To say that “Studio Ghibli” is the Japanese version of “Walt Disney” is somewhat true, as it makes sense to compare them in some respects. However, they also have their unique distinctions. One thing is certain, though: both are bound to captivate both children and adults alike.
“Princess Mononoke” debuted in 1997 and took the world by storm. If there were any movie aficionados unfamiliar with Hayao Miyazaki before this film, his name surely became etched in their memories thereafter. For decades, this Oscar-winning creator has been showcasing incredible fantasy worlds where elements like the medieval era, Japanese mythology, steampunk, and more intertwine. Charming heroes, enchanting music… you get the picture. What “Disney” and “Pixar” have created (then and now), “Studio Ghibli” matches.
“Princess Mononoke” (Mononoke-hime) is set in medieval Japan, specifically during the Muromachi or Ashikaga era. The story follows Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi (an ethnic group once living on Honshu Island), who saves his village by slaying a mysterious demon shaped like a giant mutated wild boar but becomes wounded (or rather, cursed with a disease that spreads through his body). With the help of a wise woman (and the village’s spiritual leader), Ashitaka learns that the demon was actually a deity known as Nago, corrupted due to a mysterious piece of iron found in its body. The spreading curse grants him superhuman strength but will eventually lead to his death. His only hope is to leave his village forever and travel west in search of a cure.
Thus, our young prince embarks on a long journey with his faithful elk, Yakul. Along the way, he encounters an unusual monk named Jigo, who reveals that finding the mysterious “Great Forest Spirit,” a mystical deer with the power to give and take life, might be the only way to lift the curse.
In his quest, young Ashitaka accidentally discovers two wounded villagers in a swollen river, attacked by wolves led by the wolf god Moro, with one wolf ridden by a young warrior girl. Ashitaka manages to lead the injured through a mystical forest, filled with charming forest spirits (kodamas in Japanese mythology, akin to dryads in Greek mythology), even glimpses the “Great Forest Spirit” in the distance, and finally arrives at the fortified settlement Iron Town (Tataraba in Japanese). Iron Town is ruled by the mysterious Lady Eboshi, confidently supported by her townsfolk. Iron Town serves as a refuge for many societal outcasts, like those suffering from leprosy. Women are respected and somewhat equal to men here, willing to perform hard labor… and they seem quite excited (and somewhat aroused) by the young prince’s arrival.
However, the situation with Lady Eboshi and Iron Town is complex and contradictory. The people are respected and cared for, and Eboshi is deeply committed to her people. But… Iron Town thrives on iron mining and musket production (Eboshi insists on making muskets that even a woman can use without difficulty for protection), leading to forest degradation and the fury of the forest gods at Eboshi (and as you may have guessed, she is also the reason why the deity Nago/boar became corrupted/cursed and turned into a demon). Additionally, Eboshi does not acknowledge the Emperor as ruler, nor the local feudal lords, making her a target for many (they want to behead her, yet she’s also their main supplier of firearms).
The story is further complicated by the mysterious warrior girl, San (named after the number three in Japanese… as in ichi, ni, san, shi…), also known as Princess Mononoke. San, raised as part of a wolf pack, considers the deity Moro her mother and has been taught to despise humans, especially Eboshi, blaming them for the destruction of the forest and its inhabitants.
One evening, the wolf warrior San attacks Iron Town with the intent to kill Eboshi, leading to a close encounter with young Prince Ashitaka, who tries to prevent the conflict between San and Eboshi, and gets seriously injured in the process.
From this point, the situation becomes even more complex. Who is the mysterious and beautiful wolf princess San, and what is her connection to the forest? What are Eboshi’s hidden motives for her armament and war against nature? Is the eccentric monk Jigo just a monk, or something more? Is young Prince Ashitaka truly the only one searching for the “Great Forest Spirit,” or… questions abound, and finding the answers is an enjoyable quest.
“Princess Mononoke” is a truly beautiful film in every aspect. The drawing and animation are wonderful, from beautifully rendered main and side characters to animals, deities, and nature itself, all exuding a medieval Japanese mysticism. Interestingly, most of the film is hand-drawn, with some parts computer-animated (which you’ll hardly notice). The movie has style and charm to spare. The music is also beautiful (not the kind you might sing like some Disney tunes, but enjoyable, especially the instrumentals), contributing to the overall atmosphere. Add interesting characters with soul (and good voice acting), a bit of action, mystique, and some dark scenes (this is Japan, after all, so a bit of blood and demons are expected… maybe a severed head or worms, but it’s bearable and not overly explicit).
“Princess Mononoke” touches on many interesting and universal themes. The most obvious and always relevant theme (especially today) is the extent to which humans are willing to go in destroying nature and its (now increasingly limited) resources for their selfish goals and interests. In this film, nature is not portrayed as a helpless entity suffering at the hands of humans. Instead, the deities turn against humans, attacking them to prevent their extinction, despite struggling against modern technology. This culminates in a crucial scene towards the end of the film, showing what happens when humans cross all bounds of reason regarding nature. You can’t help but ponder some questions after watching the film. This isn’t about religion or whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist, atheist, or something else, nor how you view Nature (with a deliberately capitalized “N”). The question is different. Can humans be sure that they have truly conquered Nature and become its master, as they claim to be? The fact is, Nature (or perhaps Earth is a better term) has its ways of striking back at humans. But are we certain that at some point we won’t “poke” something we shouldn’t have, and dig our own graves? Some people believe we must find a balance and reconcile with Nature (Ashitaka’s constant “wandering” in the film between the forest and Iron Town symbolizes the attempt to reconcile humans with Nature, serving as a sort of messenger). It’s a serious topic (and very relevant today).
Subtly woven into the film are themes of love, faith, understanding the suffering of people, respecting women, and appreciating their strength and dedication… there are various motives, many subtly integrated into the film.
In conclusion, regardless of whether you’re an anime fan, a Disney cartoon enthusiast, or just into animated films in general, “Princess Mononoke” is one of those films you must watch in your lifetime, if for nothing else than for the themes it explores.
For those who love Japan, its mythology, anime, Hayao Miyazaki, and all related elements… well, it’s clear what you should do if you haven’t already. 🙂
Finally, here’s an article with some interesting facts you might not know about “Princess Mononoke.” 🙂
And you, my dear reader, do you thinking we are pushing our luck against Nature?
(Originally reviewed: 07/03/2020)
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Release Date: 1997
Runtime: 134 minutes