28 March 2010

MIYAZAKI HAYAO: PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

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.

14 comments:

Philosopher of Zelda said...

I must admit when it comes to the Miyazaki cannon Princess Mononoke the magnum opus of all his films. In my circle of animation/anime fan friends almost all of us cite Mononoke as our favorite Miyazaki film (although his following film Spirited Away has its supporters). The combination of fantasy and historical elements of at turn of 15th century (the key point when industrialization of man finally began to replace nature as chief shaper of the planet) is done absolute flawlessly, with creature designs that seem both fantastical and earthy at the same time, making it seem that they actually exist in a reality closer to our own (the kodamas in particular who I find endless fascinating). A particular shot out to Joe Hisaishe score which still stands as one of the best fantasy film scores out there. Less family friendly then Miyazaki other films, most certainly, but not necessarily a bad thing as the director said himself regarding whether or not children should see this film “Children understand intuitively that the world they have been born into is not a blessed world." Is it a bloated film, perhaps a little, but if there is any film I would not care in the least if it were bloated its this film ( Howl’s Moving Castle on other hand is a different matter entirely). When it comes to explaining what the strength of traditional animation and what it can do that no other media can, this would be one of the first films I would turn to.

Meg said...

Princess Mononoke was indeed my introduction to anime, and occurred at my best friend's twelfth birthday party (I'm dating myself once again). We were so obsessed with it that the inside joke of shouting "Ashitaka!" at each other is still something we do.

So this film has enormous sentimental value as well as being, you know, a wonderful movie. I had been looking forward to your writeup.

And, I'm not sure if it's just me, but for some reason most of your screencaps aren't showing up. :(

Tim said...

Re: Joe Hisaishi.

Unfortunately, something always gets lost in these huge-ass reviews, but I should have taken the time to mention that I think it's the best of his Miyazaki scores.

GeoX said...

I first saw this as a fansub before it was officially released in the US. GOOD LORD, HAS IT BEEN THAT LONG?

Anyway, I can't help but agree with this assessment. I loved the SHIT out of the movie the first time I saw it, but future viewings have resulted in a much more muted response. I still like it, and I can't help but respect its artistry, but you're right; it IS bloated, and very, very heavy-handed to boot. Honestly, it's my second-least-favorite Miyazaki film, surpassing only Ponyo (which is the only one that I think really isn't very good).

OptimusHime said...

To respond to your request in the article, Tim, to the best of my knowledge "Mononoke" is a two-word, one participle phrase, wherein "Mono" means a tangible thing, "no" denotes that the following word is possessed by the preceding, and "ke" is a kanji referring to spirits in general.

The correct inflection of the title, as far as I can infer, is that she is the princess of all things that we can't touch, everything non-material. Certainly follows along the lines of the themes that, as you said, hits you over the head with two ton hammer in the way that is (quite literally done) to the clueless main character in many an anime. In that respect, Princess Mononoke as an English title certainly doesn't convey the meaning of the film, but the literal translation is on the nose enough that I actually don't mind it.

I do still hold this movie with very dear love of a personal, not objective matter. And between this and Final Fantasy X (a game that I hated), you will find every single environmental/creature design used throughout all of Avatar. I just had to end on that note.

Tim said...

Excellent information. Thanks!

Also, I think we should be fair: Avatar also takes a lot from Nausicaä. I haven't seen much at all from FFX, having mostly abandoned the series after FFVI (yes, I'm that guy).

Vianney said...

"it demands respect more than affection."
15 years after watching it in theaters, you put the words in my mouth.
But maybe part of it was the big marketing campaign associated with its release in theaters in France, that really amped up expectations of its epic nature.

And, could you stop agreeing with me on everything? It's the second time I read you comment on video games and the second time you speak my mind. Creep!
(you are now forbidden of ever praising Day of the Tentacle)

optimushime said...

Good point on Nausicaa.

And while I followed through on the series, IMO indisputably the best, and last great game they made was definitely FFVI.

I kind of have to replay that one every year or so.

murgatroyd314 said...

OptimusHime is breaking the word "Mononoke" down a bit further than it should be. While "mono no ke" is probably the etymological origin, it's a single word with its own meaning. A mononoke is a particular variety of evil spirit, one that possesses a victim and brings them ill fortune. I believe that the implication is that the child thrown to the wolves years ago is now a curse on the town that abandoned her.

