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Princess Mononoke



Reviewed by: Angharad Jones

Released: 12th July 1997

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi

Certificate: PG 

‘Those were the days of Gods and Demons’. An opening line that not only sums up the fantasy historical setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, but is also metaphorical reference; to a time before humans began to play god with nature. In Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 ecological epic, the mighty gods of the forest are the ones keeping order in medieval Muramachi Japan.

With mythic elements based on Japanese folklore, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Prince Ashitaka, who’s unfortunate but necessary encounter with a nightmarish demon (in an effort to protect his village) results in him contracting a debilitating curse. The demon he fights and eventually kills was once a great forest god, but something filled him with a hatred that ate away at his soul, transforming him into a monster. Despite Ashitaka’s valiant gesture to save his village from the demons wrath, he learns the deadly nature of the consequence is thus; he’s received a supernatural malady that whilst granting him superhuman strength, will eventually kill him.  As advised, he leaves his village and begins a journey to discover the exact cause of the ex-god’s anger, hoping it will lead to cure for his condition.

His travels take him to Iron Town, an industrial village at the foothills of a great mountain range. The dense forests of the hills are home to Moro, the great white wolf-god, her pups and her adopted human daughter named San- known to the inhabitants of the town as Princess Mononoke. The manager of the town in the regal Lady Eboshi, who Ashitaka learns is responsible for the extensive deforestation and iron mining in the hills. With the iron the people of the town construct powerful weapons which they subsequently use on the various beasts of the mountains. For some time this has angered the forest gods and San wishes to kill Lady Eboshi for threatening the welfare of her family and forest home. Only Ashitaka believes there is a way in which humans and gods can reside harmoniously together and this means he must place himself between the wraths of the two as both sides go to war.

The film is a very realistic and at times brutally honest portrayal of mans’ relationship with nature. The realities of life, death, decay and destruction are told through brilliant animation and with strong but also believably flawed characters with various moral and immoral motives for their actions. There’s shown to be both hostility and kindness within both the forest inhabitants and the humans and as such there are no completely condemnable characters. Even if a character’s actions seem inarguably wrong, more often than not they are shown to have had good intentions. This parallel to our own world is an intentional and effective one. However just like our own world, human greed and selfishness are the root causes of the conflict within the film. Prejudice is rife- the forest gods believe that all humans are destructive, whilst the humans believe the gods are purely savage and uncivilised. Even San, a human, but believing herself the daughter of a god cries out; ‘I hate all humans!’  An idea that is portrayed strongly throughout this film is that hatred changes a person. In the end hatred will only spark more hatred. The once grand gods, by becoming horrid demons are themselves manifestations of how hate and rage can make you abhorrent on both the inside and out. The amount of meanings, hidden or obvious, are so numerous I can’t relate them all, but the genius of their placement is plain to see whilst watching the film.

A point that stands out in Princess Mononoke from the beginning is the clever use of cinematography. Its unusual shots set the tone of the film and create intrigue and suspense, especially in the more eerie and unnerving scenes; and of this kind of scene there are certainly plenty. Being possibly the most serious and adult of all the studio’s animations, Princess Mononoke is at times gruesome, gory and frightening, but to me these scenes are huge part of what propels the film above and beyond other ‘grown-up’ anime. Never unnecessary or overdone as in some of the more ‘hard-core’ animations, the graphic scenes are surprisingly imaginative. There’s a fair amount of blood and a few scenes involving dismemberment but the violence and gore never feels irrelevant. If anything, the film would be a poorer one without it. Even the war/fight scenes are artfully staged and add to the atmosphere of the film. The PG rating certainly needs to be acknowledged by parents before allowing young children to watch it, but in my opinion, since the violence isn’t gratuitous and the films message is something so poignant and important, I think the benefit of watching it outweighs everything else.

A nod to the style in which the animation is delivered is definitely deserved too. Unlike the anthropomorphised animation of talking animals that Disney is famous for, the Ghibli animators took the opposite approach in Princess Mononoke. The beasts are drawn as if howling, barking or calling as they would in real life and their humanised voice then added over the top. This gives the surreal feeling they are as the film states ‘higher beings’ with an elevated form of speech.

Although this feature isn’t for the whole family, for the children that are old enough to see it (and for the big kids too) it does contain a small amount of the strange but endearing creatures that are regulars in Studio Ghibli films. This time in the form of the childlike Kodama, carefree forest-dwelling spirits that signify health and life. The cast for the english dub include Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Jillian Anderson and Minnie Driver and I feel this lives upto its original Japanese version, unlike many other animes that are dubbed into English.

With powerful ecological messages, an evocative and otherworldly soundtrack and truly astonishing animation Princess Mononoke reminds us of the magic and fragility of the natural world. It’s a triumph of a film and it’s a warning and a lesson to us all.

25 year old film fanatic who loves rock music, Xbox and cat videos on Youtube. I also tweet @lewisvstheworld

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