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Fighting Fable: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) – Blu-ray review

May 21, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

So stuffed it’s in danger of falling apart, but what stuffing, as Miyazaki creates an animated film to rank alongside Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Herzog.

Princess Mononoke
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

While Studio Ghibli remains indelibly linked with the cuddlesome Totoro, co-founder and figurehead Hayao Miyazaki has always been in touch with his dark side.  While none of Miyazaki’s films have been as bleak as Isao Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies, the anime auteur’s serious interest in morality, especially with regard to mankind’s relationship with nature, has been to the fore since proto-Ghibli adventure Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The King.

Princess Mononoke remains the most explicit statement of Miyazaki’s thematic interests.  The director symbolises the destruction of nature not only through acts of man but also the cruel perversion that befalls wounded animal gods, who break out in a demonic, destructive infestation of metaphor.  The result is wild and bloody, with lopped-off limbs and decapitations, and disturbing, hallucinatory imagery.  Disney, this isn’t.

Whereas Nausicaa, and many other Miyazaki films, are inflected with science-fiction, here the fantastical elements fit into a plausible historical framework.  Once you adjust to the idea of wolves and boars as militaristic gods, then the story also functions as a skirmish for land and power between warring human tribes.  Miyazaki has stated a debt to John Ford, but inevitably Ford’s other Japanese disciple, Akira Kurosawa, is to the fore, with Miyazaki framing battle scenes in the rain – no mean feat in animation.  Elsewhere, the medieval cruelty compares to Andrei Rublev and Aguirre Wrath Of God, making this just about the only animated film you can mention in the same breath as Tarkovsky and Herzog.

Yet, while it lacks Miyazaki’s customary lightness of touch, you can’t fully remove the humanist and Miyazaki’s sense of psychological and moral nuance is remarkable.  The antagonist, Lady Eboshi, isn’t a boo-hiss villain but a pragmatic industrialist, believing that the ends justifies the means.  To complicate things further, her ironworks have become a sanctuary and place of work for fallen women and lepers, who are fiercely loyal to her.  Conversely, San – the spirit princess of the title – is often a sulky emo-kid; justifiably so, given that her home is under threat, but still far from an obvious hero.

It’s brilliant, then – but sometimes hard work, as a cluttered plot proves too unruly for Miyazaki to tame, sometimes bordering on incomprehensibility.  There’s enough material for two or three films, and perhaps it needed a more long-form format like television (or a Lord Of The Rings-style trilogy) to tease out all of the elements.  At the time it was meant to be his swansong, but it feels now a little too self-conscious in that intent, whereas the more freewheeling Spirited Away better showcases Miyazaki’s range.

Yet, if the worst criticism of a film is that it inspired its director to improve upon it, then that’s hardly a criticism.  There’s no denying the ambition or the artistry, and visually this is a pure, concentrated blast of Miyazaki magic.  It is one of cinema’s most imaginative fantasies, all the more striking for being grounded – literally, given that Miyazaki usually takes to the skies.  In its sense of scale and world-building, it is virtually unmatched in animation… and that’s before recalling the moments of transcendence (notably a forest full of kodama spirits in communal ecstasy after an appearance by the deer god) that nobody but Miyazaki would even attempt.

Princess Mononoke is out on Blu-ray now as part of StudioCanal’s Studio Ghibli Collection.

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