Released in Japan in 1997 and the USA in 1999, this Miyazaki masterpiece tells a bizarre yet compelling story covering a deep range of social and environmental issues. Considered one of the classic Studio Ghibli movies, it’s easy to forget how much blood and core this animated film contains.
The film opens with a terrifying worm-like demon attacking a town. It’s quickly dispatched by the town’s future leader, a young boy named Ashitaka. The wriggling demon dissolves into a pool of blood, revealing a giant boar which rots and decays before the townspeople’s eyes.
This demon is made of hate and a small lead bullet, two things that everyone knows are evil. Ashitaka’s arm gets infected by the evil and he must leave the village to hunt for a cure. His arm gives him some sort of super strength though, as he’s soon able to decapitate a man on horseback using only an arrow. It’s an unexpected twist and foreshadowing of the graphic battles to come.
Princess Mononoke is a film with a message, but it’s difficult to know what that message is. The main antagonist, Lady Eboshi, is a beloved leader who cares for the old or sick and also buys up contracts of women working at brothels in order to take them away from that sort of life. She puts the women to work smelting iron and running the bellows in her secluded forest factory.
San, the female lead/side-kick character has been raised by wolves and is running a gorilla warfare campaign against the ironworks. (Oddly, the gorillas don’t seem to be helping her with this venture, though they do want to eat the humans.) They provide an unnecessary distractions from the plot in two scenes and it’s difficult for me to justify their presence.
Additionally, the boar colony is planning an attack on the ironworks as retribution for the death of their leader. The emperor sends his army to help Lady Eboshi on her campaign to destroy forest life, though it’s really just a ruse to pull her men away from her fortified camp so he can claim the iron factory for his own.
The boars attack against the army is all a trap and they rush to their explosive deaths. The army mainly wants to use the boar skins as disguises to get close to the deer god so they can behead it. (That made more sense when I was watching it.) (Side note: watching the boar skins waddle and slide unnaturally across the terrain is a special kind of disturbing.)
A second boar is infected with the hate demon. Perhaps boars are more susceptible to hatred?
The not-well-explained deer god, who turns into a mythical night-walker, can walk on water, and survive being shot through the head, cannot survive being decapitated. Well, that’s not true. Cutting off it’s head simply turns it from a creepy looking deer into a headless blob of death which kills, wilts, or destroys everything it touches as it searches for it’s head.
Thankfully, Ashitaka and San are able to return the oozing, unblinking, deer head to the night-walker creature in time to save everyone.
The movie is a mess. It ends, somewhat unsatisfactory, with “prince” Ashitaka deciding to work with the humans and San deciding to stay with the wolves. As far as I can tell, Lady Eboshi still plans to smelt iron, and it’s unclear if anyone actually learned anything over the course of these events. I’m not sure I fully understood the ending.
As usual, the animation of the film is fantastic. Originally, this was planned to be Miyazaki’s last film. Thankfully, he went on to create Spirited Away and several others.
Overall, the story does have a number of interesting elements, but it really feels like too much is trying to be crammed into too little space. There are several themes that are never fully fleshed out. The dual nature of Lady Eboshi: kind and caring, yet brutal and ruthless feels forced. It’s a deep and interesting character to play with, but she’s a side character and partial villain, so she doesn’t get the time she needs to develop. The betrayal by the Emperor is glossed over to the point where it’s unclear why it was even included. Do the two main characters even really change? I’m not sure.
Despite the problems, I would still classify this movie in the “fun to watch” category. Like many other Miyazaki films, it manages to create a compelling and interesting world at the intersection of nature and imagination. And while I don’t think it’s one of his stronger films, I do think it’s worth a watch.