I saw Princess Mononoke (1997) by Master animator Hayao Miyazaki many years back, and I remembered loving the anime but felt that the ending was somewhat not fulfilling. I was hoping for a resolution - revenge - for the destroyer of the forest to meet her just deserts; for the spirits of the forest to win, and for the greedy to be punished for their folly. But this story is much more than that, and refuses at every turn to be simplistic.
I watched it again (it's been 10 years) and I can't help but admire the sensibilities of the creator. It is truly one of the best anime I've watched. It begins as a black and white case, an evil demonic boar invading the innocence of a small village with its murderous rage. An innocent young prince, Ashitake fights to save the village but sustains a supernatural injury on his arm. Then, it is no longer black and white. All shades of gray begin to appear.
The demon is a god, spirit of a once mighty boar who dies while fighting to save the forest. The cause of its death is an iron bullet (the advent of technology). The cause of its demonic manifestation is rage and hatred. The owner of the iron bullet is Lady Eboshi, who is as determined to strip the forest bare for ore to smelt and profit, as it is for the divine wolves, tree-planting apes and vengeance-seeking boars to protect the forest. Yet, Lady Eboshi desires to build a better place for her people (including ex-courtesans and lepers).
It was quite heart-wrenching to see the tree-planting apes cry out in despair as they try to replant trees on the barren ground that Lady Eboshi has destroyed, admist cannon blasts from Eboshi's guards to keep them away. And then there is the "Kodama", strange childlike tree-deities that embody the life spirit of the trees, as they click in unison to the great equalizing force - the Spirit of the Forest - the creator and taker of lives.
The way Miyazaki conceptualizes and gives form to this force - a spirit deer with a benevolent face (which transforms into the nightwalker) is truly awe-inspiring, and to have Lady Eboshi assassinating it for its severed head, as a trade for the rifleman, and the prize for the emperor (for everlasting life), reflects the reality of today's capitalist system and it's incessant ravage of our environment - it is brutal and unrelenting.
New York Times critic Janet Maslin noted, “Absent are the little anthropomorphic touches that enliven most animation involving animals; this film’s prevailing attitude toward its creatures is one of respect and wonder.” In its depiction of the nature of animals, Princess Mononoke inherits the legacy of the great works of Japanese art." - Pacific Asia Museum
The final scene sees the humans returning the head to the Spirit of the Forest when they realize that they are in fact killing themselves. Perhaps that is the equalizing force, with the awareness of our environment predicament becoming more and more prevalent in our consciousness. Not sure if this is enough to stop the tide of destruction but at least now, we can feel its counterforce...
"Mononoke also became the highest grossing movie in Japan until Titanic took over the spot several months later. Overall, Mononoke is the third most popular anime movie in Japan, next to 2001's Spirited Away and 2004's Howl's Moving Castle, both also by Miyazaki." Wikipedia