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Film Club: Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Princess MononokePrincess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime, “The Spirit Princess”) is our film club‘s title for August. It is an animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released in 1997 through Studio Ghibli.

Princess Mononoke is a period drama with fantasy elements that was a critical and commercial success both in Japan and abroad. Like many of Miyazaki’s works, it emphasizes environmentalism as it follows a young warrior’s involvement in a struggle between natural spirits and the humans who are consuming the resources of the forest that these spirits inhabit. The film is thematically similar to Kurosawa’s similarly themed Dersu Uzala, which was our film club title last month.

For a more in-depth introduction, I would suggest turning to Wikipedia, which as so often with Japanese animation, has a fairly comprehensive article on the film. Also take a look at our recent discussion of Miyazaki’s latest, and possibly his last, film The Wind Rises, as well as our earlier discussion of Princess Mononoke itself, and whether Miyazaki could be considered the foremost heir to Kurosawa.

Thanks to its international success, Princess Mononoke is widely available on home video.

Next month we continue with the Kurosawa chronology, moving onto his 1980 film Kagemusha. A full schedule can be found on the film club page.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

Vili, there is a missing link above to the discussion on The Wind Rises.

I can’t wait to watch this again – it is one of my all time favourite films, brilliant animation and a fascinating story.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks Ugetsu, it’s fixed now!

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Ugetsu

I finally had time to see it last night. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but the first time I’ve watched the English (or perhaps I should say American) dubbed version. I think its more than 2 years since the last time I’ve watched it.

My impression this time is that the dubbed version is quite disappointing – especially given the big names involved (not to mention Neil Gaiman doing the script). Some lines were quite cliched (of course, they man have been cliched in the original Japanese, but this isn’t an excuse not to try harder). There is a half heartedness to the voice dubbing which I think doesn’t do the film favours. As one critic put it, Clare Danes as San sounds at times more like a valley girl peeved that she can’t get parking at the Mall rather than a wolf girl watching the destruction of nature. Even Gillian Anderson uses an oddly muted and weak voice for the wolf mother. Only Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi comes out with credit I think. Her oddly mixed English/Caribbean/US accent actually works quite well for such an opaque and mysterious character. The voice weaknesses also brought out what I think is the main technical problem with the film which is a rather weak and syrupy score, which is surprising I think as Miyazaki’s careful use of sound is a key feature of why his films can be so great.

So for those who haven’t watched it yet, I’d definitely recommend going for subtitles first time – they are actually less distracting I think than the voices.

My main impression is deep admiration for how well this film stands up to multiple viewings. It really is a wonderfully morally complex story and of course, the visuals are extraordinary. What I hadn’t realised on my first viewings (and this comes from reading up a little more), is that its setting is more specific than I’d realised – not least that Ashitaka’s ‘people’ actually did exist – a mysterious ethnic group which once lived in north Honshu. A little like Seven Samurai (a film I can never help comparing it to), it is a generic story, set in a very particular, historically important period. As such, it has a universality and depth which normally evades such adventure films.

One thing that occurred to me watching it is that while people have seen Miyazaki’s most recent film The Wind Rises as a bit of an outlier in his work, there are I think very clear thematic connections. I see Jiro in that film and Lady Eboshi as very similar characters – both essentially good people, driven to follow their dreams, but who cause tremendous damage while doing so. And a common link is that neither suffer any clash of conscience or change of heart through the film. It is just their nature. In many ways I think this is quite a profound element of Miyazaki’s films – the notion that people who are driven to create are destined to cause as much harm as good. But rather than see this as something to be overcome, Miyazaki seems to see it as just one of the paradoxes of life, not something to be challenged.

One thing that does come to mind – possibly a topic for a separate thread – is the ending. I found it odd watching it this time that I could not actually remember how it ended. And I can see why – it is – consistent with the overall theme – somewhat ambiguous. Nobody has really won or lost, and even the Prince and Princess don’t get together. Nature has been temporarily saved, but we see it is maybe a pyrric, or at least temporary victory. Iron Town will grow again and will eventually win. I am wondering whether Miyazaki actually boxed himself in with the story – we have a conflict, but of course we all know that the forest Gods lose and that Prince Ashitaka’s vision will never come through. But rather than portray this, it is left somewhat unresolved. Is this a deliberate ambiguity, or perhaps just a reluctance to follow through on the logic of the story?

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Vili Maunula

I watched the film on Tuesday night. Like you, I started with the English dub but I very quickly switched over to the Japanese. I remembered the English voices being less than perfect, but I didn’t recall them being quite that bad!

