How do you live with a true heart when everything around you is collapsing?
I brought a friend with me the first time I saw Princess Mononoke in an American movie theater. He had no experience with Miyazaki or with Japanese culture or animation, but he was intrigued to see what promised to be a grand adventure story, especially one that was appearing in the United States under the auspices of Disney. In the middle of watching the movie, however, he started nudging me. “Who’s the good guy?” he hissed irritably. “I can’t tell which is the good guy and which is the bad guy!” “That’s the whole point!” I whispered back.
Princess Mononoke inaugurated a new chapter in Miyazakiworld. Ambitious and angry, it expressed the director’s increasingly complex worldview, putting on film the tight intermixture of frustration, brutality, animistic spirituality, and cautious hope that he had honed in his manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The film offers a mythic scope, unprecedented depictions of violence and environmental collapse, and a powerful vision of the sublime, all within the director’s first-ever attempt at a jidaigeki, or historical film. It also moves further away from the family fare that had made him a treasured household name in Japan.
In the complicated universe of Princess Mononoke, there is no longer room for villains such as Future Boy Conan’s power-hungry Repka, the greedy Count of The Castle of Cagliostro, or the evil Muska of Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki instead gives his audiences the ambitious but generous Lady Eboshi and the enigmatic monk Jiko-bō, who insists that we live in a cursed world. Jiko-bō isn’t the only one who thinks this, apparently. In the darkest moments of his tale of humans battling the “wild gods” of the natural world in fourteenth-century Japan, Miyazaki seems to be saying that all the dwellers of this realm, human and nonhuman, are equally cursed. Princess Mononoke raises questions Miyazaki had implicitly asked in the Nausicaä manga: Given what humanity has done to the planet, do we have a right to keep on waging war against the nonhuman other? Is there any way that humans and nonhumans can coexist?
These questions struck a deep chord in Japanese audiences, and the movie opened a new chapter in Miyazaki’s influence on Japanese society. Princess Mononoke became not simply a hit but a cultural phenomenon. The Japanese media celebrated the more than two thousand eager fans who lined up for the movie’s first screening in Tokyo, then vociferously commemorated the moment when the film surpassed the country’s previous highest earning movie, Steven Spielberg’s E. T. Magazine articles and even special issues on the film flooded Japan, tackling everything from the movie’s reworking of traditional history and its varied and impressive group of voice actors to its innovative animation techniques, including Studio Ghibli’s first use of computers and digital painting.
Miyazaki was interviewed on subjects ranging from environmental degradation to his judgment on whether children should see such a violent movie (on which he reversed himself, initially saying that they should not see it and then insisting that children would make the best audience). His fame among anime fans had been building for many years, and the success of his 1989 film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, opened up a still wider audience, but it is with Princess Mononoke that Miyazaki became a celebrity of sorts. This does not mean that he built a flashy house and started dating supermodels. He remained in the unpretentious Tokyo suburb of Tokorozawa and continued to welcome friends and staff members to the rustic cabin his father-in-law had built in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. In an interview after Princess Mononoke’s release, he spoke longingly of a desire “just to go away and live in a cabin in the mountains.”
This desire for retreat was understandable. As numerous articles and a six-hour documentary on the making of the film make clear, Princess Mononoke was the most stress-inducing film the director had created. Notably longer and far more expensive than any previous Studio Ghibli film, the work required almost superhuman efforts on the part of Miyazaki and his increasingly weary staff. Given Miyazaki’s obsessive attention to detail, the film’s epic scope, historical setting, and wide cast of characters made the preparation period alone intensely time-consuming, to say nothing of the time that the actual production took. Exhausted by the experience, some of the veterans who had worked on Princess Mononoke left the company when the film was finished to be replaced by new animators.
Toshio Suzuki, who produced Princess Mononoke, recalls a moment when Miyazaki finally “exploded” after being asked to do too many things in too short a time. The director was “correcting the storyboards, checking the originals, aligning the music to the story, and presiding over the ‘after recordings’ ”—vocals added after the initial animation is complete. He was also giving interviews on television and to newspapers and magazines, all while being involved with the marketing and with introducing the film to audiences as it was rolled out over Japan. As Suzuki puts it, Miyazaki had “given his body and soul” to the movie and was beyond exhaustion. Suzuki remembers being with the director the night before the movie’s premiere in the provincial city of Kochi. Miyazaki lay in bed and with a felt pen drew a sketch of his own face. Handing the paper to Suzuki, he said curtly, “Here, you put this on and go out and pretend to be me at the movie tomorrow.” Princess Mononoke’s aftermath would mark the beginning of the director’s retreat from extensive public-relations responsibilities.
The all-out marketing campaign that surrounded the movie marked a first: the studio marketed it as a Ghibli film rather than a Miyazaki film. This change was more than symbolic, attesting to the ascendance of Suzuki as Ghibli’s main producer in the widening realm of Miyazakiworld. Involved with Miyazaki and Isao Takahata since his days as an editor at Animage, he was widely credited with successfully marketing Kiki’s Delivery Service. But Princess Mononoke’s record-breaking box-office performance was deemed Suzuki’s most spectacular success to date, launching him firmly into a highly visible position in the animation industry. Viewed as the pragmatist who enables Miyazaki to express his idealistic vision, Suzuki became an increasingly dominant force at Ghibli. Indeed, the documentary on the making of Princess Mononoke sometimes appears to be allotting almost as much face time to the producer as to the man who actually directed the film.
