Andrew Osmond celebrates Miyazaki’s green movie on Blu-ray
In Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, the hero is a warrior youth in a mythical, medieval “Japan” not yet a nation; rather it’s a fantasy bordering on Middle-Earth and the Wild West. Clear-eyed Ashitaka’s village is attacked by a monster, a massive bellowing boar that initially resembles a spider, made up of foul black worms leaping and writhing through the wilderness. Mostly hand-animated, the creature looks as unique as it sounds. Ashitaka slays the boar, but is cursed with a deadly scar. So starts his journey, as he rides out over a sweeping green landscape to learn what brought the monster home.
Ashitaka is young and earnest, but muted; he adds little colour to the world he travels. In Miyazaki’s previous Porco Rosso, a romantic teen girl wished a grumpy old fighter pilot would live up to the stories she’d heard of him. In Mononoke, on the other hand, the innocent Ashitaka seems like a storybook figure even within the film’s fantasy. The worldlier support characters view him with amusement and fascination (he even picks up girl groupies). It’s indicated that Ashitaka is from an ancient tribe, already lost to Japanese history.
The film’s forests are haunted by tree-spirits in the shape of capering white homunculi. Gods take the shapes of great wolves, boars and deer. A translucent giant strides through woods like an ethereal Godzilla while the spirits rattle their pebble heads. Amid the wonder, there’s mythic violence; Ashitaka’s curse lets him remove a bandit’s arms with an arrow. The violence is fleeting (the film was rated “PG” in Britain without cuts) but this isn’t Spirited Away or Totoro.
The wolves have raised a girl, Mowgli-style; she is San, or the Princess Mononoke (“Mononoke” means ghost or phantom). Ashitaka sees her by a river; her giant wolf mother has been shot, and San buries her face in its neck to suck out the poisoned blood. It contrasts with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where Belle bathed the Beast’s wounds to stop him licking them like an animal. San’s feral femininity is “naturally” sexual; Mononoke’s Japanese poster depicted her bloody glare. The gentle Ashitaka finds her heartbreaking, the yearning music telling his tale.
Yet San is limited too. She has the most power when she wears a clay face-mask, charging down a steep rooftop to attack the humans she hates. She and Ashitaka share only a few scenes that constitute a love story. They aren’t unmoving, but they’re distanced by the mythic tone, even when Ashitaka guilelessly calls San beautiful while she holds a knife to his throat. Like many Disneys, the leads are upstaged by everything else: earthy humans, angry monsters and the forest’s mossy secret heart suggesting a cathedral and a womb.
Miyazaki traverses Mononoke in bold cuts, from a deer god padding silently on water to a samurai battle, or from charging monsters to a close-up of rain on stones. The film is about the conflict between humans and the elemental forces of nature, which Miyazaki had presented before in his 1984 film, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. Nausicaa had a radically different setting, an alien Earth of huge fungi and insects, but in both films, the idealist hero sympathises with the natural forces, while an older warrior seeks to destroy them.
That sounds like the plot of James Cameron’s Avatar, but Miyazaki’s “older warriors” are tough women with strong morals. Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi is the decorous revolutionary head of a frontier foundry town. By the time San attacks, we know Eboshi saves prostitutes and tends to lepers, so we don’t know who to root for. The neutral telling is reminiscent of Miyazaki’s rival director, Mamoru Oshii, especially in the long passages where Ashitaka hears both the gods and humans present their causes.
One difference between Mononoke and Nausicaa is that the earlier film had a charismatic title heroine, voiced with gusto by Sumi Shimamoto. Mononoke splits Nausicaa into San and Ashitaka; San gets her love of nature, Ashitaka her fairness. But Nausicaa’s charisma stays with Shimamoto, who returns in the Japanese voice-role of Toki, a feisty townswoman. She steals several moments, but her presence highlights what Miyazaki gave up for his reflective mythmaking. Several of the other Mononoke actors are famed outside animation. The most striking is the cross-dressing “actress” Akihiro Miwa, who voices wolf-mother with a chilling laugh.
Many Miyazaki fans prefer Nausicaa to Mononoke, though neither film is wholly satisfactory. Miyazaki’s vision can outstrip his resources; some of Mononoke’s later scenes, for example, have backgrounds that are jarring mixes of static, hand-animated and computer-mapped drawings. Miyazaki’s definitive epic remains his thousand-page comic version of Nausicaa, written from 1982 to 1994 and translated in seven volumes. It was here that some of Mononoke’s images – the foul curse-worms, the girl who selflessly sucks the blood of another – first originated.
Princess Mononoke is out on UK Blu-ray from Studio Canal.