Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Best Environmental Epic: The Case for Princess Mononoke

Can a film be both entertaining and enlightening at once?

The film Princess Mononoke, has many similarities to other environmental fantasies. As in Avatar, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Pocahontas, the protagonist, Ashitaka, is a young man who becomes drawn into a conflict between the forces of nature and humans who are clear-cutting a large forest. The protagonist also meets a woman of another culture (in this case, San, a girl raised by wolves) whom he falls in love with. This plot structure is by no means a new one, as several people have noted that Avatar, might as well have been titled 'Dances with Smurfs' or 'Blue Pocahontas.' Due to their heavy reliance on this formula, films of this kind are often criticized for their reduction of environmental themes and failure to look at tangible solutions. However, Princess Mononoke differs from the three other mentioned films in the way it represents humanity’s relationship with nature, and the protagonist’s relationship with other cultures and minorities. 

Issues Common to Environmental Epics

Is it man vs nature or nature versus man? 

The main problem with many of these ‘ecologically aware’ films is that they tend to over simplify the complex relationship between man and the environment. They seem to state that nature is inherently good and superior to humanity, and that the means used to aid development are inherently bad. These movies often fail to take into account that humans, like other species, are motivated by their own survival. Although clearing land certainly has negative effects on trees and displaces other populations, it is often done to avoid issues such as human overcrowding and to feed growing settlements. Since the environment is rarely altered by a sole force, people are not often displaced by a single aggressor’s selfish actions. Realistically, people won’t suddenly stop all actives that harm the environment, because we depend on its resources. However, we can try to use technology in ways that are less detrimental to our surrounding environment.

Another issue common to environmental epics that portray native peoples are the archetypes of the white savior and the noble savage. The white savior is commonly defined as a white man who learns the ways of a primitive, nature-oriented tribe and decides to help them fight off his own people's colonialism, recognizing that the cause of the natives is just and the conquerors are the villains. This implies that, despite the hero’s apparently good intentions, people of Anglo-Saxon decent are superior to ingenious peoples. Without the help of the white man the minorities remain disempowered. The noble savage is a stock character who serves as an idealized individual who symbolizes the innate goodness of one unexposed to civilization and its corrupting influences. Noble savages are heavily romanticized and are often depicted as being more ‘pure’ and in tune with the natural world. This thinking is problematic, because it does not portray tribal peoples in contemporary reality. Instead, they are viewed as being trapped in a uncontaminated realm of nature which likely never existed.

The Environment in James Cameron’s Avatar

Avatar is largely a visual experience and relies on many plot cliches.

In James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, The Resources Development Administration (RDA) is mining on the planet of Pandora to search for a rare fuel substance. RDA’s private security force is led by Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch has absolutely no regard for any of the lifeforms on Pandora. He is given no backstory, save for mentioning that he received the large scars on his face on the first day he arrived on Pandora. The movie’s message is profoundly simplified by Quaritch’s unrealistic dialogue, which includes lines such as, “I can do it with minimal casualties to the indigenous,” and “We'll clear them out with gas first. It'll be humane. More or less.” The movie opts for peaceful solutions in order to find a way in which humankind and the Na’vi people of Pandora can coexist. However, Avatar quickly dissolves into a number of flashy battle sequences and explosions to show off the film’s special effects. 

Guess which one is the bad guy.

Avatar’s protagonist, Jack Sully, arrives on Pandora as an ungainly military recruit. However, over the course of the film, Jack gains the trust of the Na’vi and becomes mates with chieftain’s the daughter, Neytiri. Jack tames a Toruk, a large dragon-like creature, then leads the Na’vi into battle, thus fulfilling his role as the white savior. Likewise, the computer generated Na’vi are idealized portrayals of native peoples. They are depicted with lean, muscular bodies that are largely unclothed, and can communicate directly with nature via their braid-like sensory organs.

The Environment in Fox’s Ferngully

Hot male lead? Check. Exotic Chick? Check. Native Aborigines? Screw that, we've got fairies!

