“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.
Having watched and become enraptured by six of the Studio’s films, I approach the titans of Ghibli (and indeed of the anime genre) with an air of excited timidity. When prompted, fans occasionally talk of Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro, but nearly everyone becomes a wide-eyed animation loon when Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away weasel their way into conversation. Could the universal adoration of these films be what ruins them for me? Might it be possible that they fall short of the hype?
The short answer is, of course not. Global adoration is rarely achieved via tenuous means, and Princess Mononoke certainly did not gain its reputation through nearly 20 years of miscalculation. One of Hayao Miyazaki’s most narratively-cohesive films, and certainly his most brutal, Princess Mononoke teaches a hard lesson about the battle between man and nature, where both sides must concede some ground in order to strike a harmonic balance in the world.
Like Ferngully: The Last Rainforest‘s pollution-fed demon, Hexxus, a rampaging harbinger of death rages through an ancient forest, browning grass and killing trees as its shapeless form races through the wilderness. Eventually brought down by the courageous Ashitaka, the writhing ball of serpents reveals its true self (a Boar god driven mad with pain) to the capable archer before imparting him with a deadly curse. Forced to search the land for a cure, the young Ashitaka leaves his peace-loving village with the small hope of finding someone who can lift the curse before it kills him. Landing in Irontown (they make a lot of iron), Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of a battle raging between the industrialized town’s leader, Lady Eboshi, and a freedom fighter of the forest, the legendary Princess Mononoke.
A Kurosawan legend with the same penchant for violence, Princess Mononoke is unafraid to show mankind at its worst; whether slaughtering hoards of innocent woman and children, depleting lands for resources or devising ways to betray one another, the humans of this film are deeply, deeply flawed. Nature too has its uncaring blindness towards death and suffering, but the human element is immediately made to be the one at fault. Until Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, shows her true colors. A brash, and perhaps too highly valued a leader, Lady Eboshi’s tenacity for conquering the wilderness is only superseded by her passion for putting people first. Recognizing that many men can be careless and unforgiving, this chieftain has paid for the release of sex laborers, provided housing/work for the cursed and brought safety to a village of adoring, obedient subjects.
The antithesis to Lady Eboshi’s human-obsessed existence is the adopted San (Princess Mononoke). Taken in by the Wolf God Moro and her pups, San has abandoned her human roots and fights only to see her own kind wiped off of the planet. Living by natural law, in all of its indifference, these nature spirits (and through their influence, San) care only for the balance and harmony provided by the Great Forest Spirit; when death comes, one must accept fate and go peacefully into the void.
Princess Mononoke explores this gaping chasm between nature’s gentle acceptance of circumstance and humanity’s steadfast refusal to quietly accept death. Although she is the titular hero of the film, San is every bit as unlikable as Lady Eboshi. Like the opposite sides of a hardened iron coin, San and Eboshi battle it out for their respective values, while refusing to acknowledge the other’s plight. It takes the freshness of vision from the outsider Ashitaka to carefully weigh these equally-valid goals and deliver a solution. But no “best” solution will ever exist.
Humanity has been struggling with environmentalism since the dawn of awareness and has continued to do so for thousands of years. Even at the height of current scientific achievement, (with oceans dotted by vortexes of garbage and our persistent love of wholesale habitat destruction), we still struggle bitterly with how to live benevolently alongside the environment. Miyazaki has written a great deal of moral ambiguity into his narrative, simply because he recognizes that the question asks too much of us. We want to do right by our world, but we cannot accept a life in which natural selection defines our future. Eboshi and Mononoke’s differences are purely ideological ones, and they will never be able to reach an agreement that benefits both sides. An unbiased mediator (Ashitaka) must intervene. A renegade naturalist and a hardline humanitarian do not see eye to eye, nor (according to Miyazaki) do they have to. For as long as those who find love on both sides exist, there too exists hope for a more balanced future.
More than 10 years after his Ghibli debut (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Princess Mononoke is Hayao Miyazaki’s antithetical environmentalist masterpiece — this time reflecting an angry desperation at the lack of change witnessed over that decade. One can feel the connection the writer/director has with San and recognize the shared pain for the continued abuse man has inflicted on this planet. But just as in Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka, this nagging intermediary, has the ability to rise above the pain and hatred on each embittered front and begin a process of healing.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.