I still have nightmares about watching Watership Down as a child. Released for a hardier generation in 1978, Martin Rosen’s animated film is theoretically based on Richard Adams’s novel of the same name, which I haven’t read. But if even 10 per cent of the horror of the adaptation is to be found in the book, then I wouldn’t give it to a child in a million years. Watership Down, the film, was 102 minutes of unadulterated terror and rabbit murder, which saw cute bunnies variously asphyxiated, eaten by dogs, killed by other rabbits, enslaved by other rabbits and shot by farmers. The BBFC has admitted to receiving complaints “every year” since Watership Down was given a U rating. So was it really aimed at children?
A similar question hangs over Princess Mononoke, but perhaps for better reasons. It’s long been established that anime isn’t purely aimed at children, as anyone who has seen Akira or Perfect Blue will tell you, or indeed any parent who has enjoyed other Studio Ghibli films alongside their own kids.
Mononoke is stylistically dark; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s morally grey, and looks to be able to teach children – perhaps 12-year-olds if not six-year-olds – about the importance of balancing industrial progress with the conservation of nature (more relevant than ever, and especially so in Japan) in the same way Watership Down taught them about, well, death.
Animation-wise, the film’s as delightful to watch as one would expect from a Studio Ghibli production, with small details like a character stringing a bow before firing an arrow or herons taking flight from a river as someone rides past bringing it to life. The setting is culturally very Japanese—tatami mats, shrines, kami and so on all characterize the different forest and village settings, even though it seemingly focuses on the native Emishi or Ainu cultures just as much, a distinction sort of similar to that between the Anglo-Saxon and English identities.
Similar themes to other Miyazaki films crop up. Parallels are clear between Haku, the cursed dragon in Spirited Away, and the spirits of the forest that are polluted by the villagers’ firearms, and the same admonitions about the abasement of human greed are raised. However, aside from all the blood and gore—and there’s a fair bit, with arms and heads shot off with arrows and sliced with swords and knives—the central question is this: to what extent is it acceptable for the settlers in the village to encroach on and exploit the natural world, if it improves their own quality of life?
The initial answer seems to be that they are overdoing it, and spoiling the beauty and perfection of the forest forever. But things are further blurred as the ostensible villain of the film, Lady Eboshi, is revealed to be both a feminist figure who leads the women of the village with a competency that the men cannot match, and who seeks to exploit the power of the Forest Spirit to heal the lepers who have followed her loyally and work for her. The Lady wants to develop a rifle that women can use as well as men, and to harness the power of the forest to improve the lives of her villagers. The movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Eboshi is progressive and a realist, who dreams of improving the lot of those under her care.
So what conclusion does it come to, with the sides both stacked so evenly? That hubris, as in Akira, brings about mass destruction. Lady Eboshi, like the scientists of Akira, overreaches, and it almost brings about the end of the whole village, no matter what the nature of her original intentions. But a balance is struck, the devastation recedes, and the immortal Forest Spirit lives on.
Ultimately, Princess Mononoke shows nature as it really is: totally indifferent to human pride. The god of the forest, which seems so dignified and passive, is also the god of death. Death itself is not dignified in the natural world, as the deaths of the boar-god Okkoto and the wolf Moro both show, and can’t be averted, no matter how great the ambition and capability of those trying to conquer it. Perhaps the same applies to the natural world – it cannot be permanently overcome, only held back – and perhaps we will soon start discovering that.
Which leaves only one real conclusion: Japanese kids deal with some serious cinematic topics.