Every couple years we like to revisit one of the first and best works of anime we’ve ever seen, to bask in its excellence and wade in the gooey nostalgia. Suffice it to say, the film gets better with each subsequent viewing, and it also gets more difficult to find satisfying and cohesive words to describe how much we adore it and why. So we won’t! Instead, we’ll list
ten eleven of our favorite moments, in chronological order.
1. The first shot after the title card, and that first Joe Hisaishi orchestral flourish: Ashitaka glides through the trees on his red elk, sensing something is amiss. Instantly, we are transported to another world, and that world already feels real by the sound of leaves rustling and the stamping of hooves on the earth.
2. Three village girls flee from the raging demon, but one trips and falls. Do the other two run away and leave the third behind? Do they wait for Ashitaka to save them? No. Kaya draws her sword and stands fast with her fallen sister. Miyazaki wastes no time establishing that the women in this film are going to stand equally with men in all things: courage, intelligence, strength…and general badassery.
3. Ashitaka learns his fate, from another strong woman, the village oracle. In this scene, we see the desperation of the men sitting against the wall. Ashitaka is the youngest there, the last best hope for the village; his sudden exile crushes them. But Ashitaka does not flinch from the task before him. He chooses to stand and face his fate.
4. Ashitaka and Kaya’s farewell gets to us every time, but the sorrow of that little scene is soon put behind Ashitaka as he begins the next chapter of his life, out in the sprawling world, full of mysteries and wonders and infinite possibilities. The soaring, epic music and staggeringly vast, gorgeous vistas contribute to create one of the best traveling montages in all of cinema – and this is only the beginning.
5. Ashitaka first spots San. When he braves the deeper parts of the ancient forest with the injured men, he finds San and her wolf tribe licking their wounds after a raid. Mononoke is sucking blood out of Moro and when she spots Ashitaka, delays spitting it out for just one brilliant moment. Ashitaka leaps up and gives a Big Dumb Hero Speech, to which the wolves respond by simply walking off. San replies with one word: “Leave.” San don’t give a shit about him…not yet, anyway.
6. The first clash of Eboshi and San. Lady Eboshi is one of our favorite antiheroes in anime. Cunning, ruthless, and sexy, we never learn her true motivations. Perhaps she had a tough upbringing that steeled her for competing and succeeding in a male-dominated world, and wishes to carry that tradition on with other women with unfortunate pasts. She gives lepers and brothel workers honest jobs and happy lives, and makes a huge profit off of it.
San herself is a less complex but no less compelling character. We know for a fact her human parents discarded her. Whether they didn’t want her or couldn’t care for her, she was left to the wolves and raised as one. In a way, Eboshi is just as much a wolf. But she hides her wolf and her heart within, not on her sleeve. Whatever people believe about her is what she wants them to believe.
Then San slips by Eboshi’s guard and shoots at her like an arrow loosed from a bow. All speed and primal rage and chaos, Eboshi – at the last second – pulls out her thin, elegant blade of folded steel with the tiniest movements, then brandishes a tiny dagger; her first parry was a feint. All logic and discipline and careful sizing-up of her opponent. Her water meets San’s fire and a stalemate ensues, until Ashitaka’s finally had enough and subdues both.
7. Ashitaka tells San she’s beautiful while she has his sword pointed a centimeter from his throat. San’s bashful reaction proves shee is still a human. Ashitaka doesn’t say this out of desperation; he’s not one to extend his life with wordplay. He says it because it’s the truth. He doesn’t want San’s beautiful soul irrevicably corrupted by hate. The end product of that path gave him his scar.
8. There’s really no scene in any film we’ve seen that gives us goosebumps that last quite as long as they do when San takes Ashitaka deeper into the forest to see if the deer god will save his life. The utter majesty of their sylvan suroundings, the brief dream Ashitaka has in complete silence, the way the white noise of the forest returns when a dewdrop wakes Ashitaka up, it’s all perfect.
9. When he’s unable to chew bark, San chews it for him and feeds him like a bird, in perhaps the best non-kiss first kiss we’ve ever seen. San is just making sure he doesn’t die, but Ashitaka is moved to tears. As are we.
10. Ashitaka wakes up in a den, with San sleeping soundly beside him, and then the titular theme song starts up, we have perhaps the quietest, most beautiful scene in the entire film. You get the feeling this is the most comfortable and happy the two will be, as well as the last time they’re together, for some time. So bittersweet.
Shots of the contented San bookend his conversation with a testy Moro, who sits atop the stone den, contemplating her death and the death of the forest. Her speech to him about how even this place will soon be engulfed in the flames of mankind’s industry and war, and how both of them are too weak to do anything about it, is heartbreaking, but neither her cyncism or threats to bite his head off sway Ashitaka from the belief there can be a third way, and that he can find a way for him and San to live.
11. The scenes with the rather bull-headed boar tribe and their doomed blaze of glory, as well as Jiko-bo’s strategizing aren’t our favorite of the film, and if there was a place where the film lags a bit, it’s here. But when Moro decides to use the last of her strength to help save San from being consumed by Okkoto’s corruption and hands her off to Ashitaka, who runs into the lake with her, it was a great relief. Yeah, it’s a bit Guy Saves Girl…but remember, she saved him too.
As representatives of mankind and nature, their friendship forged from mutual life-saving, trust, and love is proof that their two factions can, if not co-exist, allow one another to simply…live. Even in the present day, there are still countless places untouched by man. They are fewer than in the past, but they will always be here.
One side-effect of watching this film is it makes you want to seek out those places in nature that endure even today. Where trees have stood through ages of man, and the animals do not fear us. We will never truly defeat nature, and nature will never truly defeat us. It’s not a zero-sum game, and it never was.