Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

PRINCESS MONONOKE

Watched via VHS/DVD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Princess Mononoke is a historical fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. While the title would suggest the story follows the “spirit princess” (San), we instead find ourselves exploring an alternate ancient Japan through the eyes of a young Emishi warrior, Ashitaka. Prior to the storyline, Ashitaka’s village lived peacefully secluded from the current troubles of the world. Being mindful and respectful of the spirits, it comes as quite a shock to his village when an angered and corrupted spirit suddenly appears and attacks several young children. Ashitaka takes it upon himself to protect the village, and in turn takes on the full brunt of anger from the wild spirit in the form of a terminal curse. Determined to find a cure, and to make the most of his life, he heads out to explore the root of what angered the spirits.

As Ashitaka travels he encounters many individuals, all with different objectives, but for the most part each group strives to obtain “more”. This human greed pushes man against man, and man against forest. In the beginning Ashitaka encounters a wandering monk, who is drawn to him after seeing his wealth. The two share opinions and show respect for each other, at least as humans, but beyond that nothing can alter the greed in the monk’s heart.

The same can be said for Irontown, a young wealthy town that seeks new resources in order to sustain its magnitude. Lady Eboshi, the woman in charge of this town, constantly wages war against the spirits, wolves, and San, on the surrounding hills, in hopes of conquering the land for mining. Ashitaka travels to this village after finding two wounded villagers, injured in the last confrontation between the town and wolves. Initially the town welcomes him with open arms as a hero for bringing back their men. Lady Eboshi seems sympathetic to his cause, until San attacks Irontown. Ashitaka, as an impartial mediator steps in to extract San from the fight and force her out of town. Instead he finds himself shot in the back and forced out as well.

Because of his actions to save San, Ashitaka ends up being taken into the forest and cared for by the spirits. Unlike the rest of humanity, he is given the opportunity to hear both sides of the story. While the town and forest build up their forces and begin war with one another, Ashitaka and San fight to retain peace and harmony between humanity and nature.

PLOT: It is feudal Japan, a time when giant animal gods still roam the forests and samurai are fighting for what wealth they can find. Princess Mononoke opens in a village of the Emishi people, who have been in hiding for 500 years and have missed out on much of the turmoil of the outside world. Unfortunately, that peace is shattered when an angry, demonic boar god happens across their village and curses their prince, Ashitaka. Ashitaka is cast out of the village and sent on a quest to learn what so angered the boar god and cursed his right arm in the hopes that his life will be spared.

Once he has left his village, Ashitaka encounters many different kinds of people trying to make a living in the world, all deciding different parts of the world can be sacrificed for their gain. The samurai take advantage of other people and slaughter villages for their wealth, while Lady Eboshi, the leader of a village that makes iron, believes the forests should be cut down so they can find more iron ore. Jigo, a monk who’s in league with hunters, won’t hesitate to sacrifice anyone for his chance to earn piles of gold. And San, a girl who was raised by wolf gods, believes no one should desecrate the forests.

As Ashitaka travels between groups, he learns about their struggles and values, doing his best to “see with eyes unclouded by hate,” as his village’s healing woman bid him do. Because of his neutral status, Ashitaka learns much about each group, and he’s front and center in the film’s climax. Jigo is trying to cut off the head of the Great Forest Spirit, so that the emperor can have eternal life, and he’s conned Lady Eboshi into doing it for him. San, the wolves, and other boar gods will stop at nothing to protect the Great Forest Spirit, and meanwhile, a neighboring samurai lord takes this opportunity to attack Lady Eboshi’s village for its iron.

Though a lot happens in this film, it’s very well layered so that something’s always happening and Ashitaka’s always broadening his world view. Granted, I’ve gotten so familiar with the story that I fell asleep the last time I rewatched it, but I do think it’s a very tight, well-written film. It may take a while to reach the climactic battle, but everything beforehand lays down groundwork that establishes everyone’s moral ambiguity, which I consider to be the most important point of this movie. Unlike Nausicaä, where Miyazaki takes a one-sided stance against war and pollution, Princess Mononoke acknowledges the many sides to any one conflict.

What I liked about the character interactions was how civilized each group acted towards Ashitaka (at least at one time or another). Sure there may have been times where individuals felt cornered and had to stand up for themselves, but it really made each group feel more human. Ultimately, there is no real antagonist or evil people, there are only evil actions.

SETTING: While most of Miyazaki’s plots take place in a contemporary or alternative contemporary society, this film harkens all the way back to the Muromachi period (around 1300-1500AD). Now I don’t know much about this time period, aside from what anime shows us with all the samurai films, but I think it is probably safe to assume that this film lacks a certain degree of historical accuracy. By that I’m thinking predominantly of Lady Eboshi and her sassy free-spirited lady miners, who have way too much autonomy for your typical ladies from the Sengoku period.

