“To see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Princess Mononoke was originally intended to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before retirement. In it he said everything he ever wanted to say on the themes most important to him as strongly as he could say them. The result is a dark masterpiece far more shocking and violent than any of the legendary director’s preceding works. Could it even be classified as horror? It is far less whimsical. It isn’t fun-loving. It is majestic and frightening. It is dead serious about real problems in the world.
Miyazaki said in an interview: “…we had to make this movie.”
For the director, getting this across to the audience was of utmost importance. Somewhere along our long and bloody history we lost the ability to live peacefully both with each other and with the natural world which sustains us. I find Mononoke’s approach to the subject profound, and for the following reason. Miyazaki doesn’t propose a kind of “cold turkey” absolutist halt of all industrial civilization, as some environmental films seem to do by portraying all industrialization as irredeemably evil.
Yet a moment’s thought ought to make one realize the hypocrisy of such a statement in entertainment. Make a movie with modern technology about the pure evil of modern technology and its escalation? Even if I were to write about how horrible the industrialization of the world is, to my mind, I’m still writing that message on a laptop: a product of industrialization. Human civilization cannot be stopped, nor should we want to revert back to a medicine-less, science-less, communication-less, superstitious medieval state.
Miyazaki thinks far deeper than that in Princess Mononoke. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Iron Town had to exist and Ashitaka, as a human, lent his support to it even as San continued to live in the forests and support its creatures. The film doesn’t demonize or lament industrialization as an inevitability so much as it villainizes the human engines which drive it too far: greed, lust, betrayal, corruption, selfishness. It is the film’s many antagonists and their misguided but good intentions which lead to terrible consequences.
Princess Mononoke is disturbing at times. It is easily the scariest of Studio Ghibli’s films. I attribute this to the force Miyazaki chose to employ to decisively make a statement. Thus despite its almost horrific and adult nature (or perhaps because of it), the film is the ultimate example of Miyazaki’s message and it is immediately apparent that he took the utmost care to ensure that this particular film would be his final word on the subject, should it have actually been his last.
It’s been said that of the 144,000 animation cels in the film, Miyazaki personally corrected or redrew 80,000. Furthermore, it was the most expensive anime ever made at the time.
At the Toronto Film Festival, Miyazaki stated: “With Princess Mononoke, I intentionally threw out all the rules of entertainment movie-making. Which is why it will take some time for a true evaluation of this film to emerge.”
So much has been said about this movie. We’re now nearing 20 years since its original release and the film has certainly generated much discussion and drawn much critical insight over the years. It continues to be a film which inspires careful retrospective after the credits roll, a film which causes those who see it to reflect upon where we’ve come from and where we are headed as a species on the only home we’ve ever known: our planet.
“Environmentalism”. This has got to be Miyazaki’s favorite theme next to the “coming of age” story. But if in Princess Mononoke you are expecting something as milquetoast as Fern Gully: the Last Rainforest, as adorable as Wall-E, or as lyrical as The Lorax, then think again. Nor should you expect this film to resemble even My Neighbor Totoro or Pom Poko, two films about nature and our relation to it which depict natural forces as gentle, maybe a little mischievous but kindhearted and ultimately incapable of harm. Far from it in this film!
Given my personal experiences with nature growing up hiking, swimming, fishing, camping and exploring my own backyard forest, this is the portrayal which I find most compelling. I don’t particularly view nature as benevolent so much as indifferent and sometimes hostile. I’ve seen a lot of storms. I’ve been out on the sea. I’ve felt alone in the vast silence of a tropical jungle. This movie feels intrinsic to me. I walked away from it with this: “You better respect nature or nature will frickin’ kill you.”
Princess Mononoke takes a cue from a very early work of Miyazaki’s, with which it shares many similarities and a central core of environmentalism, the sci-fantasy dystopian Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Actually, there are several parallels between the two films: the protagonists in both films are outsiders and peacemakers in the conflict, both are of royal descent, both face morally vague antagonists, both are concerned with finding the harmonic balance with nature, and so on. Of course, Mononoke is far darker than Nausicaä. It seems these ideas had time to mature in Miyazaki’s heart as he grew older.
The story is set in the real-world Muromachi period (circa 14th to the 15th centuries) in medieval Japan. Though it involves cultural history and even includes actual proto-Japanese tribes like the Emishi, there are heavy fantasy elements mixed in with the history. It plays out like a historical epic with supernatural creatures, drawing heavily from Japanese mythology, Shintoism and animism (like Okami).
