PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
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
Introducing a Miyazaki masterpiece
Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) made anime cult. My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke made anime popular culture on a global scale, and turned Studio Ghibli into a worldwide household name.
Compared to Totoro and Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke is downright brutal. Flying limbs and rolling heads are hardly popular culture, which might explain the poor sales at the box office in North America. That didn’t stop the sales of physical media though, and before long, the film became an anime phenomenon.
Facts and fiction
Princess Mononoke was the 10th anime feature film made by Studio Ghibli, and the 5th one directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was released in Japan in 1997, and was the first anime film to ever win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture.
The story is set in medieval Japan, but dwells in the realm of unmistakable Ghibli fantasy. The world is brimful of creatively drawn mythological creatures and magnificent fantasy landscapes, more so than in any Ghibli-film before it.
In terms of action and creature creation,
Princess Mononoke is like Totoro on steroids.
The year before Princess Mononoke was released, Disney made a deal for the distribution rights of Ghibli-films. However, the chairman at Disney’s subsidiary company Miramax Films – Harvey Weinstein – wanted to trim the movie down to 90 minutes. Some time later Weinstein received a Japanese sword in the mail with the attached message: «No cuts!»
This sent Weinstein into a rage fit, which he was well-known for doing, but the film remained the same on both continents. Miyazaki refusing to compromise his vision might have resulted in lesser promotion of the film in America, but this we will probably never know for sure.
The story of a princess in disguise
The story has a lot more bite than most fantasy-films from Studio Ghibli. It tells the tale of a young villager who is cursed by a demon boar. Unless he lifts the curse, it will eventually end up killing him. This sets the boy on a journey to seek help from the «Great Forest Spirit».
On his path, the boy encounters a mining colony, which turns out to be the very people that aggravate the demon spirits. At first, the miners seem innocent, but soon enough they prove to be a society whose thirst for modernity and power cannot be quenched.
It was this iron mining community that enraged the demon boar, first by cutting down the forest, and then by shooting it with an iron bullet. The ironmongers regularly fend of attacks from the spirit realm, including assaults by a pack of wolf gods.
It is during one of these attacks that the boy encounters a young girl called San. She was raised by the wolf gods, and is determined to slay the mining colony's matriarch. At this point the narrative interlocks, as San’s agenda and the boy’s pursuit becomes part of the same story.
Between the lines of nature and man
«Mononoke» is actually not a name, but a term describing ill-spirited shape-shifting creatures in Japanese mythology. These beings would possess other beings in order to dish out vengeance in the form of suffering, disease, and death.
In the case of Princess Mononoke, the conflict between deities and humans makes for an environmental metaphor. As such, modernization is blamed for the rapidly fading bond between nature and man.
«So you say you're under a curse? So what? So's the whole damn world.»
Jigo the Mercenary «Monk»
No country has ever gone through a hastier modernization than Japan did in the aftermath of WWII. To the elder generation, it might very well have seemed in opposition to the natural order of things.
In the eighties, Japanese industry was known for being a massive machine of pollution. It is therefore no wonder that Princess Mononoke brings up issues like express modernization and environmental breakdown.
The underlying, «propagandized» message – in which mankind is held responsible for the downfall of age-old values and natural law – is terribly transparent to mature audiences. But, to the PG-13 audience that the film caters to, it is spot on.
Miyazaki’s inspirations for Princess Mononoke
Miyazaki intentionally avoided accurate parallels to Japanese historical periods. Instead, he took inspiration from the American western-film director John Ford. This led to the idea about a mining village, or a «frontier town», settled by people from the fringes of Japanese society.
A lesser-known source of inspiration that was confirmed by Miyazaki is a manga called Mudmen (1975-1982). The story is about a tribe in Papa New Guinea, which is known for their characteristic masks and body paint.
In an interview about the author of Mudmen, Miyazaki ended up talking for two hours about how much the manga influenced him. A closer look at the Manga, and images of the actual tribesmen, clearly reveals how it inspired some of the creatures in both Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki was working on the idea for Princess Mononoke since the 70s. But, it would take 20 years before all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and production finally started. As always, the animations from the Ghibli/Miyazaki collaboration turned out brilliant.
It is not so much about the story or the message between the lines, as it is about the enthralling world we are invited into. But even more so, the creativity displayed when dealing with mythological creature design was truly mesmerizing.
The rather dark fantasyland, the action choreography and the creature design are the three key factors that make Princess Mononoke stand out from other Ghibli-films. Together these ingredients made for an original atmosphere that has proven to stand the test of time.
Somehow, the weight of the atmosphere makes me think of another Ghibli favorite: From up on Poppy Hill. The two films are as far apart in topic matter and setting as two Ghibli-films can come. Still, they both stand out due to an almost indescribable quality; a wholly original blend of design, drawing and music that can only be described as Ghibli magic.
Final verdict for Princess Mononoke
The deeper meaning of it all is not what makes Princess Mononoke worth watching over and over again. First and foremost, it is a highly imaginative take on Japanese mythology. It is the unique universe, the drama, and the myriad of fascinating beings that made it timeless.
If you are just getting started on the Ghibli catalog, you could hardly find a better place to start. Bear in mind that Princess Mononoke is the most violent film to come out of the studio, but even so, it never becomes too graphic. It is a great film for anime fans of (almost) all ages.
The Guardian: A god among animators
Internet Archive: Princess Mononoke in America
Internet Archive: The Myth of Princess Mononoke and Miyazaki’s Vision
Sora News 24: The little-known inspiration for Princess Mononoke
Wikipedia: Mudmen (Japanese only)