Japanese Title: Mononokehime
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki
Originally Released: July 12, 1997
To say that Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece might actually be an understatement. Whether its a rich story full of environmentalist critique, deep, intriguing characters or phenomenal animation you’re after, it can all be found right here. For many though, this film is special for another reason. When Princess Mononoke first hit the United States, it was the first time many people would ever experience anime. It was an accessible story and brilliantly done. In this way, the film not only helped to bring Studio Ghibli onto the world stage but also anime itself. At its core, Princess Mononoke is the dark fairy tale that Disney has always edged towards, but never quite hit. Because of that, it stands as one of their darkest distributions. But what makes it so good? Why do people who have never heard of Studio Ghibli still know this movie? Why do people cosplay as these characters in droves every year? Let’s take a look at what makes Princess Mononoke the most badass princess of them all.
Without even taking into account the United States, Princess Mononoke was the most successful film released in Japan ever, until the release of Titanic later that year. When Disney got hands on the film, it was distributed in theaters and on home video, dubbed for American audiences. It was, however, released under the Miramax label, as Disney found it far too violent to be released as official Disney. We’ll talk about the violence in a moment, but I’ll just say that they had a point. In fact, Disney wanted to make cuts to get it out of the PG-13 realm, but Ghibli and their signed contract had a strict no-cuts policy. It’s curious that the film deals so much with Environmentalism and Industrialism and how they hurt each other but can also benefit from each other, given the idea within of past versus future. Some computer animation was used to speed up the process of the film, which Miyazaki was against, but given the extreme budget, eventually realized was necessary to bring his vision to life.
To get into just a few facts and figures, if you’ll indulge me, it’s impressive to think about just how involved Miyazaki was personally involved in this project. After all, he adjusted and created almost 80,000 of the films total 144,000 cels during the three year production time. The results of this painstaking process were and are apparent in the film and it went on to win Best Film of the Japanese Academy Awards. It was the first fully animated feature to do so and after its completion, Miyazaki announced his retirement. Okay buddy, we’ll see how that goes.
Realistically, there is just too much to talk about in this film for me to go over it in one article, so I’m going to at least point out some of the big take-aways. The film itself is about Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi tribe who fights off a board God which has turned demon when it attacks his village. Unfortunately that boar God gives him a curse and he must go off to find where the Boar God came from in order to stop it. In the journey, he finds a village which produces iron and guns where a bold woman, Lady Eboshi, has employed prostitutes to do hard labor instead of working the streets. Lady Eboshi, the Industrial side of the story, is at war with the wolves, boars and apes which inhabit the forest, more as Gods than animals. In particular, she is at war with San, a young girl who rides with the wolves and believes herself one of them. This is our Princess Mononoke.
If you can’t tell, this is a film that breathes environmentalism and the need to protect nature as well as what happens when we don’t. Lady Eboshi goes after the Spirit of the forest in order to kill it and attain its head, which the emperor believes will give him eternal life. This causes a hell storm of demonic evil to spawn from the forest. The thing is, none of these characters ever feels like the villain. Sure, Lady Eboshi shoots the forest spirit, but she also takes in these women and leapers in order to give them a safe place in the world. Sure, San fights for the trees, but in a sense she is also just as focused on not seeing the opposing side of things. You might notice that there are two sides who could benefit from working together but are so bull headed that they can’t find a common ground and this arrogance causes a whole bunch of hatred, so much so that Gods become demons. Now where have I heard this story recently? *Cough* America *Cough.*
And ultimately, that’s what makes Princess Mononoke so special and so relatable. Beneath this spiritually driven, environmental message is a deeper meaning about communication, one-sidedness and what happens when we choose to only see our own side. You can see how this film might speak to me right about now. It’s a deep look at a world where there are no villains, only misunderstandings.
Shifting gears a little bit, there is some pretty crazy violence in this film. Crazy perhaps because it is so over the top. Ashitaka shoots arrows which rip limbs from bodies and heads from necks. No matter how many times it happened, we found ourselves gasping. Everything about the film is stylized in this way, from the swords to the over bleeding of the animals, it has a certain shock value but that’s sort of a good thing. By creating this sense of gore, you really create this sense of mortality and dread. Life is fleeting in this world and we never quite know if one of the main characters is going to get a limb lobbed off in the next scene or not.
And we couldn’t possibly talk about this film without mentioning the animation, which, to this day is still some of the best I have ever seen. Every little detail begs you to look at it. from the tendrils of the curse on the bore to movements of San as she attacks the village, to the mystical appearance of the Night Walker, everything made my eyes sparkle with wonderment. Of course, these visuals are brought to life by deep, provocative characters who never get the easy way out and always have to fight for what they believe in. In the end, a lot is lost, but that makes the overall lesson more impactful. While the future is unavoidable, destroying the world to get there is unforgivable.
I could obviously go on. This is easily the best film we’ve watched in the Vault Ghibli series thus far and I find that I notice something new every time I see it. The story is brilliant and the animation is a work of art in every frame. The lesson is pervasive and has several layers worth noting and, if none of that matters to you, the character design is also top notch. Clicking wood spirits you guys! They click and are adorable! Everyone needs one!!! Okay, deep breaths. Princess Mononoke is a big reason why Americans even know or care about anime and its legacy continues to be well deserved. If you haven’t seen this one, remove the rock from over your head, say hello to the sunlight for the first time and go watch this movie!
NEXT UP: My Neighbors the Yamadas