Princess Mononoke (1997)

Another day, another Ghibli review. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is a Medieval set fantasy in the ancient land of folklore and Gods and the battle between Mankind and the spirits in the forest. The film follows Prince Ashitaka who is cursed by a dying boar and must venture to the West to find the reasons for his curse. He ventures to Irontown where the residents, led by the greedy Lady Eboshi, are on a mission to rid the forest of its Gods in order to mine up the iron and invade surrounding areas. In between these two parties is a young woman, San (also know as the titular character), who lives with the wolf Gods in the forest and whose mission is to kill Eboshi and put an end to Irontown’s plot to rid the world of the animal Gods. Ashitaka is immediately taken by San and sides with her to put an end to Eboshi while also finding out the meaning of his curse. The film is more violent than most Ghibli films and doesn’t shy away from showing rotting corpses, dismembered limbs and lots of blood but the film needs this to show the corruption within man’s unnecessary fight with nature. The violence that is perpetuated upon the forest and seeing the animal’s rebellion is heartbreaking. Miyazaki’s brilliant vision of contrasting palettes makes this a true fantasy epic as we venture from the deep jewel colours of natures filled with deep greens and blue hues to the abnormal reds and oranges that flare from the furnaces at Irontown.

Princess Mononoke features some of the best known characters in the Ghibli canon from San, the titular character to the various creatures that populate the forest, particularly the adorable Kodama, tiny spirits that guide the way through the forest. In true Ghibli fashion, San is a posterchild for strong female characters. From her first appearance sucking the bullet out of the wolf God and spitting the blood into the water, San doesn’t care how she looks. She doesn’t aim to please anyone and isn’t there to be sexualised or sought after. Ashitaka is drawn to San but San keeps him at arm’s length. She wants to help him but does not care for any romance. San’s reluctance to identify as human makes it easy for the audience to see her as inhuman. Her seemingly superhuman strength and speed makes her seem otherworldly. On the other side of the conflict, Lady Eboshi is a deeply conflict character who isn’t just a regular villain. In true Miyazaki fashion, she has her own understandable methods and a genuine desire to protect her people but she is ultimately on the wrong side of history in this instance. Eboshi is seen as a woman of civility and forward-thinking whereas the people portray San as an animal and treat her like the animals that she lives with. They do not hesitate in their attempts to kill her even though Eboshi confides her sympathies for San to Ashitaka.

The animation and style from this film is quintessential Ghibli. Drawing in on traditional techniques and meshing with this folklore and a modern feel, Princess Mononoke showcases the best of Ghibli and Miyazaki living up to his usual standard. The combination of nature and industrial is deeply satisfying and you are instantly transported to a different time. Despite being sets centuries ago, the technology feels new and unique. The designs of the spirit god’s, particularly the Forest God bring that sense of command and attention that such a character would demand from its audience. One of the best sequences has to include the opening encounter with the boar which is both grotesque and terrifying, setting the tone for the film. Contrast this with later scenes where the forest comes to life to make way for the Forest God.

If you have read my previous Ghibli related posts, you know that I absolutely love the composing genius that is Joe Hisaishi. A longtime Miyazaki collaborator, Ghibli films would not be the same were it not for Hisaishi’s contribution. This is mostly felt in Princess Mononoke, the soundtrack which I listen to everyday. It truly holds its own as an epic in its own right and brings the film’s overall status to epic proportions. Mixing traditional Japanese sounds with fantastical elements, we are thrown into the conflict between man and nature through Hisaishi’s genius use of pace and crescendo. The ending track titled “The Legend of Ashitaka” is easily one of my favourite musical pieces from any film. The piece feels as though it takes you through the emotional span of the entire film in its five minute running time. Starting off quiet and slow and then building with brass and becoming a loud and brash piece showing the tilt in man’s favour. I love how Hisaishi has his own style like Miyazaki and it honestly feels like you can’t have one without the other.

Princess Mononoke is usually ranked among the favourites and has been a popular choice since its release. It is a film that has mass appeal despite its maturity and content. There is a lot of detail to take in within every scene and such a brilliant use of locations and spaces. The era that it is set in is real but the addition of the Gods allows the creative team to think outside the box and bring their originality to the designs. Even the designs of animals such as the monkeys and the boars have an otherworldly feel to them. They are inspired by animals that exist but they don’t exist in the real world. This is something that Ghibli does best in that it blurs the line between real and fantasy, allowing the imagination to run wild. The film isn’t afraid to delve deep into serious issues with its overwhelming message on environmental destruction, the manifestation of greed in man and the corruption that it builds and the longing for power.

What do you think of Princess Mononoke? Let me know in the comments below!