New faces were also coming in from overseas. In 1997, Ghibli’s parent company, Tokuma Shoten, announced a deal with Disney to distribute its products worldwide. Suzuki had arranged the agreement, and it was a huge achievement for him and for Ghibli. The deal expanded Ghibli’s influence globally in one stroke and achieved an enormous public-relations coup at home. More than a thousand reporters attended the press conference announcing the deal. As Suzuki disarmingly explained, “The announcement that [Princess Mononoke] would be opening across America was important only in that it helped us capture market share at home.”
In fact, Princess Mononoke, despite an elegant English-language script written by the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, and an impressive roster of American and English voice actors, did not perform particularly well in the United States. While the film critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised the film’s “exotically beautiful action” and Miyazaki’s construction of “an elaborate moral universe,” she also felt compelled to mention its occasionally “knotty” plot and sometimes “gruesome” imagery. A Japanese journalist wondered later, “How could [Americans who were] used to stories about good versus evil, full of musical numbers and comical sidekicks, and always with a happy ending, be expected to appreciate the appeal of Studio Ghibli’s offerings?”
Miyazaki’s feelings about the new arrangement with Disney are cloudy. Beyond a rather vague speech at the press conference, I can find no public pronouncement by him on the subject. Over the years, neither he nor Suzuki had had much good to say about Disney, so it seems likely that the arrangement was a purely practical one for the benefit of both parties. But Miyazaki and Suzuki could at least be satisfied that they had broken new ground for quality Japanese animation. Furthermore, the Oscar later awarded to Miyazaki’s 2001 film, Spirited Away, would show that American audiences could indeed appreciate something beyond “happily ever after.”
Although groundbreaking in many ways, Princess Mononoke did not come out of nowhere. By the early nineties, Miyazaki had completed his first adult-oriented feature film, Porco Rosso, and was finally finishing the Nausicaä manga. Always searching for new inspirations, he became intrigued by the idea of doing something with the Hōjōki, a classic work from the thirteenth century. A brief, beautifully written reflection on the world and the transience of life, the Hōjōki is still part of the curriculum in most Japanese schools.
The Hōjōki is not an obvious candidate for a movie, animated or otherwise. Written by Kamo no Chōmei, a former courtier who had grown disillusioned by the ways of the world and became a Buddhist monk, the work appeared in 1223, at a time when military takeovers, famine, pestilence, and natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods rocked the capital and claimed thousands of lives. The Hōjōki chronicles these disasters from a safe distance, through the viewpoint of a thoughtful, poetic man who sees in the apocalyptic events around him a reason for retreat and reflection.
Miyazaki’s interest in the Hōjōki was stimulated by a book called Hōjōkiden, by a favorite novelist of his, Yoshie Hotta. But beyond such influences, Miyazaki’s own frame of mind played a part in sending the director’s art in grimmer directions than the largely upbeat family-oriented works of the seventies and eighties. As evidenced by both Porco Rosso and Nausicaä, he had grown increasingly disillusioned with authoritarian ideologies, and his growing anxieties about the vulnerability of the natural environment were reflected in Nausicaä’s apocalyptic themes.
Miyazaki admired the great live-action film director Akira Kurosawa, whose jidaigeki—period films featuring samurai—had hugely influenced postwar Japanese cinema. But Miyazaki wanted to do much more than create a piece of historical entertainment. Building on Hotta’s view of Hōjōki as a critique of the militarism and false ideologies of Kamo no Chōmei’s period, he hoped to create a work that would comment on Japan’s emptiness and confusion in the postbubble era. A country that had worshiped materialism and success seemed now to be floundering in a spiritual vacuum, reflected in the increasing use among contemporary Japanese of the word kyomu: emptiness.
Two major incidents in 1995 had traumatized Japan. The first was the Kobe earthquake in February, which killed between four thousand and six thousand people and was the worst earthquake to hit the country since the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. For a modern industrialized nation, the scale of destruction was truly shocking. It seemed as if nature itself were seeking vengeance on human civilization. The earthquake was followed a month later by the Aum Shinrikyo incident, when members of an apocalyptic religious cult released sarin gas in a busy station in the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and injuring thousands more. These two terrifying episodes underlined the increasing sense of vulnerability felt by the Japanese, on both a psychological and an environmental level.
As a dweller in perilous times, Kamo no Chōmei would have been all too familiar with experiences like the horror of the Kobe earthquake and with the apocalyptic despair that inspired the Aum Shinrikyo incident. While Miyazaki ultimately abandoned the idea of filming the Hōjōki, he continued to consider a medieval period piece treating natural and technological catastrophe and the question of how to live in a complicated and terrible world. Unlike Chōmei or Kurosawa, Miyazaki wanted to give equal agency to human, natural, and supernatural forces.
At its most fundamental level the movie asks: Can we live ethically in a cursed world? And if so, how? Princess Mononoke offers two related possible solutions. The first is simply to “Live!” (Ikiro!), the catchphrase emblazoned on the movie posters and uttered by the movie’s protagonist, Ashitaka, to the desperate wolf princess San as she struggles to deal with her fear and resentment of humanity. In context, it tells us we cannot give up, no matter what, a message that Miyazaki felt imperative in the emotionally apathetic landscape of nineties Japan. The second is “to see with eyes unclouded”—a challenge, as the movie presents both bloodthirsty beast attacks and relentless human industrialization, and asks us to observe all sides with clarity and objectivity.
Susan Napier is the Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies at Tufts University.
From Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, by Susan Napier, published by Yale University Press in September 2018. Reproduced by permission.