Hayao Miyazaki seems to be treating his ‘90s films as a chance to do better and more ambitious variations on the kinds of films that he made in the earlier part of his career. Porco Rosso (1992) is in some respects a return to the wild and messy action of Castle of Cagliostro (1979), but the newer film is far more odd and perverse than Miyazaki’s feature debut. The great animator followed Cagliostro with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), which expanded the scope of Miyazaki’s visual aesthetic and the complexity of his animation considerably, while putting a noticeable strain on his storytelling abilities. Princess Mononoke (1997) feels like an attempt to remake those widescreen eco-themed epics, but with a considerably darker tone and less reliance on fantasy genre clichés.
The improvements over Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky are apparent from the first scenes of Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli’s animation has been improving steadily with each new project, and as gorgeous as Porco Rosso is, the new film feels like a quantum leap over it. Every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail. The epic scale of the film, which often has as much action going on in the background as the foreground, recalls masterpieces of live-action cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1966). But unlike Kurosawa or Tarkovsky, Miyazaki has the advantage of working in an animated medium where literally anything can happen. And although Mononoke is considerably more serious and grounded than Porco, it still features an embarrassment of fantastical riches, with eccentric settings and character designs populating the edges of the screen at practically every moment. Miyazaki’s early films featured breathtaking backgrounds, but the characters tended to be a bit nondescript (as seems to be customary in anime). But since Porco Rosso, Miyazaki has been lavishing as much care on the look of his heroes and villains as on the design of their dwellings. The titular character of the new film has some particularly striking early appearances in her battle garb, which includes a maroon tribal mask and a caveperson’s loincloth.
Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s most visually lavish and impressive film to date, but it doesn’t find him making many advances as a storyteller. The movie’s eco-friendly message is largely indistinguishable from those in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, and it is simultaneously unsubtle and muddled, frequently buried under an unnecessarily convoluted plot surrounding a battle over control of the forest. Here is the story, as far as I understand it: a hunter, Ashitaka, is forced to kill a demon-infected giant boar that is rampaging through his village. The demon curse is transferred to Ashitaka, whose left arm is now imbued with a super strength that will eventually overwhelm and possibly kill him or lead him to kill others. Banished from his village, Ashitaka is advised to travel to a mountain range that is the home to a forest spirit that may be able to remove the demon curse. When Ashitaka reaches the area, he is thrust into a complicated conflict involving the giant beasts who populate the forest, a town of weapon-makers, a group of prize-hunting monks, an army of samurai, and Princess Mononoke, a wolf-raised girl who has turned against her own species.
There are at least one or two too many factions involved in this conflict. While none of the characters feel as thoroughly pointless as some of the supporting figures in Miyazaki’s early films, the conflict really could’ve been stripped down to the weapon-makers and Mononoke and her animal friends, with Ashitaka caught in-between. Not even all of the animals really needed to appear in the film; as cool as the menacingly shadowy red-eyed gang of apes are, they seem to show up just to add extra color to a movie that doesn’t need any extra eccentricity, and they have no real bearing on the outcome of the final battle. The purpose of the samurai army is never entirely clear; they threaten to take the weapon-makers wares, which makes the potentially villainous craftsmen more sympathetic than they otherwise would be, but the samurai are never fleshed out enough for the viewer to care about their role in the fight.
But although Miyazaki clutters his script with too many unnecessary subplots, he does deserve credit for creating a number of vividly realized and fleshed-out characters. The weapon-makers from the industrial Iron Town feel particularly human and interesting. It would’ve been easy to turn these battle-ready people into mustache-twirling enemies of peace (as the equivalent characters in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky were), but Miyazaki makes their need for self-defense understandable by depicting the gigantic wolves and boars that populate the nearby forest as genuine threats; these are not the cuddly, anthropomorphic singing and dancing creatures of Disney films, but hungry, sharp-toothed beasts whose tempers can turn dramatically at the first sign of a threat. The denizens of Iron Town are not merely defined by their need for self-defense, either. Lady Eboshi, the leader of the town, has turned her home into a haven for some of Japan’s less fortunate citizens, with lepers and prostitutes earning a second chance in life by becoming weapons manufacturers. Although Eboshi may be misguided in some ways – and it was her hunting that unleashed the boar demon that caused Ashitaka’s dilemma – she is scarcely less sympathetic than Princess Mononoke, whose desire for vengeance against the humans who killed members of her wolf family seems simultaneously noble and insane. Mononoke is unsurprisingly revealed to have a kind heart, but she is memorably introduced as a near-feral threat with blood-smeared lips. There are no real villains in Princess Mononoke, and while this has more or less been the case in all of Miyazaki’s films since My Neighbor Totoro (1988), it is especially impressive to see that kind of moral rigor in a violent adventure film.
Princess Mononoke is perhaps the most action-packed of Miyazaki’s films to this point, and it features quite a few stunningly directed setpieces. The opening sequence involving Ashitaka’s battle with the demon-enhanced boar is as thrilling a chase sequence as exists in cinema, and the surreal details in the animation – the demon curse is depicted as a mass of worm-like figures slithering over the boar’s body as it runs at top speed – only make the action more riveting. Mononoke’s attack on Iron Town is an equally dynamic scene, with Ashitaka struggling to keep the peace between the psychotically revenge-obsessed wolf girl and the gun-happy citizens of the town. Even the incidental details of the action scenes are powerfully realized. After Ashitaka gains his demon strength, his arrow shots become strong enough to remove limbs from his attackers; the fact that Miyazaki doesn’t linger on the resulting gore only makes the action seem more visceral and brutal. The raw physicality of these scenes provides a wonderful contrast to the elegant, confidently surreal moments of tranquility, with the final appearance of the forest spirit being a particularly transcendent moment. Though Miyazaki could have edited his script down a bit, it’s hard to begrudge him a few excesses in a film where he’s finally achieved the epic fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty that he has been aiming for throughout his storied career.
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