I’ve gradually become accustomed to a certain warmth & comfort in Hayao Miyazaki films, where a slow, languid pace allows the plot to trickle as we come to settle in an infinite, domestic space full of immense wonder. Even otherworldly dangers like Howl’s Moving Castle’s bird wizards & Spirited Away’s No Face are tamed & consoled by the warmth & domesticity of Miyazaki’s intricate, natural worlds. His characters always seem to find their way to calmness & peace in interior space, occasionally contrasted with the expensive majesty of flight. Imagine my shock, then, when I recently watched Miyzazki’s Japanese folklore masterpiece Princess Mononoke for the first time. It was like a glorious, unexpected punch to the face. Princess Mononoke might be the single most metal animated feature I’ve ever seen. Its shapeshifting warthog demons, severed arms, decapitations, and eco warrior terrorism were not only unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film before; they were also inexplicably invigorating in a way that only the best of cinema can be. Its PG-13 violence was shocking, but also darkly beautiful and added a whole other layer of complexity to a director I’ve been gradually less able to fully understand or pigeonhole with each passing feature. It’s an exciting feeling.
The story of Princess Mononoke appears to be heavily steeped in Japanese history & folklore, but its basic elements are fairly understandable to a cultural outsider. A young prince must leave his village on a quest to lift a curse from his arm he incurred while slaying an undead demonic boar. His cursed wound allows him to “fight like a demon,” but being a mighty warrior is a small consolation prize for a spreading illness that will eventually bring his death. On his journey he finds himself stuck between two sides of an impending war. On one end stands an industrial iron-producing village helmed by a warmongering matriarch, representing the modern world. On the opposite end stands the natural world, represented by mythically large talking beasts, ancient spirits, and a Jungle Book-type princess who was raised by a pack of wolves. The prince must negotiate a peaceful balance between the modern world & the natural one before the two sides’ bloodbaths get out of hand, an escalating tension reflected in the way his cursed wound pulsates & worsens each time they clash.
It’s difficult to capture the fierce beauty of Princess Mononoke in words. I can’t describe the pure badass beauty of its titular character riding into battle equipped with a spear & mask on a giant wolf’s back, but nothing could supplant seeing it for yourself. Although his accomplishments are typically contextualized solely within the world of animation, Hayao Miyazaki is truly one of cinema’s modern masters & Princess Mononoke is one of his finest works, as complex & violent of an outlier as it is. The film juggles concepts as varied as war, deforestation, ghosts, industry spirituality, and the basic instructions on how to kill a god, all without ever feeling bogged down or overstuffed. In some ways its story is as simple as a young man fighting on both sides of a war he finds abhorrent in order to put an end to it & find peace. The implications of what that war means and how we define balance in a modern, industrialized world is much vaster & more fascinating, though, a depth Princess Mononoke commands in very few brushstrokes. Besides, it really is just so goddamn metal. You really need to see that girl riding that wolf into battle.