Like Avatar, Ferngully’s antagonists are similarly unrealistic. In 20th Century Fox’s 1992 film, the malefactor is Hexxus. Hexxus is an ancient being that was sealed away in a tree by the fairies of the rainforest. After being accidentally released when some loggers cut down the tree, Hexxus proceeds to take revenge for his imprisonment by manipulating two of the loggers controlling a bulldozer. Portraying deforestation and pollution in this manner is problematic because it takes the blame of environmental issues off of humanity and places it on a nonexistent deity. By the end of the movie, the hero, Zak, returns to the human world and leaves the fairies alone. However, in a real world situation, the humans would undoubtedly return to the rainforest in order to harvest its scarce resources.

Additionally, Zak Young is introduced as a fit, smooth-talking character. He is shown to be superior to the other lower-class workers, who are depicted as greedy and lazy by visual references to over-consumption of junk food and their littering of their work areas, as well as the fairies who live in the Ferngully Rainforest. The fairies are impressed by Zac’s mastery of technology, as demonstrated when Zac brings the fairies together with music generated from his giant cassette player. The fairies conveniently replace the Aboriginal Australians as ‘noble savages’, perhaps in an attempt to be more politically correct. Although neither the humans and fairies initially believe that the other exists, the truly mythologized beings in Ferngully are indigenous people who are fantasized as extinct and indicated only by the remnant rock paintings. Like the Na’vi, the fairies are depicted as an ideal ‘other’, living in complete harmony with nature via extraordinary, magical means. For instance, Crysta (the fairy female lead and romantic interest to Zac) is is able to make a seed grow into a towering tree by pressing a seed in her hand and the fairies can fly trough the rainforest at impossibly fast speeds.

Still this movie manages to be pretty entertaining due to its hilariously outdated dialogue and bad '90s pop music.

The Environment in Disney’s Pocahontas

"Let's keep quiet about this film's less glamorous, real life basis."

In Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the story takes place in a fictionalized timeline during 1607 where the British settlers of the Virginia Company arrive in the New World. They are led by Governor John Ratcliffe, who desires to obtain one thing beyond anything else: gold. Unlike the other antagonists from Avatar and Ferngully, Ratcliffe is based on a real person, as Pocahontas is loosely adapted from a historic event. This is where the film’s problems arise. The movie attempts to promote understanding between the colonists and the Native Americans. However, it also makes history easier for American audiences to swallow by glossing over the less attractive aspects of European settlement of Native American lands. 

 John Smith is the film’s white savior. Pocahontas risks her life to save Smith because she essentially falls in love with the first white man she sees.The movie’s underlying message, which extolls cultural understanding and the respect for others and the environment, is downplayed by the film’s focus on romantic fantasy. The Native Americans in Pocahontas are similarly fantasized, even though they are an actual group of people, not a fictional race. Along with demonstrating her care for the natural world by singing songs and having adorable animal sidekicks, Pocahontas is shown to be very attractive and voluptuous, with tan long legs, silky black hair, and almond shaped eyes. By focusing on such superficial details, however, Pocahontas, as with Avatar and Ferngully, skips over the uglier aspects of human nature and history. The plot is altered, avoiding Pocahontas’s passage to England, her separation from her people, conversion to Christianity, marriage to John Rolfe, and her death at age 21 from tuberculosis in England.

The Environment in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke

Nature is beautiful and terrifying. 

Even though Princess Mononoke is set between the 14th and 16th century in Japan, it addresses several of the issues that are simplified or ignored in the previously mentioned films. There are no stereotypical ‘villains’ in Princess Mononoke as each side is shown to have their own needs and justifications. Lady Eboshi of Irontown is seemingly cold-hearted when she is introduced. After all, she drove the boars out of the forest to mine for iron-sand. She shot the boar god, Nago, causing him to become a demon and later pass his curse onto the protagonist, Ashitaka. However, Eboshi is shown to be compassionate. She offers prostitutes employment as bellows workers, and she secretly hires lepers to manufacture firearms. Despite that many of Eboshi’s actions are questionable it is easy to sympathize with her, especially when one considers that she is part of a traditionally marginalized group herself because she is a woman.  

Lady Eboshi: Both ruthless and kind.

