For what is ostensibly a children’s film, “Princess Mononoke” examines that age-old theme of the conflict between humanity and industrialisation with nature with more depth and nuance than most stories that explore it, let alone children’s stories. The preservation of nature and progress of civilisation are not treated here as moral binary oppositions but as complicated, nuanced forces difficult to accurately map simplistic moralities onto.
Director Hayao Miyazaki at the time said the film was “a huge risk, totally different from when I was making [Kiki’s Delivery Service, a more light-hearted earlier Studio Ghibli affair]. I’d had that experience with Porco Rosso, the war happened (in the former Yugoslavia), and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?”. The way Miyazaki was able to balance the fantastical setting and astonishing animation with such a considered story and set of characters is fantastic.
Drawing from influences like John Ford westerns for the frontier Irontown, proto-Japanese history for signifying the races and clans of the film as archetypal forebears of conflicts that continue into modern life, visceral visual horror (in perhaps a first for the studio) in unsettling infestations of demonic worms, violence of hitherto unseen scale in a Studio Ghibli film (how grounded and unpleasant the conflicts central to the film feel when depicted with such casual brutality), the arguable slow march of humanity from animism to secularism, identity politics in the antagonistic Lady Eboshi’s empowerment of the underprivileged through capitalistically emboldening her growing society, and so on, the film is a proper mythic epic bringing deep-seated, inherent conflicts of our world to a mythical origin where their nature can be sketched more clearly.
Industrialisation streamrolling over nature, or nature ultimately reclaiming the world after humanity destroys itself are not treated as strict inevitabilities here, but certainly as unfortunate consistencies. Perhaps framing the film in mythic proto-Japan does situate the conflicts as inevitable and immemorial, but the characters feel well-sketched that the successes and failures depicted in the film feel earned. A sort of peaceful balance is flirted with, but the nature – of humans and nature alike – seems too set for that, and the few successes are isolated cases likely to eventually be winked out by the marching progress of efficiency and homogenisation from capitalistic forces (the film’s coverage of death of culture is executed well across the various groups interacting with each other).
How affirming it is to see the lepers and prostitutes of the industrialised capitalistic community be equally valued with the rest of the citizenry, disaffirming it is to see politician’s apparent earnest desires for people’s protection and progress simmer with undertones of greed, manipulation, and conquest. How beautiful is the grace and balance of the forest and those dwelling within it, how grotesque its barbarism and abundance of death. Still, those shortcomings of nature are positioned more in the anthropomorphic characters and literal humans “on its side” rather than the vaguer, more mystic force of nature itself, which is understandably difficult to characterise. Nature here is not a force of grace and balance for humans to project redemptively onto, its a world unto itself. What a fantastic film that explores such themes with such style, executed so gorgeously. Four boars and a wolf.