PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
Updated: Jun 22
A highlight from Studio Ghibli and a highlight in anime history!
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast/Voices: Yôji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yûko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura
Together with Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke made Studio Ghibli a household name for anime fans all over the world. Following in the footsteps of landmark anime classics like Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) Princess Mononoke solidified anime’s popularity in America and Europe.
Princess Mononoke dwells in the realm of unmistakable Ghibli fantasy. More than any Ghibli film before it is brimful of creatively created magical creatures and magnificent fantasy landscapes. It is a hallmark of animation technique and the story has a lot more bite than most of the fantasy-related films from the studio.
Compared to Totoro and Spirited Away it appears downright brutal, as limbs and heads frequently flies in the midst of creature conflicts and samurai clashes. As such, the film appeals to grown up and young audiences alike.
The underlying, propagandized message - in which mankind is held responsible for the downfall of age old values and natural law - is painstakingly unsubtle to mature audiences. But to the PG-13 audience that the film caters to it is spot on.
The story is interesting in more than one way. The tale of a young villager who is cursed by a demon boar, which in turn sets him on the search for a forest spirit, is captivating in its own right. On his path the boy encounters a mining colony which is the very people that fuels the rage of the demon spirits.
At first the miners seems innocent enough, but their constant craving for modernity and power soon proves to be a disgusting quality. At this time the boy also meets a young girl who was raised by a wolf god and is determined to slay the mining colony's matriarch.
Between the lines
The constant conflict between man and natural deities is typical source material for Japanese fairy-tales. Japanese folklore and mythology is rife with mythological creatures and demons that can be linked to Japanese religion and history. It is therefore a common thing for such creatures to appear in metaphorical and allegorical guise in both literature and films.
In the case of Princess Mononoke the dichotomy between deities and mankind makes for an environmental metaphor in which modernization is blamed for the rapidly deteriorating bond between nature and man.
No country have ever gone through a more rapid modernization than Japan did in the aftermath of WWII, which to the elder generation might appear in opposition to the natural order of things. In the eighties Japan’s industry was known to be a massive machine of pollution. It is therefore no wonder that Princess Mononoke brings up issues like modernization and environmental breakdown.
Interesting issues aside, Princess Mononoke is primarily an imaginative adventure. The countless creatures and animals that permeate throughout the story are as fresh and invigorating in design today as they were 20 years ago.
The deeper meaning of it all is not what makes the film worth watching over and over again; it is the truly unique universe, the melodrama and the character chemistry that makes Princess Mononoke timeless. If you haven’t seen it yet there is no chance for letdown in sight, and for those of you who are just getting into Ghibli, you could hardly find a better place to start.
Bear in mind that this is the most violent fantasy to come out of the studio, but even so, it doesn’t come off as particularly graphic. Advised parental guidance aside, this is a great film for anime fans of (almost) all ages. It goes without saying that Princess Mononoke belongs any serious anime collection.