I've continued to sample from Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, since I found so much spiritual significance in Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. When we started watching Princess Mononoke, we only got twenty minutes into it before we're groaning: "Oh no, not another eco-fable!" Surely, surely Miyazaki-san is not going to rehash the increasingly tired genre of Nature-resists-evil-industrialism. A town of iron-smelting humans threatens the forest where ancient spirits dwell, and a prince must try to save it . . .
Well, yes, that's exactly what Miyazaki is doing . . . but with all his subtlety for character development, he manages to pull it off without the usual cliches. What I love the most is that, once again, Miyazaki delights in introducing heroes and villains in seemingly black-and-white terms, and then proceeds to fuzz the boundaries between them throughout the story. The tale opens with a horrific demon-boar attacking an innocent village, only to be slain by a valiant prince after it ignores all attempts at peaceful resolution. Clearly: Prince Good, Boar Bad. But then we learn that the Boar was actually a forest-god, driven mad by an iron ball shot into his breast, and that the good prince is now touched with the same curse of hatred that consumed the boar. Hmmm, now both boar and prince are victims of evil industrialists. The prince sets out to find said Evil Industrialists, and finds one of their wagon trains under attack by the wolf god. We see the Lady Eboshi, a cold witch of woman, shooting down the wolf-god with her terrible Gun. Aha, we have a real villain now! Except . . . later we find out Lady Eboshi is a feminist, saving young girls from inner city brothels, and showing mercy to lepers. Ok, er,Â so she's a progressive witch . . . still kinda villain-y, but now we're not so sure. Then we see the beautiful wolf-princess of the title, the noble savage for whom the prince has great sympathy . . . but then we see just how savage and hateful she really is, and we start to wonder about her, too.
It goes on and on like that -- the villains not-entirely-despicable, the good guys less-than-completely-noble. Only Prince Ashitaka, whose explicit mission was "to see with eyes unclouded by hate," is able to see past partisan loyalties and continually work for a common peace. Even he struggles to keep his demon-possessed right arm from going ballistic from time to time. All the warring factions -- wolves, boars, men, women, imperial powers, mercenary hunters -- get their share of rhetoric, but Ashitaka is (thank God) free of moralizing speeches. He is a man of action, and he kicks just enough butt to make you respect his moments of heroic restraint. The more-or-less expected eco-fable plot plays out as you might expect, but with a much more nuanced treatment of everyone involved, and a much higher body count than Disney would ever dream of. If I had no patience for ecological themes before, it's because I had never seen it done well. Now I have.