Princess Mononoke - Earth Day Review
Updated: Apr 26
How well do you put up with ongoing debates around you, whether you’re part of it or not? I bet you feel like one side had good points while the other…also had good points. Usually, you’d expect yourself to side with one side against the other but can’t seem to do that because of how committed and justified both sides were. It’s a topic that I believe had been tossed aside for more convenient yet overtly simplistic measures, like the whole good vs. evil ordeal we see in most movies.
But then, in 1997, heralded animator Hayao Miyazaki had the right idea to tackle that principle head-on. After spending as much time refining the project concerning it as James Cameron did with Avatar, he translated it beautifully into a motion picture that took such battles, except with environmental welfare as their focus, and elaborated on them with the valid points being brought up, amounting to a thought-provoking adventure that’d leave you in awe just as much as its animation would.
That movie is Princess Mononoke.
Set around the late Muromachi period, this epic film tells the story of a young prince named Ashitaka, who, along with his trusty red elk, Yakul, lived in a village when a nearby spirit demon made up of devilish-like worms squirming all around its body emerged and attacked the villagers before Ashitaka intervened. In the quarrel, Ashitaka was infected by the curse that infected the demon spirit, which happened to be a boar god, and his arm carried a continually expanding scar. After counseling over it with the villagers, they all agreed to banish Ashitaka out of precaution, and he was left to wander the Japanese landscapes in search of the source of his curse. Eventually, after a run-in with some intruding samurai, including a goofy yet conniving priest named Jigo, Ashitaka and Yakul crossed paths with an old Irontown. The head of the facility, Lady Eboshi, oversaw the development of the iron she and her people produced off the sands in a nearby forest. However, their intrusion and deforestation angered the forest spirits who lived there, equivalent to those who lived hundreds, almost thousands of years ago. Things got even more complicated when Ashitaka discovered that the iron ball that burrowed its way into the boar earlier, whose curse infected his arm, came from the Ironworks town. Soon, while the curse wounds in his arm still worsened, Ashitaka ran into the perils and soon, the beauty of the forest itself, starting with meeting the wild girl that attacked the town known as Princess Mononoke, who’d been out for Lady Eboshi’s blood ever since she stepped foot into her otherwise sacred homeland. Soon, he learned all about the forest in which Mononoke lived, from the little white spirits called the Kodama to the wolf spirits, including the mother, Moro, whom Mononoke considered family, and the neighboring Boar tribe, led by the now-blind Okkoto. Ashitaka later discovered that the boar that went rampaging throughout his village earlier had come from this tribe and fled in a panic after being hit by one of Tatara’s iron balls. But the most mysterious being living in this forest was the Deer God. It was an unusual deer-like deity with the body of a beast, the face of a man, antlers like tree branches, the tendency to become a giant being called the Nightcrawler every night, and the power to bring life to any living creature…or death.
The forest spirits also battled the residents of Irontown to keep their forest, especially the Forest God, safe. But much like them, they appeared to have safeguarded their homeland for more selfish reasons. And Ashitaka was stuck in the middle of this green battlefield.
Elsewhere, back in Irontown, Lady Eboshi was met by Jigo, who made a promise to Eboshi about her tracking down the Forest God, even if they both had different purposes for it. Eboshi wanted the Forest God dead so that they would’ve had no trouble harvesting the forest of its minerals for iron. In contrast, Jigo wanted the head of the Forest God not only because it’s said to grant immortality to its wielder but because the Emperor would’ve officially given him a pardon if he brought it back to him.
In short, it’s a four-way battle between Ashitaka, Irontown, the forest spirits, and the incoming samurai. Who would’ve prevailed? Can Ashitaka set the record straight with any sides on the battlefield before things get worse? What struck him about Princess Mononoke after first laying eyes on her? And can he find the source of his curse before it consumes him from the inside out?
I don’t know where to begin with this movie. The first thing I’ll say is that this came out in 1997. We’re talking about an age when many environmental films popped up everywhere to uphold the then-ongoing trend of ecological awareness through media. That included movies like Free Willy, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Once Upon a Forest, and even songs like Earth Song by Michael Jackson..
