Genre: Fantasy / Historical
Version reviewed: Japanese Subtitled
Date of Review: 26 Jul 2012
Aside from the harsh realism of Grave of the Fireflies, this is perhaps Studio Ghibli’s darkest work.
While protecting his village from a demon god, the young noble warrior Ashitaka becomes cursed during the ensuing battle. Having received the demon god’s curse, he must leave the village to meet his fate. On his journey, Ashitaka encounters a band of men engaged in their own battle, as well as a girl who seems to be in the company of the wolf god fighting in opposition to these men. Ashitaka decides that he must speak with both sides of this conflict in order to try to find the answers for his own journey.
Sometimes it’s amazing what not seeing something for close to a decade can do. It must be nearly that long since I last watched Princess Mononoke, but I couldn’t be happier to have forgotten most of a movie. It was like seeing it for the first time all over again; it was almost like discovering Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki for the first time again, which is what this film largely did for North America nearly fifteen years ago. Princess Mononoke is perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus.
Princess Mononoke is a dark fantasy set in feudal Japan, though the fantasy elements take priority in this case. It is surprisingly violent for a Ghibli film, but that element is not glamorized; it is just the way that things happen in the world of the film. Hayao Miyazaki has often made environmentalist themes a part of his stories, and in Princess Mononoke they are at their most transparent; this is a story about the struggles between man and nature as much as it is a story about the war between man and gods.
One other peculiarity about Princess Mononoke is that while most of Ghibli’s films center around a young girl who either possesses or gains inner strength over the course of the story, San (Princess Mononoke) is almost more of a catalyst in this film, acting as the reason for many of Ashitaka’s actions. The two characters share the lead role in this film, but it is a dynamic which works quite well. In fact, since it has been so long since I last watched Princess Mononoke, I had forgotten how much presence San commands when she is on screen, and it reminded me of why she is my favorite Ghibli lead. San is almost feral: fiercely determined with formidable strength, and her actions reflect an intense passion for her beliefs. She is not without vulnerability though, and it is this contrast in her personality which I find appealing.
Princess Mononoke’s grand scale and dark story set it apart from most of Hayao Miyazaki’s other Ghibli works; this is as far as you can get from the whimsy of My Neighbor Totoro or Ponyo. Still, the same man who can weave those tales of fancy is also very capable of writing a pointed allegory about environmental harmony and awareness. Princess Mononoke does have a few lighter moments with some of the villagers, as well as the forest sprites known as Kodama, but these are not the focus of the film, instead they are mostly a means to ease the tension for a brief moment.
My standard film advice goes for this one as well: the best way to appreciate Princess Mononoke is to sit down and watch it for yourself. For those who may have missed it in the late 1990s and have somehow still not yet seen it, this is a film which has deserved all of the accolades given to it. It is one of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s most shining works, though I wouldn’t necessarily use it as an introduction to either Ghibli or Miyazaki, unless one is already comfortable with the level of intensity found here. Princess Mononoke is, however, a prime example of what is possible in Japanese animation, from both technical and artistic standpoints.