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Among the 11 features of Hayao Miyazaki, the revered Japanese animator and founder of Japan’s animation giant Studio Ghibli, the 1997 fantasy adventure “Princess Mononoke” is among his most accessible. Packed with action and marauding shapeshifter spirits, this environmental fairy tale about an ancient deep forest inhabited by incandescent fairies (kodama) is set during the late Muromachi period.
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Miyazaki, who’s known for being able to capture the forces of nature and the great outdoors like no other animator, dreams up his stories and draws much of the storyboards and characters himself. He traveled with his designers to Yakushima in Kyushu to draw the forest. James Cameron has admitted that “Princess Mononoke,” along with the floating islands in Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky,” influenced his jungle paradise Pandora in “Avatar” (2009).
And “Avatar” also riffs on Miyazaki’s environmental message about the risks of depleting our natural resources. There’s never a dull moment in fast-moving “Princess Mononoke.” After saving his home village from a giant demon, Emishi Prince Ashitaka sadly rides west with his loyal red elk, armed by his sister’s crystal dagger. His right arm is poisoned by the monster, and he must find a cure for this curse or die. He seeks the help of the Great Forest Spirit, a stag by day who transforms at sunset into a ghostly giant nightwalker.
During his quest, Prince Ashitaka encounters two fearless women: San, a young girl raised by wolves who hates humans but accepts his romantic interest, and warrior Lady Eboshi, an enlightened modern capitalist who runs Irontown (inspired by John Ford’s western frontier towns), clearing trees in the woods and hiring outcast lepers and sex workers to forge iron and manufacture guns in her factory. She’s more than happy to fire those guns at anyone or anything that threatens her boom town.
Miyazaki throws the forces of progress against the power of nature, and sends angry monster boars to battle the gun-toters who are invading the land. Neither side is all good or all bad. In the satisfying finale, Prince Ashitaka joins forces with San’s wolves, Lady Eboshi, and the Forest God to return the forest to health and harmony.
The movie was a blockbuster in Japan, its record broken by Cameron’s “Titanic” in 1998. After Disney made a distribution pact with Studio Ghibli, the studio gave “Princess Mononoke” to Miramax Films to release, but typically, Harvey Weinstein told Miyazaki to trim the film from 135 to 90 minutes. Miyazaki dispatched a katana sword to Weinstein with his message: “No cuts.” After Weinstein only gave the film a limited opening, the film was Miyazaki’s breakout on home video and DVD, and was re-released in 2018.
At Comic-Con in 2009, Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, told the crowd the secret behind his artistry: “My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time,” he said. “If you have a better way, let me know.” He first dreamed up “Princess Mononoke” in the 1970s, but only figured out how to tell the story in a fresh way decades later.
After releasing “The Wind Rises” in 2013, a risky “Doctor Zhivago” historical romance about the brilliant designer behind the fighter plane that wrecked havoc in World War II, Miyazaki encountered controversy in Japan, earned an Oscar nomination, and announced his semi-retirement. The filmmaker had also called it quits after “Princess Mononoke,” vowing to never make a film again, only to release “Spirited Away” in 2001, which won him his Best Animated Feature Oscar. He has since delivered a short film, and is currently working on his 12th animated feature, “Kimi-tachi wa Dou Ikiru ka”? (“How Do You Live?”). Meanwhile, Cameron continues to work on his “Avatar” sequels. However they turn out, the franchise will be forever indebted to Miyazaki’s vision.
“Princess Mononoke” is now streaming on HBO Max, along with 20 other Studio Ghibli films.
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