“Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite.”
A masterpiece that needs no introduction is this 1997 Japanese animated fantasy war film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. With many of us raised on Studio Ghibli productions, a hefty wave of nostalgia floods the heart whenever we revisit the profound wisdom enclosed in each one. And yet, we continue to ignore the warning message that is conveyed in Princess Mononoke (original title: Mononoke hime), one of Miyazaki’s wonders.
In a world of distorted harmony between the humans and the gods of the forest, a young warrior named Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) gets infected with a demonic curse, passed onto him by a boar with its body ravaged by hatred. In his quest to unravel the mystery of the once-mighty animal, Ashitaka sets out for Iron Town, managed by Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka). Along the way, he meets San (Yuriko Ishida), a feral woman with an inflamed resentment towards the humans destroying the forest. As the conflict between the two sides crackles, Ashitaka attempts to put an end to the irreperable damage caused by their rampage. In the end, more than mortal lives is lost.
The film is rich in meticulously illustrated scenes and a pulsating atmosphere. The original story by Miyazaki, much like his other films, is deeply rooted in shintō (神道, “the way of the gods”) – the indigenous faith of the Japanese people. According to this belief, we share the world with spirits. In Western culture, we perceive land primarily for its instrumental value. In this film, Miyazaki goes as far as to invert this traditional Western view towards the environment, forcing it to clash with nature’s instrinsic value. In doing so, he creates an endless source of charring conflict. The grappling mindsets lead to a warped idea of reality, in which nothing is sacred anymore – not even a walking god. This constant vertigo raises the stakes of the story, making us bleed for its characters that much more.
The melancholic quality of the film, heightened by Joe Hisaishi’s poignant music, allows the plot to delve into a shared pool of emotions, effectively transcending cultural barriers. In witnessing man’s deviation from nature – and his eventual corruption of it – we experience an end to the spiritual duality of life. With the destruction of our planet posing a more leaden weight with each passing day, the film’s message seems fitting. To demonstrate this, though San’s wolf brothers are inspired by ōkami, the guardians and divine messengers of the mountain gods in Japanese folklore, in Princess Mononoke they are stripped to their savage form – merely a nuisance to the humans stomping towards their holy grail.
Overall, the film’s resonance is more profound now than ever before. However, aside from its philosophical merit, Princess Mononoke provides a gripping, raw story that remains unbiased until the end. The juxtaposition of Ashitaka’s rationality with his love for San’s impassioned ferocity ensures this. In the end, we are left stumbling away with the burden of our reflections to console us.
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