Miyazaki dials up the epic in this masterful period adventure-drama.
Who made it?: Hayao Miyazaki (Director/Writer), Toshio Suzuki (Producer), DENTSU/Nibariki/NTV/TNDG/Tokuma Shoten.
Who’s in it?: English voice cast – Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, John DiMaggio, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Tagline: “The Fate Of The World Rests On The Courage Of One Warrior.”
IMDb rating: 8.5/10 (Top 250 #73).
After Yoshifumi Kondo died in 1998, many have said his death is the main reason why Hayao Miyazaki considered retiring. If he really did withdraw from directing at that time, then Princess Mononoke could have been an absolutely perfect send-off. With the release of the legendary director’s sixth feature, Studio Ghibli finally gained international recognition as it was the company’s first commercial hit outside of Japan. Personally, not only do I think that this is Miyazaki’s best film, its also my favourite out of all the Ghibli presentations, and the one that made me fall in love with the company in the first place. A near flawless piece of cinematic bliss, Princess Mononoke is filled with ambition, grandeur, and finesse – a showcase of a master animation director at his best.
Set in the Muromachi period of Feudal Japan, we follow a young man named Ashitaka, an Emishi warrior who is cursed by a rampaging boar god while protecting his village. While it gives him super strength, the curse will eventually end his life. In hopes of finding a cure, he exiles himself and heads west, where he encounters and becomes involved in a war between a settlement called Iron Town led by Lady Eboshi, and the spirits of the forest ruled by the Forest Spirit. Eboshi wants rid of the forest to get resources for her town whilst the inhabitants, from spirits to gods, want the humans gone. Amidst the conflict, Ashitaka meets the titular Mononoke-hime named San, a girl raised by the wolf-goddess Moro, whom he falls in love with. As the fighting intensifies, Ashitaka and San are on a quest to get both sides on even ground.
Miyazaki finally returns to the territory that he walked in Nausicaa – grand adventures, ecological dilemmas, morality issues, and epic battles. Remarkably, Mononoke does feel like a spiritual successor, only much better in every way, minus the planes. This is where the director stretches out of his comfort zone in entertaining primarily children as the film is aimed solely for a much-older audience. For a PG-rated feature, you will see severed heads and limbs, and a good amount of blood and gore. It’s surprisingly effective in terms of shock because Miyazaki cleverly makes these acts of violence fleeting. Considering how large the plot is – going along at a good two hours and ten minutes – it is an exceptionally well-paced narrative. Miyazaki is sparing when he juggles between the sprawling action set-pieces and the downtime of developing the characters and story through conversations, and the transitions are seamless because of the cohesiveness of the direction and the tightness of the screenplay.
Mononoke’s most striking asset is that, while it does seem like it’s a human versus nature story, layers upon layers of moral complexity are slowly added as it progresses, allowing us to be familiar with both sides of the coin. It is clearly evident that Lady Eboshi is the anti-environmental villain that wants to destroy the forest to gather precious resources to maintain her Iron Town, but she is compassionate to outcasts like lepers and prostitutes, usually saving them from their previous lives, providing them work and a home on her industrial settlement. The forest gods, on the other hand, want to drive humans away but they are internally conflicted with each other on how to deal with the issue, making the situation much worse. Ashitaka acts as the ideal neutrality because he is the outsider who doesn’t carry any leverage for both parties, whilst San is his bridge between the human and nature point of view. With how multifaceted the environmental message is, it comes off very strong without being overtly didactic. It conveys that both sides can coexist together, but it acknowledges that there will be consequences and compromises.
The characters are instantly memorable because the director lets us spend time with them, exploring what motivates them in both their actions and words. With Ashitaka as the audience’s point of view, we get to see how the people in the Iron Town live, and we also get to hang out with the spirits and gods of the forest. Lady Eboshi is one of the most interesting female characters I’ve seen in any animated film, as well as being a brilliantly complex and morally ambiguous villain. San joins Miyazaki’s group of awesome female protagonists, having both a human and animalistic side to her personality. A lot of people argue that Ashitaka is a boring hero who is outshined by the rest of the cast but I disagree with this claim. He comes off as the quiet and humble outsider with a noble sense of responsibility. His curse being a justifiable drive and how he interacts with the other personalities can be surprisingly compelling, even if his delivery is slightly monotone.
Obviously, the animation and visuals are absolutely phenomenal, as expected of Ghibli, but the animation team really outdid themselves this time. Masterfully mixing traditional hand-drawn work and a computer-generated style, it’s all matched with the story’s grand scope – from the boar stampede, the humungous Night-Walker form of the Forest Spirit, and the vast, carefully detailed forest – the entire look and feel of the movie is breathtaking, rivalling fellow epics like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The film also contains one of Joe Hisaishi’s best score compositions, comprising of low-pitched brass instruments and menacing strings that enhances the flick’s dark and perilous atmosphere.
Before I exhaust my vocabulary to describe how utterly great this film is, I highly implore you to check Princess Mononoke out if you haven’t already. It’s one of Hayao Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s most definitive contributions to the world of animation. It’s a gracefully paced, beautifully animated, deftly directed, and smartly written gem with unforgettable characters and potent environmental themes that perfectly complement the narrative rather than overwhelming it. All in all, its a goddamn masterpiece that everyone should watch.
Where did my arms go?
- Director Hayao Miyazaki personally corrected or redrew more than 80,000 of the film’s 144,000 animation cels.
- Miyazaki had intended to this be be his final film before retiring. Its great success led him to do another, Spirited Away (2001). He made some more films in the years after that.
- Mononoke means angry or vengeful spirit. Hime is the Japanese honorific word that means princess, which, in the rules of Japanese grammar, is placed after a person’s name instead of before, as is the custom in many Western languages. When the film’s title was translated into English, it was decided that Mononoke would be left as a name rather than translated literally.
- This is the last major animated motion picture to be filmed on plastic animation cels.
- Disney/Miramax, which released the film in North America, was contractually obligated not to edit any footage out for its North American release. They asked to, but were refused. Although they kept their end of the bargain in not editing the film, they did release it into far fewer theaters than promised and expressed surprise that it had made little money at the box office.