Shigesato Itoi, not exactly a household name in the States, is probably best known here as the genius creator of EarthBound/Mother, Nintendo's offbeat role-playing video game series. In Japan, however, he was already a famous writer and pop culture personality, whose celebrity factored integrally into the quirky games getting made in the first place. A formidably prolific essayist and interviewer, he has kept his website, “Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun” (“Almost Daily Itoi News”), updated daily (yes, contrary to the site's name) for over a decade now. But he originally rose to stardom as THE go-to copywriter in Japan, his taglines typically achieving near-ubiquitous recognition during the country's bubble economy of the 1980s. For obvious reasons, this sort of catchy and minimalist phrase-writing tends to lose everything in translation, but I do rather like the audacious taglines for his Famicom game Mother: "No crying until the ending" and "Guaranteed masterpiece."
Naturally, Japan's most eminent copywriter has also crossed paths with Studio Ghibli, which has been responsible for Japan's biggest domestic film productions. Over the years, Itoi has contributed the taglines to most of the studio's Japanese releases, including 1997's Princess Mononoke. As a behind-the-scenes documentary highlights, Itoi, who had never before had trouble encapsulating the movies into single phrases to the satisfaction of Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, struggled mightily to verbalize the essence of director Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus into catchy ad copy. Together with Suzuki and Miyazaki, Itoi considered some fifty different possibilities before finally settling on "生きろ" (ikiro), which may be translated as the one-word existential imperative "Live" (or "Be").
The story of Princess Mononoke's tagline is rather more attractive to me than the story of the film itself. I also totally get why Itoi had such a hard time with it. I think I've seen this movie a whole three times now, and every time I come away at almost a complete loss as to what I think or how I feel about it.
Miyazaki's films are often noted for their environmentalist themes, but, going through his body of work now one film at a time, I have come to find that this and Nausicaa are the only ones actually to feature his ecological concerns as core to the central conflicts. Indeed, Princess Mononoke is like a "grown-up" version of Nausicaa--not necessarily in the sense of being intended for a more mature audience, but rather in that its director's outlook clearly evolved considerably in those 13 years between.
Miyazaki is Japan's most prominent director of animated films, but he's also done a bit of work in manga. Nausicaa, the movie that built Studio Ghibli, was, of course, a manga before it was an anime, but something you might not know is that the movie only adapted roughly the first quarter of the manga. Between films, Miyazaki continued to revisit this story and project, working on the Nausicaa manga for over a decade, only concluding it in 1994. I've never read the manga, but the consensus among those who have seems to be that the story evolved toward a far more sophisticated worldview beyond what we got in the movie. That movie, among other things, depended upon an almost literal deus ex machina to resolve things in a happy manner. Miyazaki has so far been fairly adamantly opposed to the idea of adapting the rest of the manga into any animated sequels, but the first film he directed following his completion of the manga may be regarded as a kind of "do-over." Princess Mononoke, though taking the earlier film as its foundation, reflects those years he spent actively contemplating and reassessing Nausicaa to produce in every way a much harder work.
Set in a heavily mythologized version of feudal Japan, it depicts the struggle between the gun-toting humans of Iron Town and the talking giant animal gods of the forest, whose resources are rapidly being consumed by the humans. There are also some imperialistic samurai trying to lay siege to Iron Town, and the frustrated animal tribes don't exactly put up a united front either, their desperation and pettiness rising as their shared territory diminishes. It's pretty dense, probably overly ambitious for a feature film, even with a running time over two hours. These days, it's not uncommon for me to fall asleep to the TV after a long day has depleted me. But this is one of the few movies where I think I've fallen asleep during at least one viewing simply because just watching and trying to process it tired me out.
The opening sequence deliberately echoes Nausicaa's, with the protagonist trying frantically to halt the advance of a raging giant boar. But this beast will not be calmed, having been driven to a demonic madness from the iron ball lodged in its body. To protect his village, the hero has no choice but to slay the boar god. Thus, the shift from Nausicaa toward a more pessimistic take in Princess Mononoke becomes almost immediately apparent.
For one thing, this is by far the most violent film in the Studio Ghibli canon. I'm talking on-screen decapitations and limbs-a-flyin'. Fans introduced to Miyazaki through his other works may be shocked on first viewing Princess Mononoke. In fact, as translator Steve Alpert's online production diary (sadly no longer available, but partially archived here and here) recalled, when Disney executive Michael O. Johnson viewed the trailer for Princess Mononoke, he was struck speechless. The movie had still been early in development when Disney secured the rights to the Ghibli catalog, and now it was going to be the first US commercial theatrical release out of the agreement. Johnson had been a major supporter of Disney's deal with Ghibli, based on his having seen and liked Kiki and Totoro, and, now knowing that he would shortly have to pitch Princess Mononoke to other Disney execs, he asked Toshio Suzuki to please give him something less violent to work with:
"Do we have to have the arms and heads flying off? Isn't there something softer in the film? Romance maybe? Can't I get a nice romantic scene, you know, between the hero and heroine? Maybe a kiss or something?"
