same affliction, the goal tantalizingly close--because what mission can be more exciting more dangerous more unaccountably rewarding than murdering a god?*
*(But then when you think about it she's had practice--mortally wounding Nago, Moro, and (presumably) Okkoto. The Shishigami however is a deity of an altogether different order; his head is reputed to grant immortality, and his death would result in unforeseen consequences)
Eboshi betrays her true state of mind in the penultimate moment when the Shishigami gazes down and causes buds and leaves to sprout on the wood of her gun's stock--tempting her if you will with a vision of burgeoning unstoppable life (the effect of the Shishigami's touch--sprouting green that as quickly withers away--makes you wonder if Miyazaki isn't familiar with J. G. Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company). Eboshi furiously tears at the leaves--she can't be distracted with such frivolities--finally gives up and fires, not even bothering to aim properly. Her bloodlust guides her true: the Shishigami's neck bursts, his head dropping to the ground.
Pausing to mention that beyond the painstakingly immersive realism (the texture of rough stone and tree grain, the sound of vines crawling out of gunstock wood) and care for details (the carefully researched look of the Emishi tribe, of the Muromachi period soldiers) there's the filmmaking--long takes that capture coherently staged action, horse charges that recall the siege gun raid and escape in the Nausicaa manga, spear-and-sword play (with a touch of superhuman strength) not unworthy of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Beyond that is Miyazaki's unmatched gift at imagery and creature design, elevating the drama of the narrative: the massive forest dotted with kodama--little tree sprites whose heads clatter like a windup rattle; the hushed cathedral-like air of the Shishigami's isle--and the Shishigami himself with his unnervingly human face (and just-as-unnerving goofy smile); the same landscape at film's end, wiped clean of old-growth trees but with bright green buds popping out of the ground everywhere. That last image incidentally encapsulates Miyazaki's thoughts on life, that it's a constant flux of death and rebirth. You can't lose something without something else taking its place, and you can't produce something new without losing something old.
Eboshi's arc from cunning but secretly benevolent leader to tragic godkiller is a major thread in Miyazaki's weave but not the only one. Alliances form and dissolve between Eboshi and the various factions, between the various forest clans, between animals and humans. San--the eponymous Hime--embodies one such alliance, the unhappy life of one neither fully human nor fully animal, her allegiance purely with the latter.
When the gods speak their voices resonate as if from out of deep caverns; the sound strikes a note of unquestioned arrogance, like a giant addressing ants. San shares some of that arrogance; she speaks of killing humans as if exterminating pests; that the words are spoken in the voice of a young girl is all the more chilling. She is a fanatic, glaring at a world composed of black and white, good and evil; shades of gray are to be ignored, if not looked upon with suspicion.
Ashitaka on the other hand sees all kinds of shades. He's the male equivalent of Nausicaa, a wanderer who relates to animal and humans alike, empathizes with them, seeks to "see with eyes unclouded by hate." He is often vilified treated with condescension for this but is rarely if ever provoked; he accepts the responses as a price for the truths he learns. He's also a keen listener and cunning observer: talking to San's adoptive mother Moro he quickly realizes her weakness (San) and prods the wolf god on the girl's future ("You must set her free! She's not a wolf she's human!"). Moro takes the bait and, attempting to justify herself, declares: "Instead of eating her I raised her as my own. My poor ugly beautiful daughter is neither human nor wolf!"
Of all the alliances mentioned the one between Ashitaka and San is arguably the most intense, and most troubled. They met in a moment of mistrust of anger (Moro had just been wounded), they are drawn to each other across vistas of carnage, they end up like all factions in an uneasy truce: recognizing that they are from two different worlds they part, with a declaration of lasting affection and a vague promise to visit regularly.
You wonder at the arrangement--are they to remain friends, perhaps with benefits? Does Ashitaka intend to someday take a wife in Tataraba, perhaps have his own family?
Another stray thought--what if Ashitaka chose Lady Eboshi instead of San? Young man mature woman--the coupling is not unthinkable, and to be honest I've often preferred sleek sophisticated ladies over blood-smeared princesses. But the even more complicated even more unhappy relationship that would result probably deserves a film all its own, and Miyazaki must have had other fish he wanted to fry.
So--San and Ashitaka. Members of different communities, different species almost, who love each other; the turbulence arises from the paradox. Perhaps the analogous relationship might be between Plaxy and her dog in Olaf Stapledon's tragic novel Sirius--a spiritual connection with physical aspects that many would consider grotesque even obscene, a hopeless incompatibility that despite everything insists on clinging together.
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 weak; she feeds him a meat jerky, but he has difficulty eating. She rips off a piece, chews on it, presses her lips to his, feeding him the well-ground mush. It's a practical gesture found in 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 profoundly erotic--a precursor to the French kiss if you like, with tongue forcing 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 motion capture or computer-generated animation) he's able to distill a thought an emotion a nuanced gesture that suggests pages. Here you instantly understand what she feels: "I'm grateful and relieved and not a little delighted in my not-quite-wakeful state; feeling protected feeling comforted I'll go back to sleep." Trust is such a given it's not even mentioned; they behave like longtime lovers or an old married couple having a brief exchange in the middle of one night in the rest of their lives.
Princess Mononoke is remembered for its outsized battles, its monumental setpieces (Tataraba destroyed, the Daidarabotchi unleashed) but truly lives (for me at least) in these throwaway little moments. One of Miyazaki's best; arguably one of the finest animated features ever made.
First published in Businessworld 7.27.18