(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1997)
Seeing this film - well, completing it - last night, I quickly realized I would have trouble describing the experience. Faced with such a work, the brain, reeling from sensory overload, grasps desperately and wildly, landing on clichés. Eye-popping, mind-boggling, that kind of thing. But what can you do? Rarely do we find a storyteller, and a creator of images, as resistant to description and as impervious to hyperbole as Miyazaki.
Seeing Miyazaki's films out of order has made charting his career a particular challenge, but it is clear right away that Mononoke is a deepening of his previous efforts, and a departure from the whimsical spirit of works like Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. This film is an epic, full stop. It springs not just from Miyazaki's imagination but from history, from Japanese mythology, and from an awareness of human nature, compassionate and troubled, that has been annealed by experience.
Bazin and his band of merry Frenchmen agitated for the director as author, and more or less, the idea stuck. Film is a collaborative effort, yes, but we generally accept the fact that the director's is the biggest imagination on the set and in the editing room, the foreman on the floor, the architect at his drafting table, and the person (still usually a man, alas) with whom the buck stops. But how many directors can claim the level of authorship that Miyazaki has shown, in film after film? We Romantic Westerners imagine filmmaking as a defensive battle, waged on the director by time, money, recalcitrant crew members, temperamental actors, and her own stamina, concentration, and patience. Miyzaki works the other way, with the gale force of his imagination barely contained by the images that he personally draws or oversees. His world, inspired by ours - and nature, the Mother of Mothers - seems to strain at the attempts to make it solid, so bountiful and exuberant is his vision.
To catalogue the richness of Mononoke would take too long, and would only be a meager description of the whole movie, scene by scene. Ten minutes into the film, he has mastered the action genre. Before the credits roll, he will have also shown formidable chops in the historical drama, fantasy, war, melodrama, picaresque, and romance. Even horror, I would say (Japanese children must be made of stern stuff. If I'd seen this too young I'd still be haunted by it). By the end, we may be forgiven for not knowing what it was we just saw.
Monoke's first appearance in the movie, her face blood-soaked and fierce, has to be one of the great cinematic images, on par with Chaplin or Welles. Miyazaki, an admirer of Kurosawa, has in some ways surpassed him. Kurosawa spent his entire career trying to orchestrate the grandeur (and emotional intensity) that Miyazaki seems to accomplish effortlessly. Billions of American dollars and untold gigabits of processing have been spent trying to generate visions half as beautiful and wondrous as Miyazaki's Nightwalker, striding above the nocturnal forest like a shining, translucent man-raindeer-coral-reef. To what can we compare the Kodama, both adorable and cryptic? For sheer variety and inventiveness, Miyazaki is up there with Blake and Tolkein.
Astute minds have observed that Mononoke's treatment of good and evil is strikingly nuanced. Lady Eboshi, the ostensible antagonist - in a Disney film, she would have a sinister laugh and sharpened fingernails - is what we might call a pragmatist. She is destroying nature out a sense of necessity, viewing it as both inevitable and just; it's either the spirit of the forest, or human progress. In short, she is an avatar of Modernity, in all of its tragedy and paradox. She is also a savior to the dispossessed, putting whores and lepers to work. But Miyazaki doesn't stop there; the theme he develops is metaphysical, braided through every image, inseparable from the substance of the film's world. Morality, he sees, is a human dimension, but it arises from natural facts, and our frequent confusion is reflected in the duality of life and death in the world.. When we first encounter the Spirit of the Forest, otherworldly and yet welcoming, on its way to a (incomplete) act of healing, it also wilts a nearby sapling.
As human beings, we can learn from nature, and we can live in some sense of balance with it - but this is a hard-won truth, and the condition of balance is profoundly fragile. Princess Mononoke ends without an easy resolution, and with an acknowledgement that things can never revert back to a state of purity. There are irreconcilable facts of our own natures, and of history. But there is cause for hope, and Miyazaki shows that imagination is a necessary component of this hope - learning to see beyond the binaries, and looking towards some as-yet undiscovered sense of equilibrium. His wisdom, no less than the beauty of his vision, is a gift.