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Reviewing Ghibli: The Wind Rises

There is an amusing line early on in The Wind Rises that might hint as to why Hayao Miyazaki retired (yes, we’ve heard it before, but let’s go with it for now).

The film often uses a narrative device in which film’s protagonist, aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi dreams about meeting with his hero, Italian engineer and plane designer Giovanni Caproni. Dream-Caproni advises the young Jiro that “artists are only creative for ten years. Make the most of your ten years.”

Another line, again involving an engineer Jiro idolizes, goes the other way. Jiro and his friend and fellow engineer Honjo are lamenting how they may never catch up to the genius of German engineers Hugo Junkers, whose designs they envy artistically, whom the Japanese military envies for other reasons. Even if they make great advances themselves in five years, Jiro says, that’s five more years for Junkers to continue to innovate.

You could apply both these lines of thought to Miyazaki’s career in many ways, and it’s not hard to imagine that Miyazaki is engaging in at least a little bit of self-reflection. Perhaps Miyazaki feels that he is long overdue to call it quits, his career as a director having spanned 35 years now. His most praised film, Spirited Away, was released 12 years ago. His filmography stands against any contemporary director’s. If artists have a ten year peak, it’s easy to imagine Miyazaki sees himself as having had his, and that it’s finally time to wind down.

Or perhaps he sees himself as Junkers, driven to continue setting the bar for other artists to follow. Perhaps that’s why he has continually come out of retirement. There’s always one more idea, one last work of art.

That’s all conjecture over a couple throwaway lines, of course. But they stuck with me after seeing The Wind Rises for a reason. It is Miyazaki’s most personal film, a film by a man in love with flight and creating beauty about a man obsessed with both those things. It also is emblematic of Miyazaki’s most triumphant qualities as a filmmaker and, on occasion, his biggest pratfalls. I don’t know if The Wind Rises is a grand success for Miyazaki or a more mid-level one; it’s simply too fresh on my mind. Such are its weaknesses that I left thinking that this could easily have been the perfect film that it is not. But such are its strengths that it is his first film since Spirited Away to linger so vividly on my mind afterwards.

This is Miyazaki’s first film with no fantasy elements. And if it is his last film ever, that’s a shame; his signature touches make for a wondrous translation of the real world into his animated realms. I often see western critics puzzled by the increased likelihood of anime to take place in a world that does not require animation. Why not just film it?

But live-action-as-default is no less arbitrary than choosing to animate something. All films attempt to create a world we want to spend our time in. Live-action is no less fiction than animation. And I cannot imagine any current live-action director using the screen as a canvas like Miyazaki does here.

At times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the corners of the screen, which were continually brimming with detail, nature, people going about their lives, colors, life. Miyazaki has never been one for a static canvas, but he outdoes himself with this film, which balances the calm demeanor of its protagonist with a screen that never stops moving.

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Miyazaki constructs some virtuosic scenes here. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is portrayed vividly, with the quake literally rippling across the ground like a shockwave. The scene plays out at length, allowing Jiro to meet the character who is both part of the film’s centerpiece, and ultimately its biggest problem. A young girl named Naoko is traveling on the same train as Jiro when the quake strikes, and Naoko’s maid is injured. Jiro helps them reach safety in a sequence both patient and urgent, observant of the devastation of the quake as it focuses on Jiro’s single-minded aim to rescue these particular people.

Of course, Jiro eventually meets Naoko again. They fall in love almost instantly. Naoko is also sick with tuberculosis, and spends much of the film bedridden. Without divulging too much, I saw Naoko as a missed opportunity for Miyazaki. Once she returns to the film, she is given little to do but be supportive of Jiro. Actions take place off screen that I regretted weren’t given their own scenes. At one point, Jiro’s younger sister Kayo (a classic Miyazaki scene-stealing supporting character) visits them. She tells Jiro that she has become close with Naoko. Their friendship is essential to one of the film’s most significant scenes. Couldn’t we once have seen Naoko and Kayo on screen together? Such a scene wouldn’t have disrupted this patient and observant film, and done far more for giving their friendship weight than Miyazaki telling us about it. It’s an odd misstep for Miyazaki to underwrite a character as significant to the story as Naoko.

Jiro has more than his share of scenes that do little more than show him forging relationships and friendships. These scenes are uniformly pleasurable. An array of characters fill the screen, none of them throwaways. But Naoko is not just a supporting player; she is a character of huge significance to the story. The film suffers for her being shortchanged.

