Ali Shaw is Yakul from Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke 1
Princess Mononoke

The award-winning author of The Girl with Glass Feet and The Man who Rained picks his filmic alter ego.

Novelist Ali Shaw grew up in Dorset and studied English literature and creative writing at Lancaster University. He’s written for BBC Radio 4, and worked as a bookseller and in the Bodleian Library. His latest novel The Trees (Bloomsbury), out in March 2016, hauntingly describes what happens when the trapping of civilization are taken over by nature, when a dense forest appears overnight, replacing houses and buildings with trees. Eithne Farry

The heroes are always the boring ones. As much as I adore Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, its hero Ashitaka is as straight-laced and earnest as they come. ‘So you say you’re under a curse,’ Jigo, the mischievous monk tells him. ‘So what? So is the whole damned world.’ A fairy tale such as this one needs, of course, its serious prince. Yet it’s Ashitaka’s red elk steed Yakul who steals his scenes, often far more expressively than his rider. Since those scenes are all hand-drawn, I can’t help but think that’s deliberate.

I reckon I’d make a passable Yakul. I’m not as brave as Ashitaka, and I can’t hit running headshots with a bow and arrow. But I certainly can huff like a red elk, and run away from things as fast as I can. Galloping through Studio Ghibli’s exquisitely painted landscapes would be my idea of heaven, as would be hopping over their glimmering celluloid streams. I think I would feel just as out of place among the crowds and bowed oxen of Irontown, because the point about Yakul is that he’s not a beast of burden. He’s Ashitaka’s comrade, occupying a position of neutrality in the film’s central conflict between humanity and nature. Yakul and Ashitaka are living proof that the two sides really can get along. Crucially, they respect and honour not only the luminously antlered forest god and the cutesy bobble-headed kodamas, but the stark rage of nature as well. I hope that, whenever I’m next faced with a squirming nest of worms on legs that’s bound itself to the body of a fallen boar god, I too will have the courage to be so clairvoyant.

There is no such thing as a red elk. Miyazaki made them up. Yakul is more like a species of African marsh antelope called a lechwe than he is an elk. That’s just one more thing I love about him, because made-up animals are one of the best means we humans have for talking about ourselves. We have to make ourselves up all the time, and animal qualities can sometimes be the ideal components. So I will aspire to be bolder and more gracious and quicker-hooved, and to keep my eyes and ears alert for those who would blast the world apart just to scrape more iron out of the soil. I will be hand-drawn, frame by frame, and all the better for it. Skipping through the story with a huff and a snort, just like Yakul.

Ali Shaw