When Princess Mononoke was first released in Japan on July 12, 1997, 25 years ago this week, it was something of a departure for master animator and director Hayao Miyazaki. By the late ’80s, Miyazaki had built his reputation (along with the success of Studio Ghibli, which he founded with colleague Isao Takahata) with films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro; formally ambitious, thematically rich works, but overall an affirmative tone and family-friendly nature. But something changed in the 90s. First, he began to resent the popular idea that Studio Ghibli only makes soft films about how great nature is. “I’m starting to hear Ghibli as ‘cute’ or ‘healing,'” he grumbles in Princess Mononoke: How the Film Was Concepted, a six-hour documentary about the film’s production, “and I feel the urge to destroy it.” More significantly but was his growing despair at a world he increasingly believed was cursed.
“He used to be what he called a sympathetic leftist, a supporter of popular power,” explains Shiro Yoshioka, Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University. “But for obvious reasons [the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the escalation in ethnic conflicts across Europe]his political beliefs were completely shaken in the early 1990s.”
Japan itself was also going through something of an existential crisis. The country’s bubble period, an economic boom in the late 1980s, burst in 1992, leaving Japan stranded in a seemingly endless recession. Three years later, in 1995, the country was hit by the Kobe earthquake, the worst earthquake to hit Japan since 1922. It killed 6,000 people and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands more. Just two months later, a terrorist cult known as Aum Shinrikyo launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Miyazaki, disgusted by the materialism of the Bubble Age, now lived in a country traumatized and confused – both by its relationship with nature and by a creeping sense of spiritual emptiness.
“He started thinking,” says Yoshioka, “maybe I shouldn’t do this fun, light-hearted stuff for kids. Maybe I should do something substantial.”
A new rage
Set in Japan’s 14th century Muromachi period, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young prince cursed by the hatred of a dying boar god who was corrupted by an iron ball lodged in his body. “Hear me, abominable people,” says the boar, “you shall know my torment and my hatred.” To cure his curse, Ashitaka travels the land hoping to find the Shishigami, a deer-like forest spirit with the power to bring life and death.
Along the way, Ashitaka discovers an unbalanced world. Led by the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, the ironworks community of Tatara scavenges the nearby forest for resources, provoking the wrath of the savage wolf god Moro and her savage human daughter San (the titular mononoke, which roughly translates to specter or specter). Caught in the middle is Ashitaka, who must figure out how to navigate this difficult world with “naked eyes”. “I’ve always loved that [phrase]’ says Gaiman. “Unclouded by evil. Unclouded by fear, unclouded by hate. You just have to see what’s really there.”
Compared to Miyazaki’s earlier work, it’s a dark and angry film, filled with strange spectacles and scenes of terrifying violence. Hands are severed. Heads are cut off. Blood spurts from humans and beasts alike. “I believe that violence and aggression are integral parts of us humans,” Miyazaki once told journalist Roger Ebert. “The problem we face as humans is how to control that impulse. I know little kids might watch this movie, but I made a conscious choice not to protect them from the violence that is inherent in humans.” Indeed, the cursed boar god whose wrath grew like a squirming nest of oily worms bursts out at him, inspired by Miyazaki’s own struggle to control his anger.
Hayao Miyazaki is a self-confessed bundle of contradictions. Read his writings, listen to his interviews, watch him speak and he paints a portrait of an artist caught between idealism and nihilism, optimism and despair. He’s the pacifist with a fascination for fighter planes; the demanding boss who despises authority but exercises it ruthlessly as a director; the father who passionately believes in the spirit of children but has rarely been home to raise his own; the staunch environmentalist struggling to live an ecologically ethical life. “When I see tuna being reeled in on a line, I’m like, ‘Wow, people are terrible,'” he once told Japanese author Tetsuo Yamaori in a 2002 interview reprinted in the 2014 Miyazaki essay anthology Turning Point was published, “but when someone offers me tuna sashimi, I eat it naturally and it tastes delicious.”