Continuing my reviews of Studio Ghibli films, I’m going to talk about Princess Mononoke today. I often can’t decide between this film and Grave of the Fireflies as my favourite films of all time, but Princess Mononoke is definitely up there in my top 3. To me, it embodies all the major themes present throughout Miyazaki’s works: strong female characters, struggles between industrialism and environmentalism, mysticism as well as touching on elements of how society treats women and disabled people. It’s for these themes and its fantastic presentation of them that Princess Mononoke is an absolutely epic tale with truly remarkable visuals, contains a lot of touching and inspiring moments, and is by all accounts, an extraordinary film.
As I mentioned, it is an epic tale, following the journey of Ashitaka who is cursed by a demon who attempts to attack his town. Whilst battling the cursed boar demon, some of the corruption attaches itself to Ashitaka’s arm. He then leaves his village in search of a cure, his only clue to head westward in search of the lands that the boar came from. On his way, he learns about the Great Forest Spirit, glimpses a part of the struggles between the people of Irontown and the forest guardians – the wolf clan and San or Princess Mononoke, a girl raised by wolves. Ashitaka becomes embroiled in this struggle as the citizens of Irontown, run by a strong-willed Eboshi, attempt to harness the natural resources of the land at the cost of destroying the forest and wildlife. The forest creatures including a boar clan, monkey group and San’s wolf clan, have different ideas about how to handle the attacks on their homeland. This conflict is at the heart of the film, and through Ashitaka’s quest to find the Great Forest Spirit, we witness several huge battles and the consequences of such a conflict.
What is very well done in this film is that despite its environmentalist overtones, the film does not seem preachy or one-sided. It very sensitively portrays both sides as having some claim over the land, and whether you think one side has more of a claim than the other is debateable. You might think that Irontown’s Eboshi is just an evil capitalist, bent on destroying the forest for her own personal gain; but then again, when you see how fairly she treats her citizens, especially the women who enjoy an elevated status in Irontown, and the way she treats the ostracised lepers of society, you might change your mind. Likewise, you might think San is the true hero of the movie with her cunning, agility and strength, but you might start to question her motives and whether her ingrained hatred for all humans is justified.
I’m not saying this film occupies a complete moral greyscape with a completely balanced view; by the end of the film, there are certain factions which do seem to win out. But what this film does do is at least make you question and pause for a moment. This isn’t a film with clear heroes and clear villains. There are just people (and even animals) with different priorities, values and morals, living in a world which is very similar to ours despite the presence of magic.
On the point of magic and mysticism, I think what Miyazaki manages to capture in a lot of his films is how magic can be completely integrated into our lives without necessarily making it a huge focus of the film. For the citizens of Irontown, magic to them is just a remnant of the past, something that old rural village elders cared about. For Ashitaka in his small, agricultural homestead, magic is something that is prevalent in their lives. Magic then is seamlessly woven into the narrative, and different characters respond to it appropriately. As an audience, I feel that we encapsulate both of these viewpoints; obviously magic isn’t a predominant force in reality, but what magic stands for in Princess Mononoke is the kind of mysticism and cultural reverence for nature that we might have in our own modern societies.
Another interesting point is that the film takes a very concerted view on animals, something which I don’t see often in films. When animals are animated in cartoons, they tend to be exceedingly anthropomorphised and are basically just furry humans. In Princess Mononoke though, the animals manage to have personalities and distinct emotions without ever feeling like they’re just humans in suits. For example, the boars are stubborn and have hot tempers, and as such, they behave stupidly and follow their herd instincts rather than their individual minds. They don’t behave like humans because they aren’t humans. But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about them, indeed, the relationship between San and her wolf clan is one of the best animal-human relations that I’ve seen. Step aside Jungle Book, it’s easy to see why Mogli would interact with the jungle creatures as he does because they’re all basically humans (I mean come on, Baloo dances!). However in Princess Mononoke, San’s relationship with the wolves is more genuine; there are no dancing sequences to make you understand their relationship, it’s just there because of her upbringing and history with the wolves. Throughout, she always remains distinctly the girl who grew up amongst wolves and not a girl who grew up amongst furry parental substitutes.
Furthermore, the film portrays all this through its gorgeous hand-drawn art. From the emerald hills of the countryside to the smoke plumes rising out of Irontown, the backgrounds and landscapes in particular are incredibly detailed and beautiful. Ashitaka’s journey through the forest is a symphony of colours and textures, as he treads through delicate plants and brushes aside spiky shrubbery. Even the more violent scenes manage to be incredibly realistic, with blood spurting across the battlefields and corpses left to rot on plains, and its gory realism serves as a reminder of the unsettling nature of violence. It’s not a film which holds back in any aspect and none of it is sugar-coated the way we’re used to in Disney films. Visually, this film is just stunning and as far as animated films go, it’s one of the masterpieces of the genre. This film just wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.
To conclude, Princess Mononoke deals with complex and mature issues but does it by wrapping it all up in a compelling story. The characters are all well developed, and none of them seem like stereotypes. The world is imaginative and enchanting, helped along by the delicately handcrafted nature of the animation. It’s one of the best Studio Ghibli films, in my opinion, because it touches upon all the major themes that Miyazaki loves to tackle and it portrays them all in unique, thought-provoking and dramatic ways. If you haven’t watched this film already, then you are missing out on one of the most visually-arresting and impressive animated movies of all time.