An Environmentally Poetic Near-Masterpiece from Studio Ghibli
The world is complicated. It is filled with pain, suffering and hatred, but also beauty and harmony. It’s beautiful because of the forests, the lands, and the greenery that enable the cycle of life and nature, and because of the emotions, connections and memories we make together. It’s also ugly because of the overwhelming damage we humans are responsible for. Not only does that hurt the environment, it also hurts humans because we can’t live without our world.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke marked a turning point for Studio Ghibli. While retaining the colourfully rich animation, nuanced storytelling, and sense of hope their films have been known for, Princess Mononoke delves into the darkness of humanity through historical, mythological and fantasy elements to create something imaginative and deeply heartbreaking.
Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan, Ashitaka (Y ji Matsuda), the last Ainu prince of the Emishi tribe, defends his village from a demonically possessed boar god. He kills it, but in the process, becomes inflicted with a curse that gives him superhuman strength but also causes pain and threatens to kill him. To cure himself, he must travel to the western lands, though he can never return to his hometown. As he journeys, he encounters San (Yuriko Ishida), a human girl raised by the wolves and with a deep hatred of humans. She is hostile to Ashitaka and tells him to turn back. Later, he reaches Iron Town, an industrialised, progressive refuge for its citizens to create weaponry in its land mines, and meets its leader, Lady Eboshi (Y ko Tanaka), who intends to expand her town by destroying portions of the forest and strengthening her people. Learning of the conflict between San and Eboshi, Ashitaka hears stories about the Great Forest Spirit, a deer-like God and Night Walker that can cure him. It is the heart of the forests. San and her animal clans are fighting to protect the Great Forest Spirit. Eboshi wants to destroy it for political ambitions. Ashitaka, caught between both sides, must find a way to bring balance and peace to this conflict.
Princess Mononoke is not a simple tale of good and evil. There are no heroes or villains, just characters with opposing intentions that end up being part of the problem. San’s desire to protect nature is linked to her hatred for humanity, despite being human herself, and she is willing to kill, making her behaviour almost animalistic. Eboshi has empathy for her people, especially those without a voice like women and people with disabilities, and she is willing to destroy the environment if it means advancing her society and helping them. San reflects a violent, tribal individualism, while Eboshi is a leader of industrialised conformity. Both of their actions create a war that hurts both humanity and nature. There’s nothing to gain from it and all that’s left in its wake is pain, disease, and destruction.
Ashitaka is a character that comes close to resembling pure goodness and selflessness, and yet he struggles with that because of the curse inflicted on him. A curse that sets his fate and hero’s journey forward, brings him closer to death and almost to the breaking point of hatred, yet he fights back because of his good nature, focusing on bringing peace rather than joining anyone’s side He loves San but tries to change her views on humans while he denounces Eboshi’s actions yet demonstrates respect for her intentions.
The supporting characters are just as flawed. San’s adopted mother and wolf, Moro (Akihiro Miwa), attacks humans, even the innocent ones, and has a general distrust against them, yet it comes from witnessing her homeland being destroyed by the very people threatening her existence. Jik -bo is a selfish, opportunistic character working for Eboshi but doesn’t believe his intentions are of a malicious origin. The blind boar god, Okkoto (Hisaya Morishige), and his clan are dedicated to fighting against the humans, willing to sacrifice themselves if it means protecting the forest, even if the effort may be futile. And yet the motivations behind their actions are valid, driven by conflicting interests that tear their worlds apart, so they are not simply selfish.
As such, Princess Mononoke is more than just a message about taking care of the environment. It advocates for balance between humanity and nature through its confident, tonal blend of epic historical drama and Japanese mythology. It contrasts the evolving, human society of Iron Town against the gorgeous yet demanding order of the forests. The clash between technology and nature fuels Miyazaki’s juxtapositions against the worlds he creates, along with the harrowing, grim imagery that follows in portraying violence and conflict.
The forests are gorgeous, with Kodama to signify the liveliness, spirits and colour of the environment. Within its depths lie animal clans completely hostile to humans, and protective of their environments, and the Great Forest Spirit, the one that brings all life and heart to the forest. By day, it appears as a deer, where its every step blooms with flowers and greenery, even with the ability to walk on water. But whenever the sun finally sets, consuming the world with darkness, the Great Forest Spirit transforms into something so enormous, so majestic, and so magical that those able to see it would be lucky. A giant Night Walker, seemingly made of water and sky, and filled with stars. The form of a true god.
By contrast, the Iron Town has a heart made of the thrashing machinery and the diverse residents that build and run their technology. It is drab and drained of colour, yet advanced in function to make the way of living easier, ultimately signifying humanity’s strong, uncompromising nature. Both settings have their own politics and hierarchical structures, but it’s the war that brings them against each other, and when both sides fight, it’s followed by bloody, emotionally distressing imagery.
Princess Mononoke is bleak with how it lets its images take control of the story, but it has empathy for its character nuances. It has a romantic, sophisticated approach towards its genre elements, and it has an immaculate beauty to its seamless mixture of primary hand-drawn animation and 3D CGI rendering. Princess Mononoke is entirely composed with nearly all of its elements, save for its minor pacing issues in the middle. Other than that, it stands out as one of Studio Ghibli’s richer, more emotionally rewarding offerings.