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:: Princess Mononoke

“Princess Mononoke” is a great example of what anime is capable of. When a demon on the rampage threatens his remote village, the young warrior Ashitaka kills it, but is tainted in the process. He must leave the village to discover the source of his disease, a journey which takes him far from his idyllic home.

On Ashitaka’s first real journey outside the village into a larger world, he crosses into a Japan that is changing rapidly. Warlords battle among themselves for power, and the country is beginning to industrialize. Ashitaka soon finds himself getting to know a wide cross-section of the inhabitants of this strange new world, from different groups of humans to the ancient gods and spirits of the land, who are accompanied by the Princess Mononoke, San. San is a girl about Ashitaka’s age, who was raised by the great wolf-goddess, and as a consequence she no longer thinks of herself as human. The factions Ashitaka comes across all have different interests and agendas, and as the story progresses, all fall into conflict with each other, and the end of a world is nigh…

Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki has made a very good film. The story is compelling and the characters interesting. The animation is beautiful, the music is superb, and the visuals are spectacular. What is really impressive, however, is the intelligence and empathy behind the story. “Princess Mononoke” is a film with a clear love of nature and a sense of what is lost in the process of industrialisation, the destruction of the environment and of natural beauty.

At the same time, however, Hiyazaki does not simply demonise development and technology as some other fantasy works do - Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ being a prominent example. As well as exploring the negative consequences of industrial development, Hiyazaki also takes a look at why such development takes place, and its benefits.

The human characters apart from Ashitaka and San who are best developed are the residents of Iron Town, an outpost of humanity in the wilderness that contains an iron smelter, which falls under attack from ancient gods whose lands are being destroyed, stripped of their vegetation and fertility to feed the fires of the smelter. Comparisons with Isengard and the evil wizard Saruman and the Ents from Tolkein’s “The Two Towers” are very easy to make, and also very instructive.

If Miyazaki had Tolkein-like intentions of simply demonising modernity he would have made the smelter operators loathsome, greedy exploiters of some kind, but he doesn’t. He depicts them as consisting largely of outcasts from the cities, prostitutes and lepers saved from a life of degradation by industry, who are armed mainly to defend themselves from the predators, human and otherwise, who threaten them. This view is skewed, no doubt, but it is a welcome counter to the simple ‘technology is bad and those who use it are evil’ worldview that so often crops up in fiction.

Economic and technological development, the change from a nomadic lifestyle to settled subsistence agriculture, and then from agriculture to industrialisation, occur because humans can better meet their needs and survive that way. It is true that this comes at a cost to the rest of the environment, but all living beings exist at the cost of something else - being alive is a nasty business.

Perhaps from some kind of hippy viewpoint nature works together wonderfully in harmony, but when looked at from the view of a participant, nature consists of an endless series of murders and cannibalism, of life continually being stolen from one organism to feed another. Humanity is part of nature like any other species, with just two major differences - firstly, it can utilize and manipulate its environment for its own benefit far better than other species - and secondly, it has the capacity to understand and feel angst about this.

Miyazaki’s film is an interesting examination of the reality of nature. He gives the animals who are losing out to humanity a voice, by making them sentient gods. They get a chance to state their point of view, and to make choices to confront the humans threatening their world.

But by making the main human characters threatening nature a group of unfortunates who have essentially been forced into this position to avoid a worse existence elsewhere, Miyazaki says something that is obvious yet profound. From competition among other animals to that among humans, resources are finite, and all those competing have their story, their reason why they should prevail.

The early immigrants who were forced to leave Europe for a better life in North America or Australia, for example, and who found one by dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants, both sides have a very understandable position and differing needs. But unfortunately, when it comes right down to it, the reality is that the world is a zero-sum game, and someone has to lose.

Philosophical meditations aside, this is a great film. The ending is not as satisfying as it might have been, but the journey to that point was an outstanding one. Princess Mononoke is extremely well made, with a compelling story, interesting characters, and something to say.

DVD Extras

Interactive Menu
Scene Selection