Princess Mononoke (or as I first knew it, Mononoke Hime) will always hold a special place in my heart.
It was the first movie I saw in Japan without English subtitles, where I could somewhat follow what was going on. It was also one of the first animation films I saw that had two central female forces at odds with one another, where men weren’t at the center of “saving them” from their “folly”. But most of all, it was one of the most fulfilling, challenging, philosophical, honest, and beautiful pieces of cinema I’d ever encountered in my life.
I watched it again recently, and as much as I enjoyed its beauty and philosophy and the fingerprints that he puts all over the piece (his “voice”), one thing in particular struck me this time around: Miyazaki’s incredible gift for evoking empathy.
A slew of recent films I’ve seen have been plagued by presenting tremendously flawed characters, which seems like a good move — there’s nothing more eye-rolling than perfect ingenues — but they’ve made them flawed to the point where they are borderline, or completely, unlikable. The “asshole hero” motif is bold and interesting the first couple times you see it, in the hands of worthy thespians, but after awhile it’s just another downward spiral of pathetic, disgusting people that sadly wears away at your ability to put yourself in their shoes and see life from their perspective.
And isn’t that, kinda sorta, the value of art? To open up our range of perspectives, so that we become more empathetic, rather than less?
Not a delightful trend, if the reality of your cinematic experience is the exact opposite.
But with Mononoke Hime, insert a refreshing shift to unrelenting calls for perspectivism (aka, empathy!), in both the writing and the delivery from the voice actors (full disclosure: I watched the dubbed version). At every turn, he hits home that maybe, just maybe, we all have reasons, and we are each the protagonist of our own stories. Even the characters you are supposed to view as the “villain” have a legitimate and understandable backstory that leads to what they do and say, and even the most selfish of characters creates some positive outcomes for those around them. You understand why they are who they are, and why they do what they do.
Instead of a story of good vs evil, black and white colors on what is right and what is wrong, Miyazaki elegantly provides us with multiple angles, any of which you could see yourself following, given the right combination of conditions. A complex ecosystem where actions have consequences, some helpful to some people, and some devastatingly detrimental, with no simple answers to predictably plod toward. It’s everything we want from a supernatural tale filled with gods and beasts and ghouls: it is undeniably human.
Perhaps it’s the actor in me that is so darned thrilled to see such effort made to show the difficulties that come with being alive. That usually there is no pure 100% good choice that makes everyone better in the end. Sometimes it’s just a bunch of shite choices, and your task is to find the one that does the least amount of harm to the aspects of life that you’re most intimately familiar with.
My shelf also has such amazing tales as Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises … so many incredible stories that are feasts to the eyes and to the heart, but Princess Mononoke will always be the one that opened my eyes to what animation can do, and what I believe Miyazaki was trying to do. This one is “special”, and likely always will be.