Hayao Miyazaki, the king of Japanese animation, announced his retirement not too long ago. He seems to be going out on a high with the Oscar nominated The Wind Roses. But that’s just one movie at the end of decades of acclaim for movies like My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Since I couldn’t find anywhere in my town showing The Wind Rises, I thought I’d settle for another one of his classics. One that was also supposed to be his swan song more than 15 years ago. You see, he announced his retirement before the release of what was to be his last film back in ‘97, Princess Mononoke. But it was such a huge success, he kept at it for another 17 years. So, was it good enough to reinvigorate his career?
As with most anime, my grip on what was happening was tenuous at best while watching this movie. So this plot synopsis could be highly inaccurate. The movie opens with a quick voiceover, explaining the world we’re in. There are gods in this world, giant animals who can speak to humans. But they’re on the way out. Devolving into smaller, dumber animals, more like what we have in the real world.
Ashitaka is riding his elk through stunning countryside, but there’s danger coming from the woods. When it emerges, we see a huge pile of creepy slugs, or leeches or something. They dissipate to show they’re covering an enormous wild pig. A pig that has been infected by a demon, that also infects Ashitaka before it dies. Now Ashitaka must find the Spirit of the Forest and hope for a cure.
On his search he comes across Iron Town, a settlement lead by Lady Eboshi. She’s gearing up for war against the few gods left in the forest and determined to kill the Spirit of the Forest. Just as determined to stop her is San, a young woman who has been raised by wolves and is not a big fan of humans.
There are also a few different factions of people fighting each other, some sort of corruption being perpetrated by a dude named Jigo, and all sorts of spiritual mumbo jumbo about what the gods bring this world, what will happen if they die, and I don’t know what else.
None of that is meant to sound dismissive of Princess Mononoke, it’s just that I really struggled to keep up with this thing. Even then, it didn’t stop me enjoying it. Whenever I was getting confused or a little frustrated with the story, I was quickly distracted by the amazing animation and flawless visual story telling.
Of the handful I’ve seen, I’m yet to be totally blown away by a Miyazaki movie, but I don’t think that has stopped me from recognising why other people find them so special. It’s an animation style that has never been replicated by the American studios, and the deep, intricate stories are never even attempted by the American studios. I really like that these movies don’t bother to hold the hand of the audience to guide them through, even when I’m the kind of person who gets left behind every now and then.