Princess Mononoke was the first film by Hayao Miyazaki that I ever saw. At the time I was working as a young student in a supermarket in the weekend and a colleague talked about anime that he loved, and the word Mononoke was the only thing I could remember when I got home again. I decided to look it up. Now, many years later, what stuck with me the most is the music of the film, by composer Joe Hisaishi. In the same way that a smell can bring you back to a certain moment in time and a certain feeling, the music by Hisaishi brings up vague memories in me of lush animated forests and a sense of spirituality and childhood.
I am revisiting Princess Mononoke with a certain trepidation. Perhaps my memories have made it more beautiful than it was, and I am going to have my memories shattered.
The start of the story is creepy. A demon, a giant boar swarming with snake-like appendages attacks a village. Prince Ashitaka from the village defeats the demon, but receives a supernatural wound. He won’t heal until he finds what has made the forest gods angry. His redemption lies far to the west. So, he leaves his village to go on a long, lonely journey to find the spirit god of the forest, to heal himself and solve a deeper crisis in nature.
On Ashitaka’s journey, we see ancient Japan, thinly populated by villagers and samurai. We see stunning landscapes, accompanied by beautiful music. The film truly breathes the power and beauty of nature and beams it through the screen. The scenes of medieval Japan are a sharp contrast to the beauty of nature. There is fighting and destruction. Much war, greed and violence. The film is surely making a point here, contrasting the pure, innocent and spiritual world of nature, home of the spirits, with destructive humanity.
Lady Eboshi’s fortress seems to represent the worst of it. Industry and smoke surrounds the place. Dead trees and open soil. She delves for iron ore, metals to make more rifles. And her destruction of the forests has made the gods angry. The place is modernity and progress personified.
What makes Princess Mononoke stand out as a story is that it is more than a simple tale of good and evil, humanity against nature. There is no real evil here. I believe Miyazaki is incapable of making a story that features a real evil character. All of his stories are marked by a deep compassion and humanity. Lady Eboshi angered the gods and fights the forest spirit, but also takes care of the sick and frees prostitutes. Two worlds are coming in conflict with each other, but both have elements of compassion. The forests also have a human on their side, the enigmatic princess Mononoke. Both Mononoke and prince Ashitaka straddle both worlds of nature and humans. Love and compassion brings worlds together.
It’s a really long film, especially for an animated feature. For more than two hours, the story weaves back and forth between nature and the smoky fortress of lady Eboshi. It’s a real epic, full of complications and hard choices. There’s also lots of sadness in this story, and talk of killing animals and killing gods. I don’t fully understand why this would motivate anyone, but it happens and it is sad. There’s also lots of goo in this story. Gods explode in writhing blood or ectoplasm of some kind. The metaphysics remain unclear.
What is clear, is that this is not necessarily a children’s film. There’s great complexity in its story and there are many meanings you can take away from it. It’s so grand in scale and deals with so many topics.