With that said, I don’t think it deters from the film in a negative way. In fact, the matriarchies in the film go to show human greed in an interesting new light, with women as the main leaders of society. Ashitaka’s village is led by an elder woman, the forest is led by the human wolf girl, San, and Irontown is led by Lady Eboshi and her small female militia. Perhaps this is why these various groups ultimately end up being able to find a way to live with one another. Meanwhile it is the lone men, who wage war against others blindly, such as the monk, various samurai, and even the masculine boar spirits. The single-minded pursuits of these groups end up causing catastrophes and casualties for others and themselves.

While you’re right that all of Princess Mononoke’s feminism probably isn’t historically accurate, I agree that it enhances the film and complicates its message in exciting ways. Miyazaki always has a lot to say about women, and this film provides a great range of three-dimensional women characters who complement his other films.

SETTING: Princess Mononoke is technically set during the late Muromachi period, which most anime fans will know as the Sengoku period, or the Warring States period. Lots of anime cover the Sengoku period because it’s full of samurai fights and epic historical battles—I think there are at least two shows every season that are set in the Sengoku period anymore. It’s definitely not a new time period to any established anime fan, and it’s easily comparable to Europe’s Middle Ages in terms of technology and battles.

Despite that, Princess Mononoke takes a new spin on feudal Japan by focusing primarily on the struggles between humans and the environment. This period seems to have the first surges of human expansion into the forests for early industrialized activities, like creating iron, and this early deforestation is the crux of the film’s narrative. I love that this film presents such a unique perspective on the Sengoku period, as samurai are only mentioned as antagonists to Lady Eboshi, and Ashitaka is more worried about other events. Though this time period shows up again and again in anime, it feels fresh here between Irontown’s sassy feminist women and the great, terrible gods of the forests. I wish more anime would have settings like this and approach history from different perspectives.

I really think the setting is what helps transform this movie into Miyazaki’s best work. He finally cuts out all the unnecessary junk, the flying contraptions and all of that, and focuses primarily on real world building. The villages have agendas, and the people have real issues worth fighting for. As Ashitaka visits each group, you can’t help but feel that each viewpoint is valid, although not necessarily ideal.

I love Miyazaki’s flying contraptions! They’re so fantastical and immediately evocative of his style that I can’t help liking them. Granted, he did go overboard with them in The Wind Rises, so I guess you do have a point.

CHARACTERS: I have to totally agree with Crystal, what makes Princess Mononoke such a strong film is how flawed and egocentric each character is. By egocentric I don’t necessarily mean they only care for themselves, but that they care for the world that they envision themselves in. Each individual sees the world through their own perspective, and will fight to keep it that way.

For starters you have the samurai and monk, who are accustomed to wealth and honor. In a time period of booming industrialization, they have little left but to steal their worth from others. Their greed causes them to go after the forest god and to trick Lady Eboshi in order to gain what they can through brute strength.

Lady Eboshi is an entrepreneur welcoming industrialization. Her and her workers work to mine and create iron for all sorts of uses, including the invention of firearms. They see the world as an opportunity to thrive without misery and hunger.

San, and the wolves who raised her, are forced into a position where they must fight to preserve the forest. Lady Eboshi continues to cut down and kill the forest, as well as the spirits within it. Living hand in hand with the forest, San and the wolves are not scared of the forest and the lack of civilization. To them it is far more important to save nature from demise.

Then there is Ashitaka. While his village is quite simplistic and able to live with nature quite peacefully, he still ends up getting mixed into the battle between spirits and humans. As an outsider he is able to bring a new perspective to these various groups of people. His objective is to bring balance to the world, and it seems quite fitting if you look at his background. Unlike the other villages he encounters, his is the only one that retains some form of ritual and religion. Throughout the film he shows his respect for both people and nature through his customs. In the end when he joins Irontown to rebuild itself, I can only wonder if his real call is to bring these rituals and customs back to civilization in order to regain harmony.

Ashitaka really does balance out every group of characters in this film, calling them on their negative choices and encouraging them to think of other groups when moving on in the future. I like to think he’ll move between groups as they all rebuild, helping them fully consider their choices.

CHARACTERS: The best aspect of Princess Mononoke is its main characters who range all across the moral spectrum but cannot be forced into stark delineations of “good” or “bad.” Even the worst character of the film, Jigo, has his good aspects, while Ashitaka has to deal with his curse and the fact that he brutally kills several samurai. It’s a grayscale world of characters, and I love it!

Ashitaka is an especially useful main character for this film as he’s both an outsider, being one of the Emishi, and he tries his best to stay neutral. He learns all that he can about people and, though he wants to save his own life, he reaches a point of genuinely wanting to help as many people as he can. He’s a smart, thoughtful character, and the film would’ve been drastically different with another lead.

San balances Ashitaka out well as his love interest and the champion of the forest gods. She can’t abide by anything humans do and hates her own humanity, but Ashitaka causes her to reconsider her actions a little and see some of the good in humans. She’s a bit like Nausicaä, but with her environmentalism pushed to its furthest extent and no love for people.