It certainly is a more complex story than what one would expect from the setup, and the way that the narrative is resolved always surprises me. In fact, I think that this time around just about all aspects of Princess Mononoke positively surprised me, and I absolutely loved the film. It’s been years since I last saw it.

The film’s refusal to approach the world in terms of purely “good” or “evil” is I think something that more of our entertainment should make note of. We do not live in a binary world but a multifaceted one, even if much of our fiction and political discourse would seem to insist on claiming otherwise. I actually think that this is one of the reasons why the film was not quite the box office success in some markets as it was in others.

In our discussion of The Wind Rises I criticised Miyazaki for creating characters that are not in control of their stories, but here all major characters actually have clear agency and goals, and are able to influence their fates rather than things simply happening to them. This to me makes them more relatable, rounder characters. Of course, even here we definitely have forces which are beyond anyone’s control or even understanding, but they are presented in a tangible and to an extent concrete manner.

The ending is definitely interesting. Whether the Iron Town will ultimately take over the forest as you suggest I do not know, and I don’t think that I actually share your view that it is a foregone conclusion. I keep wondering though what may happen between Ashitaka and San. As you say, their story does not end with a traditional “and they lived happily ever after”, but there definitely is a declaration of romantic interest, complicated mainly by San’s refusal to leave the forest or fully embrace her humanness. Ashitaka promises to stay near her and visit her often, but he will also now be taking residence in a town which the film has established is more or less full of women who have their eyes set on him. If the truce between the forest and the town is dependent on Ahistaka and San, as the film seems to suggest, I wonder how long it can last before something comes between them.

While you mention Seven Samurai as a related work, and we have paired Princess Mononoke with Dersu Uzala in our film club, thinking about it now it is actually Throne of Blood which I find most resembles Miyazaki’s film from Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The two films, I think, share similar ambiguities, themes and narrative elements.

I would also list The Wind Rises as thematically related, and while your suggestion of the link between Lady Eboshi and Jiro is not something that I picked up on, it does make sense. Of course, Lady Eboshi is more of an active participant in the damage caused by her actions than Jiro, who appears to be further removed from the war.

Something else that the film strongly reminded me of are the Moomin stories by the Finnish author Tove Jansson, perhaps partly as her centenary was celebrated just last weekend. Miyazaki actually worked on the Japanese 1969 animated TV adaptation of Jansson’s stories, so there is a definite connection of some sort there. But even more so, the overall feel and themes of Princess Mononoke are quite similar to the Moomin books, and I was also wondering if Jansson’s hattifatteners may have been an influence on Miyazaki’s take on the forest dwelling white kodama. The aura around many of Miyazaki’s forest gods also very much reminded me of characters from the Moomin world such as The Groke or The Lady of the Cold.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I remembered the English voices being less than perfect, but I didn’t recall them being quite that bad!

Just to clarify, its not so much that I think the dubbing is bad, its that I found it very disappointing considering the very talented people involved. For me, it had a bit of a ‘lets knock something out before lunch’ vibe about it. I haven’t read any Neil Gaiman, but I know people who love his work, but nothing in the script made me feel he had any real sympathy for the story. I couldn’t help wondering what someone like Seamus Heaney could do (I was thinking of his wonderful translation of Beowulf).

Whether the Iron Town will ultimately take over the forest as you suggest I do not know, and I don’t think that I actually share your view that it is a foregone conclusion.

I was thinking that as the film is a mythical view of a historical moment – ‘the end of nature’ as one writer called it, it is a foregone conclusion in the sense that the Forest Gods are long gone and iron rules the world.

While you mention Seven Samurai as a related work, and we have paired Princess Mononoke with Dersu Uzala in our film club, thinking about it now it is actually Throne of Blood which I find most resembles Miyazaki’s film from Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The two films, I think, share similar ambiguities, themes and narrative elements.

When I mentioned Seven Samurai, I was thinking less about narrative themes, than the choice by the directors of picking a very specific historical moment in order to make more general comments on the contemporary world and human nature.

Of course, Lady Eboshi is more of an active participant in the damage caused by her actions than Jiro, who appears to be further removed from the war.

What struck me about the two characters is not so much that they are both seeking to do good, but end up doing terrible damage, but that they both did so knowingly. Lady Eboshi is fully prepared to destroy the forest and its inhabitants in order to save her people. Jiro is fully aware that his beloved aircraft will be used by a vicious and out of control government. Neither have any obvious wrestle with their conscience over it – they both seem to just accept this as inevitable. I have only a minimal knowledge of zen buddhism, but I do wonder if Miyazaki is making some point about the need to accept the notion of actions and events being neither good nor bad in an abstract sense, which as I understand it is one tenet of thought.

