Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films are not set in his native Japan, and only Princess Mononoke has a Japanese feudal era setting. While this makes it distinctly different than his other films, it also makes it my favorite of his works. I had the opportunity to review the Blu-Ray/DVD set for the film, and you can read on for the review.
Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young warrior Ashitaka heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into a bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi and the proud people of Iron Town, and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke, a young girl raised by wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home, and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.
Don’t let the GKIDS logo on the case fool you. Princess Mononoke is an excellent animated film but not the type of movie you’d let a five-year-old watch alone. Battles take place between animal gods and people as well as between competing human factions, and images of corpses and body parts getting shot off are frequent and extremely graphic.
On top of the gory parts, the narrative is a complex one. Set in the chaotic Muromachi period, it features members of an exiled ethnic group, rival warlords, and minions of a distant emperor in addition to the forest spirits unique to this film. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese feudal era, the subtleties of the social setting and certain character motivations might be lost on even adult audiences. Ergo, the PG-13 rating.
For those mature enough to take in the film’s violent aspects, however, it is a magnificent tale. And even if it’s unclear why certain people are attacking others in the backdrop, the main conflict—that between the forest and the ironworkers—needs no explanation.
The story begins when a demon—a boar god driven mad by an iron lump that’s penetrated its body—attacks a remote Emishi village. The young warrior Ashitaka kills the demon but not before it afflicts him with a deadly curse. Ashitaka then travels west to learn the source of the demon’s malice and discovers Iron Town. An ironworks at the edge of a primeval forest, it is locked in bitter conflict with the forest’s guardian gods and San, a young girl raised by wolves.
As far as heroes go, Ashitaka is very appealing and rather pure. He doesn’t get conscience-stricken over the samurai who die at his cursed hand, but he is selfless enough to sacrifice his well-being for his village. When he encounters the Iron Town/forest conflict, he is very careful not to get caught up in it. Rather, he wants to help both sides, a stance that leaves both the forest dwellers and the ironworkers bewildered and suspicious. However, he’s not all idealistic positivity. When the great god of the forest does not heal him of his curse, he’s clearly crushed.
San is also pure but in a different way. Abandoned by her family, she feels no connection with people. Her loyalty is to the wolf tribe that adopted her and the forest that’s their home. More than any other human on the cast, she understands and mourns what’s being lost in the face of human expansion, thus her actions wind up those of a feudal-era environmental extremist.
Environmental themes have appeared in other Ghibli films, and it would have been easy to cast the inhabitants of Iron Town and their leader Lady Ebisu as the bad guys wantonly destroying their natural heritage. However, Miyazaki makes the situation much more complex. True, Lady Ebisu sees the forest as a resource to be conquered and exploited, but she’s also a person of tremendous compassion. Many ironworkers are lepers and former prostitutes whom Lady Ebisu rescued, and they are eternally grateful for the new lives she gave them in Iron Town. So although the forest is being destroyed on account of the ironworks, that same ironworks benefits the most downtrodden members of society. As such, there is no black and white in the strife swirling around Iron Town; rather there are many factions colored in various shades of gray, which is a much more realistic portrayal of conflict in the world.
In contrast, the thread of romance that runs between San and Ashitaka is simplistic. He falls in love with her at first sight despite the fact that she’s hostile and splattered with blood. Princess Mononoke is an epic action/adventure so it’s not like San and Ashitaka’s relationship is the primary driver for the narrative, but it would’ve been nice for it to have a more substantial foundation than ”You’re beautiful.”
Extras include exclusive booklet, feature-length storyboards (on Blu-Ray disc only), behind the microphone, Princess Mononoke in USA (on Blu-Ray disc only), TV spots, and the original English-, French- and Japanese-language theatrical trailers.
A thrilling epic with sweeping landscapes and a compelling hero’s journey. At times, the socio-political forces at work are difficult to understand, and the romance between San and Ashitaka doesn’t seem to be founded on much at all. However, the mystical quality of the primeval forest and its inhabitants is marvelous, and the animation for the battle scenes are still inspire awe and excitement despite being twenty years old.
First published at The Fandom Post.