Despite the violence, Princess Mononoke is probably less unsettling than either Grave of the Fireflies or Pom Poko at their most graphic moments. The film suffers from an identity crisis as a result, because, although its violence makes it a hard sell as family-friendly viewing, it still feels rather cartoonish and kid-oriented. The humans tend to be drawn cute, personalities lack dimension, dialogue is juvenile, and, even when a character has his hands shot off with an arrow, the moment is played somewhat for laughs, as the poor bastard just looks around witlessly in delayed reaction, instead of collapsing in shock and agony.
The only compelling character for me is Lady Eboshi, leader of Iron Town, and very much an evolved version of Princess Kushana, who was similarly my favorite in Nausicaa. The closest thing the story has to a persistent incarnate antagonist, she is entirely remorseless in her deforestation campaign. To her own people, however, she is a hero for social equality, standing up to the emperor, rescuing girls out of brothels to instead be productive members of her ironworks, and even employing lepers to develop her firearms. All this good she accomplishes depends on her being able to harness the forest's resources. She's probably a bit too megalomaniacal to comfortably label a good guy, but she's certainly no worse than any of the bestial gods representing the other side.
The only real white hat is our hero Ashitaka, basically a male version of Nausicaa, his uncompromising and self-sacrificing idealism similarly obnoxious. But whereas Nausicaa the movie was far too much in love with its heroine, Princess Mononoke seems to acknowledge how naive Ashitaka's ideals are, and he takes a beating for them every step of the way. I suppose the fact that he holds fast to his convictions anyway is what makes characters like him and Nausicaa ultimately better than their critics.
Princess Mononoke is about as dense and bewildering visually as it is narratively. One can easily guess that the scale of this project far exceeded any previous Ghibli production. There are so many moving pieces that it almost feels at times overindulgent. The writhing masses of serpent-like tentacles that adorn the body of the beast in the opening sequence is an oft-cited highlight, but perhaps even more impressive is a later scene featuring a lush background of individually animated blades of grass. This was also the second Ghibli film to utilize computer-generated effects (Whisper of the Heart was the first, though in only one isolated scene), albeit with mixed results, including a pretty awful morph effect employed early on.
I previously said that Nausicaa was among my least favorite Miyazaki films, but, as I've gone back through them over these last couple months, what's interesting to me is that, out of all of them, Nausicaa is the one I find my mind drifting to most often. Specifically, it's that image of young Nausicaa with the baby Ohmu. There is such an indelible quality to that scene. Princess Mononoke is the only other Miyazaki movie I've come across thus far to so strike me with images possessed of a similar power, most of them involving the Shishigami or "Forest Spirit," an enigmatic god worshiped by the animals of the forest, who would presume a kinship with it, though truly they understand it no better than anyone else. Unlike those other so-called "gods"--really just giant talking animals--the Forest Spirit is a god of the unknowable and omnipotent variety. With the body of a stag, the feet of a bird, and the face of a baboon, never speaking and its expression never changing, it treads the water's surface and appears able to grant either life or death as it pleases, though none can ever comprehend why it does one or the other. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I find its appearance intensely unnerving, though also bestowed with a certain haunting majesty. I half-joked that Totoro seems the sort of creature one might encounter in a nightmare, but the Forest Spirit is what lies beneath, lurking several layers deeper into one's unconscious.
So, after three or so viewings, I'm still not sure what to take away from this film, other than that it's possibly Miyazaki's most visually masterful. I don't know where I'd personally rank it among his films overall, or whether I even like the story at all. Unlike Nausicaa, where it seemed a lot of problems could have been avoided if only the humans could have learned to live and let live, Princess Mononoke presents a conflict with no easy answers, as both sides simply need something that they can't both have. Reducing the dilemma down to Miyazaki's real ecological concerns, it seems the years between Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke revealed to him two truths: 1) Yeah, we humans kind of ruin the world, but we can't really help it if we want to live, and 2) Love nature though you may, the notion of a benign, harmony-seeking life force of the planet is complete rubbish. So what does that leave us? If your instinctive response is "nothing," then I assure you you're not alone.
It can be frustrating, especially if you come in looking for a black-and-white narrative from a movie that is in other ways rather cartoonish, to stick with a story for two hours and still not know which side it's arguing for. Done poorly, this eschewing of a Nausicaa-esque happy ending or, really, anything whatsoever resembling a resolution, can leave one with the impression that the director doesn't know what his own point is, or if he even has one. Even done well, fatalistic stories such as this tend not to be altogether satisfying experiences. But maybe that is the message ultimately of Princess Mononoke. Life is rough, ugly, even largely incomprehensible (yes, that last one especially). We soldier on, not to overcome or understand, but because we must. Like the tagline says, "Live."