The Land of Youth

Hayao Miyazaki has devoted his films to mapping the idylls of childhood. Now, with his masterly Princess Mononoke, Japan's Walt Disney sets out for a new wilderness.

The set piece of Porco Rosso is a thrilling dogfight during which planes dart against a sun-streaked cloudbank like gilded sparrows. Flight, as in Miyazaki's films, is a metaphor for the ephemeral. The American writer Alexander Chase once described the exhilaration of flight as that of hanging poised beneath the illusion of immortality and the fact of death. This tenuous balance is particularly poignant in Miyazaki's vision; as long as the hero stays above the clouds, love and youth cannot fade.

Although Porco Rosso is in many ways an action film, it bears little resemblance to either Disney's kinetic fare or the hyperrealistic "mecha" school of Japanese anime, typified by Akira. Aside from a fascist government agent lurking at the edge of the story--a hint of darker things to come--there is no villain and no real violence. In style, too, Miyazaki's film is a departure from familiar Japanimation. If the mecha school, with its sleek Art Deco lines, pop-culture import, and unrelenting dystopianism, was a product of the 1980s bubble economy, Miyazaki's films seem to hearken back to the loud-and-loose radio serials of the Fifties.

Even in Porco Rosso, with its wartime iconography, Miyazaki's aesthetic celebrates the sublimity of imperfection. His planes are magnificent contraptions, cobbled together from historical spare parts. His characters, all bulges and bristles, follow the contours of nature--albeit magnified for comic effect. Where mecha anime is obsessed with the robotic and the cybernetic, Miyazaki draws the floral and the faunal. His "natural" worlds are built with the intricate internal logic of an airplane engine, yet they are forever looking backward to the lost continent of youth.

Raised by wolves: San answers the call of the wild in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke
Raised by wolves: San answers the call of the wild in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke

 

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once called childhood "the kingdom where nobody dies." Perhaps, then, the last moment of childhood is when we first understand that we are not meant to last forever. The recognition of mortality is also an introduction to the middle kingdom of adolescence, in which the limitless ecstasies of childhood are hemmed in by the finite boundaries of the adult world. A profound sense of this quickening lies at the heart of Miyazaki's latest feature film, Princess Mononoke (7:10 p.m. October 22). "We can see the 21st Century clearly," the filmmaker explained in a 1994 BBC documentary. "I wonder how we see ourselves and our audience and our children [living] in this chaos. We're in a period when we can't avoid asking ourselves questions."

With Princess Mononoke, both Miyazaki and his studio appear to have grown up. A $20 million production budget allowed them substantial use of digital CGI shots (or bluescreens) for the first time, including panoramic camera sweeps over primordial swamps and sylvan glens that achieve an almost photographic clarity. And while the film itself is certainly a fairy tale--"mononoke" means "spirit" in Japanese--it is not a children's film. (For a start, the hero makes a nasty habit of carving his enemies like baked hams.) Like adolescence itself, Princess Mononoke might be best understood through its contradictions: It is a violent film that advocates peace, a period drama condemning modern ecological irresponsibility, and a myth steeped in truth.

As with his previous films, Miyazaki sets Princess Mononoke in a less complicated past. The time, in this case, is Muromachi Japan, between the end of the feudal age and the "floating world" of the late medieval period. In spare contrast to the pastoralism of My Neighbor Totoro or the utopian Europe of Porco Rosso, this most recent film takes place in a disintegrating Elysium, full of gentle spirits but defined by human violence.

The world is young and suffering growing pains: As human iron foundries encroach on Japan's ancient forests, the slumbering gods rise in protest. Their apocalyptic confrontation is precipitated by Ashitaka, a young warrior who accidentally kills a deity disguised as a rampaging boar. Exiled and cursed, he sets out into the wider world, encountering a spectrum of folk icons, both corporeal and divine, along the way: San (voiced by Claire Danes in the American release), a princess raised by forest spirits who has cut all ties with humanity; Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), an ambitious foundry owner whose logging operation is angering the gods; and Shishi, an omnipotent "evening spirit" who takes the shape of either a beneficent deer or a destructive wave of darkness.

In summary, at least, Miyazaki's tale bears much resemblance to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Yet if Tolkien found in his imagination an allegory for the Second World War, Miyazaki presents a more complex parable: No one character in Princess Mononoke is entirely villainous and no one entirely decent. The gods are wrathful and often irrational. The humans are greedy and often stupid. It is not surprising, then, that when the apocalyptic battle between god and human finally occurs, there are no clear victors. Ashitaka has found love with San, but she can never reciprocate. Human society is in shambles, but perhaps can be rebuilt. The gods, defeated and diminished, have retreated into the deepest part of the primordial forest.

In the film's final scene, the once-verdant forest has turned to a barren, ash-gray wilderness. Beneath the dead branches, a lone forest spirit waddles into the frame. Progress may be relentless, Miyazaki suggests, yet we might still make peace with change.

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