Princess Mononoke and the art of the environmental film

Man v.s. nature: it’s a tale as old as time, or at least, a tale as old as the mid-nineties to the late 2000’s because literally everyone and their mother was making movies with environmentally conscious themes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great because it was an interesting depiction of artists attempting to band together to make the public more aware of legitimate scientific issues that were taking place. However, most of these movies were dull, repetitive, or just flat out awful.

There were tons of movies being made with the same plot structure, where the hero encounters a group of “good guys” who rely on an undisturbed ecosystem for survival, afterwards they encounter the “villains” of the story, who want to disturb the natural ecosystem often for economic gain. Does that sound familiar? It’s probably because I just described the plots of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (Kroyer, 1992), Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and literally dozens of other movies, including one where (and I am NOT kidding here) Chuck Norris turns into a bear in order to fight off loggers and save a local forest. It’s called Forest Warrior (Norris, 1996) and it is just as laughably awful as it sounds.

Yes, this is 100% real.

These movies are usually terrible, and the problem isn’t just that they contain the same reused plot, it goes deeper than that. These films lack proper character development, as their bad guys are often depicted as being overwhelmingly evil, and not necessarily having any redeemable qualities or complexities about them. And, perhaps worse of all, these films are SO preachy. The dialog is Star Wars Prequels levels of cheesy, all while plainly and commonly asserting the negative effects that these plainly evil men’s decisions will have on the environment. These films spell out the importance of protecting the environment as though talking to a bunch of toddlers, frankly, it’s embarrassing. Respect the moviegoers ability to determine right or wrong on their own without saying out loud: “HEY, YOU CANNOT DESTROY THE ENVIRONMENT. THAT IS A BAD THING TO DO.” And while anyone who foolishly gets me talking about politics for any amount of time knows, I am all about saving the environment it’s one of very few political issues that I actually passionately care about. What I do not care about however, is preachy, cookie cutter, environmental movies that have the same plot and overly generalized characters. Frankly, it’s not a hard job to do, but very few films actually address this environmental issue and handle it with levels of depth and filmmaking prowess that is deserving of appreciation. However, one of my favorite films, Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) does this subject righteous justice, and also happens to be one of the greatest animated movies of all time.

Princess Mononoke (or Mononoke Hime as it’s called in Japan) is a Japanese animated film both written and directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the world. The writing, soundtrack, directing, performances, are all fantastic and the film is easily in my top 3 favorite films of all time. Now, you are most likely wondering what Princess Mononoke does so right when dealing with environmental issues in film,  and frankly, they do everything right. The story follows a young prince named Ashitaka who has been cursed by a corrupted forest spirit and must leave his village in order to cure himself. Along his journeys, he finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the spirits and animal inhabitants of a sacred forest and a group of humans who want to cut down parts of the forest in order to mine the ore beneath the forest. Does this once again sound familiar? It should. But writer/director/genius Hayao Miyazaki instead takes this easily simplifiable story and turns it into one of complexity and honestly.

See, Miyazaki makes his feelings about the environment known, but doesn’t dumb things down for the sake of simplicity. The human characters that want to cut down parts of the forest aren’t the stereotypical anti-environmental bad guys, whose motives are plain and simple and rely on greed and nothing else. These people are inhabitants of a town known as Irontown, are social outcasts themselves comprised of former brothel workers and lepers among others. Lead by the intelligent and dignified Lady Eboshi, the inhabitants of Irontown seek the iron ore that lies beneath the forest in order to defend themselves from nearby samurai warlords who seek to destroy them. These people have their back turned against the wall, and are doing the only thing they can to defend themselves, by making guns out of the mined iron, since the lepers and women of the town may not be strong enough to wield swords and defend themselves. Their backs are against the wall, and their intrusion into the ecosystem of the forest is one of arguably good intention not malice or greed, they only seek a method of self defense in order to ensure their safety. They welcome Ashitaka with open arms and treat him with dignity and respect throughout the film. Ashitaka is the audience’s proxy into this world, meaning that we get to experience the world of Princess Mononoke as he does, we learn and discover and interact with new characters through him. So, the fact that the members of Irontown treat Ashitaka, a cursed outsider who they know nothing about, with such respect and kindness, really establishes the quality of their character.
And unlike the previous films listed,  Princess Mononoke’s forces of nature aren’t perfect angels either. The animals and spirits act like, well animals, they see danger and lash out at it, without necessarily waiting to hear the other side of the story or attempt to compromise. As a result of this, there is a lot of bloodshed in this movie, and instead of the black and white morality used by the good and bad guys of traditional environmental films, both sides of the conflict in Princess Mononoke dwell in shades of gray, with Ashitaka in the middle, attempting to create peace between the two warring factions. This struggle seems to depict Miyazaki’s realistic depiction of the environmental crisis as it stood in the 90’s, man and nature fighting over who can be the only ones to occupy this world, when there is room for both with compromise.

Miyazaki goes deeper than just the typical ‘nature = good’ ‘humanity = bad’ approach for the resolution of the film. Both sides are justified in intent, but both are also going the wrong way about it. The real solution lies somewhere in the middle: compromise, harmony, equilibrium. Miyazaki presents a situation where instead of one side winning and maintaining control of the whole forest, the only true solution is for a peaceful coexistence between the two forces, this idea also is reflective of Miyazaki’s ideas about war, but that’s a subject for another essay.
Princess Mononoke’s dialog is airtight, a lot of Miyazaki’s films have great writing that perfectly balances beautiful wordplay and information distribution. Miyazaki’s character lines are poetic without being pretentious. It is also the opposite of overly-preachy, as a matter of fact, it doesn’t mention the importance of saving the environment even once, it just presents the situation as it is, displaying how the characters interact in the world without specifically any of them saying out loud: “we need to fight to save the environment because we only have one world,” or whatever. All of the central themes were never specifically said out loud, which shouldn’t be a talking point for a movie, but when comparing it to other environmental films, it absolutely deserves to be, sadly.

So, in summation, GO SEE PRINCESS MONONOKE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET. It is a magnificent film, with rich characters, beautiful writing, fantastic music, and gorgeous visuals. It is also one of the best environmental films ever, as well as one of the best animated films ever, and one of my all time favorites. Its only real flaw in comparison to other environmental films is it’s lack of any scenes where Chuck Norris turns into a bear.


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