Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)
Read my takes on...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO ******* KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE
- PORCO ROSSO ******* HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
- NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND ******* CASTLE IN THE SKY
I wasn’t planning to review PRINCESS MONONOKE here. I’d already watched it several times - - it was the first Miyazaki movie I’d ever seen, in fact - - and it therefore didn’t fit this feature’s “travelogue of discovery” conceit.
However, as it happened, the Aero Theater in Santa Monica opted to add this as a bonus feature to their screening of CASTLE IN THE SKY as a conciliatory gesture to anybody potentially miffed over their last minute substitution of the subbed print with the dubbed one (many kudos to the Aero and Egyptian for pulling off such an excellent, crowd-pleasing programming block in this CASTLES IN THE SKY series, by the way.) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch a 35mm print of MONONOKE for free, nor to comment on the experience, so here we are with me really coming full-circle in my appreciation of Miyazaki’s body of work after nine films and 13 odd years.
For all the compliments to be lavished upon Miyazaki, the most superlative must go to how the man has a true artist’s daring instinct to never repeat himself. There are recurring notions and motifs throughout his filmography, to be sure - - from sky pirates to castles of varying mobility, and from the pure delights of flight to a somber cooperation with nature - - but each effort has a truly distinct tone and identity. So much so that being enraptured with one of his flicks doesn’t really guarantee that the next will captivate (or even necessarily entertain) you. Thus, for as soundly as SPIRITED AWAY and KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE didn’t hit with me, I do prefer that they exist as the products of an artistic vision that bravely ventures to polarizing extremes instead of keeping to safe middle ground.
With this new, wider perspective, PRINCESS MONONOKE still stands firm as my favorite Miyazaki movie - - a film with no misplaced steps, no unsure notes, no misaimed gestures and not a single wasted moment. It’s the most tightly-plotted and briskly-paced flick in this particular pantheon; one where every single scene flows into the next with clear purpose, confident speed and a sense of fitting inevitability.
MONONOKE wastes no time getting to a breakneck inciting incident in the beginning that expertly entwines a very intimate and dire physical threat with a far-reaching philosophical dilemma. The saintly and deadly Prince Ashitaka defends his village from what at first seems like a rampaging demon - - a horrifying mess of wriggly black worms that turns out to be a blinded and vengeful boar god - - and the ordeal leaves him gravely tainted. Infected with the boar god's hateful curse, he’s forced to venture out into the world on a few thin hopes. Hopefully he’ll be cured by the legendary, merciful deer god and hopefully, he'll find retribution along the way on the men whose iron bullet poisoned the poor beast in the first place.
This is all established in under ten minutes of screen time, and it never feels rushed in the way that animated feature’s cramped running times often necessitate. Rather, it has the surety of an epic poem whose every bold line decisively evokes what lesser works would need five lines to express. It operates on that highest discipline of storytelling which can make great and profound points (in this case on conservationism and vengeance) by presenting events simply as they would happen, not by moralizing or even seemingly offering a subjective point-of-view.
Each Miyazaki movie I've watched has invited comparison to other works of filmmaking and sequential art. Aside from Shinto legends, perhaps, I can't think of any adequate piece to point to for MONONOKE. I might drawn an incomplete comparison to Kubrick flicks for the aforementioned narrative objectivity (incomplete, certainly, for how much warmer this is, emotionally) but it really exists in a sphere of its own.
Ashitaka navigates a feudal landscape blighted by chaos and strife; the boar's curse slowly eating his insides away even as it grants him fearsome superhuman abilities. After a little time, he rescues some wounded soldiers who've fallen in a battle with wolf spirits and returns them to their home, the nascent industrial city of Iron Town. There, he meets the unforgettable Lady Eboshi. Like Ashitaka's sickness, the place and the lady simultaneously embody both the best and worst qualities of urban progress in even its earliest forms.
One of the most remarkable scenes comes when Eboshi quickly shows Ashitaka the very root cause of his condition - - her conclave of gun-making lepers. His righteous anger flares at the site of them, nearly compelling his possessed arm to cleave the lady's head off until one of the lepers pleads with him to show mercy. Is Eboshi to be condemned for corralling such lowly outcasts into her business of war? Or is she to be commended for giving such outcasts a haven in Iron Town they're free from the scorn of an unfeeling society and able to find the dignity of employment? Is she a demoness clawing all that is good about nature into the blazing bonfire of her ambition? Or are all these brutal forest spirits just as culpable for the hatred plaguing the land?
The hard answers, and the host of others raised in the movie, are refreshingly left up to the viewer.
There’s simply too much for me to sing the praises of than I have room for.
I could go on at length about San, the wolf girl of the title, who embodies such an alluring blend of vulnerable innocence and literally bloodthirsty aggression...
I could recount all the thrilling scenes of battle and chase which make deft action seem so instinctual in these animators' hands...
I could wax rhapsodic about Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping score, which is irresitably hypnotizing, rousing and sublime...
I could extol how fascinating this vision of animist mythology is with its spooky menagerie of gods, demons, imps and animal spirits...
I could even simply state how fun it was to watch Ashitaka’s red elk steed, Yakul, in motion, or to see the cackling mercenary monk Jigo do anything...
...but I'm sure you get the idea.