I recently had the pleasure of seeing the 25th anniversary re-release of the classic animated film “Princess Mononoke” (1997) by Studio Ghibli, directed by the famed Hayao Miyazaki. I was enthralled by it and I attribute this in part due to being able to watch it in a movie theater, hopefully closer in look to how it was originally intended. After I saw this film, it has become a firm contender for one of the very best Ghibli works I have seen so far. It is my opinion that, if fairy tales were originally meant to convey ideas and messages to people in times past; “Princess Mononoke” is a modern-day version of a fairy tale, as full of wonder and imagination as anything that came before it. I hope to share my reactions to this masterpiece with you readers, and as such, it goes without saying that this review will have some mild spoilers of plot points and characters.
As usual, Studio Ghibli esteemed itself with absolutely stunning animation and a fantastic soundtrack which, paired with an interesting and engaging plot, made the rather long runtime of the movie fly by for me. The plot is set in feudal Japan and we begin the film in the middle of the action, with a massive, demonic beast trying to kill the inhabitants of a small, tribal village. This is also where we are introduced to our main character: Ashitaka, the next-in-line prince from the aforementioned tribe, who bravely fights the beast, stopping it from laying waste to his family and village. He succeeds in slaying the creature, but not before having one of his arms seriously injured by it, resulting in a curse being saddled upon him. He soon learns from the village wise-woman that this curse will slowly, but inevitably, end up killing him. Knowing this, he decides to leave his home in order to find the answers behind why this demon attacked his people, and in the process, perhaps find some sort of cure to his curse.
Thus begins the journey of Prince Ashitaka and I will say that there are few things in this world that make me as exhilarated as the beginnings of adventure in any Studio Ghibli production. From fog-peaked mountains to vast plains, Ghibli’s phenomenal artwork always feels as though it has more depth than simply two-dimensions, and here is no different. Throughout the film, it feels as if we’re truly there, accompanying the Prince as he travels through the vast wilderness of Japan on his quest to find the truth behind his affliction. Ashitaka meets many people along his journey, from the scheming monk Jigo, to the mysterious forest girl San, who alongside her giant wolves, constantly attacks the inhabitants of Iron Town. Iron Town, being named after its main commodity, is a sanctuary for former social outcasts which Feudal Japanese society has rejected. They are welcomed into the community by the commanding Lady Eboshi, who leads Iron Town in its never-ending quest to continue industrializing, even if it puts them in direct conflict with the denizens of the forest.
This constitutes the main conflict of the film: the battle at the heart of the film’s themes (something which it shares with many of Hayao Miyazaki’s other works such as “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”), is the battle between Man’s exploitation of nature and the destruction which is wrought due to the death of the natural world. A theme, I should mention, which only becomes more and more poignant with time, as we grow increasingly uncomfortable with the choices we have taken as a species in regards to the health of the planet.
However, Iron Town, as a stand-in for humanity’s industrial capacity, is not all bad. Miyazaki allows us to empathize with Iron Town, humanizing and developing many of the characters whom we meet, most notably Lady Eboshi, as well as the furnace women. Lady Eboshi is a fantastically complex character, as she is capable of committing both horrible and incredible acts in defense of her city. These feats range from almost succeeding in slaughtering the Gods of the Forest, to holding her own in a fight to defend against San’s giant wolf pack. It’s noted how her citizens respect her, and how she uses this respect in order to demand hard work and loyalty. One of the groups who work hardest to fulfill her wishes are the furnace women, a group of women who were exiled from the surrounding society on account of their past profession, namely prostitution. In the society of Iron Town, they run the massive furnaces which literally keep the city running, and are treated as equals with the men, in stark contrast to the misogynistic worldview of the feudal world surrounding them. In one scene, these women openly flout the authority of a Samurai lord who comes to negotiate terms of surrender with the men of the city, shooting at him and driving him away. In my opinion, this, in addition to Lady Eboshi being one of the most intelligent and capable of any Ghibli character, makes a strong case for “Princess Mononoke” being an openly feminist film.
As the mysteries behind the power of the Forest Spirit are gradually revealed to us, the conflict between man and nature becomes more and more central, and more characters are forced to choose sides. The forest girl San is particularly torn between her innate humanity and her loyalty to her wolf family. Lady Eboshi and San become sworn enemies, each committed to protecting Iron Town and the Forest respectively, becoming increasingly hateful of each other. I think it’s worth taking time to point out, Miyazaki could have easily coded the two sides of the conflict, nature vs. man, in a simple light, like the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys.” He chooses not to, instead choosing to portray the complicated, horrific decisions sometimes otherwise good individuals need to make. Ashitaka, even as a staunch proponent of peace, often needs to commit terrible acts of violence in order to save himself or the people he loves. In one scene, the power of one of his arrows literally decapitates one of his enemies on horseback; in another, he cuts off the arm of a Samurai attacking him. This is a good example to mention, as this is probably one of the more violent Ghibli films out there. I wouldn’t call the violence disturbing, but it is graphic, and something worth knowing about going in.
There really is no way to do this film justice in a review. Like with most Studio Ghibli works, it needs to be experienced in order for its full meaning to be grasped. “Princess Mononoke” is just an all-together fantastic piece of cinema, conjuring something between our contemporary, nightmarish fears and the eternal hope for a better world. I would highly recommend this movie to everyone.