Princess Mononoke screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Thursday, November 25th at 9:30pm and Sunday, November 28th at 7:00pm.
Princess Mononoke just might be the greatest film of any kind to come out of Japan not made by Kurosawa, animated or otherwise. It was the highest grossing Japanese film of all time, became a cult favourite in North America, and is regarded as famed director Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece. Considering the man also created Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, and Spirited Away (to name a few), that says a lot. It is a film so visually and emotionally stunning that not even dubbing the film into English hurts it.
(Sorry guys. The only prints available in North America are dubbed. To get one of the few remaining Japansese subtitled prints would have delayed this screening for at least a full year and to just break even we would have to sell out a 700 seat theatre. 3 times. We have never once sold out a show. Considering all that, it just wasn't cost effective and a little bit insane.)
Mononoke takes place in a revisionist history version of feudal Japan. It is a rare historical epic not told through the viewpoint of a member of the warrior aristocracy, but through an alternate mythology of a time before a patriarchal system of ruling was in place. Mononoke takes place during a period of transition for Japan when the samurai class was becoming far more literate and belief in the ancient gods of Japan and nature, known as the kami, was waning. Or in Miyazaki's own words (from the introduction to his book on the making of the film):
"Contrary to the usual jidaigeki [period piece], this is a movie in which few samurai, peasants, or feudal lords appear. This is a film in which the main protagonists are those who usually do not appear on the stage of history. Instead, this is the story of the marginals of history."
Ashitaka, our protagonist, opens the film by slaying a wild boar possessed by a tatarigami (violent god) that became violent as a result of an iron ball embedded in it's body. Just before dying, the boar curses Ashitaka in the form of a growth on his right arm that will eventually consume and kill him. To rid himself of this curse he has to travel far outside the feudal culture and into the world of the natural.
He makes his way to Tatara, a weapons manufacturing enclave and refuge for outcast women, run by Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is under attack not only by forest gods, but also by a girl named San who is a mononokehime (possessed princess, hence the title). Han was raised as a wolf alongside the kami and despises all things human. Eboshi wants to rule the entire forest and to do so she needs to kill a very powerful god known as the shishigami. Ashitaka finds himself torn between doing what is right and ridding himself of his curse.
The female characters in Princess Mononoke are pretty gender neutral and played almost in direct opposition to their historical and patriarchal archetypes. They are also deeply flawed people, but, then again, no one in this film will be up for sainthood any time soon. Eboshi rules quite effectively on her own without any male influence and has humanitarian leanings, but she is also an autocratic, power hungry tyrant. San, whom the audience is most likely to identify with before the film's conclusion, is a ruthless killer prone to unrelenting fits of violence that are driven by a violent and righteous hatred of the human world.
Princess Mononoke can most easily be described as a story about love and loss in every possible form. It is about love of nature, family, the environment, love between the sexes, and love of self. It is also about the loss that goes hand in hand with such love. in a time of environmental and spiritual crisis like we are all living in right now, the film stands as a wake up call to people asking them to reflect on what they have already lost and what else they stand to lose. It is a vision of revisionist history based on love, but almost devoid of sentimentality. It is definitely Miyazaki's darkest and, quite probably, best work.