But this movie? What I appreciate so much about Princess Mononoke is that it’s one of those rare animated movies that feel like it carries a level of dignity and prowess easily on par with the commonplace live-action epic you’d see every once in a while. And that can be attributed to its scope, creativity, and above all, the complexity of the situations and characters.
Starting with Lady Eboshi, when you first look at her, you’d think that traditionally, she’d be the villain, with her menacing disposition and her ruthlessness in clearing away every acre of the forest to reach the minerals she and her people needed, kind of like Quaritch in the Avatar movies. However, there were other angles to uncover with this character. For one thing, among her townspeople were groups of former prostitutes and lepers, who the villagers claimed she took in to give them a more productive start-over, whether it be freedom for the prostitutes or medical help for the lepers. Of course, that’s not the usual rationale you’d expect from someone harming the nearby forest for its resources. But that’s the point: when you look at things from her point of view, you’d be shocked how a character whose ideals you’d disagree with can also express elements of her personality that you’d relate to. Not to mention, as she’d shown Ashitaka, she even had a private garden. So that tells me she wasn’t laying waste to the forest out of disregard for its residents. Instead, she was devoted to her pursuits for the sands she needed to make the iron.
However, the good news is, she’s not the only character with such extra angles to uncover about her. So, let’s look at the other characters.
Ashitaka, the main character, seemed like a noble character with the utmost determination to lay some resolve between the fighting sides of the battlefield without risking any potential bloodshed. But, of course, when push came to shove, he was not without urges to strike with his sword against those who intentionally meant harm, as he did on some of the samurai who invaded him and the nearby townsfolk. For the most part, however, it may be because of the infections of his curse in his arm taking hold of his battle strategies. On top of that, the curse could’ve given him a boost in power, even the ability to mutilate some of his enemies with just one strike of his arrow.
However, when Ashitaka wasn’t busy fending off intruding samurai with his sword, the rest of the movie had him trying to find a cure for the curse and scar on his arm or trying to understand both sides of the battle between the forest spirits and the Irontown and seeing if there can ever be any compromise between them. Such overviews of this character may make him look overly simplistic compared to all the other characters in the story. But I don’t find this as a harmful thing. Because Ashitaka was as stunned and conflicted about the world that he stumbled upon as the audience watching it would’ve been, this makes him feel like the audience’s eyes and ears as he asked the questions we would’ve wanted to ask if we were in his position. That, and the longevity of his curse and how soon he could’ve tracked down the source of his curse before his time was up, threw in an element of suspense to his journey, too, even if they tended to be sidelined a bit in favor of the ongoing conflicts erupting around him.
When it took full effect, some displays of Ashitaka’s curse had apparent parallels with what immense hatred can arouse in anyone. For a moment, the hate you feel can build up to something that promises a rise in adrenaline, momentary strength, and a need to enact violent retaliation. But it can also blind you and take on a life of its own at your expense. It was shown similarly through Ashitaka as he became tempted to retaliate, even if it’s primarily the work of the curse in his arm taking hold of him. The most famous example was when Asitaka visibly grew angrier at Lady Eboshi's carelessness over her pursuits for the nearby sands at the expense of the livelihood and even lives of the forest spirits nearby. As his anger mounted, his curse-laden arm acted on its own will and immediately lunged out to grasp his sword, while Ashitaka held it back with his other arm before it could strike Eboshi down.
In short, Asitaka was swimming his way through temptation. Yet, he remained steadfast in his convictions concerning the welfare of those involved in the ongoing war between Irontown and the forest spirits. That alone is worth acknowledgment as far as this character is concerned.
The priest Ashitaka met on his journey, Samurai Jigo, was generally shady. At first, he came across as having a typically witty demeanor and wisdom underneath his goofy imagery. I doubt he’s a dwarf, but the way he was portrayed, spoke with other people or moved seemed slightly more comedic and giddier than all the other characters in the movie. However, as he met up with Lady Eboshi to negotiate their attack on the Forest God, he expressed varying commitments with whomever he encountered throughout his journeys. And, when you take into account how he’s a priest and an ally to the incoming samurai, who’ve slaughtered innocent bystanders left and right because of their having potentially broken off from the Emperor’s rule, this painted him in a darker shade of grey that constantly fluctuated depending on his alliance with other people.