Issues with Naoko’s writing aside, the film nails the element at its heart: the wonder of flight. Miyazaki has never hid his love for flight, and here he has finally composed his love poem to it. He views Jiro as a humble artist, aching to create the work of art that he envisions so clearly in his head, and dismayed that his creations are going to be used in warfare.

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The Wind Rises hums along, avoiding a typical plot arc. There isn’t a single villainous character. Naoko’s battle with tuberculosis provides more drama than the central plot. Jiro simply wants to make things fly, and fly beautifully. And every time they do, it is a triumph, for him and for us. And unfortunately, what makes his planes beautiful is also what makes them appeal so much to military forces. He speaks of making a perfectly smooth, light plane, minimizing air resistance. He casually says that guns would weigh the plane down too much, so they can be discarded. He doesn’t seem to, or chooses not to, grasp that for armies and air forces, the guns are the  point; the planes are merely their flying mounts.

If Miyazaki has ever had a fairly consistent weakness, it’s been plotting his arcs and ending his stories on the right note. Miyazaki has no equal at constructing worlds and setting them into motion. But sometimes, he has some trouble knowing when and how hard to hit the brakes. The Wind Rises’ loses its footing in its last scene. It addresses the plot elements that need to be addressed and then ends. It doesn’t quite have the gravity that its overlying tone of deep regret demands. And its final message, exemplified by the Paul Valery quote that gives the film its name (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) doesn’t have as much impact without that gravity to rise against.

This is uneven, imperfect Miyazaki. But it is also gorgeous, bittersweet, haunting Miyazaki. It’s one of his most flawed films. But films are not tests. We don’t add up a tally of right and wrong answers and arrive at a final score. It’s his most unforgettable film in years. And I mean that in a literal sense. When I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time, I couldn’t sleep that night, its images so stirred my imagination. The Wind Rises has not left my mind. It could have, should have, been better in many ways. Most of the time, it’s a reminder that Hayao Miyazaki’s films contain uncommon grace and beauty. I didn’t want to leave this world he had created, even if, for once, it was my own.

(all media from the official The Wind Rises tumblr)

Past Reviewing Ghibli entries:

Spirited Away

Princess Mononoke

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Whisper of the Heart

My Neighbor Totoro

Reviewing Ghibli: Spirited Away

When I began this series of reviews last year, I intended to review this film, that holds such importance to me as a lover of movies, last.

And then Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement yesterday

Yes, I know it’s not the first time. It’s the third time, I think. But I think this one is going to stick. He’s 72 years old, and would probably be 75 or 76 should he finish another film. He has given us opuses and visual operas the likes of which we might never see again. His most recent film, The Wind Rises, is by most accounts a quiet and personal film for him. As actual retirement goes, this seems about right.

So screw it, I’m writing about Spirited Away.

And, fair warning, this is going to be a less polished piece than I usually write. This film means so many things to me that I’m not going to bother trying to tie everything into a neat thesis. I just recommend that only people who have seen the film read on, because I imagine that will help make sense of things.

Unlike Princess MononokeI have no trouble describing why I revere this so very deeply revered movie. And lord, is it revered. Spirited Away established Miyazaki as one of the finest filmmakers in the world in any medium. It gave him his biggest international hit (it held the world record for the highest-grossing non-English language film until The Intouchables broke it last year) and his Academy Award (still the only Animated Feature Oscar to go to an anime).

Spirited Away occupies my top tier of Ghibli films, joined by Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, and Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart.

All of these films light up different parts of my brain and my heart and my soul. Princess Mononoke inspires reflection and awe; My Neighbor Totoro, delight; Grave of the Fireflies, grief; and Whisper of the Heart warmth.

Spirited Away generates a feeling that cannot be described in a single word. Many people have attempted. Perhaps the most common word you’ve seen describing it is “enchanting”, or perhaps “beautiful” or “dazzling”. It is all of these things.

But my reverence for Spirited Away is less for its visual splendor, and more for the sense that Miyazaki achieved something totally uncanny: he made the film I had always hoped to see as a child, and never thought could actually be made, the movie that visualized my daydreams and nightmares.

He made a movie more true to the spirit of a child’s imagination than any other fantasy. He started on this path with Totoro, but to commit to it completely, he’d have to make the film scarier, bigger, more immersed in the worlds of spirits and gods and things that adults grow out of seeing. My Neighbor Totoro imagines a magical world existing alongside ours. Spirited Away tumbles headlong into its maw.

At his best, Miyazaki completely disregards the notion of the obligatory. Many films are little more than obligatory elements stitched together into two-and-a-half hours of footage. Obligatory, boring characters in an obligatory, boring story with obligatory action scenes thrown in to keep you interested even if said action is filmed with little skill or excitement.

