What’s the best Hayao Miyazaki movie? You don’t know how much it drives me crazy that my answer is Spirited Away and not Princess Mononoke. Yes, the one about the little girl who gets a job at the spa, while the fantasy epic about war and gods doesn’t crack my Ghibli top five. How I wish it did! It’s the kind of movie I hope they make every time, but each successive adventure seems to shrink in scale, down to bean level. I’ve seen Princess Mononoke three times now, at different times in my life, and I’ve sat with the same conclusion each time: I just don’t like it that much. Very, very crazy.
After defending his village from a demon attack which leaves him with a curse, our hero Ashitaka is advised to journey west in search of a cure. He saddles up his bouncy deer and rides off to the most epic music you’ve ever heard before arriving at fateful Iron Town. In this remote community, he meets Lady Eboshi, the ruthless driver of industry into the forest and our ostensible villain, who nevertheless turns out to be a beloved leader. She’s built a self-sustaining community designed to protect the world’s most vulnerable — up to and including people with leprosy. It’s the way we see Iron Town functioning with such egalitarianism, and the awed tones that likeable characters speak of Eboshi that she isn’t one of those billionaires with a philanthropic ruse. And yet, she maintains a disaffected cool, never commenting on her greatness, and in total her darker ambitions remain plausible.
It’s with this character that I’ve seen critical evaluation of Princess Mononoke begin or even end. She is our first indication of two things: the rest of the story, and that Princess Mononoke will not be a typical genre exercise. It’s gonna be subversive, challenging the moral binaries of that most facile fantasy. It’s an intriguing wrinkle, and one that the story doesn’t resolve. This is my theory, and if it proves defensible, does Princess Mononoke, signaling its difference, ultimately do anything at all?
The initial problem is that Lady Eboshi’s goal (let’s say iron) requires the destruction of the forest, and so Eboshi’s reveal/pivot from wolf-shooting madwoman to egalitarian caretaker disrupts this simple equation. It might’ve been easy and regular-fantasy to have Ashitaka simply defeat Lady Eboshi, but he’d be doing so at the expense of lepers and equal pay. As the movie continues, this original impossible problem creeps. The eponymous Princess Mononoke, San (Miyazaki wanted to call the movie The Legend of Ashitaka, which is why San’s kind of an underwhelming title-haver), is a defender of the dwindling forest, and attacks human soldiers who turn out to be regular joes with loved ones. Along with the wolves who raised her, San is our terrorist element. However, we’re soon introduced to an element even more extreme — the forest apes. While San is able to identify Ashitaka’s humanity (wolfmanity?) in time to stay her bloodlust, the apes would rather devour him. She rejects their hatred. At the same time, Eboshi is soon plied with an additional motivation, to deliver the forest god’s head to the emperor. This may be what staves off the samurai incursions, but it nonetheless saddles her with imperial agents whose brutal methods prove too much for the people of Iron Town. When those agents aim arrows at a trapped wolf, which would kill Ashitaka as collateral damage, those ironworkers rebel with clonks over the head. The apes and the agents are dark mirrors, but they’re also easy outs.
It’s a cheap trick to address the problem of extreme belief by introducing even more extreme belief, so that we look back and say, “The original belief wasn’t so extreme.” And when that original problem isn’t otherwise addressed, there’s no indication that anything will ever change. I assume that the imperial agents will return to the emperor, box empty, and be ordered back to the forest (lest their own heads find the box?). Lady Eboshi says she’ll rebuild, but will Neo Iron Town be any different? Either she creates a sustainable industry or she takes care of her community. That equation remains, doesn’t it? If not, why need iron in the first place?
Princess Mononoke flies for about the first half, but soon the extended runtime tingles. After Ashitaka has intervened on the Iron Town/Forest conflict, standing in between San and Lady Eboshi’s crossed swords, he’s rendered a literally passive character and made to heal in the sacred forest waters. The world around him prepares for a final battle, evidenced by the boars emerging from the forest and the earlier instance of samurai — I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the final battle was happening until it already started. The plot feels aimless from here. Especially since it’s unclear what Ashitaka’s goal is. Still looking for the cure? Trying to broker peace? It’s the latter, but when Ashitaka rides off for a second time, we discover his plan is to stand in front of people and tell them: “Stop.” Let us in, man. Why and how?
The generous read is that in his “stop,” he’s reminding each belligerent what they truly care about. For Lady Eboshi, it’s Iron Town, under siege by samurai while she’s off god-slaying. I might argue that she’s out god-slaying to protect Iron Town, but that’s probably my American brain uncritically equating foreign invasion to defense of homeland. Ashitaka also manages to convince the lead imperial agent to give the forest god his head back. And how? Well, everyone’s surrounded by god essence which kills upon contact, so that’s a potent argument if he’s willing to claim it.
Like The Matrix Revolutions, Princess Mononoke is the rare action film that pursues an alternative to the traditional climatic scenario — the hero will broker peace rather than defeat the villain. In The Matrix Revolutions, this involves an actual diplomatic negotiation, however slight. Neo will do the Machines a favor only he (He?) can provide in exchange for the preservation of Zion. Ashitaka should’ve identified an alternative export for Iron Town — as well as a corresponding name change — ensuring that Eboshi maintains her sovereignty without the same cost to the Forest. That should be his journey, and if anyone can make such Trade Federation-style inanity into compelling drama, it’s Hayao Miyazaki.
Princess Mononoke was the first and last anime I watched in high school. I don’t mean high school age, but in a physical high school. It must have been the end of the semester, and the English teacher needed some time to herself, so she put on Princess Mononoke. I’d wager only two students had heard of the film before: myself, and the class nerd. Now, I know you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re a nerd,” but this is back in 2011 when “nerd” meant something else. I struggle to explain this guy, just that he exhibited zero social skills despite being surprisingly extroverted. Please understand, any association with this guy would’ve tanked my social standing. So as far as the class was concerned, there was only one student who’d heard of the movie before — probably the guy who’s telling everybody about it. What a nerd. Good pick from the teacher, though, again before nerdness reached its mainstream peak in the 2010s.
The story of my nerd history is also a story of shame, and no, I don’t think it’s made me stronger. So how do I not become the class nerd? It would be one thing to keep quiet as we watched, but no, I had to take the extra step and do a slight MST3K riff. So embarrassing, but that’s what happened. The point is, I didn’t give it a fair shake. And made an ass of myself in the process. If you’re reading this, Mrs. A, I apologize. For this, and for coming into homeroom early every day. I’m sure you would’ve liked your alone-time, but I had nowhere else to go and nobody to talk to. So we fast-forward through college, and I’m in Los Angeles giving Princess Mononoke another try, this time on the Blu-Ray disc. With a fair assessment, finally I realize that, actually, I don’t love this movie.
Now it’s 2021, revisiting Princess Mononoke again for a future podcast with Stella. I told her that this time, just as before, I’m determined to enjoy this film — it’s my destiny. An epic fantasy of East Asian vintage, like samurai Lord of the Rings, its gorgeous aesthetic animated by a master craftsman and maybe the greatest film score of all time. It dares to be different, and then follows through with the rigor of anticlimax. A joke without a punchline, a thematic scaffolding left to the wind. It gets points for the daring, enough to remain an essential film, but by its own rubric, I don’t know if it’s a great one.