Nature is shown to be divine and otherworldly in places, demanding one’s respect. The forest of the Shishigami is considered to be a scared place and the Emishi are one of the few people left who respect nature and worship animistic gods. Although it is easy to be impressed at the beautifully rendered landscapes in Princess Mononoke and feel sympathy for the animals who are being driven from their homes, it is also easy to be frightened or disgusted by them. The animals are not hapless victims of cruel humans, they fight back viciously to the death. They are large and imposing, and not as cute or as marketable as the fairies in Ferngully or Pocahontas’s pet raccoon, Meeko. The deer god, the Shishigami, is also portrayed as being a rather ambiguous figure. He gives and takes away life, acting primarily as the caretaker of natural causes. The Shishigami does not become actively involved in the struggle between human development and the nature, until he is beheaded by Lady Eboshi. He then threatens to wipe out both humanity and the entire forest, as he becomes lost in madness searching for his head. 

The Shishigami, giver of life and death. 

Symbolically, this could represent the destructive nature of war, and the consequences it has for both sides of the battle. Ultimately, this is what Princess Mononoke is about and what Avatar, Ferngully and Pocahontas fail to address. If Eboshi and Irontown win the battle, then the forest and its gods and animals disappear. However, if nature wins, Irontown and its inhabitants will cease to exist. There are no simple answers, and the differing factions of humanity and nature can only hope to come to a solution by attempting to understand one another. The only true villain in Princess Mononoke is hate. Ashitaka combats with it throughout the film, between others and within himself, as represented by the curse which will kill him if he cannot find a cure. It is not until the end of Princess Mononoke that the curse is finally lifted, after both nature and the warring sides of humanity come to realize that they have nearly destroyed each other.

Although Princess Mononoke has an attractive male lead, he is not the typical Hollywood hero nor is he a typical Japanese hero. As opposed to being a white, or in this case a Yamato Japanese, man, Ashitaka is a member of a traditionally marginalized (and now extinct) cultural group, the Emishi. Ashitaka is initially a reluctant hero. He does not want to leave his homeland but is forced to do so after he becomes cursed by Nago. Unlike many of the samurai protagonists seen in Japanese period dramas, Ashitaka is a pacifist who struggles with his own anger. When his cursed right hand nearly strikes Eboshi, Ashitaka remarks, “If it would lift the curse, I'd let it tear you apart. But even that wouldn't end the killing now, would it?” He is torn between siding with the outcast people in Irontown and San and the animals who are being driven out of the forest, as he can relate to both groups.

Ashitaka, the cursed, othered protagonist.

San, the Princess Mononoke, is the closet thing the film offers us to a ‘noble savage’ or an ‘Indian princess.’ But like nature, San is not overly idealized in Princes Mononoke. San is a young woman, but does not wear a revealing dress. She is depicted with blood smeared across her face the first time Ashitaka sees her, after sucking at a bullet wound in Moro’s chest. She is kind to most animals of the forest, her adoptive mother, Moro, and her wolf brothers. On the other hand, her hatred towards Lady Eboshi and humans is so pronounced that she is willing to throw away her life in order to defend the forest and avenge the death of its animals. Unlike a conventional Disney princess, San does not ‘fall for the first man she sees.’ At first, she hates Ashitaka because he is human and simply tells him to, “Go away.” When Ashitaka saves San from harm in Irontown and returns her to the woods, San is furious with him because Ashitaka has ruined her opportunity to kill Eboshi. In a sense, the gender roles are somewhat reversed as Ashitaka (the man) pleads for both women, San and Eboshi, to put down their knives and talk. 

As with Eboshi, San is another complex female character.

It is only when Ashitaka’s gun wound is healed by the Shishigami, that San ponders over Ashitaka’s behavior, and develops feelings for him. This causes her to go through denial at several points in the film. Moro tells Ashitaka that his desire to live with San is futile because, “My poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither wolf nor human. She lives with the forest, and so she too will die with the forest.” True to her mother’s words, San does not return back to the human world with Ashitaka at the end of the movie. Even though she loves Ashitaka and helps him return the Shishigami’s head, her mistrust toward humans never fully disappears. If San had gone with Ashitaka, she would have being denying an important part of her own nature. 

Because of Princess Mononoke’s complex themes and refusal to rely on conventional clich├ęs and stock characters, the relationship between man and nature are more throughly explored than in most environmental epics, even if it does not offer a definitive answer to society’s problems. Princess Mononoke does, however, suggest that the first step in solving such problems is to build understanding between people with differing opinions. 

"Life is suffering. Life is hard. The world is cursed. But still you find reasons to keep living."