"...body of a reindeer, feet of a chicken, antlers like tree roots, chest plumage of an eagle, tail of a fox, face like a painted semi-humanoid African lion mask (yup!)..."
The moral of Princess Mononoke flies in the face of established western religion. Well-sketched human ambiguity flies in the face of established western religion. Taking place in a land that sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japan (further research suggests it's technically around the 1300s, but a fantastical version of the 1300s, so it might as well be in Asia-Narnia), the earth is being contaminated. Humans have been driving the soil too hard, subjugating the animals too harshly, and mining too deeply for iron to build their fortresses of sand and mud. There is societal and technological progress as a result. Humans are safer from the wild beasts. We have crude guns. The mountains are being tamed. The future is drawing closer. And somewhere in the wilderness, a princess raised by a thirty-foot wolf is plotting revenge against the fortress' governess.
This is cinema's animated, foreign, ancient, Gaia-theory-infused, epic saga. It's better than The Godfather Part II, but maybe not quite as good as The Godfather.
The leaves are green but the rivers have begun to run brown in this place. Under the shadowy forest canopy, demons are beginning to possess the strongest animals. They leak blackened, cursed blood that writhe like lecherous worms when cut. The demons' skin is comprised of half-dissected land-bound octopi. These demons are manifestations of the earth's anger at the growing imbalance -- an imbalance that the greedy, desperate humans have brought. The very ground we walk on fighting back against the people fighting to survive? The animals have every right to the planet that we do, don't they? With both sides fighting for justifiable survival, what side doe we take?
In short: neither side. In the most un-western way possible, good and bad are not binary in this movie. Supreme benevolence and total evil don't exist in this sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japanese land. There is no God, there is no Satan. There are, however, forces of greater sentience that humans can't quite comprehend. And isn't that what a god really is? There are wicked demons that can be killed and there are kinder spirits that can also be killed. And there are people, but there is no carved set of rules. There is no infallible source of unquestionable truth. There's nothing to default to in this story.
Goodness is not openly declared. Its concept must be explored and discovered by all of the characters, be they man, woman, or wolf-god.
The prince, one of our two main characters, capable with the bow and with the sword, rides a straight-up lovable red elk across the countryside. That red elk might be my favorite animal in any movie ever. He's mildly fantastic, but could certainly exist somewhere in the world. Throughout the movie, the elk will: get scared, face certain death, get the prince out of danger, carry him when he's injured, disobey and follows when it's told not to, and get shot with an arrow. We want one. We'd ride it to the bar.
Traveling closer to town, the prince passes out familiar greetings to villagers. They're clearly fans of his red elk and they adore the shit out of the prince. Five minutes later though, the prince has killed a rampaging boar god and in doing so, learns he's cursed with the creature's anger -- that anger will soon kill him. Natch. So in defense of his home, the infinitely noble (and I mean that, he's honorable to a fault), the prince will die, eaten from the inside-out by worming feelings of rage. The demon, which lives in his arm, occasionally rises up, feeding on the fury around the prince, its half-dissected land-bound octopi skin showing through in the ickiest, most believable way imaginable.
How can we root for this guy? He's damned. He's tainted and his fate is written. He can't fight back against evil, because that just speeds up the curse's consumption of his soul. But you do root for him. Because his character is not binary. He doesn't turn the other cheek, he doesn't wait for the world, he isn't complacent, he isn't self-pitying. He gears up. He gets shit done. He doesn't do this stuff to survive, he knows he's already dead. He doesn't do this stuff because he's commanded to or sent on a quest. He doesn't do it out of thoughtless devotion to something he doesn't understand (at least not at first, but then the princess shows up (but she's a total sweetie (at least not at first, again))). No, the prince does this because he looks at the problems, assesses his own shit situation, and then goes totally Flash Gordon on the rapidly eroding landscape of sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japan.
Traveling some distance across the countryside, he eventually learns from the governess of the fortress that it was she that killed the boar god, who in turn cursed the prince. The boar god was enraged by an iron bullet she'd shot, that hatred allowed the demon to enter and corrupt the boar god (who by the way, is, like, a boar the size of an orca). The governess was defending her people from the forest beasts, she shot the boar god in defense. And then what does she do? She apologizes to the prince for being an accessory to his being cursed. Oh, also, the governess cares for lepers and rescues women from brothels in the city and gives them shelter.
Oh, come on, man! Give us a bad guy! We have the prince, we have the governess, we demons possessing giant animals, and we have... well, we have the princess.
