Castles in the Sky: Princess Mononoke, by Aaron Pinkston
If you’ve been following my reviews for the Castles in the Sky series, you’ve probably noticed that the more serious traditional anime films haven’t been among my favorites. Princess Mononoke is the exception to this rule. Some of the problems I have had with films like Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind still exist, but they felt much less like problems. An overly complicated plot and slightly monotone, dower mood work much better in Mononoke’s narrative, which is one of the most thought-provoking and gripping of the series.
Princess Mononoke starts simply enough — a hideous boar monster, covered in hundreds of creepy-crawlies rages toward a village only protected by a young boy named Ashitaka. The monster is killed, but not without a price, as Ashitaka has become infected by the monster’s sickness-rage-hate-mysticalness. After returning to his village, we find out that Ashitaka is a prince of a long-forgotten colony, and now must leave his home because of the infection, which we are told will inevitably take his life. After this point, nothing is so simple. Journeying this strange world, trying to find a way to save his life, he becomes the mediator of a war between humans and nature spirits.
We’ve seen nature as a key component in multiple Ghibli films, especially these more serious anime-style films. Usually, in this conflict it is clear that the humans are evil (except for the hero, of course) and nature is something to be wholly protected. The war in Princess Mononoke, though, is beautifully complicated. The humans (especially Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town) may be a bit on the war hawk side, but there are valid reasons behind their motivation. We find out that many of the humans have been victims of the cold and heartless nature, and many wives have been widowed throughout the years. Lady Eboshi is an extremely complex character, when she’s in conversations with Ashitaka she is kind, caring, intelligent. She could easily be portrayed simply as megalomaniacal, but she never comes across as purely evil.
On the other hand, protecting nature may be noble, but it is filled with a lot of scary stuff — wolves and giant boars and, in this particular world, monsters. It is nature that infects Ashitaka at the onset of the film, personified as “hate.” Maybe it was the humans that drove nature to become so hateful, but even the idea of nature having this feeling gives an added dimension to the personality of nature. Added to this are conflicts between the people of Iron Town and bandit samurais and a number of nature tribes with different wants and needs. Pulling from these different perspectives and motivations seems impossible for one coherent film. Mononoke nails it, able to be intelligently complex while accesible.
Princess Mononoke works on multiple levels, from fantasy to historical epic, split between the two major worlds of the film. The natural world includes terrifying monsters and beasts, but also a ton of beauty. The human world, though, sets the film apart from its Ghibli fantasy counterparts. A major part of the film’s human narrative is that of the Japanese samurai epic. Anyone who has seen Seven Samurai or Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy will find a lot to like in the film’s portrayal of history, culture, costume and politics.
This doesn’t mean the film is all style, as it has one of the most captivating messages at its core. Because Ashitaka comes right in between these two warring parties, he becomes a bit of a mediator. While he understands the need of protecting nature and inevitably falls in love with young wolf princess, he realizes that he is human and must stand up for his people. Instead of battling with a tough choice on who to aid and lead to victory, he positions himself to fight for the right reasons on both sides. Strangely and sadly, whenever he aids the humans, nature wants to punish him, and whenever he helps nature the humans call him a traitor. Being a mediator isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t glamorous, but in our current world political climate we could learn something from him — there are a lot of evil intentions in the world, but all people have more than one side to them and complicated reasons to fight for themselves. There may not be any place for neutral diplomacy today, but as long as we continue to define ourselves and each other by our differences, we’ll never really have peace. As one character says “Everybody wants everything. That is how the world works.” Of course, only one can truly have everything. And that leaves everyone else with nothing.