The opening narration goes thusly and Keith David’s gravelly voice sets the somber tone:
“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts who owed their allegiances to the Great Forest Spirit. For those were the days of gods and of demons…”
Ashitaka is a warrior and the last prince of the isolated Emishi people. One day, his village is attacked by an angry demon. Ashitaka does everything he can to stay the monster’s rage but is forced to slay it before it reaches his village. Unfortunately, Ashitaka is cursed by the demon, which turns out to have once been a boar god, named Nago, who was poisoned by an iron ball found stuck deep in his body. The curse in Ashitaka’s arm will spread and eventually consume him.
Ashitaka is exiled from the village and leaves to find a cure for the curse. The first things which the prince encounters beyond his village is a war: human suffering, greed, prejudice, and in the form of a fat monk named Jigo, pessimism and indifference. The monk tells the prince about the Great Forest Spirit who might lift the curse, but the monk is one of Ashitaka’s first encounters with corruption: though he is a monk and thus probably ought to be concerned with asceticism, nothing could be further from the crude man’s mind, as the film goes on to show.
Travelling further through the forest, Ashitaka bears witness to a mounting conflict between the humans of Iron Town and nature gods attacking them to defend their forest. Lady Eboshi leads the people of Iron Town, women taken from brothels and lepers working to build her guns. They are digging up the mountainside and tearing down the forest to get at the iron in the earth. Opposing them are members of the wolf clan led by the goddess Moro and a human girl named San. She is Princess Mononoke, the Japanese word for “vengeful spirit or monster”. Hey! It’s just like Jungle Book, except terrifying!
Too good-natured to simply stand by and watch them all destroy themselves, Ashitaka becomes involved in the complicated politics of the humans and their emperor, and the desperate gods of the forest. Yet because he refuses to take sides in the conflict and seeks peace, he finds in San a dangerous and unpredictable ally.
It is difficult to put Princess Mononoke out of mind. It’s haunting. The most shocking images seem to be the hardest to forget. I suppose that was intentional. I imagine its director wanted it to disturb people out of apathy.
So much of entertainment seems to be about escapism. Princess Mononoke is at the opposite extremity. Is it even mere entertainment so much as it is a parable for our times? A horrifying, gory, dreadful parable? How can we escape the curse that seems to be on us? How can we turn back time without sacrificing the progress of civilization? How can we forgo destructiveness and embrace sustainability, preservation, the value of all life?
The 8-bit Review
Princess Mononoke remains one of the best animated works of Studio Ghibli. We’re talking about an animation studio known for meticulous perfection, appreciation of fine detail and subtlety and scale. Mononoke encapsulates everything which makes their brand of animation wonderful. Every single individual frame of background is a work of art which could be a centerpiece painting of its own right. I found myself in awe of so much of the natural scenes this film took the time to show off, and even those it didn’t which we only saw in passing.
Computerized enhancements were first introduced to Ghibli animation in Whisper of the Heart but here they were employed to far more dramatic effect. Several minutes of the film utilize digital effects. They never overwhelm the sense of the organic, which is a staple in Ghibli hand-drawn animation. The supporting effects such as writhing tentacles or burgeoning flora are used sparingly enough to keep from being distracting. Considering the mid-90’s were a time when CGI derailed many films, it is a true testament to the Ghibli masters that the computer effects in Mononoke seem to not have aged at all.
Joe Hisaishi shows he is just as much of a music legend as Miyazaki is a directing legend. The composer is back to full form in Mononoke with a majestic score. It’s ancient, moving and epic. The recurring motif seems to breathe and take pause, as if to bear witness to the thematic concerns of the film to which it belongs, begging to audience to pause and consider.
This is a distinctly ethnic score which sounds Japanese in nature. Yet at the same time it borrows the breadth and power of the Western orchestra. Thus the string and brass sections are accompanied by the thrumming of massive taikos and otherworldly sounds from Far Eastern instruments. It is enough to create a wholly unique fusion of music which sounds neither totally European nor totally Japanese.
There is an air of horror and sadness to this soundtrack. It’s befitting of such a film.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Ashitaka makes his way through the forest and helps to save two men who were left behind during the first skirmish between an Iron Town caravan and the wolf tribe. He and the two survivors follow kodama, baby-like spirits of the trees, through to a sacred pool where Ashitaka catches a glimpse of the Great Forest Spirit in the distance.
Through the woods, he makes it to Iron Town and returns the two men. There he learns that Lady Eboshi plans to use her fire and her guns to kill the spirits of the forest and destroy the Great Forest Spirit himself. This will leave the gods leaderless and allow her to easily take control of the land for the purposes of human civilization. Ashitaka also discovers that it was Lady Eboshi who put the iron bullet in Nago, turning him into a demon and therefore indirectly causing the curse on Ashitaka. He barely restrains his suddenly violent impulse to kill her on the spot.