The princess. We love the princess. She's a fantastic foil to the prince. She's a total spitting-cobra that meshes flawlessly with the prince's cool, focused self-confidence. Their arguments are so one-sided. She threatens to kill him the way normal people would inhale or use punctuation. And he just goes about his business -- listening to her, but focusing on the bigger issues, like the impending eco-pocalypse. He doesn't snap at her, isn't mean to her, and doesn't sass back at her. He knows she's worried, but fighting her won't improve his situation. He's just got liquid nitrogen running through his veins. Pretty soon, she realizes what he's all about. They save one another from death on multiple occasions. They're both determined, headstrong, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, and always capable. They rock our socks off every time. They're better than the husband and wife from The Fountain. They're so much better than Harry and Sally. They're one of the best couples you'll find in any story.
See, the prince is basically half-hatred by the end of the first hour, so him just handling his shit is exciting to watch. You pray he won't become a self-loathing blob of a human and he doesn't! When he goes demonic, the noise fades out, he goes sort of expressionless, and moves through his troubles like a determined white dandelion. He bends swords slowly like they grass. He gets shot (bloodily too, there's a hole in his chest that's the circumference of an mature ferret at one point) and keeps walking. He saves the princess from the governess and they retreat to the woods.
What follows is a chase across the wilderness. The governess wants to secure her power by killing the peaceful forest spirit that gives life to all the nice spirits. If it dies, then the beasts like the wolves and the boars and the apes will become docile. This keeps up with the running themes of survivalism and prickishness, in that everybody, man, woman, or wolf-god, are capable of being emotionally small.
Eventually, we gather that the best thing we all can do is: moderation. The animals need to stop being pissed off. The humans need to be less greedy when they dig for iron or gather resources. The demons need to go and fuck right off, because they're just being tricky dickholes that want to ruin people's good times. The governess gets her arm bitten off at one point by a disembodied wolf head, which is so sudden and so un-graphic that you sort of forget it happens.
The scariest moment occurs when the great forest spirit (body of a reindeer, feet of a chicken, antlers like tree roots, chest plumage of an eagle, tail of a fox, face like a painted semi-humanoid African lion mask (yup!)) is just chilling out, making flowers grow wherever it walks, and it gets its head shot off. It then mutates over the course of a few hard-to-watch minutes into a toxic single-celled organism. It walks like a headless emaciated gorilla. Growing a hundred feet tall, sort of amorphous, but with transparent, spidery limbs and too many fingers. It's so faceless, yet familiar and human(ish)-shaped, that you can't help but be terrified of this good thing being desecrated by violence.
Rewind for a sec. Earlier on, when it had a head, the great forest spirit has the opportunity to cure the prince of his demonic curse when it heals the ferret-sized wound in his chest. But it doesn't. The prince wonders this aloud. Well, because that wouldn't solve anything. The prince has to go on wondering, growing, fighting, riding giant wolves, learning to appreciate the princess' passionate desire to protect her forest, and eventually realize on his own that he needs and wants to restore the balance of nature in the world. Nobody tells him to do this. Nobody tells him when he's done it. It's beautiful when he restores the great forest spirit to its rightful form with the princess' help. The gigantic spirit collapses into a lake and the water purifies the decaying forest the way a good deus ex machina should. The hatred subsides, the demons are defeated.
And the princess has to go back into the forest. It's an optimistic but very sad ending. It isn't "boo-hoo" sad. It's more of "goddamn, we suck" sad.
We'd knock it down a peg for being a movie for tree-hugging dipshit hippies, but we'd be missing the point if we did, and then the hippies would win. It isn't entirely about that. The truth behind Princess Mononoke is that there is no one true force of white goodness and there is no source of endless evil blackness. We aren't here on earth to please the righteous, or even attack the wicked. Ambiguity can be a tough conclusion to grasp. It's a vital lesson in life though. We're all just trying to make it in a world filled with forces bigger and stronger than ourselves. If you can't handle that, that unfairness, then you'll succumb. You'll default to an extreme -- complacent, weak goodness or rage-blinded wickedness, whichever is the path of least resistance. The prince and the princess are dangerously close to these ends of the spectrum until they meet each other. Through mutual, personal identification, they gradually discover a better truth (and it's a long-ass movie, let me remind you, clocking in at about 2.5 hours) than these simpler default settings of "this" or "that."
They are fluctuating shades. In the end, they get it. They are much greater than the sum of their more obvious parts.
-- @Alex Crumb (originally published 3/2/11)