Some of the other characters throughout the movie also had their breakthrough moments. For example, the head prostitute in Irontown, Toki, came across as a no-nonsense woman with a bossy attitude, especially towards her husband, Kohroku, who Ashitaka rescued after witnessing him and his comrade unconscious after running into San and the wolf spirits. Having been brought in by Lady Eboshi after living as a prostitute, she exerted authority onto people like her husband and, more importantly, towards her fellow ex-prostitutes, for they, too, were given a job to help make the iron in town. And when she faced incoming dangers, whether with San and her wolf buddies or the incoming samurai, she proved herself resilient in battle, concocting strategies to fend them off and providing the weaponry needed to fight against them.
The titular Princess Mononoke, named San, was a feral, wild girl who felt like she had a knack for enacting vengeance upon those she believed deserved it. Looking at her background, her parents left her behind upon running into the forest spirits as they fled for safety. Not ‘forgot’ her, abandoned her. And when you add all the complex issues aroused by humanity’s driven desire for something as valuable as that which she worshiped with her fellow forest spirits, you have her views on humanity in a nutshell. Even then, though, what added to her intrigue, misplaced and general as it may be to some viewers, was that part of her journey in this movie entailed catching on to her identity as a human being and not a wolf as she claimed to be, and whether she can grasp the idea of being that which she hated. Her commitment to the integrity of the forest and the Forest God was still there, but her dilemmas and comprehension of who she was, who she despised, and who she loved were played with throughout the movie. And when San said she was a wolf, she said so because of being raised by them, leaving her to believe she was as much a wolf as them. To assess her another way, think of her as the female, grown-up equivalent of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, particularly from the story “Letting in the Jungle,” where he ultimately waged war against the Man Village for their treachery and distrust. Such retaliation and mutual existentialism could be spotted in San, too, especially after she ran into Ashitaka. Despite her hatred towards humanity, Ashitaka’s kindness towards her left her to question whether all of humanity could be or is as evil as she grew up believing it to be.
Before I talk more about the characters, let me dispel a little fact about the forest spirits and San that you may find interesting.
It’s not just Lady Eboshi and Irontown that were causing harm. And I don’t mean just the invading samurai. Before seeing San and her friends from the forest, Lady Eboshi and some local villagers mentioned how San and her wolf family rummaged through town, terrorizing the townspeople outside of San seeking vengeance against Eboshi for harming her, the forest, and the spirits who lived there. You’d think that’s only evil gloating on their end. But their argument was potentially validified when San ran into Irontown in hot pursuit of Lady Eboshi. Not only did she knock some innocent bystanders out of the way, but as Lady Eboshi presented herself in preparation for San’s arrival and announced herself loud and clear enough for San to hear, standing beside her were two women whom Lady Eboshi mentioned San and the forest spirits made into widows. So, these ladies were not evil but seeking vengeance against San and the forest spirits for leaving their husbands dead. Think about that. How often have you seen an environmental movie where the supposed heroes in favor of protecting the forest were guilty of some morally questionable acts, even if it was for a good cause?
Anyway, as we return to the characters, let’s look at the forest spirits.
Moro, the wolf goddess and surrogate mother of San and her two pups, was a determined but fierce wolf who snuck up on her victims and took them by surprise before any of them laid any harm to her or her children, even the forest. But underneath her brutality was a sense of reasoning and commendation that signaled the wolf’s standing legacy within the realms of the woods. As she said to Ashitaka, she took San in when her parents abandoned her and fled in a panic. Much like San, it contributed to her distaste, so to speak, of humans and to her collective violent nature, especially when at war with them.
Lord Okkoto, the boar god, was also a gallant and fearless god, but as Moro pointed out, he can be too stubborn and too proud to see how he and his fellow boars could’ve enacted their vengeance against the humans. But it’s not just him. The rest of the boars following him shared his sense of stubbornness and pride, and so charged forth against humans the first chance they got without acknowledging the hows of their solutions.
