In feudal Japan, industry and nature are at war. In a land when metal works are thriving and humanity is plundering all natural resources in pursuit of profit, the ancient spirits and gods surrounding them find themselves threatened. Huge boar gods are shot at with the new ‘rifle’ weapon. Ape Gods slink away when pelted with explosives, unable to replant the forest. And wolf gods stalk the human settlements, ready to bite down on those that would destroy them.
In the canon of Studio Ghibli movies Princess Mononoke is easily the most mature, and violent. Protagonist Ashitaka is infected by a rage-filled curse as he fights back a stampeding demon in the opening scenes. Finding that the demon was once a god and that its ribs were smashed by an iron pellet still embedded in its body, he leaves his tribe to find The Forest Spirit and seek to be healed. On his way he fights off samurai, and his new powers cause his arrows to severe the heads of those they hit. There’s certainly no other Ghibli film that has on screen decapitations or limbs being severed, even if these are relatively goreless!
Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is a story that is bursting at the seams with content, both direct and thematic. On a surface level there is plenty of ancient Japanese mythology. The land is populated by incarnate animal gods and spirits, representing the old way of things. But times are changing and when Ashitaka reaches the mining and smelting Iron Town, he finds that the inhabitants’ prosperity comes at the cost of destroying the forest around them. And yet, Miyazaki cleverly makes things more ambiguous thanks to unusual characterisation.
Ashitaka can best be described as a hero that does nothing heroic. He is stoic to a fault and fights to protect both the spirit forces and the town dwellers, trying to avoid combat and preach co-existence. Running Iron Town is the formidable Lady Eboshi. Again, whilst she is loosely an antagonist in the sense that her industry is responsible for the anger of the old gods, she is both ruthless and kind in equal measure. She takes in lepers. She buys up the contracts of prostitutes and sets them free (where they choose to work for her). The people in the town are just trying to survive.
The iconic ‘Princess Mononoke’ herself is San. Found by wolf gods as a baby and raised as one of their own she hates humanity, vowing to kill Lady Eboshi. Her clay mask and brutal nature are the most recognisable imagery from the movie. Through her clashes with Ashitaka, Miyazaki allows us to see that in this battle there are no ‘good’ guys or ‘bad’ guys: just forces with clashing priorities.
It almost goes without saying that Princess Mononoke is a treat to look at. Whilst it lacks the star-eyed wonder of Spirited Away it is a world rife with trees and blood. Battles clash with ferocity that contrasts the gentle peace that is shattered by struggles for power. The Forest Spirit – a deer with the face of a person that morphs into the gigantic star filled ‘Nightwalker’ when the sun sets – centralises the unknowable power that nature holds over us, regardless of how much we try to control it.
Princess Mononoke’s biggest strength is also, depending on your tastes, its biggest weakness. It is a movie dense with history, imagery, and allegory. But it is also a richly rewarding experience (albeit one you are less likely to casually throw on of an afternoon) which delivers the sort of mature animated story telling that you just don’t get outside of Japan.
Words by Michael Record