During the night, Princess Mononoke attacks the Town and seeks out Eboshi to kill her. The forest princess was raised by wolves and hates humanity. The two women face each other in battle but Ashitaka steps in to stop them, and with the demonic strength of his curse he carries the wolf-princess out unconscious, surviving being shot in the stomach. He pushes open the huge wooden gate to the Town by himself.
Returning the princess to her forest, he collapses. We get a glimpse into the not so tranquil society of the forest with the members of the wolf tribe and their princess facing down the ape tribe, who desire in their desperate madness to eat Ashitaka’s body and become strong enough to defeat the humans. The princess, who’s name is San, defends her savior from them. Ashitaka tells her she is beautiful and she comes short of killing him herself.
San takes Ashitaka to the pools of the Forest Spirit where the nature deity restores Ashitaka’s life but does not remove his curse. San begins to place her trust in Ashitaka but her mother Moro threatens the young prince to leave the forest or be killed.
The boar clan and their ancient leader Okkoto blindly attack Iron Town in their rage and are led into a trap by the humans and decimated. San enters the battle and is hurt, alongside Okkoto who survives but is gravely injured. Ashitaka is too late to stop the war and he rushes to meet San as they head toward the Forest Spirit. Eboshi leaves Iron Town to hunt for the Forest Spirit with Jigo at her side. He has been sent from the Japanese Emperor to kill the forest god and take his head, which the Emperor believes will give him immortality.
Men dressed in boars’ skins attack Okkoto and San and drive the boar god into a consuming rage which begins to corrupt him into a demon. San herself is knocked unconscious and begins to transform into a monster herself. Ashitaka rescues her together with Moro at the pools of the Forest Spirit, where the deity himself takes the lives of both Okkoto and Moro.
At that moment, Eboshi arrives and uses her gun to sever the Forest Spirit’s head. This causes a chain reaction where the Forest Spirit’s body grows out of control and anything it touches instantly dies. The forest crumbles around the survivors that flee to an island in the center of the pool, the kodama falling around them.
Ashitaka and San chase down Jigo who took the Forest Spirit’s head and confront him, take back the head and attempt to give it back to its owner. There is a bright light and the Forest Spirit falls dead across the land. Nature comes back to life and green returns to the dead forest. Ashitaka and San awake in the grass and agree to work together, with the prince supporting Iron Town and the princess returning to the woodland.
The final scene is of a single kodama appearing in the forest to look down at a growing sapling.
One theme of the film is hatred. I think that accounts for a lot of its dark nature. The hatred of the humans treats the sentient life of the forest gods like mere animals and shows they’re willing to do anything to take what they want. Further, the samurai and even the monk and his hunters demonstrate that they’re go to anything length to get what they desire. Even the Emperor, though he makes no appearance, is willing to commit theocide to attain immortality. The side of the humans treats everything in the forest with disdain.
On the part of the forest gods, the wolves hate the humans of Iron Town, the boars are blind with rage and rush headlong into battle, and Princess Mononoke resents all humans to the point of being nearly unable to accept Ashitaka after he saved her and showed affection for her.
As in real-world war, and as in Grave of the Fireflies, the true victims of war are citizens and children. Interesting that the kodama forest spirits are depicted as children.
Another theme is suffering. There is so much of it in this movie. Suffering here is related to hatred except curiously in the case of the lepers of Iron Town, who represent innocence and the choice of innocence presented to Ashitaka. He has been infected with a curse that is consuming his body similarly to the disease of the lepers, yet his choice is whether to rail against life for its unfairness or to embrace the hatefulness that can develop out of suffering, the hatefulness that can prove to be just as consuming as a curse or as leprosy. Biblically, leprosy is a metaphor (in typology, a “type”) for sin, a consuming and corrupting force. The leper Gosa says to Ashitaka:
“Young man, like you I know what rage feels like, and grief and helplessness. But you must not take your revenge on Lady Eboshi. She’s the only one who saw us as human beings. We are lepers. The world hates and fears us, but she, she took us in, and washed our rotting flesh and bandaged us. Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed but still you find reasons to keep living.”
Prince Ashitaka represents innocence among incrimination. Because of his origins and upbringing, he is free of the political and socioeconomic greed, corruption, and violence which dominates the world of man outside of his village. Yet even he isn’t free of human vices, despite all of his virtues. The curse in his arm feeds off of anger and violence and we see it spreading across his skin whenever he takes up his weapons. This is the kind of hero/protagonist which is definitively Miyazaki. Ashitaka belongs in a morally ambiguous film such as this. He alone sees with “eyes unclouded by hate”, until he meets Lady Eboshi, overcomes his own hate, and then shares that gift with others.
