We are only one film away now from Studio Ghibli’s big Oscar-winning moment, but Princess Mononoke was the studio’s breakthrough in terms of international recognition. It goes without saying that it was hugely successful in Japan, virtually all the Ghibli films have been, but up until this point the Ghibli films were really only known to anime fans. Princess Mononoke found a wider international audience, and the next major film from the studio, Spirited Away, was a mainstream international hit.
I have to admit to being a little puzzled as to why it was Princess Mononoke that finally made international headway. Perhaps it was just the right time for it to happen, but there are a handful of Ghibli films prior to this one that are in my opinion far superior. Having said that, Princess Mononoke is fully deserving of the praise it received. It’s brilliant. But there had been even more brilliance already.
It’s international success is also puzzling because it is probably one of the least accessible Ghibli films for a Western audience. Laputa, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso and Whisper of the Heart are all much more accessible, and all preceded Mononoke. In fact, all of them are better films as well.
But perhaps that’s why it got noticed. After all, Spirited Away doesn’t shy away from Shinto beliefs. Princess Mononoke is an intensely spiritual film, and it must seem very unusual and at times quite frightening to anyone whose experience of watching animations has been confined to Disney etc. Maybe that makes it compelling.
It is also most definitely not a children’s film, and that takes a bit of getting used to for a Western audience that is used to animations being made for the whole family, or just for kids. Remarkably the UK DVD has a PG certificate. Some advice if you have kids: only let them watch it if you’re not bothered about them seeing arms being chopped off (quite a few of them), heads sliced off, and animals bleeding and drooling black slime, and those are not even the scariest bits of the film. But I often find certifications baffling, as I mentioned when looking at the Doctor Who Classic Series releases, the most violent of which has a U certificate, and includes a man’s hand being crushed until it bleeds. Anyway, the point is this is not a film that is aimed at children. Japan has a magnficent tradition of animations for adult audiences, and this is a fine example.
Although it’s violent, it’s not gratuitous. There’s a point to it. At the heart of the film is the conflict between human progress and nature. This is a major issue for everyone, but I think it is fair to say that it must weigh heavy on the minds of the roughly 80% of Japanese who follow the Shinto faith, which is so closely tied in to the natural world. The film is set during the late Muromachi period, so we’re talking somewhere between the 14th and 16th Centuries, but it is not strictly historical (Miyazaki rarely pins his films down to a particular period in history) due to the spiritual fantasy elements. It evokes the past, and that is enough. The plot concerns a brave, resourceful young man named Ashitaka, who saves his village from a boar god that has been infected by a dark curse, and himself becomes infected in the process. His quest to find a cure takes him to the heart of the forest (gorgeously animated), where he meets San, a girl who has been raised by wolves and identifies herself as a wolf rather than a human. The two of them become involved in a war between humans and nature, of which they should nominally be on opposite sides.
But it’s not that simple. Miyazaki doesn’t go with black and white morality. In fact, there is a grand total of just one irredeemable, moustache-twirling villain in all the Ghibli films, way back in Laputa. The villain here is Lady Eboshi, brilliantly voiced by Minnie Driver, and she wants to commit a terrible deed to cement her position of power and wealth: she wants to kill the spirit of the forest. Sounds pretty villainous? Not quite so much when you consider her passionate belief in the progress of humanity and the survival of her people, and also the way in which she has saved dozens of women from prostitution and given them honest employment and a happy life.
There is an important lesson here: xenophobia is destructive. Both sides in the conflict see only the annihilation of the other side as their means of survival, but war is hell, and that’s the point of the unflinching violence I mentioned before. There has to be a third way. The curse that infects Ashitaka is born of hatred, and hatred corrupts. Here the consequences are physical and visual, a strong metaphor.
So Miyazaki doesn’t show us a simple good guys vs bad guys ethos. Both sides suffer corruption and horrendous loss due to the conflict and the hatred in their hearts. The spiritualism also has a duality to it. A perfect example is the spirit of the forest. By day he is a beautiful stag, but by night he transforms into a gigantic creature from Japanese folklore known as a Daidarabotchi, said to have created much of the landscape including Mount Fuji. The duality goes further than that. Even in the day, his footsteps bring new life and also decay. The light cannot exist without the darkness, but they must balance.
Strictly speaking, the next film in the Ghibli range is My Neighbours the Yamadas, which is one of Isao Takahata’s. I’ve never seen it and it doesn’t appeal to me. A big factor in my enjoyment of Studio Ghibli films is the beautiful animation, and Yamadas doesn’t have that, and somehow I think the domestic comedy wouldn’t translate particularly well, so I’m skipping that one. Next time we will tackle the big one: Spirited Away.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 6 in particular are all completely magnificent.
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
I’ll leave you with the trailer for Princess Mononoke. The cute little creatures at the start of the trailer are the Kodema, which are very funny with their spinning, clicky heads! RP