Reviews of “Princess Mononoke: The First Story” (1980) and related work
“Princess Mononoke: The First Story” (1980)
Miyazaki Hayao (writer-artist).
Read in 2021.
This review refers to the 2014 VIZ edition, which is Jocelyne Allen’s English-language adaptation of the “initial setting” (shoki settei) original.
A defeated feudal lord accepts the offer of an architectural ornament and becomes possessed by a demon, thus taking his revenge upon the enemy at his gates. His meek third daughter worries about this and wants to free her father from demonic possession, but he gets rid of her by fulfilling a promise he’d already made, marrying her off to a barbaric animal spirit who lives far away in the wilderness.
Strongly influenced by the logic of folktales. The lord seeing the mysterious light of the mononoke’s forest dwelling, for example, must be designed to recall the opening of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (ca. 900 CE). It turns out the mononoke is really a human boy who underwent a monstrous metamorphosis because of his brutish habits; a typical moral for children, like something you might see in the brothers Grimm or H. C. Andersen. The visual design of the mononoke, on the other hand, is like a toy: A round, cartoonish body like “Panda! Go Panda!” (1972), pulled along by harnessed rats, or flying with giant と on the wings of his purple glider. It’s whimsical in exactly the way the 1997 film is not.
As in the work of the brothers Grimm, there are dark motifs in this moral trichotomy: War; the innocent youngest girl wedged between her evil father, her selfish mother and older sisters, and her beast of a suitor; her father turning the family home into an unrecognizable industrial stronghold and oppressing the common people, ending in their fiery rebellion. However, the core is the logic of the folktale. Miyzaki realized this, writing—in his afterword to the 1993 edition—that to overcome the story’s flaws he had to engage in a “harsh and magnificent pilgrimage”: Psychoanalyzing the 1980 version to produce the 1997 version. His success in this endeavour was phenomenal, but the fact that he kept almost nothing reveals the quality of the original.
‣ Princess Mononoke (1997)
A boar god poisoned by hate threatens a village and infects a young man. Ostracized and dying, the man journeys to find a cure. He stumbles upon human plans to take the head of the god of life and death.
Complex, imaginative and beautiful, Mononoke lacks the sentimentality that tinges so much of Miyazaki’s other work. It is a masterpiece of fantasy, with a far more compelling “view from below” than The Hobbit (1937). That is because it is serious. Unlike the 1980 version (“The First Story”), this one consciously eschews stereotypes and the comforts of moralism and easy psychoanalysis, though the forces of merchandising are not wholly absent.
The story is set in Muromachi-period Japan (14th-16th century) but the influences range far afield. The stag god looks like Miyazaki’s tribute to the senior prince in Bambi (1942). The name of Ashitaka’s own red elk, Yakkul, is from The Journey of Shuna (1983), as is much of the structure. The boars remind me of the tusked ogre Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), another doomed and fearsome guardian of threatened nature. None of that is in the 1980 version. Instead, some of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982) is reflected here.
The original’s adult feudal lord became Ashitaka, a noble boy who pays dearly for his fearsome prowess, but he is a marginal existence, trekking out of impoverished hinterlands with no lust for power. This is a form of reference back to The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968), where the seed of Ghibli was sown. Ashitaka’s people is the Emishi, a small pocket of an old ethnic group marginalized long ago by the immigrating Yamato Japanese who have been dominant for many centuries. Takahata wanted the Hols project to be about the plight of the Emishi, but the studio refused. After 29 years, Miyazaki had the clout.
The original’s vivacious beast became San and the rest of the Moro clan. Their fight for nature, though it is dour and violent, expresses a powerful love, visible in every line and shade of the astonishing background paintings. The original’s third major character, the princess, became Eboshi: A capable, civilized antagonist, with none of the original’s meekness or mercy. An extraordinary adaptation and a true epic for the 21st century.
References here: The title of Princess Mononoke, Ghibli movie titles, The hand of a princess?, On the wall of Tataraba, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011).
‣‣ The Art of Princess Mononoke (1997)
Nieda Takami (editor).
Read in 2021.
I read the 2014 VIZ edition in English language.
The production of the 1997 film with an emphasis on concept and background art, usually with single sentences of description, plus various poems and design documents by Miyazaki, essays on the use of CGI, a production diary etc.
This was a more unpredictable and fluid time, more magnanimous and free, with less clear class distinctions between warriors and villagers and women as depicted in the drawings of artisans and tradespeople. In such a time, the contours of life and death were very clear.
A type of book made virtually obsolete by digital reproduction technology, but it’s nicely curated and still a very pleasant browsing experience.
References here: “Ghiblies” (2000).