First came Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. Hayao Miyazaki's environmentally-conscious animation movie speaks of a time long gone when the ancestors of animals roamed the earth as Gods but were slowly decimated by human greed and need for development. Caught in the middle of this tumultous time is Princess Mononoke who was adopted by the Wolf God, and the human prince Ashitaka who has been cursed by a dying Boar God.
Forgive the slow start to the movie, and watch for the awe-inspiring Deer God and Nightwalker, the crafty but multi-layered Lady Eboshi, and the sprawling green locales inspired by the actual ancient forests of Kyushu and the mountains of Honshu. I had expected a relatively YA tale, but it turned out to be a moving story for all ages. My favorites will always be Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away, but Princess Mononoke comes a close third. Watch the trailer for Princess Mononoke on YouTube.
Recommended. Rating: 9/10
Next came the Japanese TV show, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, the dramatization of the first of a super popular series of Japanese fantasy novels by Nahoko Uehashi. Keiji Kataoka, the director, has done a fabulous job of creating a visually-stunning adaptation of a dark fantasy story which is sometimes hopeful, sometimes downright scary, but all-time mind-blowing. (There is also an anime version out there that I have not seen, so I can't comment which version is better.)
A young prince with the mysterious powers of the River God has become the thorn in his narcissistic father's eyes. His mother sends him away in the night, under the protection of a bodyguard Balsa, but the prince and Balsa are hunted throughout their journey by mysterious assassins who want the power of the River God for themselves. I may be biased but I could find nothing wrong with this show. I especially loved Balsa, who is one of the strongest and most honorable female characters in fantasy fiction. Watch the stills and clips here.
Highly recommended. Rating: 10/10
Finally, came Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara. This is part of the Tales of Matagama series, but can be read as a standalone. Saya is a village girl who has no memory of her past and was adopted after she was found lost in the bamboo grasses. She has long worshipped the God of Light and his children, who have been at eternal war with the Goddess of Darkness. And then one day, Saya's world comes crashing down when she learns she is a re-incarnation of the Water Maiden, the only one who can wield the Dragon Sword and bring the Light/Dark War to an end.
There are many themes of Japanese creation mythology, as seen in the ancient compilation, Kojiki (Year 711-712), such as: immortality versus cycles of renewal and rebirth, purification by water and sacrifice, the inhuman beauty of the children of the gods, the first human rulers who made Japan, the descent of ancient gods to earth, the magic of dragons and old shrines, the love for nature, the separation of the sun and moon/ sky and underworld. Dragon Sword and Wind Child brings together many of these threads, and casts several plot twists at the reader while keeping a fairly good pace.
There are drawbacks to the story, however, such as Saya's role being hardly more than that of a catalyst for other people's lives, and a too-abrupt settlement of the various plot threads at the end. But the lyrical, evocative writing style more than makes up for it. Also, the very title of the book, and the book cover illustration by Miho Satake, are both truly lovely. If you are a fan of mythology-based world-building, you may like Dragon Sword and Wind Child.
Interesting Side Note: Both Dragon Sword and Wind Child and the Moribito books have been translated from Japanese to English by the same person, Cathy Hirano.
Recommended. Rating: 8/10