Though Hayao Miyazaki celebrated his 76th birthday last week, the Japanese director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli is most known for the buoyantly childlike yet worldly spirit in many of his iconic films. From fantastical romps such as My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo to more somber meditations like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (which predates Studio Ghibli’s founding) and The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s films seamlessly weave environmentalist sentiments with lush and oftentimes myth-based imagery, as well as touching, but not saccharine, journeys.
As we head into a year of great uncertainty and anxiety, it’s tempting to indulge only the family-friendly fantasies within Miyazaki’s film canon, as escapism. But it’s his film Princess Mononoke, which turns 20 this year, that offers uniquely resonant parallels of and advice for our modern world.
Set in Japan’s Muromachi era (1300s to 1500s), Mononoke (which is Japanese for monster, or spirit, and not a name in itself) covers a country split apart by warring states and factions. Also fighting are gods and demons, which roam the wilds in animal forms. After he’s cursed by a god-turned-demon, the young prince Ashitaka heads west to find out if, and how, he can be cured. He arrives in a land torn apart by warring factions: gods defending their forest territory through any means necessary, iron industrialists living in a proletariat matriarchy, samurai fighters warring for their lords, and crafty bounty hunters on decree from the Emperor himself.
Ashitaka’s curse takes itself out on others, violently. You’d never expect to see cut-off limbs and beheadings throughout a Ghibli movie, but here the gore, both human and environmental, is at its most extreme. Ashitaka’s foil, the wild wolf girl San, is introduced sucking out her wolf mother’s blood from inside a gaping bullet wound. Toward the end of the movie, when the industrialists and the bounty hunters join forces to decapitate a god, the forest crumbles into fire and muck as organic alien tentacles ooze over and subsume the typical gorgeous Ghibli countryside.
In most adventure tales, the protagonist in a warring land joins a cause and fights for its rightness alone. Ashitaka is a much more ambiguous figure, acting as both a messenger and a bulwark for almost every faction. His interests aren’t just in preserving nature, or just in the safe-haven colony of lepers and freed women tended to by the industrialist Lady Eboshi, or just in his own goal of a cure. It has no easy resolutions; San and Ashitaka are apart, the god is dead, and the natural and human worlds reset. The result is a film whose most defining declaration is: “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”
Mononoke has a reputation as one of the darkest Ghibli films, but that hasn’t hurt its popularity among Miyazaki and Ghibli films. “It’s about my fifth time watching the movie. I recently bought the movie, too. And I saw it about two months ago, but I wanted to see it in theaters,” admits Kevin, 20, who attended an anniversary screening at Regal L.A. Live last week. The film had left an impression because of its darker nature, compared with most other Miyazaki films: “I was surprised by the heads getting cut off and the war.”
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For Sam, 26, Mononoke’s appeal lies in its “really good message, and [compelling images].” Stephanie, 26, also applauds the film’s narrative merits: “His stories are so powerful. And I’m always happy to see a strong female lead.”
Ashitaka and San both deviate from the typical Studio Ghibli lead. They’re introduced as ferocious and sometimes amoral fighters, but they have that Miyazaki signature: clear-eyed purpose set on broaching problems beyond themselves. Ashitaka, in particular, is implicated in events beyond his desires, but the story never asks the viewers, or him, to explicitly choose a side. There is no right answer or solution to the myriad conflicts on display, just as there isn’t any true villain in life itself. Mononoke’s appeal isn’t just that it addresses environmentalism or war or capitalism but that it examines its messages intersectionally. The film is a rigid condemnation of partisanship and closes with bittersweet compromise.
It seems as though more and more mainstream children’s animation chooses the ever-popular happy ending. But Mononoke feels urgent even now because of its ambivalence. There is no guarantee that things are going to be OK, even if you’ve gone through the lesson once. There is little you can do to defend yourself and your own. There is no hope for a future without loss.
But still, you find reasons to keep living. And that’s enough.