Princess Mononoke (Mononoke not being a name, but the Japanese term for monsters or spirit), like all of Miyazaki’s films, bravely stands out against the majority of mainstream animation of the last three decades while retaining its accessibility. Set in the late Muromachi period, it is an especial entry in his body of work, abandoning his traditional view of the world as harmonious and uplifting even in its most adventurous times for a very different one, where war and destruction are an inherent component of human life and the world is driven by the collapse between peace and chaos. It is, in a way, an improvement over similar attempts in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, which also bring passionate environmentalist and pacifist ideals to the table. But instead of playing like an animated Dances with Wolves or Avatar (also known as “Space Dances with Space Wolves, with an additional Space Tree”), Princess Mononoke plays like an update on Metropolis‘s plea for cooperation and understanding, uniting head and hand through the heart.
In what’s Miyazaki’s most complex take on human greed, that heart belongs to Ashitaka, a Legolas-like young prince whose village is attacked by a demon. Ashitaka pays the price of saving his village with a demonic curse, and is force to leave town due west in order to search the cause of the attack and the possibility of a cure, rumored to be found in a forbidden forest inhabited by wild gods, spirits and monsters. Ashitaka’s journey proves to be the cross-section of the beginning of the Iron Age, when civilization and nature battle for the same space in the world and each has its own weapons to fight back aggressive advances from the other.
The world of Princess Mononoke, a departure from the extraordinary cuteness of My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, is one governed by war and disagreement; its monsters are much less merciful, and so are the humans. The former are lead by giant animal gods and supported by San (the monster-princess herself), a girl adopted by spirit wolves who’s grown to learn and hate that the destruction of nature is inherent to being a human. The latter, iron workers and samurai who work under the uncaring eye of the Emperor, are lead by Lady Eboshi, who dedicates herself to defend her people from animal attacks and guarantee their access to food and shelter, scarcer than ever due to everyone’s war efforts. They’re the kind of non-objectified female heroes Miyazaki is famous for: unflinching, brave, principled and determinate, and feminine in their own way.
One of this film’s greater strengths is its fair balance of both sides of the situation: everyone has its needs and its well arranged purposes for his or her actions, even when they come at a certain price. Both must fight for their needs by all means necessary to serve and protect, but without complete knowledge of the situation as a whole – note how Eboshi relates to women and the disabled, and how the forest treats Ashitaka in his path to knowledge and maturity. The difference, Miyazaki seems to defend, is that nature cannot retain the same level of understanding of a constantly evolving civilization, and that technological advancements must come with responsibility (with great power…)
It’s important to say that Princess Mononoke, which I defend is the kind of animation we should have more of, is not exactly suitable for small children. It’s aggressiveness comes with some graphic violence, probably as a result of the director’s attempt to show, for the first time, the darker side of his movie universes. This is a harsher film, with blood, gunshots and beheading (yes, decapitation in a Miyazaki film), and some scenes come with a stunning anti-war message. This is similar of the films of Akira Kurosawa, where violence is sudden and very intense, but not as nearly as effective through Miyazaki’s fairly optimistic lens (I recommend Kurosawa’s Ran or Sanjuro for comparison). Still, to watch that in an animation only proves how horrifying the consequences might be, as Isao Takahata had already proved in his soul crushing masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies.
But first and foremost, this is an absolutely gorgeous film, solid proof of the supremacy of image over plot that the greatest animators – and filmmakers in general – have always put to practice. The backgrounds are richer, the higly detailed sets are grander and more ambitious, the camera movements are swifter and more immersive and the special effects are better than ever before. In a breakthrough for Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke blends traditional animation with digital painting and even some 3D rendering, which can be seen in some of the first 20 minutes of the film. And this mixture shows how every detail of the frame is important: every leaf of grass, every stroke of watercolor, every line and every dot is amazing. For first-timers, it’s an experience like no other; for those more familiar with the work of this director, it’s one of his greatest achievements.
When a Miyazaki movie starts with drumbeats and reading titles, you know you’re being taken for a ride, a strange and beautiful one. Princess Mononoke is a glorious tour de force of animation – and one of the director’s best -, and is accordingly a unique jewel of filmmaking, offering a fantasy world like no other. It’s an epic, ferocious movie, and unforgettably so; beyond that, it’s the kind of animation we should be craving for these days. It’s bold, morally complex and breathtaking in its immediacy and depth. It creates a time and place where everything makes sense and there are no clear-cut solutions, but clear-cut discoveries of the self.
Director: Miyazaki Hayao
Voice Cast: Matsuda Yoji, Ishida Yuriko, Tanaka Yuko, Kobayashi Kaoru, Miwa Akihiro