Princess Mononoke is a wondrous animated film made in 1997. Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s rich imagination plays with many themes in a manner that draws you into his inventive story of forest spirits, warring humans and cursed animal demons in ancient times, yet it’s challenging to fully articulate why it resonates. In part, Princess Mononoke’s cautionary tale explores human beings’ relationship with nature, an eternal conflict that is as timely and relevant now as it was 20 years ago. It also has something to say about the price we pay when we lose touch with the belief that the transcendent is life itself.
After Prince Ashitaka and his faithful red elk companion courageously defends his village against a poisoned gigantic undead boar, he must travel far west to search for a cure for his infected arm. The village’s wise woman foretells that he will die, but instead of succumbing to his fate, he should rise to meet it with eyes unclouded by hate. This is a fate that we all share as finite, fragile humans. Not all us may truly live, but we all are going to die.
Ashitaka’s journey shows us an honorable way forward in the face of this dire fate. It’s not easy. Shortly after leaving the village Ashitaka’s cursed arm unleashes devastating arrows that take the lives of two violent samurai. The call to adventure begins by depicting that malevolence not only resides all around us but within us as well. Ashitaka consistently is at odds with his internal corruption as he attempts to make his way in the unexplored world.
Soon Ashitaka comes across Lady Eboshi’s Irontown whose inhabitants are destroying the nearby forest. Eboshi does not hold back any of her secrets. She shows Ashitaka that Irontown is manufacturing guns and ammo. Ashitaka realizes that the iron bullet he found inside the corpse of the undead boar is made in Irontown. Eboshi is flawed, but is not inherently evil. She is the defender of brothel women and lepers, the outcasts of society. In order to keep her town from being invaded she needs to mine the forest for iron ore. This puts Eboshi in direct conflict with the wolf god Moro and her human daughter San, the Princess Mononoke who protect the forest.
By this point in the story, Hayao Miyazaki has layered in an incredible amount of meta narrative and symbolism. There is a tonne of meaning to be extracted and distilled from the story and in deciphering what each character represents. A hallmark of a great story is how you can immediately see lessons to be learned which you can use to honorably act out in life. At the same time, there’s so much depth that you can continually draw from the well and take away something new each time.
Take for example, how Ashitaka doesn’t harbor any resentment, the kind of toxic hate that makes one blind to other people’s differing points of view. Ashitaka is the individual voice of reason, the mediator between the two sides, who’s trying to restore balance and renew lost values. Another motif is how the animals are initially depicted as conscious larger-than-life gods. However, as humans advance in technology and utilize nature’s resources, the old big animal gods die out and the other animals depicted are smaller, non-sentient creatures. In other words, the grand, totality of nature is diminished in the eyes of mankind as it exerts itself onto the world. Raised by wolves, Princess Mononoke is the feral human embodiment of nature that we need to keep an on-going conversation with, as Ashitaka states that he will do, in order to maintain the balance.
The animation is gorgeous and vibrant, it holds up very well a couple of decades later. Shot by shot, Hayao Miyazaki is a master in visually exploring the world. Watching the rain fall in stillness is as compelling as the action sequences that feel alive with danger. Even though the home video is distributed by Disney, it’s rated PG-13 because of the dark themes and scary violence that may be too much for little children. However, the far out visuals and concepts should instantly grip the imagination of kids and for adults leave them pondering what to make of it. For example, the little Forrest spirits are weird and oddly captivating.
The voice acting is solid. Some of best American voice performances in the film is from Billy Bob Thorton as Jigo and Billy Crudup is perfect as Ashitaka. Minnie Driver’s English accent works well for Lady Eboshi and the voice effect on Gillian Anderson as the wolf Moro is memorable.
I’m really glad I revisited Princess Mononoke. This write up barely scratches the surface of the film’s experience and what the film has to offer. Hopefully though, I can entice film lovers to give this animated gem a chance or to revisit it on Blu-Ray or to tell their friends to watch it with an open mind. Princess Mononoke is a classic, entertaining film with timeless themes that has something for everyone.