The Deer God, as I said, felt like a mysterious figure. He carried the mere magnificence of a creature who felt serene and decent but also had a regal flair that showcased his role in the forest and among its natives. The characters stated that he could’ve brought life but also taken it. And just like Jigo, what made him memorable was his exterior looks. He looked like he could’ve been just a tall, grown-up, antlered buck, like The Great Prince of the Forest from Bambi. But he embodied so many mysterious and ironically unnatural elements that I wasn’t sure whether to revere or feel perturbed by him.
The samurais didn’t have too significant a role in the film. After all, I thought they were just minor characters in the first few viewings. But their actions spoke louder than the few words they did say in the movie. For example, some of the main characters pointed out how the Emperor sent them to hunt down anyone within Japan who broke off ties with the Emperor to pursue a lifestyle of their own making. So, they retaliated as such against anyone who acted as such, from innocent bystanders to the citizens and women of Irontown to the forest spirits. In other ways, they displayed potential “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentalities and stopped at nothing to see that the people they deemed traitorous would bow before them and the Emperor once again. It seems to me like they would’ve been the closest thing to a villain this movie ever had, outside of Lady Eboshi and Jigo, but even then, while it wasn’t spelled out, I can sense that they had their reasons for attacking the people the way they did. If there’s one thing I welcome in any villain, outside of charisma, an outstanding performance, great animation, or what have you, it’s the complexity to make them feel less one-dimensional and far more believable.
In fact, while my mind is fresh on the subject, I have some things to say about the performances, both the original Japanese and the English-speaking actors.
I don’t recall much about the original Japanese actors except that they all conveyed their roles and played their parts with the usual subtlety and dignity you’d expect from a Japanese production. Sometimes, just listening to them in their native language in their native land added to the collective authenticity of this picture, which is why I recommend watching the original film in the Japanese version whenever you can.
However, if there’s one character whose performance I thought felt odd, it’s the actor who played Moro, the wolf goddess. The characters explicitly mentioned that she’s a female wolf and a mother to her pups and San, so you’d think she’d have a feminine voice to match. But, instead, what I heard out of her mouth was a strong, booming male voice that’s usually identified from a god, which she was, anyway. But hearing a male voice from a female wolf felt a touch distracting and weird.
As for the English-voicing cast, they all carried the same dignity and gravitas to help the movie out, too.
Before I lunge into that, I must say that the only actors I thought felt a little too animated with their performances were the actors who played the men that Ashitaka rescued and helped back into camp, including Kohroku, Toki’s husband. Of course, part of it stemmed from their pain or overreactions to the forest and the Kodama spirits. Still, something about their performances felt a little too wild and out of control, like they’re more frantic than, say, Timon and Pumbaa at their most agitated. However, such energetic expression only lasted in the movie for a few minutes, and the rest of their performances felt more natural and generally on par with the rest of the actors, so it was not too big of a letdown.
Of course, the actors whose performances drew some potential ire from Mononoke fans were Claire Danes as San and Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo. And I need to say this: I find both of their performances fantastic.
Starting with Claire Danes as San, I have a deep respect for the roughness apparent in San’s voice whenever she felt agitated or ready to slit someone in the throat. Many people may look at it and dismiss it as too one-note or mean and that it doesn’t help her character. But she’s not always like that; there has been more than one occasion where San was calm, quiet, or almost serene. Whenever Danes conveyed her voice as such, she gave her a more subtle vocal tone that matched how San felt in those given moments while still carrying a twinge of her aggression underneath it. It highlighted how San grew up to be: a ruthless wild girl with a thirst for the blood of the worst of humanity. Also, whenever I saw San on her own, I could occasionally imagine her voice conveying the same aggression and determination as what Claire Danes provided to San. So, Danes did a terrific job portraying San with all her warlike tendencies and promising modesties.
