History of Animation

Post #7: Princess Mononoke (Spring Break Post)

Posted on: March 11, 2010

I’m going to admit something that will probably get me flamed through the Internet: Avatar, while admittedly very wonderful in the terms of visual and technical achievement, had a very by-the-numbers, been-there-done-that plot that showed no subtlety in beating the viewers repeatedly in the heads with its Aesop of “White people were cruel, heartless monsters who killed the poor Indians and drove them off their land for wealth and we should feel bad because we’re killing our planet in the name of Money.” Yes, I agree that white people were complete bastards to Indians, Africans, and even snubbed the other European and Asian immigrants that came over later on in history. I apologize on behalf of anyone who’s ethnicity is White/ Caucasian; what more do you want from me? It is indeed sad that prejudice and racism still exist to this day, however I’ve heard every chestnut about how we should respect the ourselves and the world around us. I’m sorry James Cameron, but subtlety wasn’t your forte in this movie. On the topic of subtlety, other movies I’ve seen that advocate this same message, for all of the preaching that they do, have at least shown that there’s no such thing as “black and white morality”, but rather “shades of grey”. Avatar had nothing of the sort; the sides were clear from the start that the “noble, blue-skinned, savage-but-gentle Naa’vi” were the Good Guys, and the “cruel, industrial, trigger-happy Humans” were the Bad Guys.

What point am I trying to make, exactly? Well… to put it simply, you don’t have to be incredibly preachy and dumb down your message to make an environmental themed movie effective. Case in point with critically acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 (it came out in America in 1999) award-winning film, Princess Mononoke.

The story of Princess Mononoke begins with a young man named Ashitaka, who’s the last prince of his dying clan, engaging in battle with a giant boar god possessed by a demon attempting to attack his village. During their battle and the subsequent defeat of the demon, the demonic tentacles (a physical mutation which shows the demon has possessed the body of its host) wound Ashitaka on his arm. The local medicine woman tells Ashitaka that the wound is cursed and will continue spread through his body until he dies, and that there is no cure or hope for him. However, she also reveals that the boar was wounded by an iron musket, and tells Ashitaka that if he travels to the West, where the boar came from, and finds out what drove the boar to become a demon in the first place, he might find a cure. Ashitaka travels to the West and temporarily settles in a prosperous town named Iron Town, located around a giant forest that is said to be home to a great Forest Spirit. Iron Town, which is led by Lady Eboshi, is continually cutting down the trees and nearby forests to make charcoal and smelt iron, which leads them to be constantly attacked by animals, mostly with the wolf god Moro and her “human daughter”, San, or “Princess Mononoke”.

One of the best things about this movie are the characters and how they’re developed. Ashitaka, despite being the hero of the movie, doesn’t take any clear-cut side with either San or Lady Eboshi. He believes that each side has their own valid reason (and they do) for their motivations, but believes that if they reach a middle ground, they’ll be able to figure things out; which is a very idealistic way of thinking, but nevertheless he doesn’t take the “Good Side” just because he’s the designated hero.

Even Lady Eboshi, who I guess would be considered the designated villain of the story, is not all that horrible of a person. She created Iron Town and gave people such as lepers and brothel-girls a place where they would be safe and cared for with no prejudice or mistreatment. She clearly cares about her people and their well-being, but in order for them, herself, and their town to be well-maintained and have food, water, medicine, and the like, she has to keep making iron, even if she has to keep destroying the forest. Unlike the humans in Avatar, who explicitly and blatantly love destroying the forest, Lady Eboshi merely sees it as trying to expand her business and keep her town alive. On the other side of things, it’s perfectly understandable to feel concerned for San and the creatures of the forest, since their home and their lands are being torn down at an increasing rate with no signs of stopping. Worse of all, the hatred that the animals are gaining because of the humans killing their tribes and their land stirs within them, so they have to also be afraid of turning into something, as San puts it, “…that is neither human OR animal.” The only characters that I would say that come close to fitting the “Humans Are Bastards” stereotype are a monk and hunters hired by the Emperor to bring back the head of the Forest Spirit (in hopes that he’ll have immortality), but even then, they’re portrayed as just simply doing this as a job.

Watching this movie about 10 or so years later, the animation still looks incredibly amazing, proving that you don’t have to have top of the line computer graphics to convey your story. Miyazaki’s beautiful, almost oil-painting-like detail on the landscapes and scenery of the forest is simply beautiful to look at. The characters and action scenes move fluidly, never choppy, and the demonic tentacles that sprout from the Cursed Gods are disturbing to look at, as they were modeled in CG, but then drawn over in cell-animation. Adding in a beautiful cinematic score composed by Joe Hisashi, and it’s amazing on both visual and auditory levels.

I know that Miyazaki is a bit blatant in his moral that we should respect our forests and the environment around us, but for me, he conveys the message so it doesn’t preach or talk down to us as if we’re just ignorant mud-people. Whereas Avatar has beautiful visuals, but a plotline that’s been done before with a bunch of two-dimensional characters tied together in an Anvilicious moral message, Princess Mononoke has a commonly done plot but with characters that are complex, and a moral message that, while a bit preachy, is subtly and tastefully done. I would highly recommend watching Princess Mononoke to see an environmental message done right, and to see that Japanese animation isn’t just Pokemon and Dragonball Z.

I commented on Justin Pangilinan‘s blog and Cory Finch‘s blog

TVTropes: Definition of Anvilicious

Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped– the opposite of Anvilicious


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