Very few anime directors can even come close to matching Hiyao Miyazaki’s fame. Even people who know nothing about anime know about Miyazaki’s work, and for good reason. His films are the perfect combination of quality and accessibility and vary from good to outright amazing. Princess Mononoke is definitely the latter.
Ashitaka is a young man from a long forgotten tribe that lives next to a large forest. One day, a giant boar god turned demon attacks his village out of rage at all humans. Ashitaka manages to kill it, but not before sustaining a curse that will eventually prove lethal. He then leaves his village to find out what corrupted the boar god and “see with eyes unclouded by hatred.” While traveling, he reaches a place called Iron Town. Iron Town is a center for mining, but is frequently attacked by animal gods defending the forest from the miners trying to clear it. They are aided by a young woman named San, who the people of Iron Town call Princess Mononoke.
Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke has a very clear environmentalist message. Much of the film takes place in or near a massive ancient forest, and the central conflict is between nature and human industry. Unlike most environmental films, however, Princess Mononoke avoids having a simple black and white “nature good, humans evil” message and actually takes a nuanced look at the subject. Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Iron Town, is never framed as a bad person and the film takes time to humanize her and the residents of Iron Town and shows how much good she does. Many of the inhabitants of Iron Town are lepers and former prostitutes, people at the bottom of society whom Eboshi took in and gave a better life. She cares about them and protects Iron Town for their sake, not for her own power. She isn’t destroying the forest out of malice; she’s genuinely trying to help her people in the best way she can. It’s not just Eboshi, either. The film takes time to develop the inhabitants of Iron Town and show that they’re generally good people, not forest destroying villains. That doesn’t mean the film agrees with Eboshi, however. All the destruction is clearly framed in a negative light, but it understands that technological advancement isn’t all bad. Similarly, nature isn’t portrayed as entirely good. The deeper parts of the forest are dark and have a primal feel to them, like humans were never meant to go there. The animal gods are also vicious and hate humans just as much as humans hate them. Even the Great Forest Spirit, the ruler of the forest, has an eerily alien appearance and its motives are completely inscrutable. Simply put, humans aren’t all bad and nature isn’t all good. This kind of nuance makes the film’s message far more powerful than a simpler message would have been.
Similarly, there aren’t any real villains in Princess Mononoke. People do bad things, but it’s rarely out of malice, just greed and shortsightedness. Both the humans and the animal gods refuse to try and understand each other and hate the other side. Because of that, the conflict continues, breeding more hate and harming everyone involved.
Because he’s not directly involved, Ashitaka is the only one who has any kind of perspective. Everyone else, human and animal, believes that just killing their enemies would fix everything, and nobody else realizes that they’re just making things worse for everyone. Ashitaka quickly understands this and works to convince both sides of this, but neither is willing to listen. Everyone accuses him of working with the other side. In contrast, San is someone completely absorbed in the conflict and just hates humans. She was raised by the wolf god Moro and thinks of herself as wolf and not a human. Spending time with Ashitaka gradually erodes her hatred of humans, but the film respects her too much to have her abandon such a core belief so easily. She never completely gets over her hatred of humans, but it mellows over time as she grows to like Ashitaka.
The relationship between Ashitaka and San is one of the best parts of the film. While they don’t properly meet until near the halfway point, the film gives the sense that they fascinate each other. San clearly never spent much time talking to humans, and Ashitaka doesn’t act like the other humans she’s seen. Even as she tries to hold on to her hate, she struggles to hate Ashitaka. Ashitaka sees her as a good person, but one who can’t see past her hate and wants to help her. They each represent something important to the other. San is the clearest embodiment of the hatred that indirectly led to Ashitaka being cursed, while Ashitaka represents the humanity that San has tried to reject.
While it’s not an action movie, Princess Mononoke has some great action scenes. The curse on Ashitaka’s arm makes him far stronger than an ordinary human and lets him bend swords and shoot arrows with enough force to take off someone’s head. There are also several brutal battles between the humans and the animals. However, it never feels like the anime is glorifying the action. Every fight is bloody and frequently hard to watch. The larger battles are chaotic and show just how brutal war can be. Miyazaki’s gone on the record as being very anti-war and it shows in this movie.
The animation in Princess Mononoke is nothing short of amazing, as expected from a Ghibli movie. Every movement is fluid and natural in a way that’s rarely seen outside of Ghibli’s work. Even the CGI is integrated so well that it’s barely noticeable as CGI and supports the 2D animation rather than detracts from it, which is amazing in a film from 1997. The art is also top quality. The forest is immensely detailed and feels almost real, as do the animal gods. This allows for some truly memorable shots throughout the film. Like most of Miyazaki’s movies, the score was done by Joe Hisaishi and is nearly perfect, full of powerful orchestral pieces, but also mixing in several quieter tracks as needed. The dub is also good quality, using mostly Hollywood stars (from 1997) instead of typical anime voice actors. A lot of characters have a somewhat hushed quality to their voices, but it doesn’t detract from the performances.
I generally avoid giving perfect scores, but anything less wouldn’t accurately represent my opinion of Princess Mononoke. It’s both a great anime and an all around great film. The story and characters are memorable, the themes are well thought out and the aesthetics are top quality. If you haven’t seen Princess Mononoke, I can’t recommend it enough.
Princess Mononoke is available from Disney and on RightStuf.
Final Score: 10/10