We're ten films into this Miyazaki Hayao retrospective now, and so far I've said barely a word about how they've been made; and it's worth discussing, because it's fairly special, and explains why thus far I've made so freely with "Miyazaki did this" and "Miyazaki did that", despite the fact that one usually doesn't treat feature-length animation using auteur theory. The reason we get to in the case of a Miyazaki film is that he oversaw the production of literally every cel of key animation; and if he didn't like one, he personally redrew it. In the case of tonight's subject, Princess Mononoke, that translates to 80,000 out of a total of 144,000 frames that the director personally approved (though by no means did he himself draw 80,000 frames - we'd still be waiting on the film if that were the case). That level of control - call it micro-managing if you like, I'll not stop you - is not just rare: to my knowledge, no other filmmaker working on the same scale has ever come close to that level of direct personal involvement in the creation of the animated features he put his name to. This, I shouldn't wonder, is the very reason that Miyazaki films are so uniform in quality, and so deeply felt.
Now, there's a reason that I've finally brought all this up, because Princess Mononoke was the last film produced this way. It was completed when Miyazaki was 56 years old: not a decrepit old fool but neither a spring chicken with something to prove. At any rate, he was old enough that he didn't want to indulge in that kind of draining, labor-intensive filmmaking any more, and he indeed announced that he'd be retiring from features altogether after Princess Mononoke came out. This didn't happen, of course, but he has not since then involved himself so deeply in any project. Indeed, he first intimated that he'd retire from features altogether, a threat he repeated after his next two pictures as well.
So: Princess Mononoke, the last all-Miyazaki Miyazaki film, in a sense. And what a confoundingly uncharacteristic film at that. If I were to summarise all of the previous subjects we've seen in this retrospective, one of the key things that would surely crop up would be the director's commitment to a sort of innocence. Even at their most adult (the political undercurrent in Porco Rosso, the post-apocalyptic warfare in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), his films still have enough amazement in them, and enough delight at the worlds they've created, that even the ones that aren't clearly "children's" films are still at heart the kind of fable that is family-friendly, if not family-geared. And does this thread continue on in Princess Mononoke?
No, it does not.
When Princess Mononoke opened in the United States in 1999, it became the first anime for a whole lot of us Americans; anecdotally, I might be inclined to call it the greatest anime gateway drug of all time. But without being readily compared to Miyazaki's earlier films - which most of us had barely heard of, and never seen - it's not so jaw-droppingly obvious that this is a damn dark movie, darker by far than anything he'd previously done. And I don't just mean that it's violent.
Okay, I kind of mean that it's violent. But even more than that, there's a grim seriousness to the whole film that is light-years removed from the fable-like nature of nearly all of Miyazaki's earlier stories; not just the obvious fairy tales like My Neighbor Totoro, but even a gung-ho bedtime story adventure such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Out of all his films, only Nausicaä (and perhaps the short "On Your Mark") has a similar approach to creating a world of social and political tensions in which real violence and warfare is a genuine possibility, and Nausicaä still has moments of unbridled whimsy and playfulness. It's no accident, I suspect, that Princess Mononoke is the very first Miyazaki film that completely lacks his signature, flight or flying machines - invariably a signifier in his work of the ecstatic possibilities of the unexplored horizon. There is no ecstasy in this film, which despite possessing some of the most beautiful landscapes in any Miyazaki film, is nevertheless rooted in mud and earth, flesh and blood. It is a profoundly physical film, for animation, fixated on bodies and their location in space and their destructability, even the bodies of gods.
Before I get to the story, let me bitch about the English-language title a moment; technically, Princess Mononoke is a very literal translation of もののけ姫 (Mononoke-hime), though it has the deeply unfortunate implication that there is in the film a princess named Mononoke, and the translated script, both in the dub and the subtitles, don't exactly contradict this. But if I am not mistaken - any help from Japanese speakers would be outstanding - the sense of the title is closer to "Princess of the Mononoke", where mononoke is a Shinto concept that we don't really have in English, but I gather it's something close to "nature spirits". I can certainly appreciate why Princess of the Nature Spirits isn't marketable - I still find it irritating.