Fluorescent Grey said...

I'm glad you wrote this because Mononoke is the only Miyazaki film i've seen and i was far from impressed. I don't come from an anime background, Akira is still probably the best anime i've seen. I'm now interested to see his other newer films they seem a lot more abstract and less trying to be some sort of homage to tolkein like fantasy

Dan said...

Although I've certainly some differences in opinion I really enjoyed reading your review. I wrote about this one myself a ways back http://drunkenwarriorpoet.blogspot.com/2010/07/princess-mononoke.html and while you and many others have mentioned the lack of flying sequence and an overall departure in tone, I can't help but think that too many people are overlooking Naussicaa in regard to not only the environmental theme but also the seriousness of it all. It's main theme might've been the environment, but Naussicaa dealt with betrayal, revenge, warfare, and death as well.

For those who have read through the manga I think this would make more sense, and trust me when I say this is indeed a Miyazaki work whose level on carnage equals Mononoke. With all due respect to the anime, it was nice but little more than a foot note in his vision for Naussicaa if the manga is any indication. This isn't to say Mononoke was all grim and lacked moments of innocent wonder either. What about the kodoma or the lighthearted scene with Ashitaka helping the forge women?

To some degree I can see how you and some others would find Mononoke a little bloated and lacking in human emotional drama since indeed this is overshadowed by the story's ecological message, but (and this is just a matter of opinion) I actually found the personalities and "human story" to be as good in this film as any of his others, perhaps not only because much of his other stories centered on children but because the drama in them was sort of "childish" in scale (Kiki's lack of confidence, Mei's running away based on a bad feeling about her mother's health). In truth, seldom do the characters in any Miyazaki's movies have anything truly devastating happen to them. The moment when the forest spirit's head comes off and the kodoma fall from the trees, however, really hit home for me as something irreversibly bad as did San's sadness and anger at that time.

On a completely different note (though one you and your other readers have mentioned) I still think FFVI was the best for what it was worth (and judging it by the standards of its time) though given the way games have advanced FFs 9,10,&12 were all great. Reason I mention, FF9 in particular feels like FF if Miyazaki had ever made one... to me at least.

Anyways, keep up the good work. I really enjoyed your review of Pom Poko as well which I only finally got around to watching last night.

SpikeGT12 said...

Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki's greatest film.

greatwriteshark said...

When I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time, I more or less agreed with your assessment-- it was a beautiful message film with an outstanding soundtrack, but was overlong and sagged with narrative detail. Also, it was WAY overhyped by my friends at the time (one friend told me that watching it had cured his anxiety disorder...) which is guaranteed to make almost any movie fail.

I still think its narrative threads are unwieldy (at one point at the end of the second act, there's something close to five separate plotlines happening at once, plus flashbacks!) but revisiting the movie six years after my first viewing, I found that that fundamentally Princess Mononoke is a story about loss.

The Emishi lose their prince and thus the continuation of their culture, the gods lose their place of respect and are killed, San discovers her humanity and loses her innocence, countless soldiers, civilians and animals lose their lives, and the story culminates in apocalyptic destruction. The movie would be depressing dreck if it weren't for the ecological metaphor, that growth always returns in the face of even the worst annihilation. I think this is the true message of Princess Mononoke, and the "why can't we live in peace with nature?" theme is in service of this rather than the other way around.

The are other potential readings: the Shishigami is a sort of Christ figure, but rather than willingly sacrificing himself to atone for the sins of the humans, the humans suffer the consequences of their own karma as he sucks life in search of his head. Then, after he is resurrected, instead of ascending into heaven, the Shishigami explodes into the material world and becomes "life itself". You could read PM as a Christian metaphor that views God as immanent instead of transcendant, or as a Buddhist metaphor that frames enlightenment as an ongoing external process instead of a personal revelation.

Not to mention the WWII connections-- the quest for the Shishigami's head is directed by the Emperor's greed, and the Shishigami dies in the unsubtle form of blinding light and destructive winds. Those who committed the sin of killing a god and suffering the consequences are not only redeemed, but are cheered by the hope of restarting their lives after the great destruction. It's little wonder that the movie was such a big hit in Japan and Germany.

tl;dr Princess Mononoke is a more complex movie than it may first appear.

Pan Miluś said...

Next to "Kiki's Delivery Sercice" and "Totoro" my favorite of all Hayao Miyazaki films!!!