A Dire Warning From Studio Ghibli, ‘Princess Mononoke’ Is a Magnificent Adventure Doubling as an Environmental Epic
On a journey to find the cure for a Tatarigami’s curse, Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and Tatara, a mining colony. In this quest he also meets San, the Mononoke Hime.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura
Runtime: 135 minutes
When I think of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, I’m reminded of the cutesy, idyllic world of Totoro, and the enchanting cityscape of Spirited Away. I wouldn’t have expected themes of fantastical war and violence heading in to Princess Mononoke もののけ姫.
The film is a surprisingly mature and incredulous trip through historic Japan, sparking imaginations abound with Miyazaki’s astounding world-building ability all gloriously coloured by the signature Ghibli art style. Hiding beneath its lush greenery is also an understated and tactful study on man’s destructive relationship with nature, perhaps making Princess Mononoke a solid accompaniment for this year’s Earth Day.
The film follows tribal prince Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) in his travels to faraway lands. He looks to find a cure to a deadly curse bestowed on him after killing a demonic boar that threatened his village. His travels eventually force Ashitaka to embroil himself in a three-way conflict between the rag-tag refuge of Irontown, the local feudal lord, and nature itself.
In between the conflicts, the prince also chances upon the mythic creatures and deities hiding beneath the canopies – including the titular character of Princess Mononoke or San (Yuriko Ishida), a feral girl raised by a giant wolf god.
The environmentalist theme provides an excellent stage for the film’s conflict and creative expression. As an interesting departure from the fantasy trope, man and gods are seen as equals in the film. Armed with gunpowder weaponry, Irontown ruler Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka) and conniving monk Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi) talk about gunning down nature’s deities with an air of effortlessness and nonchalance. Much like our world, nature itself is at the mercy of man.
These characters, however, are far from mustache-twirling villains. Their war against nature is mainly motivated by survival in the unforgiving world of ancient Japan. After all, even nature itself isn’t innocent. The denizens of Irontown are terrified of the neighbouring forests and with how its animal gods have been responsible for the destruction of their homes and for the deaths in their families. Other than the film’s leads, its host of characters have no idea about the damage they have caused the other party, furthering the disconnect between them.
There is a sense of anger in Miyazaki’s tackling of the theme as well, as if to say that even in a world where nature itself has a face to be attributed to, man is still bound to value their own well-being over anything else.
It’s a complex narrative that shies away from the more straight-forward good vs evil narrative in similar films laden with environmental messages. This creates room for fleshed out characters with sobering shades of greys, presenting a deeper nuance into the environmentalism discussion. It presents questions of how much of man’s survival and progress is dependent on nature’s destruction, and why should this same pursuit lead to warfare amongst man.
Instead of telling its audience to save the environment, it instead asks why it is so much more complicated than the media would often portray. While it does not present an answer to the issue, it does provide us with dire warnings as portrayed in the film’s haunting ending sequence.
The drama throughout is only heightened with how characters constantly limp along with bloodsoaked wounds, and the occasional gruesome scenes of animated decapitations and dismemberments – particularly by the film’s lead. It’s an artistic direction that is pointedly uncharacteristic of Ghibli films, perhaps to reflect the urgency of the subject matter and the poignancy of its tale.
Despite its lengthy runtime, Princess Mononoke never felt meandering. Refreshing ideas and fantastical elements are introduced at every beat brimming with imagination and purpose, keeping audiences on their toes as they learn more about the world. While the film does sport a definitive end with no loose threads, it begs for further exploration into its lore through spin-offs or sequels.
Princess Mononoke, however, is by no means a perfect film. Miyazaki may have captured a solid pace in the story but there are still elements that were neglected in the process. Our leads Ashitaka and San are bland do-gooders without the exciting depth of the film’s side characters. The film is also guilty of explaining too little just to move the plot forward, such as with how Ashitaka’s curse seemingly imbues him with supernatural prowesses to escape a dire situation but the same powers are nowhere to be seen in later sequences.
Still, these are nitpicks that do not detract from the enjoyment of the film. The character design and art style of Princess Mononoke is impeccable in the hands of Studio Ghibli. Nature’s creatures are seen as a surreal and intimidating mess until familiarity seeps in leading to an uneasy calmness – like those pictures you have to stare at for a while to get the 3D effect. Even the supposedly innocent Kodamas (forest spirits) look like nightmare fuel. Still, the animators effortlessly capture the emotive range of its creatures through expressive grunts and ghastly cries.
Nature itself is lush and vibrant but with just enough shadows to conceal the untouchable mysteries within them. Outside the forests, the grittiness of the world and the competitive desire for survival is displayed through frames packed with crowds. The urgency of its themes is further emphasised through an art style halfway between realism and fantasy. All of the magnificent pencil work is brought to life through crisp animations and spectacular voice over work.
Similar to the quality guaranteed with the Ghibli name, Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for Princess Mononoke is impeccable. The lush greenery is punctuated by an army of strings and wind instruments. To reflect the mature themes, Hisaishi peppers in grittier and even harrowing tunes to wrap dire situations, twisting horns and even eerie chantings into deranged amalgams. The magnificent soundtrack is a hallmark of Japanese cinema and continues to be a key inspiration for soundtracks in video games.
Princess Mononoke stands out within Hiyazaki’s filmography as a far more mature film with far less handholding. It is an artistic triumph, showcasing the power of visual storytelling while letting the mind run wild with stories of its world beyond the one told in the film. Perhaps most impressive is with how it hits the bullseye in nailing the nuance of environmental issues, incorporating memorable characters and an incredible soundtrack to leave the tale resonating for years to come.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.