Something else that the film strongly reminded me of are the Moomin stories by the Finnish author Tove Jansson, perhaps partly as her centenary was celebrated just last weekend.

Oh my, I haven’t thought about the Moomins in decades! I loved them on TV when I was little, although I didn’t really understand them at all.

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Vili Maunula

Ooohhh… Seamus Heaney doing the Princess Mononoke translation… I would have watched that, no matter how badly it was dubbed! And I must say that I didn’t like the English voice acting.

Not that Neil Gaiman’s translation wasn’t good (it wasn’t exceptional either), at least based on the parts that I had the patience for. There is an article that Wikipedia links to where Gaiman discusses the translation process, and clearly a lot of effort was put into it. I do like Gaiman and grew up with his Sandman books, even if I haven’t really liked his later novels so much, or at least not the ones that I have read. And I must say the Sandman comics, which I revisit every now and then, also appear to have lost a little bit of their brilliance as I have grown older.

Ugetsu: I was thinking that as the film is a mythical view of a historical moment – ‘the end of nature’ as one writer called it, it is a foregone conclusion in the sense that the Forest Gods are long gone and iron rules the world.

I hope not! At least in Japan, about 70% of the country is still forest. We certainly have tamed nature globally, but have we managed to kill it off as well? I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, if you consider gods as manifestations of ourselves, then perhaps we have indeed killed off the forest gods as most of us urban dwellers no longer have any real connection with nature. Our landscapes are constructed of iron and concrete.

Ugetsu: When I mentioned Seven Samurai, I was thinking less about narrative themes, than the choice by the directors of picking a very specific historical moment in order to make more general comments on the contemporary world and human nature.

I didn’t at all mean to come across as dismissing the Seven Samurai link! I would definitely subscribe to your observation about a shared theme there. And like you say, they both seem extremely topical contemporary stories despite their historical setting.

Ugetsu: What struck me about the two characters is not so much that they are both seeking to do good, but end up doing terrible damage, but that they both did so knowingly. Lady Eboshi is fully prepared to destroy the forest and its inhabitants in order to save her people. Jiro is fully aware that his beloved aircraft will be used by a vicious and out of control government. Neither have any obvious wrestle with their conscience over it – they both seem to just accept this as inevitable.

That’s a good observation! I have no idea about Zen Buddhism either, so I cannot comment on that, but I can comment on the above.

What I tried to say earlier is that I think Lady Eboshi’s actions are more directly destructive. If Jiro stopped designing airplanes, someone else would take his place and the war effort would continue. Perhaps not as efficiently, but I think the change would be minimal. However, if Lady Eboshi stopped her violence against the forest, I believe the conflict would end. Of course, whether this is a meaningful difference at the end of the day is definitely debatable!

Ugetsu: Oh my, I haven’t thought about the Moomins in decades! I loved them on TV when I was little, although I didn’t really understand them at all.

There’s a lot happening in the Moomin universe these days. For instance, a brand new film titled Moomins on the Riviera is coming out later this year.

It’s based on the original comic strips that Tove Jansson did in the 50s and 60s, and my understanding is that it keeps to the somewhat more adult-oriented themes and topics than how for instance the Japanese animations have portrayed the family. So, we’ve got gambling, alcohol and playboys, among other things.

Still no tanks, though! In a recent interview (article and video in Finnish) for the Finnish National TV, Miyazaki mentioned that when working on the Moomin series he had wanted to add a scene where tanks invade the Moominvalley. Tove Jansson had vehemently opposed the idea, and it was ultimately dropped.

The interview also describes Miyazaki as someone who “absolutely loves war machines but hates war”.

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Ugetsu

Vili

There is an article that Wikipedia links to where Gaiman discusses the translation process, and clearly a lot of effort was put into it. I do like Gaiman and grew up with his Sandman books, even if I haven’t really liked his later novels so much, or at least not the ones that I have read.

Thats an interesting interview. I did notice how well the dubbing matched the mouth movements, although I wonder if this constrained his ability to flesh out the dialogue. It would seem there is a lot of subtlety lost in the translation of the original because of the need to keep syllables to the minimum. Perhaps if Seamus Heaney had done it they would have had to slow down the whole film to fit in his words. I did find it interesting when said the original wolf mother was voiced by a man – I thought Anderson’s voice was far too weak for the character, it needed someone with a Lauren Bacall type rasp I think.

