Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"To see with eyes unclouded by hate" is Ashitaka's mission and potentially the cure to the curse consuming his flesh, but it's also a challenge Miyazaki sets up for himself. A mining town out to raze the pristine beauty of a nearby forest and its mystical inhabitants would seem to set up the good guy/bad guy paradigm pretty neatly. A pack of wolf spirits and their adopted human pup San are fighting back, disrupting Iron Town's machinations and protecting the other, even more mysterious gods who dwell in the mountain. A group of humans have hatched a plan to finish them off once and for all. If you've seen a single movie, you think you know where this one's going and you're ready to cheer our animals friends on against the bad humans.

But our hero Ashitaka isn't interested in helping anyone "win," going extreme lengths to not only champion but model radical non-violence. In the same way, Miyazaki is taking a longer view here, fleshing the warring factions out with fully realized soldiers who lead rich interior lives. The leader of the mining town, Lady Eboshi is a stern woman, but she's filled with compassion for the marginalized like sex workers and lepers, cultivating an egalitarian society of dignity for all. Her work is destroying the environment, but it's also providing social mobility and meaning for her people. San is filled with murderous, almost feral rage against humanity, but resists hatred even as its curse threatens to overwhelm her.

So Ashitaka's chief struggle isn't to join a side, but to abolish the notion of sides altogether, begging the bitter foes to reason with each other. In this, Miyazaki illustrates something that, say, Cameron's 'Avatar' fails to realize: that the zero-sum game here is not between humans and nature, but war and peace.

Even if another director had managed to come up with a "Why can't we all just get along" version of this fable, I wouldn't trust hardly anyone but Miyazaki not to "both sides" it up into meaningless drivel. But 'Princess Mononoke' isn't interested in sentimental centrism. Its stakes are higher, and its moral universe purer.

Is it Miyazaki's masterpiece? Possibly. 'Spirited Away' is more visually imaginative and 'Totoro' is more narratively sophisticated. But Ashitaka, San and the wolves are maybe Miyazaki's most compelling characters which, I guess, would put them on a shortlist of the most compelling cinematic characters of the 90s, at least. Some of the sequences here are so beautiful, so chilling, that I recalled them perfectly on this, my first rewatch in at least 10 years, like a song I had memorized but not heard since childhood. From San sucking the blood from her wolf mother's wound to the terror of the cursed boar god, 'Mononoke' simply has some of the most memorable images ever committed to celluloid. One of the strangest is at the very end, in the forest remade by the Forest Spirit's decapitation, and a forest that is a little less fecund with wildness, but still beautiful in a tamer, slightly more cultivated fashion. The war is over, but there are no victors. There is only us, and a world that hangs in a precarious balance. 'Mononoke' might be Miyazaki's single most otherwordly movie, but it could have only been crafted by someone who understood this world far better than most of us do. Someone who sees with eyes unclouded by hate.

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