Spirited Away is blessedly devoid of exposition. Chihiro, the heroine, doesn’t have the luxury of convenient explanations, so why should we? And what a joyful thing that is. Spirited Away is a bull rush of a movie at its outset, throwing Chihiro into a world worse than she could possibly have dreamed before, and forcing her into immediate survival mode. Within minutes of her stumbling into this world of gods and monsters, she is employed at a magical bathhouse, her parents ready to be turned to pork, and there’s no apparent way out. Your move, Chihiro.

This film shows Miyazaki in total command of his instrument. Every scene is robust and assured, moving the story forward, telling us about this world, these characters, showing us something he knows we have never seen before. Earlier this summer, I wrote about my disappointment with Monsters University, and how a good film can still be unsatisfying if it could easily have bucked convention doesn’t bother to try. Spirited Away has so little regard for the conventions that held Monsters University  back, and is such an immersing experience, that it achieves greatness without seeming like it’s trying. It’s not a complicated film. Greatness often isn’t complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a vision and committing to it, without being bogged down by the particulars.

It is a dazzling film, but Miyazaki’s loving attention to detail is as crucial to its success as its grandeur. I remember talking about this film with my sister, and she mentioned how she loves one moment when Chihiro ties her hair into a ponytail. She actually ties it, her fingers working her hair through a hairband in a split second, quick but clearly visible. Miyazaki didn’t need to throw in the extra frames to make this sort of detail realistic, but finding truth in Chihiro as a character, down to the smallest actions, makes her journey through this world all the more gripping.

On numerous other occasions, I’ve spoken to people who, without prompt, mentioned a throwaway moment where Chihiro is putting on her shoes, and she taps her toe against the ground to make sure the shoe is on all the way. Miyazaki relishes these moments, which are a hallmark of Studio Ghibli animation. I mentioned before how full of movement the characters in Whisper of the Heart; their physical actions are not purely reactionary to something we can see. Much like Shizuku in that film, Chihiro is a character chock full of movement and unconstrained emotion.

It’s interesting that for a film that is easily Miyazaki’s most lauded, Spirited Away is at times his most sentimental. The film is rather unabashed about Chihiro’s deepening friendship with Haku being her primary motivation for her actions in the film’s last third. And one scene that I’ll get to in a moment is simultaneously one of the sappiest and most triumphant in any Ghibli film.

The film doesn’t lean on sentimentality, it’s just not afraid to acknowledge it when it’s appropriate. Miyazaki’s command of this story allows him to both break from the plot when he feels he needs to (defying conventional storytelling) and delve into sentimentality, knowing his story has earned it (or transcend conventional storytelling).

The film’s two best scenes are brilliant examples of this dichotomy working in tandem. The first is the oft-mentioned sequence where Chihiro and her motley crew of companions (including the legendary No-Face, who is very good at spinning thread like that) go on a train ride. This scene is a perfect illustration of storytelling detatching from the plot. As a plot point, the scene could be described as “Chihiro takes a ride on a train”. But the scene lingers, and lingers, and lingers. It acts as a visual tone poem, both eerie and soothing.

The train is full of shadowy passengers. We don’t know who they are, any more than we do the fellow commuters we might encounter on a long train ride. The train tracks are laid on top of a body of water and cut through a series of environments that show us a world much, much bigger than just the bathhouse. We pass an island with a single house on it, and many passengers come and go, all looking like clothed silhouettes. At one point, Chihiro focuses on a girl, a small shadow dressed in a pink skirt. Who are these people? We don’t know. They are just part of the world Miyazaki has constructed and he is showing them to us because, well, the film is better for it.

In the other scene, one of intense sentimentality, Chihiro suddenly remembers Haku’s name as they fly back to the bathhouse at the film’s end, which will allow him to be freed from serving Yubaba. More than that, she remembers that, as a toddler, Haku, a river god, had saved her life when she’d fallen into a river. Chihiro and Haku fall through the sky together as Joe Hisaishi’s triumphant theme plays. The scene would be corny as hell if it weren’t so completely earned. In the train scene, Miyazaki lets the film breathe. In the “name scene”, Miyazaki goes for the heartstrings, knowing it’s what we want and, more importantly, it’s what the characters deserve.

Yes, the film’s story is its driving force, but it’s the sights that linger on long after it is over. The barrage of stunning sights would seem surreal, except they continually serve logical purposes within their universe. It reminds me of how differently I perceived dreams as a child. Today, I awake from an unusual dream and think how the strangeness should have been a giveaway that it was a dream in the first place. As a child, what I dreamed while asleep was not all that different from what I perceived when I daydreamed.