Lady Eboshi is perhaps the most fascinating character, as she blends so many different ideas together. She’s a strong industrialist and can’t stand anything that gets in her way, but she’s also a militant feminist and cares for lepers that everyone else has abandoned. Best of all the characters, Lady Eboshi shows that humans can be amazingly complex, and it’s fitting that she cuts off the Great Forest Spirit’s head. I would love to learn more about her or see how she’s changed after the film.

Outside of these characters there are a wealth of secondary characters, including the forest gods, the kodama (tree spirits), and the people who work in Irontown. Each character has a distinct personality and adds to the film, building up the unique perspectives of the film’s events. It’s a wonderfully multi-layered cast with no dull, lifeless characters to be seen.

Lady Eboshi is such a great characterization of people. She comes across as strong and stubborn, but behind the scenes she cares deeply for cultural advancement. She works as a great stand-in for humanity, just like the ideal of Athena or Lady Liberty. That fact that we are drawn to despise her (ourselves), and her actions, helps Miyazaki’s message really hit home.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Princess Mononoke is probably the most action-packed film created by Hayao Miyazaki, therefore it has some of the best action scenes directed by him. The simple plot of the movie allows for the film to fully expand upon the action sequences without relying on vague colorful motions, like in some of his more recent films, like Howl’s Moving Castle. Rather than throwing together a conglomeration of actions, we instead get to see the subtle shifts in emotion and personality played out in the movements of the characters. For example, the wolves and boars as they charge into battle are seen moving as a if one with nature. They seep in and around their surroundings, and respond intuitively to opposition. The body language of the humans, spirits, and wilderness help to build the tensions between the various factions.

The character designs are a nice change of pace from Miyazaki’s other films, I would say this is mostly to do with the change in time period. I found it very enjoyable to see how Miyazaki envisioned an older time period devoid of his typical bias for airplanes and technology.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Princess Mononoke is epically beautiful, showcasing the best of Studio Ghibli’s abilities with movement and scenery and tone. I’ve heard that Miyazaki was encouraged to make this film before he got too old to make films with action, and I’m glad he did, because Princess Mononoke has the best action of any of his films. Not only do characters move smoothly, but their movements also emphasize elements of character or the tone of battles. Furthermore, this film was Ghibli’s first use of CGI in a film, and it fits in so flawlessly that you wouldn’t know it was there (in the tentacles of the cursed boar god) if you weren’t told. This is how CGI in anime should look.

The character designs also stand apart from Miyazaki’s other films, which may be a result of the clothing or the adult themes. Regardless, they still fit in with the overall Ghibli style, but most of the main characters have very distinct appearances. San may be the most iconic, with her masks and earrings, but everyone else would be easy to pull out of a lineup of Sengoku or Ghibli characters, as well.

OVERALL: Despite what typical anime fans might say, I am wholeheartedly of the opinion that this is Miyazaki’s best film. While his other films are whimsical, magical, and heart wrenching, none of them come quite so close to accomplishing Miyazaki’s mission statement as Princess Mononoke. While Nausicaa is probably second to achieving the task, I think Princess Mononoke still wins out through objectivity. Too often has Miyazaki taken a blunt and forceful approach to getting across his ideas. Here we watch the story unravel through the eyes of an outsider, just as new to the message as ourselves. Through Ashitaka’s explorations we too become entangled in building harmony between mankind and nature. The message too is more open-ended, and encourages listeners rather than ending up too preachy. It’s also nice to see how seamlessly his message works in the themes of this movie. Nothing drove me more crazy than to see Miyazaki promoting his same old message in Howl’s Moving Castle, when it had nothing to do with the plot!

Anyways, I think this movie is a definite must-watch for anime and Studio Ghibli fans alike. The plot is easy to follow, and the characters are all very compelling. I think the setting and nature of the film also leave it open to being more approachable to older fans, who aren’t so interested in all of Miyazaki’s children’s films.

OVERALL: Though Princess Mononoke isn’t my favorite Ghibli film (Porco Rosso wins out by a hair), I do think it’s Miyazaki’s best film. Most of his films deal with themes about war and the environment, but none of them bring these themes together so well as Princess Mononoke. Unlike his other great war-and-the-environment epic, Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke shows Miyazaki’s mental maturation by bringing in more sides to the conflict and painting everyone in shades of gray. There are no simple answers to any of the questions Miyazaki brings up, and he treats this conclusion with respect, making this film his most thought-provoking one, as well. Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s masterpiece, eloquently encapsulating everything he ever needed to say on his most important themes. If you consider yourself a fan of his at all and haven’t seen this, get on it immediately—you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise, you’ve already seen it and know how great it is.

FINAL SCORE: (10/10) FINAL SCORE: (10/10)
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One thought on “Princess Mononoke

  1. This post made me want to watch Princess Mononoke again. I haven’t seen it in years but its worth another watch. Its also unusual to see someone bring up Porco Rosso. It doesn’t get the mentions it deserves from Miyazaki’s works.

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