It has taken me twenty-three years to get round to watching a single Miyazaki film, and I ended up watching three of them in one night. The first time I became aware of what has turned out to be my startling ignorance was during a cartoon-themed party in June, when I was the only person not to recognise someone dressed as Princess Mononoke. It took the anti-social sleeping hours of my Christmas holidays to attempt to rectify it. At 11 PM I started watching Princess Mononoke; two hours later, I farted around on Wikipedia and decided to watch Porco Rosso; a swift 90 minutes later, plus more obligatory Wikipedia research, I went for the hat trick with Howl’s Moving Castle. I would like to explain why the urge was so strong, and what it might say about these films.
Lets first dispense with the obvious: yes, these films are all visually beautiful. The landscape, the animation, the movement (especially the castle in Howl’s Moving Castle, though it turned out to be the film I enjoyed least,) are all stunning and detailed without being distracting. But I am not a big animation enthusiast – the only cartoons I watch are badly drawn and satirical – so it wasn’t the technical level that struck me. What bothered me, what made me watch more, was that though I definitely enjoyed these films, but wasn’t the least bit sure why I was enjoying them.
In blurb form, Princess Mononoke encompasses everything I normally hate about movies: young-and-inexplicably-great-at-fighting cursed guy leaves peaceful village on quest to break said curse; finds cute wild girl who wants to kill him, eventually she digs him; bad people in smoke-filled towns destroying beautiful nature and happy little tree men. I’m not the kind of guy who gets a boner watching Avatar, and I particularly hate the usual “four legs=good, two legs=bad” Disney environmentalism. But what stops the film from being exactly that, even though visually it has all the right ingredients for it, is the inclusion of conflict between humans. Lady Eboshi, who in any other film would be the stock villain, turns out to have created her proto-industrialised town in order to protect lepers and former prostitutes. Her desire to destroy the nature-gods does not strictly conform to the usual caricature of capitalist opportunism, but is a form of egalitarian idealism, since the battle for Iron Town is one fought against the violence and inhospitability of nature, against the primal law that the sick and weak should die. These factors also help the film diminish the extent to which nature can be gendered. This is perhaps more clear if we compare it with Avatar again, where we basically see a bunch of big muscled men trying to blow up and fuck nature and its personifications. That film couldn’t have been less subtle if the mother-ship had been Doctor Evil’s dick-and-balls rocket. In Princess Mononoke gender relationships are not strictly categorised and comprise both humans and nature.
There is a scene at the end of Princess Mononoke that is mirrored half-way through Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy 2: a giant, destructive elemental god is killed (in Hellboy it’s destroyed precisely with a shot to the head, just as Lady Eboshi executes the forest spirit,) leaving in its wake a pastoral scene that covers what was previously wasteland (or a damaged New York.) It is a poignant scene where the beautiful must be
destroyed in order to preserve human life. The skill in both films is the complexity they introduce, the way the human and the natural struggle to survive as binary opposites. Hellboy is literally the son of Satan, destined to bring about doom and destruction, but he chooses to try and help humanity against the demonic forces he represents. He is the ethical version of the corrupted, demonic nature we witness in Princess Mononoke. The category of corrupted nature is what elevates the latter film from being a simple parable of man destroying nature: human technology doesn’t simply obliterate nature, it alters it, so that it ends up fighting both against humans and the natural deities. Nature is neither simple resource for exploitation or innocence for corruption, but rather a dangerous, unwieldy and indifferent force. The spirit of the forest doesn’t really help anyone, neither humans nor the gods. When in the form of a Deer God, every step it takes creates flowers, but as soon as it moves on it leaves behind only decay, and the forest pool in which it resides is full of bones, both human and animal.
But as well as being the elegiac farewell to elemental, animist nature, Princess Mononoke is also something of a foundation myth for Japan, and by extension, for the industrial world. Porco Rosso, the film that precedes it, is in fact something of a celebration of the industrial world, in the form of the seaplane. To my mind the most beautiful and most concise of the three, Porco Rosso takes place in two settings: the sunny, semi-deserted Adriatic Sea, and industrialised Milan (well, they call it Milan, to be honest geographical and architectural liberties have been taken). Milan – which is of course inland, and whose only major bodies of water, as I have previously mentioned, are artificial – produces the seaplane, and the sea sets it free. Porco Rosso is also elegiac towards an era when even big machines like airplanes are handcrafted, but not necessarily nostalgic: it is set in a time of poverty and fascism, and in which the plane not only a means of escape, but also a weapon. Though Miyazaki might be pessimistic about the future, he is not reactionary: in his films, the past might be beautiful and seductive, but it is also unobtainable. The gods die, the propeller is supplanted by the jet engine, and there is no use even wondering if we would like them back. Miyazaki at times seems to say “we are all doomed, but here are some people trying to do the right thing.” At the end of Princess Mononoke, Lady Eboshi says they will rebuild Iron Town, and this time they will make it better. Exactly how that is to be achieved, however, is not mentioned.
After two belters, I’m afraid Howl’s Moving Castle came as a disappointment. Though the castle is indeed very impressive, and though it is refreshing to have a bolshy old lady as the protagonist, the film as a whole lacked the energy of its predecessors. The plot was baffling, the characters uninteresting, and the whole love-plot was Blandsville, Ohio. Bland City, Missouri. The Blandenberg concertos. Please excuse me, I do that when I’m bored. Howl’s Moving Castle is a great example of what animation is without that brilliant mix of clarity and complexity that defines the other two films. Perhaps this is also because Howl is the least rooted in history or mythology, and thus comes across as a bunch of characters with no back-story doing things with little-to-no motivation given.
I finally got to sleep some time in the early morning, as the birds were beginning to sing, still slightly bothered by my experience: what were those goddamn little stone men in Princess Mononoke anyway, and why did one of them come back at the end of the film? Because he wanted to mess with the nice little ‘death of animism, birth of pantheism’ theory I had worked out just before that scene. Damn you, little tree people. And remember readers, it’s better to be a pig than a fascist.