Growing up in the country was a mixed blessing. Though my world-view was sadly circumscribed by the narrow Christian outlook you might expect to find in the rural Texas countryside, my imagination was simultaneously given free reign. The back acre of our family’s property was densely forested, and exploring that hidden realm was a daily adventure. I could disappear into those dark woods for hours, uncovering their secrets, finding adventure and danger over every hill and in every cave. Of course, as I got older, I gradually visited the woods less and less, lured more by girls and cars than by my own imagination. By the time my parents divorced and I moved into an apartment complex two towns away with my father, the woods and their magic were a distant memory. And they likely would have remained that way had I not seen Miyazaki’s environmental epic “Princess Mononoke.” It’s a mystical love story filled with gods and demons, centered around a battle for control of a magical forest, and informed with environmental and coming-of-age subtext.
“Mononoke” functions on its most essential level as a spiritual journey. Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), prince of a forgotten tribe exiled to a distant land, saves his people from a demon boar that unexpectedly descends on their village. In the process, his arm is marked by the demon, and the village’s mystic tells him that the the mark will eventually spread to his entire body, consuming his spirit and killing him. He’s forced to leave the village in search of the source of the iron they found lodged in the boar’s heart, taking him to a far off land and placing him in the middle of a battle for control of the forest between the realm’s animistic spirits and the burgeoning iron industrialist Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). While playing mediator to both sides, he meets and falls in love with San (Claire Danes), a human raised by wolf gods and single-mindedly intent on killing Lady Eboshi. Layering the narrative with intrigue and subterfuge, Miyazaki introduces other characters like Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), a likeable scoundrel that attempts to play all sides in his quest for the forest spirit’s head (rumored to grant immortality to its owner).
In typical fashion, Miyazaki refuses to paint any character too broadly. Just when we think we can lay blame for the quagmire on someone, Miyazaki embues them with redeeming qualities. Lady Eboshi deflects our contempt with her charitable actions; in the process of building her empire, “Iron Town”, she bought up the contracts of prostitutes and offered them honest work in her factories. She also took in lepers, bandaging their wounds, finding little jobs for them and treating them as humans and equals. Similarly, San’s blood lust is softened by her reluctant compassion for Ashitaka and her attempts to stop the boars from mindlessly destroying themselves in a battle with Eboshi’s troops. Miyazaki repeats this deepening process not only with the rest of the characters in this film, but in all of his other films as well, making them a unique experience that reflect his apparently undying hope in the human capacity for change and compassion.
Though the corrupting nature of greed and lust are prominent themes in ‘Mononoke,’ Miyazaki seems just as concerned with the loss of our collective imagination; seeing the forest only as a raw, untapped resource, the humans in ‘Mononoke’ have forsaken the beauty of the world, its majesty and mystery. When they destroy the gods and the spirits, they’re destroying a part of themselves, and only rediscover it after teetering on the precipice of mutual annihilation. I think Miyazaki taps into the potential for animation to take us beyond the superficial, to spark that childlike imagination dormant in all of us, revealing a world of adventure and terror just beyond our senses. Watching a Miyazaki film, even a decidedly more adult one such as ‘Mononoke,’ returns me to that long-lost world of my childhood where anything seemed possible, and every risk was worth taking. I even wonder if the animated medium is uniquely capable of this feat. Though CGI enhanced live-action spectacles can seamlessly weave the real with the imagined, they still present us with that irreconcilable mixture of true and false; animation, on the other hand, is an undiluted fiction, a reflection of human imagination that can penetrate deep into our wells of creativity, unmarred by photographic realism.
Last Word: A multi-faceted tale of environmental destruction elevated by it’s tendency towards spiritual introspection.