Japanese Title: Mononoke Hime
Similar: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 2 hr. 10 min.
- Excellent visuals and animation.
- An environmental story that works.
- Fantastical world and monsters.
- Forced romance with little development.
- Princess Mononoke does little despite being the title character.
When the casual viewer thinks of Hayao Miyazaki, they most likely go to Spirited Away, a fun adventure for the whole family. After that fiesta, one wouldn’t expect to find the violence and disgusting creatures of Princess Mononoke, which tells the story of nature’s demise under the expansion of humanity.
The story starts with Ashitaka, a young prince, as he defends his village from a corrupted boar. During the fight, the boar bites him, transferring part of the curse. Now, Ashitaka must leave the village and find a cure for the curse before it consumes him, as it did the boar. The curse also gives him strength – he can decapitate a man with single arrow (not how physics works, but this is minor).
On his journey, he arrives at Iron Town, a locale known for smelting the highest quality iron under the guidance of Lady Eboshi; however, to do so, they require wood and ore from the surrounding environment, which has angered the animal tribes and their gods. Amongst the wolf tribe is a young woman, San or Princess Mononoke, who captivates Ashitaka as he seeks to bring peace between animal and human and prevent the spread of corruption. Princess Mononoke is an intense world where moments of laughter are few and far between.
If it weren’t obvious already, Princess Mononoke is very much an environmental story, a usually tedious sort of story to sit through as the film tries to hammer some ‘save the Earth’ message into your brain with no understanding of reality. Princess Mononoke, however, avoids the ham-fisted approach and handles the human vs. nature conundrum with surprising depth. It shows both sides of the conflict – the need for humanity to expand, but also the effect it has on the environment when said expansion isn’t measured or thought out. And at the heart of it all, greed is the ultimate corruption, neither nature nor humanity immune.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the lore of the world, but the characters left something to be desired. I don’t suggest any of these characters are poor in quality. Rather, they are too standard, too typical – not clichéd, just unvarying. Looking at Ashitaka, for example, he fills the role of the young hero on a quest, yet we never get to see his inner character, his thoughts, his emotions. He fills a role in the action, little more. The same applies to Mononoke, who despite being the title character, has little impact on the plot and has less significance than some supporting characters. She fills the role of the mysterious character on the other side and love interest – the romance is as empty as can be, by the way, and never develops any chemistry between the two characters. I don’t know why they even needed the romance to begin with.
The most interesting character is Lady Eboshi. She is smart, a savvy businesswoman who wants to arm the village to protect it against the emperor and his samurai forces trying to subjugate the village. She makes for a great leader, prioritising her people first, but doesn’t know the consequences of her actions. Even with her, however, we don’t get those small moments that show her inner character enough.
Look to the animals, now there we have characters that are more interesting (the animals can talk). Nature’s decline has led to animosity between the tribes, each living in fear and lashing out at the others. The blind boar god was fascinating. He has this moment of terror that I found captivating, showing us his character in a single scene and the madness this war has brought.
Princess Mononoke was a good film on the macro level. The grand conflict, the world’s lore, the beasts, the different human factions, the idea, all great. Down at the micro level, I found little there. The characters fill roles in the narrative; if the narrative didn’t exist, I don’t feel as though these characters would have much to do, for we never learn of whom they are inside.
Art – Very High
Beautiful art and fantastic animation, as always, from Studio Ghibli. Animating the corruption must have taken a while. Only a couple of shots drop in quality. The creatures look vicious.
Sound – High
Princess Mononoke is great in Japanese and sports a fine dub, though you can ‘hear the acting’ from Claire Danes as Mononoke, but since she is a minor character, it isn’t an issue. Also, one village lady is a sassy black woman – funny, but odd considering the setting. The excellent orchestra is reminiscent of early Disney films like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia, where music punctuates the action and narrative beats.
Story – High
A great story between the progress of humanity and the regression of nature. The plot is enchanting, filled with fantasy, but the characters are a bit too standard to elevate the story beyond.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A great fantasy adventure, easy to recommend. Despite the colourful aesthetic, remember that Princess Mononoke may frighten children with its imagery and violence.
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)