Reviewing Ghibli: Princess Mononoke
It’s been a good long while since I entered a proper film post on this blog, and even longer since I wrote an entry in this series. In light of what has been a thoroughly depressing week of news, I’ve decided to end my blogging hiatus. I love movies. I love writing about them. The combination makes me happy. I’m going to be back, blogging regularly, and I’m going to kick this series back into gear with the entry for a film that is both my favorite by Studio Ghibli, and my favorite film, period.
There are two lenses through which I view Princess Mononoke. The first is one of intense sentimentality. I first viewed this film when I was 13. It was airing on Starz. I had heard of it in my early forays into learning about the movies on the Internet, but aside from that I was completely unfamiliar with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. I had missed the first third of the film, which provides the bulk of its plot. Instead, I was enchanted by its rhythms, its tone and its visuals. I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening or why, but it was beautiful and strange and unlike any film I’d seen before.
Two years later, I was a budding movie lover. I was actively involved on a wonderful film discussion forum, one that I still keep up with today. Because of countless raves from my friends on this forum, I had watched Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”, and fallen in love. It was the movie I wished existed as a child and never thought it would be made. I immediately rewatched “Princess Mononoke”, and would proceed to watch it 20 more times in the next three or four years. There was something indelible, something haunting about it that I could not shake.
It is that resonant beauty, the second lens, that continue to draw me to “Princess Mononoke” to this day, and why it remains my favorite film. My favorite films are appealing like great poetry. The basic elements, the words and rhythms, are perfect, but their greatness resides in the stirrings, memories and emotions they evoke more than how they look and sound.
“Princess Mononoke” has one of the most basic plots in Miyazaki’s canon. All his films, save the virtually plotless “My Neighbor Totoro”, have more involved, zanier storylines. “Princess Mononoke” presents a three-pronged conflict in the most basic terms: man vs. nature, with the protagonist, Ashitaka, attempting to mediate. It’s the same setup as “Mononoke’s” spiritual predecessor, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” with one major change: in “Princess Mononoke”, Miyazaki decided to the nature side of the conflict more than a benevolent victim. The role of the “Nausicaa’s” Ohmu (the huge but inherently innocent mollusks at the heart of its story) is largely filled by the Shishigami in “Princess Mononoke”, a huge but benevolent god who acts as something of a MacGuffin in this story (although it turns out to be anything but). The entire plot of the film revolved around the Shishigami, and yet it resides at the periphery, as the conflict centers square on the films triumvirate of leads: Ashitaka, San (the princess of the title) and Lady Eboshi.
“Princess Mononoke’s” two female leads are the other primary divergence from “Nausicaa’s” storytelling. Lady Eboshi is the closest the film comes to having an antagonist, but her only sin is her unwavering devotion to her town. She has built a thriving community by rescuing prostitutes and lepers, and her interest in killing the Shishigami is businesslike and pragmatic, not malevolent. She wants to mine the forest and cure the lepers she has been sheltering. Miyazaki presents her desire to kill the Shishgami as clearly in the wrong (she clearly has no understanding of the potential consequences of killing a god) but it’s impossible not to empathize with Lady Eboshi in her situation.
Meanwhile, while San would normally command our automatic sympathy as protector of the forest, she is too insular to be truly heroic. The first time we see her, she kills two of Eboshi’s men. Both men were married, and we meet their grieving widows afterward when Eboshi gives them a chance to exact revenge on San. Action scenes so rarely bother with showing the ripple effect of mindless killing. San makes an attempt on Eboshi’s life that would be suicidal if not for Ashitaka’s intervention. Her desire to save her home is absolutely right, but San is as motivated by raw hatred that completely clouds her judgment.
And yes, that is a reference to the film’s unsubtle declaration of its thesis in its first act, when Ashitaka’s village elder tells him to travel west and see “with eyes unclouded by hate.” Miyazaki dabbles in restraint now and then, but he’s at his strongest when he’s at his showiest, and he can be downright didactic at times. However, he rarely lets the message overwhelm the story, and “Princess Mononoke” is a magnificent display of his strengths. He builds his characters quickly and sets them into play. He wastes no time on exposition when demonstration does so much more elegant a job. The film’s introduction of San to Ashitaka is one of Miyazaki’s greatest scenes. Ashitaka sees her across a river, cleaning her mother’s wounds by sucking out the blood. She sees him too and stares at him, her expression a mixture of intense distrust and curiosity. Miyazaki lingers on the moment, just a bit longer than it requires, before San sets off with a dismissive “leave”. The scene tells us more about San with a stare than five minutes of expository dialogue ever could.
