Princess Mononoke (Movie Notes)

29 Jul
Gene Siskel Film Center

Gene Siskel Film Center (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Moving 800 miles for the second time in as many years is not my idea of a good time. But if you’re a cinephile, and you’ve already spent two decades in Chicago, moving back to the Windy City has its distinct pleasures.

One of these is the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute.  The programming is always cutting edge, and you can count on a steady diet of new Asian cinema, the Black Harvest Film Festival, classic Hollywood favorites and forgotten gems, and films you might never otherwise have the chance to see. I  had the privilege of teaching at the Film Center in the early nineties. My students and public audiences challenged me–many were quite knowledgeable and they kept me on my toes–and introduced me to the great public conversation around film fostered by the Film Cener.

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our corporate housing is just over the river from the Film Center so it was with glee that I picked up the July program and saw that the month includes a series of Studio Ghibli films.  Culture Sprout is a big fan of Ponyo (2008*) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And, of course, we loved The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, last Saturday Culture Sprout and I walked to the Film Center to see Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997), written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Princess Mononoke is an allegorical fantasy that tackles the looming issue of the destruction of the natural world by human progress. Produced two decades before Wall-E (2008), Pixar’s post-trash-Apocolyptic  tale about humankind fleeing a planet they have (literally) trashed, Princess Mononoke‘s conflict and lessons seem prescient. Yet, it doesn’t treat odernization and manufacturing as inherently evil. Instead, the film tries to find a way to balance the inevitable “march of progress,” and its disturbing repercussions for nature, with our desire to preserve nature.

The film opens as evil approaches the long-isolated Amishi village. Amidst swirling clouds, the elder scout and the young prince sense, rather than see, evil approaching. When danger finally emerges from the trees, it is in the form of a giant boar who seems possessed by a covering of worms that ooze from his body, forming devilish shapes as they torment him and cause him to rage. In order to save his vilalge, Ashitaka (Billy Cuddup) fights and kills the demon-boar. As it lays dying, it curses the Amishi people to know the hatred and evil that have consumed it. This opening 10 minutes is awash in suspense, action, and foreboding.

When the spot where the boar touches him burns, the wise woman tells Ashitaka that the poison will eventually kill him. She counsels him to travel to the West, from where the demon came, see “with eyes unclouded by hate” what has caused the giant boar to turn from god to demon, and perhaps learn to live with his fate.

Ashitaka sets off on his quest with solemn determination, riding his red elk, Yakul. The film slows down to the lovely, thoughtful cadence we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli. The animation expresses the fable through its pen and ink-like renderings of the historic setting (the latter part of the Muromachi Period).

Along the way, he passes a village being pillaged by Samarai warriors. He looses an arrow to help and discovers that his poisoned arm has superhuman powers.  A monk named Jigo(Billy Bob Thornton)  tells him the story of the forbidden forest in which live giant animal gods. Jigo leads him to believe that the spirit of this forest might be able to cure Ashitaka.

Eventually Ashitaka comes to Iron Mountain, on the edge of the forest, where he encounters Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), whose workers toil at mining iron which she turns into rifles and ammunition. He realizes that the iron ball which destroyed the boar god came from this mountain. At the same time, he encountars Moro (Gillian Anderson), the wolf god, her two cubs, and San (Claire Danes), a human girl whose spirit Moro has possessed as payment for crimes committed by the girl’s parents. The wolf tribe is determined to destroy Eboshi in order to save the forest.

He finds himself suddenly at the center–physically and morally–of the struggle between the gods and spirits of the forest, and the humans who consume the forest and want to destroy its protectors. Ashitaka’s eyes are unclouded by hate, as the wise woman instructed him. Moreover, his people have been exiled to a remote corner of Japan, where they have lived for more than five centuries, forgotten by time and culture. He knows nothing of hate, war, or deceit. In fact, when the boar-demon first attacks the village, he tries to reason with it. Ashitaka is a pure soul. He sees the good in each person, doesn’t judge, and tries to find a balanced solution.

The deligthful art will keep you engaged, even at the slowest moments (occasionally the film feels like it could have been edited for a slightly faster pace). The film’s orchestral soundtrack conveys the historical and fabular nature of the film. At times it swells  menacingly, other times it tinkles both gleefully and slighty ghoulishly when the kodama or spirits of the trees (kind of like Druids) appear.

Kodama in Princess Mononoke.

The kodama were fascinating to me.  Like the Wil’o Whisps in Brave, they lead Ashitaka through the forest.  He has to trust that they will guide him safely and that they are friendly as they don’t talk. A small lesson about letting nature guide our human behavior.

There is a lot to unpack in this film about industrialization’s toll on the natural world. Beyond that there are all of the folkloric connections to Japanese culture and the fascinating ways in which we can see the same characters and themes in Western culture. And wonderful commentary to be made about a tale full of magic in which the prince and princess become good friend, but respect each other’s dreams and part, as good friends, at the end of the film. Princess Mononoke, for that is who San is, is a princess we can cheer–she is fierce, strong, determined, kind, smart, and loyal. She falls for Ashitaka, sort of, but I think what really happens is that she recognizes her own humanity in his and is able to empathize.  Certainly we can aspire for our own daughters to have such qualities.

Happy Feet and Wall-E also have strong environmental lessons and questions embedded in engaging stories. As a film scholar, I know there’s a paper in there somewhere.  As a mom, I wonder if kids take these ideas to heart more than the generations that precede them has done.

As we left the theater and got smacked by +100 degree heat, I couldn’t help but think about global warming, Charlotte’s concern with it, and what kind of world we’re leaving to her generation. The folks at Studio Ghibli have been thinking about this for more than +20 years. Too bad the rest of us haven’t caught up with them.

I was worried that Princess Mononoke would be bit too long for 7-year old Culture Sprout, but she was riveted. We definitely recommend seeing this if you have the chance.

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