The road to Hayao Miyazaki's breakthrough film in the West was a winding one. After such celebrated films as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso, he began to feel an urge drawing towards a grand historical epic. Great action, powerful samurai, mighty castles, and primal forests in the vein of Akira Kurosawa and the other post-war directors of note.
His first inclination was to go back to a book he wrote and illustrated in 1980: Mononoke Hime, a title translated as Princess Mononoke. However, as the 1990's edged into their middle years, he found that he couldn't bring that version of Princess Mononoke to the screen. The "Mononoke" forest spirit acting as the foil for the "Princess" was a large, rotund cat with more than a passing similarity to Totoro. While the story was replete with warriors and demons, it still felt too reserved, too typical of the work he had been committing to celluloid. He needed to look elsewhere.
One of those places was another manga he wrote and painted in 1983, The Journey of Shuna. Taking place in the future, or the past, maybe not even Earth, the story revolves around the prince of a dying village locked in a valley who mounts his Ibex-like steed and heads off to follow the legends of another valley where hardy golden grain grows, in the hopes of bringing some life-giving seed back. Released just after the start of the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, the two bounce ideas off each other. Shuna also provides the backbone of our protagonist for Princess Mononoke, right down to his identical animal.
The ultimate result was the historical epic that Miyazaki was looking for without slipping into the mode of the samurai movie of yore. Not only does he avoid the standard tropes of the genre but he also explored new ways of working with his own favorite themes, resulting in a film that is trademark Miyazaki without being more of the same.
The first and predominant element is his environmentalist strand of neo-Shintoism. Deftly has the observer noted that regardless of a Japanese person's professed religion, to be Japanese is to be Shinto. It is a combination of practices, historical forces and mythologies that have forged an indelible part of Japanese culture, nurturing and shaping Japanese worldviews since before its ideas could be committed to writing. Shinto has also proven malleable. The nationalized, strongly imperialist take on Shinto, which emphasized the divinity of the emperor and his descent from the chief goddess of the pantheon, Amaterasu, was a relatively recent invention that reached its full head of steam in World War II. There is also a "reconstructionist" variation that looks to reclaim Shinto prior to its syncretic partnership with Buddhism.
Hayao Miyazaki's emphasis is on Shinto's animistic respect for nature. "Respect" is itself a rather light word for it. Funadmentally, Shinto outlines the inextricable connection between people and the natural world of which they are a part, bound together by "kami" or the supernatural forces frequently associated with features of the natural world. Particular rivers and mountains may have their kami, as may particular species of animal and plant. Totoro is a kami, as are the occupants of Spirited Away's bathhouse. Those spirits cleverly illustrate those relationships between nature and kami in Shinto. For example, one episode reveals that a shambling sludge monster is actually a lithe, dragon-like kami, disfigured and distorted through pollution of the river to which it is connected.
To the environmental movement, Miyazaki might hypothetically add that, through Shinto, the Japanese are the original environmentalists. It is this perspective which forms the philosophical premise of Princess Mononoke. The film is set in a definite historical era: the late Muromachi period, some time after the 1543 first contact with Europeans and their industrial technologies. Yet it is a historical time period infused with the mythological kami, with whom the humans are in direct conflict in a symbolic representation of our passing from harmony with nature into mechanised civilization.
The protagonist Ashitaka, last prince of one of Japan's last indigenous peoples, is wounded in conflict with the kami Nago. Nago, a boar-god, was himself injured by the recently-invented rifle, causing him to develop demon-like characteristics. Consumed by hatred visibly manifesting as black tendrils that consume his body and defoliate everything in his wake, Nago passes the curse along to Ashitaka, who must leave the village. Seeking out the source of the rifle and the curse, he makes his way to Iron Town, an industrial facility under attack from the kami and their human helpmate, San.
Iron Town illustrates the complexities of environmentalism as well, which Miyazaki does not diminsish. The town is levelling the surrounding forest, stripping it of trees for charcoal and soil for the ironsand they smelt. The kami have good reason to try and destroy it. But Iron Town itself is not a bad place. On the contrary, it is a beacon of social progress. Head of the town is Lady Eboshi, who has collected her workers from the dregs of prostitutes and lepers discarded by the rest of Japanese society. As the various people explain to Ashitaka, Eboshi was the only person to offer them a life of freedom and dignity. So tenacious has she been that she has actually incurred the wrath of the surrounding feudal lords, who would like nothing more than to see Iron Town ground beneath them.
The centre of the conflict between the different human factions and the different kami factions ultimately rests on the eerie Shishigami, the spirit of the forest itself. Ashitaka wants to visit this deer-like kirin because of its rumoured powers of healing, which it uses to clear away his injuries but not the curse. Eboshi wants to kill it as a blow against the forest kami preparing an assault on Iron Town. Mercinaries want to behead it because of legends that the disembodied head grants immortality. Miyazaki's nature is a source of power and rejuvenation that can, through our mistreatment and exploitation, take on our image and become a source of destruction.
One cannot wonder that Princess Mononoke was the international breakout that it was. Though anime still remains a niche market in the United States, the film garnered an arm's length list of Japanese awards and a top spot on the lists of greatest movies ever made by the likes of Terry Gilliam and Roger Ebert. Though this reviewer remains most attached to My Neighbour Totoro and Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away exemplify Hayao Miyazaki's most matured craft.