And hopping over to Billy Bob Thronton as Jigo, he conveyed Jigo with a surprising amount of softness and confidence that left me with the impression that you shouldn’t judge this kind of book by its cover. If I’m not mistaken, what turned people off about Thornton’s performance was the borderline accent stemming through, but honestly, I couldn’t have told. There’s just something about how Thornton allowed Jigo to oversee any situation happening in front of him, what had happened before him, or which is about to happen – whether it all went according to plan or not – that added more conniving tendencies to this character’s otherwise weaselly nature. It would have been easy to find an actor who could replicate this character’s sense of cunning and convey it to a cartoony level, even given the character’s design. Of course, when I say that, I think of actors like Iam Holm as Chef Skinner in Ratatouille. But I believe Billy Bob Thornton surprised me with what more his voice alone provided to this character that potentially may not have been spotted even in the original Japanese version.
Getting back to Moro, the wolf Goddess, her voice was provided by Gillian Anderson. Not only did this feel more like the kind of voice I’d have expected to hear out of a wolf goddess, but her soft tenors, coupled with her intimidating presence, matched not only the voice you’d hear out of a wolf goddess but also a powerful mother with some iron will to spare. In addition, she gave off hints of a towering presence whenever she was around either San, Ashitaka, or anyone else who accompanied or approached her, thus lending more credibility to her as a character.
Another actress who excelled because of the more shrilling tactics in her vocal performance was Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi. Before unleashing another animated performance with Jane in Tarzan, Driver provided Eboshi with a chilling voice that, at first hearing, may leave you convinced that this is the movie’s main villain. But again, like Eboshi’s personality, when Driver explored other angles with Lady Eboshi, they conveyed this character in a more complex light than you’d expect out of her. Sometimes, she’s powerful as a commander, tender when caring for other people, and there were occasions where the shrill in her voice highlighted her modesty instead. As a result, Driver’s performance felt potentially the most multifaceted in the movie, and she nailed it here.
Jada Pinkett Smith didn’t do much with what she’d given as the voiceover of Toki. Yet, given what little she had to work with, and though it does suffer from some slight one-dimensionality on occasion, her bossy demeanors went together with the slightly, dare I say it, comedic overtones this character carried with her. And whenever things got serious, like when she and her fellow ex-prostitutes went to war with the samurais or the forest spirits, her authoritarian tenors helped her come across more as a woman who dealt with a more disheveled life and was now taking full advantage of the new life given to her and all the opportunities that came with it.
That leaves us with Billy Crudup as Ashitaka. If I’m honest, Crudup’s performance came the closest to feeling on par with the original Japanese voice actor who played Ashitaka. He carried forth pureness and confidence, which were perfect when playing an established warrior. But he also honed his more tender moments, such as when he expressed his concern over either San, her forest tribe, the Irontown, or concerning the scars on his arm. So, you can tell, even from listening to him, that he’s conveying a noble, honorable warrior who had a lot on his plate and had to navigate through the messes that fell upon him. In short, Crudup’s performance hit all the right notes and helped bring Ashitaka to life the way he deserved to be brought to life.
I know movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service did a terrific job portraying the characters to the English-speaking world. But the voice ensemble gathered for this production felt like one of those Prince-of-Egypt-level ensembles, where their collective, collaborative efforts felt like something you’d associate with a high-quality live-action drama and not an animated film. The movie’s English actors even admitted that they thought it felt more like a real-life dramatic movie than an animated one. And I’ll tell you why: the film was backed up wonderfully by a superbly written script with gorgeous visuals and breathtaking animation.
Speaking of which, the animation is another hallmark of the movie. As to be expected out of Hayao Miyazaki, he and his fellow artists knew how to take the 2D hand-drawn medium and push its capabilities to the nth degree, especially when telling a story about several groups of individuals fighting against one another in Medieval Japan. I don’t know if a single shred of this movie was computer animated. Still, even if parts of the film were, the 2D hand-drawn animation brought a ton of crisp colors, emotion, and surprisingly grisly imagery when things got too heated or gory. With the fantastical elements thrown into the mix, that’s a massive visual and narrative benefit. The animators showcased their talents when showcasing beings of more mythical or magical qualities and embellishing them in ways where they seemed legible enough to coexist alongside humans in a bygone era of Japan.
