#15 - Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)

Seeing with eyes unclouded by hate.

Studio Ghibli has been a dominating creative force in the world of animated feature films since its first feature production - “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”*. This is not only because of the quality of animation, which is always superb and primarily hand animated, but also because of truly admirable storytelling sensibilities. The only studio to come along and challenge Studio Ghibli’s creative output is Pixar. But considering Pixar’s last few projects they seem to be having a bit of trouble to keep up lately, which can probably be attributed to the fact that their major creative talents have started snooping around in other disciplines of filmmaking**.

But the main reason for this consistency is certainly the creative backbone of the Japanese animation giant, Hayao Miyazaki, who signed the directing credits on almost half of Ghibli’s films. Even in the Ghibli catalog his films stand out as the studio’s finest and most successful outings, making them easily some of the best animated films ever made.

“Princess Mononoke” is one of these films and it is the movie that opened the studio's door wide open for non-Japanese audiences, and with that paved the way for the smashing success of “Spirited Away”, both on the global box office and the global critical and awards stage. And while “Spirited Away” certainly deserves all the success and accolades it got, I can’t help but admire “Princess Mononoke” just a tiny bit more as a film.

A big reason for that is just the basic construction of the film and the universality of the narrative it presents. Superficially it’s a familiar tale that follows a hero caught between two conflicting factions. But first of all, holy sh*t what a hero! 

Our hero, Ashitaka, is not only a figure of objective purity and courage, but he is also a cursed man that is taking a clear step forward towards his death with every heroic deed he performs. This is cinematically presented by the constantly spreading wound on his arm, which also gives him superhuman abilities. This makes the viewing of these heroics he performs throughout the film both an exhilarating and completely gut-wrenching experience.

The reason why this is so emotionally affecting lies in the design of Ashitaka as a character. Apart from being the moral core and the conscience of the film, he is also purposefully designed to be a blank faced ideal. This gives him unparalleled power over the audience since it is extremely easy for an audience member to see Ashitaka as his direct avatar on the screen. Turning the anguish of Ashitaka in to the anguish of the viewer.

And that effect is further enhanced by the two mentioned factions that Ashitaka finds himself between. On one side we have humanity, civilization, community and technology, represented by a small mining enclave populated by outcasts. And on the other the beauty and magic of nature, and even potential love represented by a girl, San, and her adopted family that's basically made of three giant wolves. Both representing a different set of admirable ideals, that are forcing him to pick. Wisely he never actually does pick and instead decides to do his utmost to stop the bloodshed, which makes both sides suspicious of his motives, to say the least.

The giant wolves and San are the guardians of the forest which is endangered by the enclave's mining operation. But in these woods also lives an enigmatic forest spirit. The concept of this spirit is an intriguing one as well, because throughout the film he is represented as both life and death and strolls the woods with almost joyful indifference. He is nature incarnate.  

There is a clear environmental theme here, but Miyazaki does not simplify the issue in his film and does not preach blind environmentalist dogma. Instead his message is the one of balance as he shows us violent and irrational forces at work both in the forest and in the hearts of men.

“Princess Mononoke” is one of the best action adventure epics ever made. Animated or otherwise. The mythology it weaves and the world it portrays is one of the most alluring fictional settings I know of, presented in gloriously detailed hand drawn animation. For me personally it is the film that cemented Hayao Miyazaki’s status as one of the greatest filmmakers of today.


* While “Nausicaa” is technically not the first Studio Ghibli film (that would be “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”), it is the film that directly led to the creation of the studio, and it is commonly considered a Studio Ghibli film.

** Brad Bird (“Ratatouille”, “The Incredibles”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”, “Wall-E”) both tried their hands at live action filmmaking recently, with somewhat mixed results. While the Pixar head honcho John Lasetter is more engaged with his numerous duties at Disney; Pixar’s parent company.

Original title: Mononoke-hime

Cast (English dub):

Billy Crudup - Ahitaka
Claire Danes - San
Billy Bob Thornton - Jigo
Minnie Driver - Lady Eboshi
Gillian Anderson - Moro

Original language: Japanese

Princess Mononoke on IMDb

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