Princess Mononoke: The masterpiece that flummoxed the US

When Princess Mononoke was first released in Japan on 12 July 1997, 25 years ago this week, it represented something of a departure for master animator and director Hayao Miyazaki. During the late 80s, Miyazaki had built his reputation (along with the success of Studio Ghibli, which he founded with fellow director Isao Takahata) on films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro; formally ambitious, thematically rich works, but generally affirming in tone and family-friendly in nature. But something changed during the 90s. Firstly, he began to bristle at the popular idea that Studio Ghibli only makes gentle movies about how great nature is. “I begin to hear of Ghibli as ‘sweet’ or ‘healing,'” he grumbles in Princess Mononoke: How the Film Was Conceived, a six-hour documentary about the film’s production, “and I get an urge to destroy it.” Yet even more significant was his growing despair of him at a world which he had increasingly come to believe was cursed.

“He used to be what he called leftist in sympathy, a believer in people power,” explains Shiro Yoshioka, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University. “But for obvious reasons [the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the escalation in ethnic conflicts across Europe]his political beliefs were totally shaken in the early 1990s.”

Japan itself was also going through something of an existential crisis. The country’s bubble period, an economic boom during the late 80s, burst in 1992, stranding Japan in a seemingly endless recession. Three years later, in 1995, the country was hit by the Kobe earthquake, the worst earthquake to hit Japan since 1922. It killed 6,000 people, and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands more. Only two months after that, a terrorist cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Miyazaki, who was sickened by the materialism of the bubble period, was now living in a country traumatized and confused – both by its relationship with nature, and a creeping sense of spiritual emptiness.

“He began to think,” says Yoshioka, “maybe I should not make this entertaining, light-hearted stuff for children. Maybe I should make something substantial.”

A new anger

Set during the 14th Century, the Muromachi period of Japan, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young prince cursed by the hatred of a dying boar god, who has been corrupted by an iron ball lodged in his body. “Hear me loathsome humans,” the boar says, “you shall know my agony and my hatred.” To seek a cure for his curse from him, Ashitaka travels across the land, hoping to find the Shishigami, a deer-like forest spirit with the power to bring life and death.

Along the way, Ashitaka discovers a world out of balance. The ironworks community of Tatara, run by the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, is ravaging the nearby forest for resources, provoking the wrath of ferocious wolf god Moro and her feral human daughter San (the titular Mononoke, which roughly translates to specter or wraith). Caught in the middle is Ashitaka, who must figure out how to navigate this difficult world with “eyes unclouded”. “I always loved that [phrase],” Gaiman says. “Unclouded by evil. Unclouded by fear, unclouded by hate. You just have to see what’s actually there.”

Compared to Miyazaki’s previous work, it is a dark and angry film, full of strange spectacle and scenes of startling violence. Hands are severed. Heads are cut off. Blood gushes from both human and animal alike. “I believe that violence and aggression are essential parts of us as human beings,” Miyazaki once told journalist Roger Ebert. “The issue that we confront as human beings is how to control that impulse. I know that small children may watch this film, but I intentionally chose not to shield them from the violence that resides in human beings.” Indeed, the cursed boar god, whose anger bursts out of him like a writhing nest of oily worms, was inspired by Miyazaki’s own struggle to control his rage.

Hayao Miyazaki is a self-confessed bundle of contradictions. Read his writings of him, listen to his interviews of him, watch him speak, and he paints a portrait of an artist caught between idealism and nihilism, optimism and despair. He is the pacifist with a fascination for war plans; the demanding boss who despises authority, yet, as a director, he wields it ruthlessly; the father who believes passionately in the spirit of children but was hardly home to raise his own from him; the staunch environmentalist who struggles to live an ecologically ethical life. “When I see tuna being hauled in on a line I think ‘wow, humans are terrible’,” he once told Japanese author Tetsuo Yamaori in 2002, in an interview republished in the 2014 Miyazaki essay anthology Turning Point, “but when someone offers me tuna sashimi, I of course eat it and it tastes delicious.”

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