One of the more famed works of Studio Ghibli I have yet to see, Princess Mononoke has been toted around as a fantastical masterpiece by many. From the animation alone one can see why, with its breathtaking lore brought to life by striking visual imagery and colours. Miyazaki was on the top of his game animating this one, but what stood out to me was how similar it felt in message comparatively to Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. One could argue that this was Miyazaki’s second shot at the same story, which is weird since Nausicaa gained universal acclaim and Miyazaki has never had another film so similar to a previous one of his works. Having a royal try to restore balance between nature and humans. Different circumstances and scenario, but the same narrative structure of someone restoring the world back to normal. So does Princess Mononoke feel like just another retreading of one of his old ideas, or does it breathe life into something entirely its own?
Princess Mononoke is about Prince Ashitaka and his journey to remove a curse placed on his arm by a demon boar. Where he must travel to the place in which the boar was killed and figure out his purpose in the ongoing conflict between forest gods and humans. Again there is this pacifist royal who wants humans and nature to live in harmony, but I believe where both it and Nausicaa differ is in how both of the leads go about it and how the story chooses to handle said conflict. Ashitaka is someone who plays a distinct active role in the conflict, one who witnesses both sides and harbours a strong sense of right regarding nature. The story itself is about the trying to find that balance between the human’s ambition, mainly Lady Eboshi, and the nature god’s wrath. While it is strongly focusing on how nature is the victim and the humans, despite being kind, have been stepping past their bounds. Nausicaa plays a more passive role in the grander conflict and instead decides to define itself as a more neutral story, one that doesn’t play too heavily to one side or another especially with its main character.
To me that is a big problem Princess Mononoke has, the inability to feel really balanced in its opinion. Ashitaka is one who sees Lady Eboshi as almost evil because of her ambitions to bring Irontown into prosperity and to help those less fortunate. Her actions however are always shaded in this dark sense and never really given a bright spot later on the film past Ashitaka’s first meeting with her. Whereas the animal gods seem more in right because of Ashitaka’s reverence for them. There is a difference in tone with both of the sides that paints the human leader as more evil. Jiro doesn’t help the whole mess as he is a human based in greed that Lady Eboshi helps out of necessity, painting humans more in a darker and greedier light. Jiro kind of tips the balance a bit too much, even though his intentions are much worse than Eboshi’s the film paints them both similarly. The end doesn’t really give much finality in respects to them either, as they are given more cursory glances in comparison to Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke (San). That is sad because up until that point the film effectively gave everyone a good balance and even made Jiro out to be someone Eboshi is above.
The side of Nature is a bit bland if you ask me. Not to say that the nature gods do not have reason to fight, but rather their reason to fight feels very straightforward. There is variation, especially with Samn’s way of looking at things. She is more willing to open herself up to the idea of peace even if that idea is never able to take flight because of the leaders of the specific animal tribes are too stubborn to listen. Moro, the wolf tribe leader, is an interesting one to say the least and one that shows probably the most of nature’s anger towards humans. Though she shows love towards San which is interesting in showing the growth of nature towards humanity, seeing her as her own child and choosing to raise her when her human parents threw her away. Besides those two though, each tribe feels more blanketed in terms of character. It doesn’t offers individuals, but rather certain cases of resolve and neglect. The Boars are a proud tribe that will go down fighting until the last, and the apes are the ones that blame everyone else while doing pointless things that will never make a difference.
Surprisingly, the titular Princess Mononoke is not the focal point of the film. Instead she is the love interest of Prince Ashitaka, which was a bit weird since there wasn’t much interaction between the two in the film. While it hints at them potentially growing to like each other after the events are over, it never really gives us a reason to see her as the title character. Prince Ashitaka should be the name of the film because of his importance over the course of the events. He acts as an intermediary between the gods and humans yet neither side will particularly listen to him. His words are right and his actions clear and respected, yet even the best of intentions cannot halt the coming calamity as hatred reigns supreme on both sides. That is where his character shines, in the moments where he stands on neither side. His determination is striking to say the least and it gives us some of the best moments in the film in terms of offering a balance.
Princess Mononoke instead of offering a proper balance, manages to create riveting story for all those involved and a world worth falling in love with. The world of nature is truly special, as it shows that the nature gods and their tribes are weakening along with the forest and becoming more into beasts. It shows how desperate the tribes are in making the humans stop their destruction, yet they lack the means to properly combat their powerful weaponry. Miyazaki truly brings the world to life with captivating imagery and effective characterization. Both sides are allowed to showcase good and both sides showcase a certain stubbornness that proves why neither can get along, even if the film favours nature.
