Early on in the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke, a monk soaked in street-hustler wiliness admonishes the young warrior Ashitaka with the observation that “These days, there are angry ghosts all around us, dead from wars [and] sickness. You say you‘re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole world.” Mired in pessimism even as it rebukes self-pity, the statement is also a dark addendum to the advice of a wise old woman in Ashitaka‘s village who, foretelling his future after he’s been infected with a mysterious illness, tells him, “You can‘t change fate, but you can rise to meet it.” The movie, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and recast by Miramax with Hollywood celebrity voices, spins on questions of moral culpability and spirituality, on layered musings about the connectedness of all living things and the responsibilities that those relationships demand. The film’s strength lies in its refusal to paint either its arguments or its characters in black and white: There are no pure heroes, no clear-cut villains and no pat answers.
After killing a demon boar that threatens his small village, Ashitaka is cursed by the animal — which, he later discovers, was a protector-god of the forest — with a disease that slowly spreads over his body. In the richly drawn and tensely scored opening sequence, a seamless blend of technical virtuosity and finely strummed terror, the screen is filled with roiling black tentacles carrying a deadly contaminant as the demon heads for its prey. The disease, which feeds and is fed by hatred, will eventually kill the boy (voiced by Billy Crudup). His only hope for a possible cure lies in tracing the demon‘s path to discover where it came from; the beast’s origins might reveal an antidote. What Ashitaka uncovers is a battle that‘s being waged between humans and the forest gods.
The humans are represented, in part, by the cool, business-minded Lady Eboshi, who’s rendered with aristocratic weariness by Minnie Driver; the animals‘ spokeswoman is the hot-tempered San (Claire Danes, in full spunk mode), a human raised from infancy by Moro, a wolf-god. As Lady Eboshi oversees the mining of iron from the mineral-rich forest, she’s destroying the home of countless animals, wood sprites and gods. Director Miyazaki purposefully complicates our view of her, making it impossible to dismiss her as money-hungry and heartless. Her profits are used to buy the contracts of women who work in brothels. Once freed, they‘re brought to her village, where they’re taught new skills to support themselves. She also runs a hospice for lepers who would otherwise be left to die. Without the money earned from the mines, both these radical undertakings would fail. A take-no-prisoners businesswoman and soldier, she has boundless empathy for the human underdog but marked indifference to all noncommercial consequences of her actions. She‘s a poster girl for “compassionate conservatism.” San, furious at what she sees as callous disregard for the health and lives of the forest and its inhabitants, has sworn to kill Lady Eboshi on sight, a task she embarks on with single-minded determination.
Miyazaki folds a host of timely, hot-button issues into his tale: the plight of indigenous people and nature in the face of unchecked business interests, the death of spirituality in the name of social progress, misogyny in its many manifestations. Princess Mononoke is a Zeitgeist potpourri, strung with late-20th-century fear and anxiety. The animation — lush, fluid and gorgeously detailed — nimbly fluctuates between true-to-life replications and eye-popping, larger-than-life psychedelia. It illuminates everything from uncut hippie idealism to sympathy-for-the-devil appreciation for the dirty deals that sometimes underwrite idealistic ventures. A thick cloud of melancholia hangs over the film — which, admittedly, drags for stretches of its two hours plus — a sadness that doesn’t completely lift even when the murk that blurs right and wrong momentarily clears. In the end, Miyazaki seems to side with the old leper who croaks, “The world is cursed, but we still find reasons to keep living.”