Spirited Away is the film that will define Miyazaki’s career, and it’s the right one to do so. Ask ten people what their favorite Miyazaki film is, and you might very well get ten different answers. But Spirited Away is both his most universal story and the clearest, strongest demonstration of his artistic voice. Movies so often reduce the experience of children to noise and crude humor. Spirited Away speaks to truths about childhood we so often forget: that the things we know as adults are myths and fables are as real to us as children as they are to Chihiro. And it shows us that, just maybe, what scared us within our imaginations as kids might actually astound and enchant us as adults. If only we could remember what we imagined.

Reviewing Ghibli: the music of My Neighbor Totoro

After a busy day at Anime Boston, I’m too tired to watch AND review a new anime film like I hoped to do every day. So to fill the void, here’s my next entry in my Reviewing Ghibli series: the relentlessly charming “My Neighbor Totoro”.

There are two authorities on film I trust more than any other: the late Roger Ebert (goes without saying), and my 14-year-old sister Rosie (whose knowledge of old Hollywood cinema is pretty astounding).

Ebert listed Totoro in his esteemed “Great Movies” collection (one of three Ghibli films in the list; “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Spirited Away” are the others). Ebert, in one of my favorite lines of his, said of the film: “Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile.” My sister described it as one of the few films she loved as a small kid that makes her as happy today as it did then.

Those two observations sum up the unique appeal of this film. In his recent, brilliant speech at the San Francisco Film Society, Steven Soderbergh expressed fear that the increasing reliance on overseas grosses in Hollywood, and appealing to as many people as possible around the world (let alone just the USA), is leading to more watered down, uninspired movies. Films are increasingly sterilized to be as generic, and easy to market, as possible. It’s a legitimate concern, and I encourage anyone to read the speech in full.

But not to stray. I bring the Soderbergh speech up because with “My Neighbor Totoro”, Hayao Miyazaki created one of the most universally appealing of films, a movie that still is as imaginative and unique as anything else in his canon. In this case, the appeal stems not from homogenization, but in mining the truths of childhood or, more accurately, in his crafting of the most honest child’s-eye-view of the world the movies have seen. The film is enchanting, yes, but it’s also full of moments that will ring true to anyone who remembers what it was like to truly believe in monsters, magic, and catbuses.

To dismiss (playing devil’s advocate) “My Neighbor Totoro” as cutesy and childish is to willfully ignore its craft. I talk a lot about rhythm in film, and I swear that I’m not crossing streams. Watching a movie that is on a plot-based autopilot is like listening to song without rhythm or melody. “My Neighbor Totoro” has plenty of both. It finds its rhythm section in its day-to-day observance of the lives of its characters. I love when films let us learn about characters through observations detached from the main plot. “My Neighbor Totoro” tells us more about the sisters Satsuki (older) and Mei (younger) in a scene in which they race through their new house than any amount of expository dialogue could. Satsuki opens and closes doors and windows and Mei, as younger siblings do, tries desperately to keep up and copy her older sister’s every move. Rather than impose his own rhythm on these characters, Miyazaki observed them as actual people, and found a rhythm in their lives.

The film’s finds its melody as a showcase for Miyazaki’s unmatched imagination. Has there ever been a filmmaker capable of conjuring such images as Miyazaki, and then fitting them seamlessly into a story? The Totoros are timeless characters. They lack dialogue, but they are full of expression, movement, and sound. Their motives and day to day routines are mysterious. Miyazaki never tries to explain why these creatures do what they do. The girls don’t care, so why should he?

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I find pointless explanations a bane of good storytelling. If you’re explaining something for the sake of it, then you have begun to miss the point. Satsuki and Mei instantly accept their new friends, and why not? They are completely non-threatening, and can summon trees from mere saplings. Miyazaki also resists the urge to even suggest that the Totoros are simply figures from a dream, or worse, to have the girls’ father try and dissuade them from their belief in the Totoros.

The girls’ adventures with Totoro and his Totoro-minis are a distraction for them from their mother’s illness. The exact nature of the illness is not elaborated upon, nor is it played for much drama, aside from the occasional panic caused by misheard information. Like much else in this film, it is simply a part of their lives. They deal with it as they must.

And yes, part of dealing with it involves their fun with their new fuzzy pals. But these interludes are not played for sentimentality. Miyazaki is relishing in the sheer joy of his creation. These characters could be interacting under any circumstances. The scenes are not a dramatic device or a sugar dispensary. They exist because because, in the world of this film, they could happen. They are the melody, floating in time with the film’s rhythms.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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“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.

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Featured photo source

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