The Kodamas were all cute spiritual beings. Much like the spots in 101 Dalmatians and the bubbles in The Little Mermaid, each one of them was drawn individually, so there’s a distinctness to be spotted in almost all of them, and yet they all carried a generally cutesy look that made them feel mysterious yet playful at the same time. The Nightcrawler, when visible, was just a sight to behold. Even though it was technically the Forest God in his night form, his size, unique shape, and pristine, nightlike colors contributed to its awe-inspiring nature. Even as a deer-like creature, he still carried that same magnificence. But, of course, given his more unusual nature to be expected out of a natural beast, he perfectly encapsulated every mysterious, beautiful, and deadly thing ever known about forest life. And when you see what happened to it when it lost its head and went on a black-ooze-laden rampage in its search for its head, it shows the consequences of nature when it was tempted with or taken advantage of beyond its limits. Or rather, it shows the savagery hidden underneath its otherwise more modest, peaceful, and seemingly harmless disposition.
And the backgrounds? What can I say? They’re a real class in and of themselves! They all expressed the sheer size of the story and locations. It even did a splendid job of portraying a time in Japan when it was lush and populated with wild mythical beasts, more so than it became after the humans came to harvest its resources. And when the forest started to come in full bloom again after what went down in the film’s climax, you can feel its sense of renewal and how, against all odds, hope does indeed spring eternal.
Also, when I saw the Irontown, I was amazed by its workmanship and got a clear idea of its sense of community noticeable through the people living there under Lady Eboshi’s leadership. I felt all the hard work going into producing its iron, especially at the ironworks, compete with the ex-prostitutes pushing the platform-like bellows to get the ironworks going. And with the smoke coming out from a distance, you can tell right away what kind of establishment Lady Eboshi established in this spot beside the section of the forest where the spirits dwelled and fought.
The part of the forest where the characters wandered within, down to the Forest God’s serene abode, was also beautiful, lush, filled to the brim with life, and leaving you breathless with all the natural wonders than can either play with you or amaze you. While it doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the forest, anyway, the scenery is still enough to leave you breathless over what you’ve witnessed or wouldn’t have expected to have witnessed.
Meanwhile, the human characters felt accurately animated and crisply drawn out, and each human being in this story carried a subtly distinct outlook that’d tell you right away who’s who. While Jigo was arguably the most distinctive of all the characters, he was still portrayed with a generally smooth approach to hone his instincts, just like everyone else in the film. They all looked aesthetically pleasing, their likenesses carried some semblance of Japanese culture from around the era in which this movie was set, and they all still brought forth the masterful expressions and visual wonders only Hayao Miyazaki can deliver in full measure.
Another element that felt masterful and fits snuggly with the themes of Princess Mononoke is the music by Joe Hisaishi. I figured out that besides Kiki’s Delivery Service, he helped compose the music for all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, including this one, so he looks like he’s to Hayao Miyazaki what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg.
The point here is that Hisaishi conveyed the more adventurous, tense, soothing, calm, and mystical elements felt throughout the movie. I heard the whole soundtrack not too long ago, and I can sense everything that went on in Princess Mononoke without needing to go into specifics or dive into the details. And, it still honed the softness apparent from the more personal conflicts, like between Ashitaka and San. There’s even a lovely song very eloquently sung in the background that highlighted the central themes permeant throughout the film, and even an excellent worker’s song sung by the ex-prostitutes as they did their work.
At one point, I even heard the songs, both the brothel song and the background song, translated into English as I watched the dub. And frankly, much like Billy Crudup’s voice performance, these covers also did a great job translating the works from the original Japanese version into English with the general likeness and tone as in the Japanese version.
Overall, the music was very nicely done and provided a beautiful backdrop to enrich the already layered movie.
Speaking of layers, I better address the story.
