Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: Princess Mononoke

Animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Castle in the Sky, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo) is both the king of Japanese animation and a great of filmmaking in general.

As Pixar founder and chief creative officer John Lasseter says: 'When we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take [one] of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to [Miyazaki].' (

The works of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli are now so esteemed and widespread that if you've only ever seen one animé feature, it was probably one of his. Miyazaki's graduation to international recognition came with his 2002 Best Animated Feature-winner Spirited Away, but his 1997 film Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫 Mononoke-hime in its native Japanese) (trailer) brought him to the attention of critics and cognoscenti on the other side of the Pacific.


'There's something strange going on', says Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the English dub), prince of a modest, secluded rural village. 'The Wise Woman wants everybody back to the village at once', he commands a group of girls.

'In the forest - Something's wrong', they say. 'The birds are all gone. And the animals, too.'

Ashitaka heads up a watchtower and sees trees putrefy and die in the wake of a grotesque beast with glowing eyes and a hide of writhing black worms. The thing blazes towards the thatch-roofed village and ignores Ashitaka's cries to leave his people alone.

Ashitaka primes his bow and engages the monster, which reveals itself to be a gargantuan, possessed boar.

Ashitaka fells the boar, but not before an infested appendage grips his arm and infects it with a dark, mottled mark.

'The infection will spread throughout your whole body', the Wise Woman later divines. 'It will cause you great pain, then kill you...Look at this: This iron ball was found in the boar's body...It shattered his bones and burned its way deep inside him. This is what turned him into a demon.'

'There is evil at work in the land to the west, Prince Ashitaka. It's your fate to go there and see what you can see with eyes unclouded by hate. You might find a way to lift the curse.'

Ashitaka rides out of town on his elk steed to seek the origin of the iron bullet.

My Take

I'm not normally a fan of animé. Most of what I've seen seems to share the same melodramatic writing style, chump-change recycled animation tricks and giant-eyed/triangle-mouthed/neon-haired/stick-thin character designs.

That being said, I feel that Miyazaki's films have a strong idiosyncratic style that encompasses both epic, sweeping fantasy and a realistic design of characters, animals and scenery. Mononoke has formidable artistic resources which are especially evident in the deftly handled action scenes and the numerous, lushly-painted environments - of which some only appear for a fraction of a second.

Something that I never realized when I first saw Mononoke - on VHS at age ten - was that, despite the film's brilliant colors, its story gets bleak. Miyazaki might have the epithet 'Japan's Disney', but this ain't Cinderella. Mononoke is less fairy-tale fantasy, and more Lord of the Rings-type war movie. Its Joe Hisaishi score - replete with memorable character themes rendered in rumbling cellos and somber woodwinds - even gives Rings composer Howard Shore a run for his money.

Wolf-god Moro (Gillian Anderson) battles against Iron Town, which threatens to clear away her forest to mine the mountains. The film's titular Princess Mononoke (trans: 'princess of vengeful spirits', actual name San) is a human girl raised by Moro who fights alongside the wolves (and is voiced by Claire Danes on familiar shrill, shouting form).

The war isn't as simple as 'the good-guy animals are just trying to stop the evil humans from destroying their homes.' When we meet Iron Town chief Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), we find out that she has both a desire to slay the wolves...and leadership of a progressive town with equal opportunities for women and the diseased.

The animal gods and their tribes (of which there are boar and apes in addition to wolves) aren't benevolent, but are instead vicious, obstinate and proud; like the petty, jealous gods of ancient Greek legend: 'Silence, boy. How dare you speak to a god like that?!...Now leave this place at sunrise. Return, and I shall kill you.'

Lady Eboshi is also antagonised by an army of marauding samurai, and the animal gods argue amongst themselves instead of unifying. The war is messy, and nobody can truly be called bad guys or good guys - they all just want their own room to prosper.

Even though Ashitaka constantly tries to prevent everyone from fighting each other, his grim disposition can make him a hard character to root for. Throughout the movie I am shown several characters' scores they want settled or threats they want to defend against, but our protagonist fights against any of this being resolved.

Maybe this is Miyazaki's message: I the audience member may desire revenge or power for my favorite characters, but the real truth of the world is that the only way to end the violence is to not kill the other guy, and instead stop without gaining satisfaction. This is way more meaningful and complex than most adventure/fantasy, which tends to feature only the most unequivocal and archetypal 'good' and 'bad'.

Ashitaka's grimness supports a belief of mine, which is that while a hero's adventure can look exciting and profound, being a hero isn't fun at all. We all know that the supposed ultimate act of heroism is to die to save others, but 
I don't see how a tragic disregard for one's own life can be something transcendentally noble and worthy of aspiration.

In an effort to not make Princess Mononoke sound like such a total abyss of misery, I would like to mention that it does have moments of levity. We hear banter from the sassy Iron Town women (including Jada Pinkett-Smith's Toki); we see eccentric, bowling ball-headed woodland spirits...

...and we encounter the mercenary Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), whose loquaciousness is a welcome contrast to Ashitaka's taciturnity:

'Hand me your bowl. My point is, everybody dies, boy. Some now, some later. From brothel girl to emperor. I've heard them say that the Emperor has promised an entire hill of gold to anyone who can help him live forever-beautiful bowl, I've seen one other like it. Have you heard of the Emishi people? They're said to ride red elks...'


Hayao Miyazaki retired from filmmaking after Princess Mononoke, but returned to release his most successful films and collect his Oscar. His upcoming film The Wind Rises is being billed as his 'final' film, but can even he say that for sure?

Further Reading

For more about animation, see my post about Sita Sings the Blues.

For more about giant monsters, see my post about Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Princess Mononoke was produced by DENTSU Music And Entertainment, Nibariki, Nippon Television Network (NTV), Studio Ghibli, TNDG and Tokuma Shoten. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing Ltd.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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