It’s 2017 and I’m ready for a fresh start. This means it’s a perfect time to look backward.
In this case, I’m looking at a few Japanese animated classics. Right now, I’m looking at another Hayao Miyazaki film, and soon I’ll be following up on some Satoshi Kon works. But for now, I’ll take a look at Princess Mononoke, widely considered by many to be one of Miyazaki’s best titles ever.
In medieval Japan, a demon-possessed boar attacks an Emishi village. Only the young warrior prince Ashitaka can defeat it, but in doing so, his arm becomes cursed. The wise woman of his town sends him out to seek the Great Forest Spirit to the west for salvation. Along the way, Ashitaka meets the people of Irontown, who mine and forge iron under the watchful eye of Lady Eboshi, and who possess rudimentary firearms to defend themselves. This encounter leads Ashitaka to cross paths with San, a warrior princess of the forest, and the wolves who defend it from Lady Eboshi. Only with skill and compassion does he learn to navigate the two sides of the war, so that he can save himself from the curse—and save everyone from an equally terrible fate.
I still might be behind on my Miyazaki canon, but I have to admit that the young prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the English dub) is probably one of my favorite protagonists from his movies. He’s a neat blend of courage under fire and humility, especially when it comes to dealing with the spirits of the natural world.
This also sets Ashitaka apart from the humans of Irontown, while giving him an odd kinship with San, the titular Princess raised by wolves and guardian of the forest. She’s quite striking, both in appearance and in personality. It’s easy to see her as savage like the people of Irontown do, but she has a soft side that only the forest gets to see (until she meets Ashitaka, that is).
The other characters are a distinct mixture, too. You have sympathetic villains like Lady Eboshi, whose vision of Progress is tempered with surprising camaraderie with her village. You have scoundrels like the monk Jiko-bo and the samurai of rival lords, who only care about serving their masters, no matter how many lives it costs them. And then you have proud beasts like the blind boar god Okkoto and the wolf goddess Moro, who seem wise, but will gladly direct their vicious nature toward any humans they encounter. All of this makes for a real spectrum of morality on display throughout the movie.
Princess Mononoke is certainly a lot gorier than I expected. You might be anticipating plenty of cute animation (Miyazaki has a reputation, after all), but then you get plenty of scenes where people are split open with swords or have their arms chopped off. But it works on both a historical and thematic level. Mononoke is set during a time of warring clans in Japan, and the story also explores our relationship with nature, shown to be both beautiful and heartless.
While I might still prefer Porco Rosso or Spirited Away, I really liked Mononoke. This story is doing work as both as a piece of historical fiction for Japanese audiences and as a save-the-planet nature tale. Even when it might come across as preachy, it manages to pull back enough and recognize the common humanity, the chain of life, between all creatures.
The English dub of Princess Mononoke is available through Disney Movies.
Bibliography: Princess Mononoke (English dub). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, John DeMita, John DiMaggio, Gillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Keith David. Studio Ghibli; Tokuma Shoten; Nippon Television; Dentsu. Toho (Japanese distributor). Walt Disney Company (US distributor). Original release date: July 12, 1997.