I watched Princess Mononoke again last night for the first time in quite a while. Years, perhaps. I appreciated it more than ever. Interesting how that can happen. Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are definitely Miyazaki's masterpieces. Spirited Away is the masterpiece of "children's adventure story with subtle adult themes to make something all ages will love," whereas Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece of "important insight into the nature of the world we live in and the problems we face, disguised as a straight-forward action/adventure." I watched Nausicaš again last week, as well. It is still my favorite (in subjective terms), and I still think it is the most emotionally powerful of all his films, but in comparison to Mononoke it oversimplifies the situation. Though Nausicaš presents a much more realistic complexity than most such films, and the Nausicaš manga solves most or all of the simplicity complaints you might have about the film, the trick is how to present that complexity in a two hour film, a trick Miyazaki didn't master until Mononoke. (Incidentally, the manga was started two years before the Nausicaš movie came out, but wasn't finished until three years before Princess Mononoke came out, a period of twelve years. I think the manga is a good bridge between the two.)
There are a lot of signs that Mononoke is an updated version of Nausicaš. Eboshi and Kushana in particular are extremely similar characters, though Eboshi is much more sympathetic than Kushana (at least in the film- the manga Kushana gets a much better rap). Nausicaš gets split into two; Ashitaka gets her idealism, and San gets her passion. The result is somewhat more realistic characters than Nausicaš, who can seem a little too good to be true sometimes. On the other hand, Kurotawa and Yupa from Nausicaš get melded together into Jigo, which results in a character a lot more interesting and multifaceted (and thus more realistic) than either of those two alone were in Nausicaš. Mononoke also allows Nature to speak for itself in the form of Moro, Okkoto, and the other gods, as opposed to having to rely on Nausicaš as an interpreter. (Though you could argue that Nature as mute is more realistic.)
I really appreciate how there aren't really any bad guys in Mononoke. I think people like a clear distinction between good and evil. They like the choice to be easy. But it's very dangerous to think in those terms. Popular fiction all too often panders to that desire, which doesn't help people when they're confronted with ambiguous reality and are still trying to put people into slots of "good" and "bad." Mononoke isn't like that, though. Everyone involved considers themselves the good guys, and Miyazaki does a really good job of making them all sympathetic. Lord Asano and his group are perhaps "bad," but they're quite peripheral to the story and its central conflict; they merely serve as a motivation for Eboshi in her conflict with the Gods. Jigo is the major character who is probably the most selfish, the most in the "be a hammer not a nail" mentality, and yet he is a very likable and sympathetic character. At the end, when he says, "I give up. You can't win against fools," you understand how he feels. And everyone is flawed, too. Ashitaka is the closest to moral perfection, but you might actually say that the central conflict of the story is not that between Irontown and the Gods but within Ashitaka as he has to decide how to respond when two things that he loves and wants to protect are hellbent on destroying each other. His curse causes the same drama to be played out in his body as well as his mind. He does the best he can, but there are times when you wonder if his meddling won't end up causing more problems than it solves.
The conflict within Ashitaka is also a conflict within ourselves. Both San and Eboshi have extremely good reasons for doing what they do, and both are likable, charismatic, and fighting for "good" in their own particular ways. Which path should we take? Am I a San, an Eboshi, or an Ashitaka, and which one should I be? Should I favor trees or jobs, or should I try to save both and thereby risk losing both? (Aside: In Go you are often faced with two groups of stones that are in danger of being killed. Sometimes you can save both, but surprisingly often trying to save both merely results in losing both, whereas you could have saved one of them had you not diluted your efforts. I find Go is a good model of reality surprisingly often.)
The ending is really masterful, as well. It seems like a happy ending, and it leaves you feeling good. But when you think about it, although immediate disaster has been averted, and the two sides in the conflict seem to have a bit more appreciation for each other than before, at the end everyone basically states their intention to go back to doing exactly what they had been doing before the movie started, and the fundamental problems that precipitated the conflict of the film remain unresolved. In fact, both sides find themselves in a significantly worse situation at the end of the film than at the beginning, with relief coming only from the fact that things aren't as bad as they might have been. That's another problem with a lot of popular fiction (and with the Nausicaš movie)- simple and even miraculous solutions to complex problems. I don't think fiction does the public a service when it makes it seem like we can expect our problems to be solved like that. (And in the same way, I don't think Messianic religions do us a service by encouraging us to wait for someone else to come along and solve all our problems for us, but that's a different entry.) I really appreciate how Miyazaki was able to show us that, and to do it with so much skill and subtlety that most people probably didn't even realize what he had done. There is absolutely no preachiness involved, and it's all packaged in an exciting and stimulating story complete with all the action and romance that the typical movie goer wants. Miyazaki gives you a fun and enjoyable ride while causing you to learn something important about the stark realities of our world- the epitome of good teaching. He does this by somehow sneaking right past your brain and your logic and talking directly to your heart and your intuition. The ability to do this is to me the true value and power of good storytelling. And Princess Mononoke is a true masterpiece of that art.
And it's not just the plot of Mononoke that is so exquisite. The use of color, the way the animals move, the characterization, the light sprinkling of cuteness with the kodama, the music, and so many other elements of the film are just perfect. (The English voice acting is also superb, perhaps even better than the original Japanese. Wish I could say the same for the Nausicaš dub.)
(Kind of makes me wonder what happened with Howl's Moving Castle, which was good, but fell short in some key ways, particularly the nonsensical plot.)
What is the message of Princess Mononoke? Perhaps it's this: There aren't easy solutions to the problems we face, but if we have enough empathy and determination, perhaps we can take some steps in the right direction.
you cannot change your fate but you can rise to meet it,