Princess Mononoke

Set in the distant past of feudal Japan, Princess Mononoke starts with a young tribal prince named Ashitaka who becomes cursed when he kills a demon in order to protect his village. Because of this he leaves his home behind to travel to the distant forests of the west in the hope of finding a cure. What he finds there is a bitter conflict between human settlers and the spirits of the forest including a beautiful, strong willed young woman named San who has been raised by the wolf-gods as one of their own.

What sets this film apart from other animated films of the time (not to mention a lot of films that have been released since) is the stunning animation and original storyline. As fans of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli-produced films have come to expect the characters although simply drawn have well-developed personalities and the background images are works of art in their own right. The CGI is blended seamlessly with the traditional cel animation, and the scenery including peasant villages and towering, grass covered mountains is nothing short of spectacular. The forest itself is the most outstanding, conveying a magical and dreamlike quality with its gods, spirits and lush vegetation. The musical score is one of the best ever examples of Joe Hisaishi’s work, complimenting the mystery and beauty of the animation perfectly.

Another refreshing thing about this film is that there are no clear-cut ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. It would have been all too easy to be a simplistic ‘good animals/bad humans’ fable, but they all have their own motivations and agendas which allows the viewer to empathise with all of them to some degree or other. The humans are indeed cutting down the forest, but are doing so to for the sake of their livelihoods; the spirits and animal gods want to defend their home as well, but both sides are too blinded by hate to reach a compromise.

In some ways, it is similar Miyazaki’s earlier film, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, with the themes of human civilisation at odds with the awesome power and beauty of nature; however, Princess Mononoke has a significantly different setting in terms of time and place and is on a truly epic scale. The portrayal of the love between Ashitaka and San, with all its hurdles and complications, is in the centre of an ongoing battle with no easy answers. In that sense, it is the most “grown up’ of Miyazaki’s films in that it portrays a very realistic kind of situation and avoids descending into cliché. The presence of gods and spirits definitely makes this a fantasy film but the contrasts of love and hate, conflict and peace, nature and civilisation are as relevant here as they are in our own world. These harsh realities and some pretty graphic scenes of violence (by Ghibli standards at least) are set against a breathtaking background that is probably unparalleled in the field of animation.

In Summary

Princess Mononoke is a visually stunning story of the battle between humankind and nature, and probably Miyazaki’s most ambitious story to date. By no means a retread of the Earlier Nausicäa film, Princess Mononoke is dark, beautiful and violent but still conveys an underlying sense of hope in the face of the struggle and conflict. Highly recommended.

9 / 10