This is the moral challenge presented to Ashitaka which distinguishes him as the protagonist and presents him as the figure of maturity and growth in the film. He can choose to be consumed by hatred and thus by his curse, or he can choose to keep living, to choose life, as indeed he does at the end of the film. He says: “…it’s time for both of us to live”.
Though Princess Mononoke is violent, it doesn’t glorify violence. I think this is a huge chasm of difference between Studio Ghibli films taken as a whole and much of anime. I’ve seen some obscene anime.
A lot of anime is infested with the hyper-cool hero archetype with his blazing guns or slicing katana. How much anime have you seen with laborious fight scenes, gushing gore and spurting blood, ridiculous action that defies physics, and portrayals of inflicting suffering, as if merely showing these things and outdoing the previous anime in terms of the macabre makes it automatically mature. There’s nothing “mature” about glorifying the depravity of ultra-violence and torture. That’s just entertainment, the same way that it was entertainment to throw martyrs to lions in ancient Rome and watch them be torn limb from limb until their viscera paved the coliseum. No, Princess Mononoke is concerned with far more than putting on a violent show. The film condones peace and at its heart is a character, Ashitaka, whose main drive is an alternative solution to war. I think this makes it a responsible film rather than a self-indulgent or gratuitous one.
Maybe it’s just that adults who never grew up to understand the power of cinema make films (or anime) with all of the rampant ferocity of children, believing somehow that more blood, more death, more war equals “more awesome”.
The big thrust of the central theme of environmentalism has already been discussed above. It is a harmonic view of the relationship between mankind and the natural world, one in which no one side is truly evil or good. Such considerations are essentially irrelevant so far as Mononoke is concerned. Human civilization must continue but we must decide how destructive or how understanding that civilization will be.
One final word on the rich and complex thematic content in this movie. The Great Forest Spirit is depicted as a god of life and death that can give life or take it away, all for its own unknown reasons. There’s a harmony there that both powers exist in one being. I think that plays into the theme of balance which Ashitaka struggles to strike by posing for neither side in the war between the humans and the forest gods. Besides, death couldn’t be a more natural part of life as far as life as we know it stands.
Instead of Family Friendliness, I decided to use the Scariness grading. I wouldn’t pretend that Princess Mononoke is a children’s film, although its director has gone on record saying that children understand it, perhaps suggesting more so than adults. The film is beautiful in its own cold way but it is depressing, at times pessimistic. It is filled with some nightmarish imagery. The men dressed in boar skins were always frightening to me. There’s also some language in the film but nothing major or (again I use the word) gratuitous.
The adaptation into English was carried out by Neil Gaiman, and it is sometimes spotty. Gaiman is a spectacular writer but he had the insurmountable task of taking a very cultural movie and trying to make sense of it for the audience of the English-speaking world. This meant a lot of generalizations. Perhaps it also meant that the stupider lines were merely a symptom, such as “super donkey piss”.
Despite dialogue with some holes in it, the cast performs pretty well. And what a cast. There are some big names here. Billy Crudup as Ashitaka, Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo, Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi, John DiMaggio as Gonza, Claire Danes as Princess Mononoke, Jada Pinkett Smith as Toki, Keith David as Okkoto and Gillian Anderson, Scully herself, as Moro.
Of them all, I’ve heard Thornton receive the most criticism. For me, I think Crudup did okay as Ashitaka though some of his lines are almost as hard to hear as mumbling and his shouting dialogue comes off as sudden and unwarranted, if even that’s something possible to portray in one’s voice. Claire Danes doesn’t seem to take San beyond the realm of the wild and most of her lines seem like growling until it becomes abrasive to the ears. Driver and Smith both have accented voices which seem peculiar for this world with its specific culture, considering everyone else does not have accents like theirs.
I do like Anderson’s Moro and David’s Okkoto. Animating animals talking is always stupid but especially if the animals are moving their mouths to the exact rhythm of speech. It’s not like they can form the real words or anything. Having them growl or open their mouths and us hearing their words supernaturally is a much better idea.
Princess Mononoke stands out among the Ghibli canon for a variety of reasons which we’ve seen above. It’s hard-hitting message is even itself a fresh take on the sometimes tired environmental theme. Coupling that with its epic story and sense of grandeur and it is no wonder that this is a fan favorite. Even as bleak as the outlook of this world is, Miyazaki still manages to sneak in some levity.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I can recognize Princess Mononoke as a great work of art and a testament to the impact that animated films can have. It isn’t my personal favorite Ghibli film, however. I actually find it hard to watch sometimes, not necessarily because of its long run-time but because of how dreary and horrific it is. It’s not the kind of film I would watch over and over again, but it is one which I think it’s important to see. Well, even though I just saw it again, I do plan to see it in theaters January 5th for its 20th anniversary. Why not? I missed it in theaters the first time.
Aggregated Score: 9.3
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