Achilles Last Stand: A review of Princess Mononoke

“Is someone different at age 18 or 60? I believe one stays the same.”
– Hayao Miyazaki

-Loquacious Llama

After watching this masterpiece for the fifth time (literally) and feeling emotionally blown away for the fifth time, I sat at my chair and stared off into the middle distance, ignoring my leering roommates. I thought hard and long on why I like this movie so much. I mean, sure it was a Miyazaki movie, what’s there not to like? But, what made this stand out, what made it my favourite, over Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) or the critically-acclaimed Castle in the Sky (1986) or the surreal, yet endearing My Neighbor Totoro (1988)? Why was I revisiting this movie so many times, each time finding something new, loving it even more on each rewatch? Well, here’s why. (The thing about Miyazaki films is: You Gotta Watch them All!)

First off, direction. Miyazaki is the master of fantasy and his movies have an almost surreal feeling to them. You will find stuff from your wildest dreams gambolling about like there was nothing to it. The worlds he creates make you wish that they were real and you could live in them. The characters are extremely relatable and human and make you fall in love with them. Some of his common themes are: Shoujo, or strong female protagonists; flight scenes which are dreamy and buoyant, which to Miyazaki represents freedom and attaining new heights; ma, or scenes in his films where instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are. Then, there are the hidden subliminal messages of feminism, anti-consumerism, pacifism and environmental messages, not very glaring and in-your-face, but not so light as to be invisible. His movies are powerful, thought-provoking, deeply emotional and very well-loved. If I were stuck on a desert island till the end of time with only one movie to watch, I would definitely hope it was one of his.

Next, we come to visuals. All Miyazaki films are hand drawn, apparently because he doesn’t like computers. That’s like tens of thousands of frames, each of them drawn manually, with a lot of effort and love put into each one of them. It makes the film so much more human to me. That does not, however, mean that the film has lost out in the quality of the visual art. Just look at these stills from some of his movies. A feast for the eyes, truly.

Mononoke1

Mononoke2

Mononoke3

(Here I speak to you, reader. Why are you even still here, reading beyond this point? Go watch the movie(s) already!)

Now we come to the movie itself. A mega-hit that became the highest grossing film of any genre in Japanese history, it is an epic fantasy set in medieval Japan with a strong environmental message, which is partly why I like it so much. It isn’t so much of a film as it is a journey, both visual and mental, as you are gently nudged into asking deeper questions to yourself.  It involves you in a story which is extremely gripping as it shows you the pointlessness of war and environmental desecration, how violence doesn’t solve all your problems, all while not creating any one-dimensional villains, showing you both sides of the coin, not picking any sides. It is the only film I have seen on environmental issues which does that. It doesn’t spoon feed you anything, keeps things as unbiased as possible and leaves a lot of open ends which get you thinking.

The basic plot involves a young prince named Ashitaka who receives a wound while defending his village from a forest god, who turns into a monster because of an iron pellet lodged in his body. The wound infects him with what seems to be evil, but gives him superhuman power. But, like all things evil, it is slowly and painfully killing him off. He journeys to the west, hoping to find the source of the pellet before the wound can finish him off. Along the way, he meets San, a girl raised by wolves, who considers herself to be a wolf and fights against the humans who encroach into the forest. She is in war with a small iron worker’s town, led by a strong willed Lady Eboshi, who she believes is the cause of the problems in the forest. Ashitaka realizes that hate is poisoning the area and turning forest gods into crazed monsters. He has to broker a peace between man and nature before things get out of hand and nature is thrown out of balance, all the while searching for a cure to his wound. San is shown through Ashitaka that all humans are not evil and that violence solves nothing and she undertakes an internal journey to overcome her hatred of humans. Even the residents of Iron town are shown as likeable and noble people, simply trying to make a living, who later understand that one must not meddle with nature and there is no “villain” as such.

In retrospect, it is one of his darker and more gritty films. The whole mood of the film is very somber (though it has its share of light-hearted moments) and serious, which is how I like films to be. Overall, though, it is a great movie, which I honestly believe, should be watched by everyone, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other dividing characteristics; a very esprit humain thing. So, if you have the time, sit down, watch it and be treated to one of the greatest experiences you will have known.

P.S. Go out and plant a sapling today! I mean it!

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