April 08, 2010

"Mononoke" vs. "Avatar"

On a more serious cinematic note, Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke makes for a better critical comparison to Avatar. Like Jake in Avatar, Ashitaka journeys into a magical forest protected by a willful princess. The archenemy is Lady Eboshi, who needs the lumber and iron ore in the forest for her foundry.

The difference is, Hayao Miyazaki doesn't reduce things to simplistic, black and white terms. He let Lady Eboshi compellingly argue that the gains from economic development accrue to the most dispossessed. The boars defending the forest are boorish and ugly, and tend to turn themselves into cannon fodder.

And when the modern goes up against the primitive, no matter how pristine and spiritual it may be, the primitive will—sooner or later, rightly or wrongly—get its butt kicked. As Kate says about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Yeah, sure, Winnie the Pooh versus lasers. My vote is on the lasers."

Another good Ghibli comparison is Pom Poko, in which a bunch of tanuki (racoons) band together to kick the humans out of the Tama New Town housing development. The effort fails for the same reasons such efforts usually fail: zeal can't compensate for incompetence, and little furry animals can't compete with bulldozers.

In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has Lady Eboshi presciently declare that, "When the forest has been cleared and wolves wiped out, this place will be the richest land in the world." For a time, it literally was. Miyazaki is not denying this fact, nor his own good fortune at being able to share in it. He is saying, "Yes, but."

Yes, economic progress is good, but there are costs. Yes, the environment is harmed, but we benefit enormously. And having seized those benefits for ourselves, it is awfully self-serving to pull an Augustine and pray, "Give everybody else chastity and temperance now, and thank God we didn't have it then."

We're like the tanuki, who shout and protest loudly, only to discover in the end that golf courses make for nice habitats. There's a great scene at the beginning of Pom Poko, reminiscent of Life of Brian, where the tanuki get sidetracked talking about all the great human stuff (television, garbage cans) they can't live without.

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