To my sister Céleste,
Last time I watched ‘Princess Mononoke’ on a big screen, I was seven. It was in the independent arts cinema called studio Galande, in one of the medieval streets of Paris. I remember very well that screening because it was in Japanese with French subtitles. I had just started learning how to read and I could not follow the subtitles! Nevertheless, the images, the music and the plot were so wondrously good that it soon became our favourite film in the family. We even managed to get a free poster of the film afterwards and it has been pinned up above my sister’s bed ever since.
So when my Taiwanese friend posted on Facebook about a screening of ‘Princess Mononoke’ at Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square last week, I thought it was high time for me to go back and watch it. ‘Princess Mononoke’ is one of these masterpieces which no matter how many times you see them, you will always find something new in it. The whole experience becomes even more memorable when it is projected on a large screen. Unfortunately, this time the film was dubbed with annoying American voices – not that I have anything against American accent, but it did not fit the film at all. So once again, I focussed on the images. Although I have seen a lot more art and pictures since I was seven, I was delighted to find that the hand-coloured layered slides of each frame were no lesser than in my memories. On the contrary, the scenes in the forest especially are still the most fantastic and dream-like moving pictures of nature I have ever seen. When the young traveller Ashitaka carries two wounded ox drivers home through the sacred forest they find the help of kodoma, little ghost-like chaps who embody the spirit of the surrounding trees. These tiny gods remind us of the purity, respectable age and beauty of the depicted nature, but also of how the forest is traditionally seen as a fantastic, welcoming place. Therefore, humans should only stay in a humble and restrained attitude within this well-balanced macrocosm.
But what I did not remember as much was, alongside this wonderful ode to nature, the manifold socio-political issues underpinning the plot and how Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were committed to unveil the intricate net of moral dilemmas Ashitaka faces as a result. Ashitaka comes from an ancient tribe that was almost entirely exterminated by the Emperor five hundred years ago. Wherever he goes, he is consequently perceived as a foreigner, an odd man totally out of place. This seems mainly due to his clothes and most loyal friend Yakkuru, a red elk who, like him, has become a rare species in the then Japan. But I suspect it also has to do with his virtuous and definite refusal of violence as a solution to conflicts, and his idealistic dedication to restore peace and harmony between human communities and wildlife.
Now, twenty years after the film first came out in Japan, where are we at regarding these issues? Personally, I have never liked the ending of ‘Princess Mononoke’. I find it quite unsettling. As an adult, I felt even more saddened not to have answers to the questions Ashitaka is raising by his in-human behaviour. Miyasaki makes it clear that we cannot follow Ashitaka’s strategy and yet, none of the half-good-half-bad, stubborn characters offer any viable alternative. I wonder if the best thing we can do would not be to imitate Miyasaki himself, and ask a global community of cinema-lovers through art what they personally think and what they would do in this situation, which, frankly, is frighteningly similar to our current state of affairs.
But before we ponder on how bad things are, and rush to fetch a chocolate bar or any other useless palliative, I do recommend you watch and enjoy every second of ‘Princess Mononoke’ because it truly deserve our full attention, whether we are seven or seventy years old. And if you ever need some more, just head to the Prince Charles Cinema to enjoy their STUDIO GHIBLI FOREVER programme with breath-taking films every weekends until the end of February (except 4-5 February).
I am forever grateful to my parents for taking me to the cinema, that day, when I was seven.