20 Years of Enchanting Complexity and Storytelling: About “Princess Mononoke”

Nearly two years ago, I started making the effort to expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and film. As I mentioned at the end of 2016, I aim to get back into doing these analysis pieces once every other month about a TV show or film that has reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release, etc.). It’s been six months since I last did one of these pieces, for the previous one was about Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy-Award winning film, “Spirited Away.” Today, in honor of its recent 20th anniversary screenings and the director’s birthday that just passed, I shall be discussing another Miyazaki masterpiece; the one that put him on the map as an international filmmaking master. Today, I shall be going over his film, “Princess Mononoke.

In the Muromachi Period in Japan, the last prince of the Emishi tribe, Ashitaka, defeats a demon from attacking his village, but not before it curses his arm while in battle. Slated for a slow, painful death, the village wise woman advises him to go seek a potential cure in the land of the west, where the demon had originally came from. Upon arrival, Ashitaka finds himself caught up in an ongoing feud between the people of the industrial Irontown (run by the headstrong Lady Eboshi) and the spirits of the nearby forest. He is particularly drawn to San, the human child of wolf god Moro, whose hatred for humans makes her determined to go after Lady Eboshi. Irontown’s matriarch, meanwhile, is very keen on killing the Great Forest Spirit, in order to obtain its land for more resources. Despite the lines drawn, things aren’t as black-and-white as they may seem, as Ashitaka struggles to find a way for there to be peace on both sides.

This is really all that I can give away about the plot without spoiling the whole thing, for it really is one of Miyazaki’s more complex films… and his most violent film as well. Originally released in Japan on July 12, 1997, “Princess Mononoke” brings his most known theme, humankind vs. nature, to new heights. We are introduced to a world of gods with violent intentions, kodama enchanting the forest, a powerful spirit of life and death, a greedily scheming government spy, and a curse that can literally cut through limbs if given a bow and arrow. “Princess Mononoke” is truly unlike any film made before, and unlike any film made in the 20 years since.

I was five when the film was originally released, and I was seven when it was brought over to America. Given its violence and complexity, there’s no way I would have been old enough to watch it when it came out. I first watched it as a teenager, appreciated its animation and storytelling, and overtime, as I’ve gotten older, especially this past week where I saw it on the big screen for the first time, I’ve grown to like it even more. If anything, this film, along with “Spirited Away,” are probably my top two favorite films from Miyazaki.

The animation, despite it being in the traditional 2D form, doesn’t at all date the film, for as I’ve been told from a first time viewer, “Princess Mononoke” could have easily been made yesterday. Everything from the interactions between various characters, to the more visually stunning moments like the Forest Spirit taking its nightwalker form, were all incredible animation. It’s also worth noting that this is the first film directed by Miyazaki to incorporate CG animation into the mix, but just enough to make the film move more fluidly.

Unlike “Spirited Away,” this film is set during a historical period in Japanese history. Despite that fact in mind, Miyazaki was still able to incorporate the fantastical elements into it and make it seem and feel completely natural, without pulling too much focus away from the story at hand. I also loved that he pulled elements not only from Japanese mythology, but also Western mythology; as seen with the upbringing of San by her wolf family.

I keep going on about the complexity of the story, and that is shown through the characters who drive the story along, as well as their intentions. This isn’t your typical good vs. bad story, though it easily could have been had someone else directed the film. Instead, “Princess Mononoke” shows its characters as being various shades of gray. Lady Eboshi is a perfect example of this, for despite stealing the land from the forest and wanting to kill the Forest Spirit, she makes Irontown a home for outcasts; in particular, former brothel workers and lepers. She employs them and has them put their skills to good use in keeping the town running.

I had mentioned earlier on how the theme of the film is mainly about humankind vs. nature (which can be seen in many of his other films to some extent). At the same time, there is another theme in the film that is just as important: that one must always keep in mind a reason to go on living. This theme is emphasized full-on in a scene where one of the lepers has this to say:

“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

This message seems dauntingly relevant nowadays, and not exactly in the same scenario as depicted in “Princess Mononoke.” We are in the last weekend with Barack Obama as President of the United States. Understandably, uncertainty lies ahead. Despite the battles we can already imagine many of us getting into, it’s important now more than ever to keep in mind the reasons to live.

I could go on about how wonderful “Princess Mononoke” is, but I believe you get the jest of it at this point. It’s been 20 years since its release, and while it may be a film that can be immediately appreciated, it’s still one that needs to be seen several times to do a full-on analysis of it. But don’t let that deter you away from enjoying this incredible Miyazaki masterpiece.

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