“Princess Mononoke” is structured as a fable, but its story’s appeal is in the viewer’s curiosity in the characters. When Lady Eboshi decides to kill the forest god, it fulfills the requirements of a fable’s moral; she harms nature and unleashes terrible, unforeseen consequences. But unlike a fable, her motives aren’t telegraphed for the purposes of expressing the story’s moral. It’s entirely plausible that she kills the god. In her shoes, not knowing the potential consequences, you or I might very well have done the same thing. True fables disregard this sort of empathy for the antagonists.
Indeed, if “Princess Mononoke” has a moral, it is one of unbending empathy. Ashitaka steadfastly refuses to choose sides between San and Lady Eboshi, which earns him puzzled remarks and accusations of treachery throughout the film. While his motives are technically self-serving (he is, after all, on a deadline to save his own life) by the film’s end he is far too involved in trying to save as many people as he can for a cynical view of his character to realistically apply.
San and Lady Eboshi represent different examples of how people can compartmentalise their empathy at the expense of others, with potentially disastrous results. San’s hatred from humans is understandable, but then complete disregard for an entire group of people because of the actions of a select handful of individuals is both the root of human conflict and a precise demonstration of what it is to lack empathy in the first place. In the film’s plot, she is given the moral high ground by default, but Miyazaki resists making her a victim, and her primary complicitness in the film’s conflict, and what ultimately separates her from Ashitaka, is her inability to empathize.
Lady Eboshi, on the other hand, has an astonishing amount of empathy for someone in a medieval setting. She provides shelter and work for prostitutes and lepers, refusing to disregard their humanity like the rest of society has. There is a moment when Ashitaka is about to fly into a rage at Lady Eboshi for her destruction of San’s forest, and an elderly leper stops him. Lady Eboshi was the only person to treat him with dignity, he says. Her views, compared to thesocietal standard, are downright progressive. Lady Eboshi’s error at the end of the film lies in her ironclad pragmatism when it comes to business. Her empathy allowed her to build a thriving community where no one else would have tried, and her keen business sense turned her into an iron kingpin. The latter, however, begins to supercede the former when she desires to expand her empire. Conquest for the sake of it is, of course, incompatible with empathy. It prioritizes personal glory over the lives of others; in Lady Eboshi’s case, that includes the lives of her own people.
In that sense, the film’s lovely, ambiguous ending is rendered more bittersweet than it already is on the surface. Ashitaka remains unwavering in his quest to remain empathetic, choosing to help rebuild the now destroyed Irontown and live among its people, while still visiting San (with whom he has grown very close, and perhaps fallen in love) in the woods from time to time. San’s empathy is still childlike. Her struggle with her humanity is a focal point of the film, and she has only begun to accept it by accepting her feelings for Ashitaka. He seems to be an exception, however, and she quietly affirms her inability to forgive the rest of humanity at the end of the movie. Lady Eboshi loses her arm, her town, and most of her people. Her battle between empathy and ambition has played out, and her overzealousness backfired tragically. She resolves to rebuild, but to do a better job this time. Whether or not she is doomed to repeat her previous mistakes, or if she will build a community capable of living alongside the forces that nearly tore it apart, Miyazaki leaves unresolved, as he should. Giving Lady Eboshi total comeuppance would be a disservice to her, and spelling out her destiny would be at odds with a film that floats on ambiguous destinies and motives.
The film’s last shot is one of Miyazaki’s masterstrokes. Miyazaki often has some trouble ending his films. “Nausicaa”, wonderful as it is, has an ending resembling a train wreck of conflicting narrative ideas and incomprehensible story editing. “Whisper of the Heart” works at the end only because the charm of the characters and story prevents Miyazaki’s didactic instincts from becoming overwhelming. But the ending of “Princess Mononoke” is a shot of a single kodama, a symbol of hope emerging from destruction. It’s sentimental, but earned. More importantly, it’s a natural ending for a film about empathy. Empathy isn’t just sunshine and happiness and understanding each other and becoming friends. It’s acknowledging that, even when differences can seem overwhelming, there can still be room for progress. As long as there is life, there is hope that things can get better.