I hope not! At least in Japan, about 70% of the country is still forest.

A lot of this is tamed and overexploited forest unfortunately, I understand there is little old growth left. The model for the forest is, I believe the remaining old growth on the island of Yakushima, far south of mainland Japan.

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lawless

For some reason there’s a huge backlog of Netflix customers waiting for this movie, so I wasn’t able to get it even though it was at the top of my queue. I don’t know when I will get it. In the meantime, I requested and received Part 2 of The Human Condition instead.

I saw Princess Mononoke eight to ten years ago, but don’t remember it well enough to comment on it. For whatever reason, it and Spirited Away are the only Miyazaki films I’ve seen (I know, I’ve been remiss), and while the animation is nearly as good (imo) as in Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke just never appealed to me as much.

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Ugetsu

Lawless, its odd its so popular now, but I suppose its a good sign if its always in demand.

It doesn’t actually surprise me that it didn’t stick in your mind as much as Spirited Away. The story is more ‘familiar’ in its story and setting – its influenced a few films since (Avatar comes to mind) and its pleasures are I think quite deep – its a film that maybe requires more than one viewing to really appreciate just how complex and beautiful it is.

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Vili Maunula

It has just been announced that Miyazaki will be awarded the honorary Academy Award later this year. I think he’s the first Japanese director since Kurosawa (1989) to be thus honoured! Also, I think they are the only two Japanese people on the list.

It’s interesting to hear that your earlier self preferred Spirited Away over Princess Mononoke, lawless! For me, Spirited Away was a disappointment, or rather a film that I couldn’t really get into. Although it is beautiful and wildly imaginative, as always with Miyazaki. I’m curious to hear what your take now on Princess Mononoke is when you get it!

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lawless

For some reason, right now it’s not showing as backlogged. Go figure. I just hope it’s still available once I finish The Human Condition 2 (which I just started watching) and return it.

I do remember that it has an environmental message. I think it’s more that it’s less distinctive (maybe that’s what Ugestu means by “more familiar”) and has less of a plot than Spirited Away that’s responsible for my opinion. It’s what I remember as its more meandering, ephemeral nature that kept me from liking it as much.

Even though it’s been eight years or so, I doubt my opinion as to which movie I like better will change, especially since I saw Spirited Away (which I’ve seen at least twice) for the first time within a year of watching Princess Mononoke and thus still had a fairly clear memory of Princess Mononoke. There are elements to Spirited Away, especially the use of a willful young girl on a quest as the lead/POV character and the whole family dynamic, that particularly appeal to me but might not resonate with the rest of you. I also remember an image (my memory as to exactly what it was is pretty vague) near the beginning of Princess Mononoke that grossed out all of us watching it, so there’s that to overcome as well.

Thanks for the letting us know about Miyazaki receiving an honorary Oscar, Vili. It’s well-deserved. (As was Kurosawa’s.)

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lawless

I finally got a chance to watch this. The visuals are stunning and remind me that quality animation has the ability to handle special effects that would eat up a great deal of time and money in a live-action film.

I appreciate how, as Vili notes, the story presents the various competing interests instead of elevating one or the other and takes a more realistic, Zen (if I may say so) approach to the resolution of both the conflict at the heart of the movie and the incipient romance — “live and let live, but I’ll stay in touch with you”. Like Ashitaka, the movie seeks balance and harmony among opposing interests as opposed to an out-and-out “win” for one side or the other.

While I was more impressed with the movie this time around than before, the more mystical aspects of the movie are part of why it doesn’t appeal to me as much as Spirited Away and why I didn’t remember the plot as well. For all of the things that happen in Spirited Away, the basic plot is fairly simple. That’s not as true of Princess Mononoke.

I also found it harder to keep track of who everyone was and what their interests and motivations were, in part because I watched it in three separate sessions. (It would have been two but I had to switch DVD players due to technical difficulties.) I intend to go back and watch the dubbed version, so hopefully I’ll pick up more of the continuity I missed before.

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Vili Maunula

I’m glad to hear that you had the chance to see the film, lawless! I love the film’s mystic dimension, but it is indeed more complex than a typical good vs evil setup, and I agree that this makes it harder to remember what exactly happens. The upside is of course that one can be positively surprised every time. 🙂

Do check out The Wind Rises when you have the chance, you might find it interesting as well.

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