They're doing a Hayao Miyazaki season at the Cameo, which means lots of gentle, Japanese animé of otherworlds and ethereal environments. Yesterday I went to watch Princess Mononoke (1997), which to my mind is the darkest and most brutal of the Miyazaki offerings.
Immediate questions occur in reflection, as they did before I decided with hesitation to watch this movie. Are these animations simplistic, or am I being cynical, corrupted by the character-driven sex-and-violence of Western cinema? Or on a broader level, corrupted by ideas of progress and consumption and non-stop economic and technological growth? The characters of the director Miyazaki are not complex: protagonists of indeterminate, youthful adolescence, a world away from those of Western cinema. Their initial worlds are usually peace-loving and unobtrusive, punctured by the intervention of a stranger or some form of dark magic that shakes the protagonist's world. The parallel with Tolkien's adventures is apparent, including the love of nature, and the crying out for harmony between nature and civilization.
Princess Mononoke encapsulates these themes as well as any Miyazaki story. A serious young man called Ashitaka is injured while battling a demonic boar that was poised to destroy his village. Now carrying a curse that's slowly killing him, Ashitaka is advised to go West to find both a cure and the answer to the story of the boar. Eventually he happens on an island village that's slowly killing its environment through its ever-increasing production of iron. Three proud groups of animals are particularly ready to wage war against this village: giant white wolves, giant boars, and slightly stupid apes. It's here that Ashataki meets the feral Princess Mononoke, a human girl who by some form of magic is loyal to the wolves and is treated as one.
Like all the Miyazaki films I've seen, what transcends is not the characterization but the landscapes. The magic forest is the kind of place I'd want to linger in, spiritually, after death; it's a place that speaks of non-linear harmony and transcendental peace, with greens and blues merging with shadows, and not a human in sight. In its sacred pool, wounded animals go for sustenance and recovery. Tiny forest spirits called Kodama, white toddlers with rorschach-like faces, rattle around affectionately, one of Miyazaki's most inspired creations if adapted from Japanese folklore.
So here's why you might want to watch a film - especially this film - by Miyazaki: it is a kind of antidote, or at least, presents a different prism for seeing and appreciating the world, if such a thing seems necessary. Based upon its impact on me, I guess it was necessary. The environmental politics of Princess Mononoke may seem at times unsubtle, though isn't it sad that a pro-environmental sentiment has to seem political, as opposed to just plain obvious? At any rate, what's valuable about these animations isn't the study of character but of the environment in its most transcendent, mystical form. Far away from concepts of Heaven made by humans – the Quranic Garden of Allah, the Gates of a Christian God – is an Earthly, human-free zone where spirits rest in the blues and greens of plant life and its shadows, where time seems not to exist and everything is calm and quiet, and it makes you wonder: are we by our environmental degradation killing heaven?
Written an hour after posting: what a comment to end this review on. I thought about deleting it for its sentimentality and starting again, but it's interesting how the world of Miyazaki can draw you into such a feeling and maybe it's better to keep this review's conclusion as it is, slightly schmaltzy, and yes transcended above human affairs. Perhaps that's what Miyazaki's stories do to me, but even so, I think there's something wonderful in his veneration of the environment and the images it leave with you. G