In approximately the late 15th or early 16th Century on the island of Honshū, one of the last villages of the dwindling Emishi people is attacked by a demon: a boar god that has been overrun by some kind of worm. The Emishi prince Ashitaka (Matsuda Yôji) is able to repel the demon, but in the process the worm-substance attaches itself to his arm, infecting him; the village elders agree that he shall assuredly die unless he can find a cure in the west, whence the creature came. He journeys on his red elk Yakul, meeting a nomadic monk called Jiko (Kobayashi Kaoru), who tells him of a forest god nearby who may be able to help. Ashitaka is eager to find this god, but when he arrives in the region, things are all in disarray: the forest is besieged by the residents of Iron Town, an important smelting community led by Lady Eboshi (Tanaka Yûko). The forest will not take the humans' aggression quietly though, and its chief defender is a wolf god named Moro (Miwa Akihiro), and her human daughter San (Ishida Yuriko), locally known as mononoke-hime. Ashitaka's loyalty is torn between the Iron Town humans whose fragility in the wild moves him, and the forest, which he recognises as a primeval force greater by far than the simple imperial need for firearms. Thus is the stage set for a horrible battle between the forces of industry and nature, that will surely result in grave casualties on both sides.
This much is true: we're squarely in Miyazaki Country thematically. This is, indeed, a somewhat pushy message picture when you get right down to it, and the message is one that the director had been referencing ever since Future Boy Conan, 19 years earlier: the environmental cost of technological advance is dire, and probably not worth paying, but nor can you just flip a switch and stop technology. You could fairly argue that Princess Mononoke is a bit didactic about this, but at the same time, Miyazaki is far too great a storyteller and entertainer to channel his inner Bertolt Brecht. The film is also a rich - appallingly rich! - fantasy adventure, though the fantasy elements are somewhat subdued by the fact that it's also an historical epic (at 134 minutes, it's comfortably his longest film), taking place in a mythic past where the line between history and folklore starts to blur, and what we might call "magic" in Western film is really more the animist traditions of Shinto belief, freed by the distance of history to be an active part of the everyday world. Not that I want to commit the sin of suggesting that all Japanese filmmakers are equals, but it calls to mind more than anything the jidaigeki (period films) of Kurosawa Akira, especially the ones where the paranormal is given free reign, like Throne of Blood; or maybe I'm just being unduly influenced by how much Princess Mononoke quotes visually from Kurosawa's depictions of historical warfare.
Really, though, Princess Mononoke is most heavily indebted to the epic filmmaking traditions of all countries, which since time immemorial have made their various breads and various butters out of the fetishisation of the vista and the long-vanished details of historical civilisations.
If the screenshots haven't made it plain yet, let me go ahead and say it: Princess Mononoke is stupefyingly gorgeous - probably the most beautiful of all Miyazaki's films, in terms of sheer grandeur. And if that weren't enough, it also has one of the most intensely controlled visual schemes of the director's career as well. There is a significant use of color to define narrative moments (whenever you see red, human depravity is nearby), a very deliberate use of lighting effects to suggest subtleties of emotion, and a careful alternation between wide shots and close-ups that keeps the epic scale of the world from dwarfing the human characters. For Miyazaki is as always an essentially humanist filmmaker, and he does not here abandon his chief concern that his stories must be about the human toll of events; in this case, the intractable divisions between human industry and nature are even more tragic because of the personal crises they beget.
I cannot lie, though: the humanism in Princess Mononoke is strained to me, perhaps even forced, something never before seen in a Miyazaki film. I think that if it weren't so unbearably luscious, I might have a difficult time liking it much at all: the very grim seriousness of the message, and the director's earnest use of epic film tropes, tend to leave the movie rather too grand for the simple personal narrative that has always been the heart and soul of his work. To put it another way, there is a personal narrative, but Miyazaki is doing everything he can to subvert it, with his scope and his nightmare-fuel imagery.
He was trying something new, and that deserves all of our respect; but in his bid for grandeur, he lost sight of what he does better than just about anyone. Princess Mononoke is a bloated film - there, I said it, and it doesn't feel very good to do so. Endlessly beautiful without a doubt, and clearly a sincere passion-project - no other filmmaker would devote so much majesty to what boils down to a moralistic fable about environmentalism - but the soulfulness that makes Miyazaki's best work so emotionally moving seems, to me, not absolutely present. Which is another way of saying that it's not completely absent, and I really, really like Princess Mononoke. But I do not love it. It is too ambitious, too sure of its own vastness to love it; it demands respect more than affection.