Set at the dawn of the Iron Age in Medieval Japan, when indigenous people like the Emishi were being destroyed, and Samurais and Emperors alike struggled for power, Princess Mononoke (1997) is a fantasy-epic that shows a world sitting on the precipice of war – a war between greedy, ambitious humans and the spirits of the forest.
The film was a lot darker than many of director Hayao Miyazaki’s previous works, like My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), which were primarily aimed at children. Miyazaki was beginning to move away from these somewhat innocent stories, to reflect a darker, more sinister world – a more realistic one. He drew on the violence that he saw in the Yugoslavian conflicts of the early 1990s: “The war happened… and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn,” Miyazaki spoke woefully in an interview with Empire Magazine. “After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born [in]to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?”
Released in Japan in July 1997, Mononoke was quickly devoured by soon-to-be fans and celebrated as a work of genius just months after it premiered. By November that same year, it had been viewed by 12 million people, and in 1998 it became the first animated film to win Best Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. Twenty years on, this precious film has proven itself and its themes to be timeless.
An incredible work of art, Miyazaki wanted to create a world of both beauty and darkness. In order to achieve a better understanding of what Japan would have looked like many hundreds of years ago, Miyazaki and his team travelled to the ancient forests of Yakushima and the mountains of Shirakami-Sanchi. He was inspired by the great trees that grew there, absolute in their grandiosity and watchful silence. These would become the trees that Miyazaki carefully drew in Mononoke, the same beautifully etched trunks, plants and blooming flowers that have mesmerised audiences for twenty years. Most of the film is made up of hand-drawn cells, approximately 144,000 of them, of which more than 80,000 were personally drawn by Miyazaki. Only 10 per cent of the film is CGI – this is astounding, considering the incredible complexity and intricate detailing of the drawings. Miyazaki weaves a tapestry of animation that is unlike that of the song-singing, wide-eyed creations of Walt Disney – his work is a whole other kind of artistic genius, and this film is a testament to Miyazaki’s skill as an animator, as well as the beauty of animation.
Mononoke is an epic in all senses of the definition; the large-scale battle between nature and man, the sweeping scope and depth of the plot, and the glorious, brutal scenes that Miyazaki has conjured so craftily. The opening voice-over narrates to us that once, beast and man lived in peace – but those days are numbered. The conflict is immediate – nature is out of harmony, and the humans are surrounded by an omnipresent, untameable forest that watches them mysteriously, threateningly. Neither the forest gods nor the humans are innocent here, as ultimately, they both struggle for power.
It is only the hero of this story, Ashitaka, that remains neutral in the battle. Ashitaka is the last Prince of the Emishi people, and in the opening scenes we watch him defend them against a forest demon, a writhing mass of swarming tentacles that crawls on six legs and destroys everything it touches. Although he kills the beast, the demon touches Ashitaka’s arm, leaving him cursed – his soul and flesh doomed to die. The wise woman of the village tells him that his only chance of survival is to “see with eyes unclouded by hate,” and to visit the forests in the West, where the Great Forest Spirit may be able to cure him. This film, although focussed on protecting the environment, is also about the pollution and corruption of the soul. While the forest spirits are guided by their rage against the destructive humans, and the humans are filled with lust for wealth and power, Ashitaka’s greatest trait is that he remains unpolluted by hatred and greed – setting him apart from the spirits and mankind.
Ashitaka begins his journey from East to West, to lands unknown to him. The landscapes are stunning: he wanders across great, empty plains astride his red elk, Yakul, while clouds float indifferently above, still pools reflecting their lazy movements amidst green fields. Yet the beauty of this animated world, yet to be tampered by humans, doesn’t make this film specifically for children. Mononoke is gory, violent and full of bloody conflict. In several scenes, Ashitaka is unable to control his cursed arm, now absurdly strong, and is surprised by his own strength when the arrows he shoots decapitate men’s heads and sever whole limbs. Likewise, the film repeatedly points out in a grim, depressing tone the immorality of humans. The townspeople are willing to cut Ashitaka’s throat while he sleeps, a self-proclaimed monk announces the whole world is cursed, and people are constantly double-crossing and fighting each other. This is the grim reality of our world, something Miyazaki didn’t want to exclude from his films any longer.
Yet as the director confesses himself, there is no villain in this movie. Even Lady Eboshi, the cold and calculating ruler of Iron Town determined to kill the Great Forest Spirit and cut the forest down in order to create more iron, can be seen as compassionate. She takes in lepers and cares for them, and hires ex-brothel workers to pump her bellows; she has reasons for her destruction. Likewise, San’s character, known to many as Princess Mononoke, is ferocious in her rage towards Lady Eboshi and does everything in her power to kill her. San, the film’s heroine, is wild and passionate. Taken in by wolf gods when her parents abandoned her in the woods, she considers herself one of them, and as such, a guardian of the forest. The two women, one a cool, confident modernist, the other a heated defender of the forest, fight each other to the death. Ashitaka comes between them, shouting that a demon is inside both of them. Thus, we are reminded that to allow ourselves to be filled with hatred is to corrupt ourselves – to become demonic.
There is a magic that surrounds this film and floats through each and every frame. The intricate beauties of the moonlit forest and the wonderful, imaginative characters that preside in its realms, are enchanting. The Great Forest Spirit, a strange deer with a human face by day, and a giant, shimmering creature by night, both gives and takes. As he walks flowers bloom and then die around his feet. We are constantly touched by the film’s unsentimental beauty; like San chewing meat and then appearing to kiss an unconscious Ashitaka, while she’s actually passing the food from her mouth to his. The clear pools of the forest and silent sunlight shifting through the leaves create an atmosphere of tranquillity and pure, innocent love.
Yet the final battle between man and beast must happen, and the scenes from an ultimate war are devastating. The boars of the forest are painted in white war-paint, and charge down the mountain to unavoidable death. The skies darken and rain begins to fall. Drawing on real human conflicts, Miyazaki wanted to show that there is no beauty in war – only piled corpses and those left to remember the pain. Yet he also wanted to reveal the light within this darkness; the love that comes with hate. Thus, the love that flickers between Ashitaka and San contrasts with the hatred that both the forest gods and the humans feel. The Great Forest Spirit must die, but so too must Iron Town fall; either way, the world will never be the same again.
Mononoke is, above all else, a celebration of nature. It depicts a heightened version of it, one that encourages us to see the world through new eyes so that we can cherish it and appreciate its wonders. It’s one that we, as it’s guardians, must protect. Twenty years after the initial release of this cinematic gem, the message of this film is more relevant than ever. With global warming one of, if not the greatest, human issue of our generation, Mononoke is a reminder that we must “see with eyes unclouded by hate”, and act now if we want to save this precious planet we call home.