Hayao Miyazaki’s first “retirement masterpiece” Princess Mononoke returns to theaters for its 20th Anniversary on January 5th, Miyazaki’s birthday.
I’ve heard a behind-the-scenes legend I’m still not sure contains an ounce of truth (even when reading it in the Guardian). When Miramax Harvey Weinstein deliberated over cutting Princess Mononoke for American marketability, Studio Ghibli sent him a katana with a note bearing this message: “No cuts.” Hayao Miyazaki clarified that it was not him, but his producer who sent it. Regardless, Miyazaki said, “I defeated him [Weinstein].” Thus, this affirmed the Studio Ghibli precedent that no foreign distributor, however they may cast the dubbing, will trim down its vision.
Thank the forest deities. A sanitized cut would have sheared away the rich layers of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s temporary swan song before he reversed his first “retirement-era” with the conception of Spirited Away.
I was about 3 years old when Princess Mononoke was released in 1997 and had no consciousness of its existence then, though I had been raised in the Disney family-friendly entertainment where animals were cute and good triumphed over evil and there were happily ever afters of weddings and immaculately restored kingdoms. Then I discovered Princess Mononoke late in my high school years, after the release of James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar—with its happy (didactic) ending in which the environment wins the day against the bastard tree-destroying humans.
I observed Princess Mononoke’s resemblance to the plot blueprints of Avatar (pardon the color pun) - two sides locked in conflict: the greedy industrial-minded humans sullying and persecuting the environment. Humans (most of them) are bastards, and the environment is not a passive recipient of the injury. It bites back out of self-defense.
Except in Miyazaki’s vision, he has no pretense about the extremism that brews in both sides, even if their intents are backed up by survival instincts. Miyazaki sledgehammers the “Bad Humans vs. Blameless Environment” mindset often prescribed to American environmental-driven films.
Innocents become snagged in the middle. A demonic boar stampedes through Ashitaka’s peaceful village. After a botched peace-talk in the midst of combat, Ashitaka kills the boar lest it slaughter his village. But pragmatic or not, killing in this story does not go unpunished. Before its corpse rots into oblivion, the boar embeds a blotted mark into Ashitaka’s skin that would soon consume his life. The first few minutes of the film follow his individual motive: Ashitaka must hunt for a cure and investigate the source of the boar’s rage. As he wanders far from home, he finds his predicament is one speck in a grander conflict. There’s a little curse of rage in everyone.
Through Ashitaka’s eyes, Miyazaki provides breathing space to survey both sides and spend time with them as affable acquaintances and comrades. Ashitaka pinpoints gun-wielding Lady Eboshi as the conflict’s instigator, a figure who lords over the industrial Irontown. While prioritizing profit, Lady Eboshi also affords respect and altruism to her employees—her citizens of soldiers, former prostitutes, and lepers—and even refuge and answers for the protagonist. She embodies the positive progressivism of ambition as well as the negative drawbacks. However upright she may be as an employer and matron, Ashitaka rebukes her lack of conscientiousness toward the damage done to the ecosystem in the name of prosperity.
Personified by the godly forest beasts, the traditionalist environmental side fosters its own warranted grudge against Irontown’s depletion of their land. Bizarrely (and resonate to the theme of gray morality), despite ire toward humans, the lead wolf adopted a human girl San as her own daughter, who’s so adamant about her wolf identity that she considers it sinful to fall for a human like Ashitaka. San and her animal comrades seldom notice themselves burning in their own flames of vengeance. One character willingly surrenders his soul to fury.
I frequently remark, “Princess Mononoke was the Avatar we all deserved.” They share classic motifs (or tropes). But whereas Avatar coat-tailed on formulaic cues and derived archetypes from sources outside itself, Mononoke paints archetypes with nuances—Ashitaka’s not-so-passive pacifism, Lady Eboshi’s greed co-existing with her afforded altruism, and the vengeful feistiness and occasional compassion of San and her wolf mother. Their attributes do not feel leaf-thin because they are cultivated by narrative idiosyncrasies.For all of James Cameron’s eye-popping dimensions in his 3D Pandora realm, it’s the two-dimensional artistry of Mononoke that radiates its mythic breath and richly carved character. Though an original motion picture with rudiments of Japanese tales and environmental films, Princess Mononoke feels like an adaptation of a universal fable that roots itself in the heart—a belated bedtime tale I wish I’d grown up with.
In the end, a bridge isn’t built. The two sides don’t unite or harmonize but settle for a civil distance. Even then, it’s coy on whether this inferred contract could be fulfilled successfully. There are no winners in the open-ended resolution of Princess Mononoke, only survivors on both spectrums of the war. Order has been restored but there is no happily ever after. They all carry the accountability and wariness of a world that has been scarred by a permanent loss. They have to toil to seal the wound of the irreversible damage.
But they lived to meditate on it.