The way the Forest Spirit is animated in both its form of flesh and its “Nightwalker” form is absolutely magical to watch. It is a being of both life and death and one that effectively gives off this mystical aura from even the opening silhouettes we are given of it. The way the Kodama move through the forest and how the forest feels alive in each frame is just captivating to watch and you can certainly feel for the side of nature when the humans attack. Watching those beings that don’t have a particular side suffer because of others is the best parts of this balancing act that Miyazaki tries to pull off. The tragedy is not from just one side, but from both and we are able to see the circumstances of everyone’s decisions in the end and how they affect those not involved in the final battle. Irontown on the other hand is made out to be this polluted wasteland for the humans. The heavier atmosphere and bleak colour palette offer a stark contrast to the forest’s beauty.
Yet even within the bastion of mechanical and unnatural elements can beat the heart of the forest as shown by Lady Eboshi’s own garden where she has her private quarters where she treats lepers that society has deemed disposable. This garden offers yet another stark contrast to Lady Eboshi’s ambition showing her softer and more gracious side. While this is lost in the latter half of the film, this little moment and setting offers us more of her as a complex three dimensional character. The way Miyazaki animates the demons is also well done, offering yet another side to nature. The tendrils that spout from boar and the gushing blood pouring from its mouth while it doesn’t listen to reason creates the same sense of dread and unnatural aura as Irontown’s factories. There is this sense of duality through the animation all the way throughout the film that effectively does what the story chooses to neglect at points and why this could be one of the more beautiful films Miyazaki has ever made from a design standpoint.
As much as I don’t think the characters themselves don’t serve Miyazaki’s purpose as well as they might, it is hard to say that the cast by themselves are not good characters. San and Lady Eboshi are probably the two best characters in terms of complexity for the cast. Lady Eboshi may have an unchecked ambition, but her determination is an inspiration for others to do better than what life has given them by helping women who worked in brothels feel better about themselves by working to make a living. Her feelings towards her people and that garden showcase a side of her she often doesn’t want to show and often she herself understands the situation from both sides but chooses to stand by her own ambition for the sake of Irontown. San is similar in a lot of ways, knowing both the evil that humans can show but also understand that they can be good with how she reacts to and helps Ashitaka. San wants Lady Eboshi dead, but only to halt the conflict from getting too out of hand. Both sides are driven by hatred of the other, and with their desire to end the conflict quickly will merely lead to more unnecessary death.
Then you have the supporting cast of San’s wolf siblings and the citizens of Irontown to give us the sense of those who don’t want to fight but have to. Everyone just wants to live and by giving us glimpses into the lives of both sides and giving us some simple yet engaging characters to see from both sides allows us to emphasize with the story. The antagonists on the other hand, Jiro and the boars, are lesser characters and never really give us much of a means to connect them to the balance the story was trying to present. Making them both just one dimensional and there to showcase the darker edges of both sides. It doesn’t effectively give us a reason to care for their struggles and instead only give us reasons to see them as problems without much resolution to either’s contribution to the conflict.
The comparison between this film and Nausicaa I think I will wait to talk about in its own post as I don’t think a few paragraphs can do the comparison justice. Princess Mononoke I feel does stand out from Nausicaa in a number of ways, especially with a heavier tone and atmosphere. Princess Mononoke is a far more grim tale than Nausicaa which I think effectively helps to amplify the feeling of hatred both sides feel for one another. The action is at times harsh, limbs flying off everywhere, and I feel that the central characters on both of the sides give Princess Mononoke well needed room to grow past Nausicaa’s one sided conflict.
Princess Mononoke has a lot to talk about in this film, and it is hard to talk about all of it in a small amount of text. While it may not effectively be the balancing act that it wanted to be, it manages to effectively create a world and tale worth watching. The spectacle is certainly a marvel, which should be obvious as it is Hayao Miyazaki directing. My only hang up with the film is in how it tries to handle a sense of balance, as even its mediator favours one side. That doesn’t mean Ashitaka is a bad character, far from it as he has the most complexity besides the two main female characters of both sides. Instead it means that the film didn’t achieve all of what it wanted to do, or what I think it wanted to do. Even with it not being able to achieve that fine line, which I feel like Nausicaa does achieve better, it does an admirable job in executing a complex world with complex characters. Characters who you can understand and emphasize with, and ones that create diversity among both sides. It is nothing short of magical and I for one think even without having hit its important focus of balance it is definitely worth a watch for anyone who wants to watch a fantasy epic.
While I don’t think I compared Nausicaa as much as I would have liked, I think that deserves its own post after I get my feelings down for both films. Who knows, maybe I will think differently after rewatching Nausicaa and eventually comparing the two. The idea of hatred versus ambition and how it drags the worst out of everyone was a strong point of interest for me in this film and there is certainly too much to talk about in just one post. Hopefully I can get around to talking more about this film.
So have you watched Princess Mononoke? How do you feel about the film? Do you think it effectively created a balance when regarding both sides? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself a wonderful day!