Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Work of Art's Timely Questions:
Miyazaki's PRINCESS MONONOKE

Ashitaka, a member of an outcast tribe of people believed to be extinct by other Japanese, finds himself in a fight for the life of his village--and for his own life--when a rampaging creature, a boar-god turned demon, works out his destructive urges. In killing the demon-boar, Ashitaka ends up infected by the hatred/pain of the demon-god Nago, manifesting as powerful markings taking over his right arm, spreading. The only way to slow the spread is never to give in to great raging hatred, or the demon in his flesh will activate and grow.

It is discovered that an iron ball lodged in the body of the boar caused its pain and hatred. We viewers can guess what this means.

Ashitaka takes the iron ball and goes in quest for a cure to remove his curse, off to the land where the boar-god came from, a forested place where a great Forest Spirit abides.

On his journey, he meets others with an interest in this forest and it's great Spirit. Ashitaka befriends a wild nature girl from which the film takes its name: San. Raised by wolves, she sees the spirits of the land and speaks with the animals freely. Each person has their own reasons for fighting their cause, but Ashitaka comes across as the most balanced. He tries to do good to all parties--not just take a side as everyone seems to do. While he wishes to be free of his curse, he will not destroy someone or something else to achieve it--as the others will. San is willing to kill all humans, despite being human herself, to protect her own. The apes are willing to kill all non-apes to protect the forest. Lady Eboshi, ruler of an iron-working town of prostitutes, lepers, & social outcasts, will kill whatever and whoever to protect her town and people. And others will hate and kill to protect their own interests--the emperor, the mercenary, etc.

(Be ready to be deliciously amused--I laughed like a crazy woman--at the silly innocence of the tree spirits. See pic above right. Someone needs to make car bobble-heads out of these critters. Adorable!)

Ashitaka, strong and brave and handsome and full of virtues, looms as the great balanced hero, who wants the good of all, forest and human and animal and spirit. Will he be able to forge alliances and will he be able to save this magical place in the world threatened by human needs and greed and ignorance? And will he be able to survive his curse?

I had only seen two works by Miyazaki prior to Princess Mononoke. I already knew that Studio Ghibli produced really terrific anime, and that Miyazaki had a knack for presenting film moments that make us sigh in that spiritual part of us that senses wonder.

This film has perhaps the most enthrallingly magical sequence I have ever seen: the section in the heart of the forest where we see the forest spirit as NightWalker. These few cinematic moments were, to me as a Christian, almost holy.

The film is of a different myth/religion, but it captures that ineffable, that transcendant, that wordless experience where part of you KNOWS that there is truth manifested, and that it echoes real life like a voice saying, "Yes, there is something beyond atoms and molecules, and it is powerful and necessary and benevolent and awe-inspiring." (Although it can destroy, too, as we later see with the Forest Spirit). It is a moment that made me think of 60's psychedlia--a bit--and the special taste of clean night winds in moonlight--a bit--and the way you feel when you've prayed a powerful prayer.

This is a quest story that depicts man vs. nature, man vs himself, and asks questions about the place of humanity within the natural context. How much do we take, or should? What must we give back? What must we respect and leave alone? What are we willing to sacrifice for the good of even our enemies? It is very powerful and extremely beautiful. Even dubbed, you will be captivated.

There is a moment near the end where there is this pause--many seconds passing when you wait, wait, wait and the screen seems not to change. And you find yourself hoping, praying for a change. And when the first perceptible changes come, it's such a relief. Such an answer to prayer.

This film is like an answer to prayer. It says thing we need to listen to, and it can speak to folks outside of the Japanese culture and the nature religions. (And Neil Gaiman did the English screenplay adaptation. That didn't hurt.)

I can't recommend it too strongly. A work of art.

I don't have enough thumbs to stick up in the air.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

Woot! Another great movie and a great review.

The thing with these Shinto-influenced stories is that they don't sync with the standard Western story-arc, (which of course is bascially Judeo-Christian.) So I love them, but they always keep me guessing. I saw Ashitaka as a Christ-figure, and thought for sure he'd have to die to bring about reconciliation between the parties. But at the end he lives and everyone just goes on their way. A bit puzzling.

But yeah, the numinous scene with the NightWalker was stunning.

Hmm. I wonder. A thought just occurred to me - Lady Eboshi's town gathers in prostitutes, lepers, etc, but is at the same time industrial and cruel to the Earth. I wonder if it represents Western ways, or at least the early Japanese impression of Judeo-Christian Western Civilization. On the one hand it's got this impulse to be inclusive and socially just, but on the other it's industrialized and violent. Maybe the movie is about the clash of wider world-views, each with their positives and negatives.