Throughout my childhood, I constantly watched Disney’s Pocahontas. While it was a generally fictionalized account of Pocahontas and John Smith’s meeting and the conflicts between the Powhatans and the British settlers, it still implied complexity among both sides as they fought one another. It was most apparent through the song, ‘Savages,’ where the settlers and natives prepared to go to war. Yet, their convictions and opinionated prejudice against their opponents reached a point where they nearly looked and sounded no different from the other. I appreciated this portrayal because it told me that nothing and no one is as black and white as mainstream media insists that they are, and there is some good and evil to be noticed in everyone, no matter their intentions.
Imagine that moral grayness stretching across the entire movie, like Princess Mononoke here.
As with most mature films, Princess Mononoke had a lot of ground to cover concerning environmental welfare, the wars it inspired, and the battles being fought even on the side. But it also dedicated some time to address more personal dilemmas, including Ashitaka, San, Lady Eboshi, and Jigo. Each central character like these was given their chance to shine in the spotlight over their problems alone or with someone else. And they all tied into the collective and complicated conflicts brewing throughout the movie.
Let’s first assess each part of the story and see how they correlate, shall we? First, Ashitaka had to venture to find a cure for his arm after it was contaminated by a dark, worm-like substance feasting off the flesh of a boar god who rampaged through his village. Then, the curse in Ashitaka’s arm slowly but surely had a firmer grip on him and was even prone to make Ashitaka do things he usually wouldn’t have wanted to do. Then, Ashitaka found out that the source of the curse from the iron ball that punctured Nago’s skin, which drove him mad. However, Ashitaka discovered a war between the iron settlers and the forest spirits, plus San, who lived nearby. The iron settlers wanted the land because of the minerals they needed to make iron. But of course, the forest spirits didn’t want any part of it because they were territorial and considered the forest their home. It’s almost like they’d rather die than give it all up. Then, after hearing about the Forest God and how it could heal Ashitaka’s wounds, he sought it down while also taking in all the hidden elements of the forest and even of the Forest God himself. However, because the head of that god would also have granted immortality, the Forest God was also sought out by those who wanted it, like Jigo with its head. And even then, he’s connected to the incoming samurai who came in as sent by the Emperor to strike down the townspeople and even those of the Irontown for seemingly betraying the Emperor and breaking off ties with him. However, because of the ongoing conflicts, it got to the point where the forest spirits and the iron settlers fought the wrong enemy until people like Eboshi and Jigo learned too late what’d happen if the head of the Forest God came off. But even that didn’t matter because the samurai were among the victims of the Forest God’s wrathful energy unleashed in every corner. And the longer Ashitaka kept doing his own thing, the worse his scars became as they spread across his entire body. He also discovered why the worm-like particles came out of Nago, the boar he encountered, and even Lord Okkoto as he gave in to his vitriol against the humans. These particles were borne out of their hatred, and if anyone gave into that hatred, they would’ve come out, degrading them into demons. Nago became one, Okkoto became one, the curse in Ashitaka’s arm aroused the demon inside of him, and even Ashitaka can sense when there’s a demon inside anyone, even people like San and Lady Eboshi.
Simply put, there’s so much to unpack here, but it all came together to convey a sprawling narrative about the dangers of giving in to your hatred, finding some semblance of common ground between ongoing wars, and the importance of not overexerting yourself on your natural resources before it’s too late.
Now, let’s look at one significant element that makes this movie stand out besides the moral grayness. This movie is a 2D hand-drawn animated film. It’s done by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, the mastermind behind some of Japan’s most iconic animated films, including My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The animation in this film is lush and supremely beautiful. Yet, Princess Mononoke was bestowed with a PG-13 rating, and I feel like it earned it.
While the story, characters, and animation are on par with what you’d expect from many other animated masterpieces, no matter where they’re from, the content appearing in this movie is too severe and blatant for this to be shown to kids unless they can tolerate at least some visible blood in the screen. Princess Mononoke talked about mature topics concerning war, who got involved, where the real value lies, what the cost and sacrifices are to give in to this war, and what was at stake unless the war was fought. And the big tipping point was in the visual content. Princess Mononoke came with plenty of gory images, pools of blood spilling out, and even some dismemberments, lopped arms and decapitations alike. If this doesn’t convince you that Princess Mononoke is not a family film, what would? It is not something you’d see in your everyday Disney film. Even the original Aladdin’s discussions of beheading as a capital punishment, edgy as they were for a Disney film, remained just discussions. Still, Princess Mononoke went all the way with its harsher material and portrayed it as such with enough delicacy to make its otherwise more brutal life elements feel more digestible.
Like such movies as South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut and Sausage Party, I always appreciate it when artists push the accessibility and opportunities of animation to the next level and demonstrate how it can be used to tell compelling adult stories through this medium to equally astounding, powerful effects, like how the live-action adult stories would.
On top of that, the key to a movie’s success is whether it would’ve used the contents that come with the rating to craft a compelling story. And because Hayao Miyazaki usually knows what he’s doing as an artist and animator, the effort clearly shows here in Princess Mononoke, no matter what intent is in the final product.
Here’s a funny story: at one point, once the movie’s then-distributor, Miramax Films, prepared to release it to American audiences, creative chief Harvey Weinstein contemplated trimming it down precisely to 90 minutes because he thought the original cut was too long, and that it would’ve been too gory to sustain a PG rating. He was still under the illusion that animated films should’ve been marketed to families since that’s how animated movies were seen back in the day, anyway. But when he proposed this to Studio Ghibli, he was given a package in the mail shortly after. Inside was a samurai sword with an inscription, “No cuts.” And the rest was history.
At one point, even Hayao Miyazaki was asked whether he was concerned about the movie being too violent for kids, especially compared to his other animated efforts. In which case, he responded:
Yes, it’s not meant for very young children. They don’t need to see it. But that’s not the point of the film. Because children know that they are surrounded by violence in the real world. … Violence is innate in humans. The real issue is how to control it.
I have nothing but respect for the kind of artistic confidence that Miyazaki established. The fact that he trusted kids and audience members alike to take whatever movie’s being shown to them seriously and walk away from it with a greater, more profound understanding of what they witnessed from what they watched feels like a remarkable feat and characteristic that any artist can aspire to.
The only nitpick I have with this movie is that the effects of hatred on those who give in to it felt inconsistent. As demonstrated with Nago and Okkoto on the last legs of his life, weird, red tentacle-like things came out as if something ugly that represented hatred was infecting them. As Ashitaka said, this was a sign of them becoming a demon. That made me wonder, would anyone have become a demon if they gave in to their anger or hatred? There’s some hatred apparent in many of the humans in this movie, yet no red particles came out of them outside of San when she was trapped in those of Okkoto. It’s a slight stretch, and while the comparisons are still valid, I still don’t see how immense hatred can lead to this freaky outlook and this kind of collapse in a person.
But other than that, not only is Princess Mononoke one of the best animated films Hayao Miyazaki has ever made, but it’s starting to become my all-time favorite film from Miyazaki. It took a commonly practiced storyline concerning environmental conflicts and infused it dearly with compelling characters, awe-inspiring landscapes, intriguing world-building, exquisite animation, tender themes, thought-provoking angles, and stirring music. Princess Mononoke knew how to go dark and adult with its storytelling while still abiding by what made Hayao Miyazaki such a talented artist, so its risks paid off, amounting to a movie about war and the environment that invited its viewers to appreciate and ponder amidst all the carnage and sacrilege.
Clear your mind of hatred or preconceptions, and give this movie a whirl. It bears more food for thought than you may expect.
Speaking of food for thought, though, I feel more familiar with wisdom and blindness stemming from environmental issues than I would’ve believed. And I don’t mean exclusively from Pocahontas’ ‘Savages.’ The more I dwelt on that, the clearer it became how I’m so used to it, and it may go way back to before Mononoke enchanted me with them in equal measure. I’ll tell you more about it this coming Arbor Day!
“Princess Mononoke in the USA.” Princess Mononoke, Shout Factory, 2019. Blu-ray.
Sharf, Z. (2020, June 14). Studio Ghibli Refused to Cut 'Princess Mononoke' After Vicious Harvey Weinstein Threat. IndieWire. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2020/06/harvey-weinstein-threatened-studio-ghibli-mononoke-runtime-1202236275/