Princess Mononoke (1997)
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
This is the moment where I met Miyazaki. I can remember going to the theater at the mall near my college. It was my freshman year, and I sort of went along to the movies without really know what was being seen. I believe it was my friend Clint that wanted to see this. I had no idea that is was animated or Japanese; it was merely a Friday hanging out with people I knew. When that Joe Hisaishi score kicked in, and the story began, I was immediately taken away to another world much in the same way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy felt around the same time. Afterward, I had to know who made that movie.
Over five hundred years ago in Japan, a demon attacks an Emishi village without warning. Brave Prince Ashitaka fells the beast but becomes scarred, marked by the devil on his arm as a result. The dead monster is revealed as a boar god, a powerful being from a remote forest that was infected by a strange iron ball within its ribs. Ashitaka must leave his village forever and follows the demon’s path west, which leads him to Irontown, a refuge for society’s outcasts where Lady Eboshi has given them jobs as laborers, miners, and forge workers. They are constructing rifles that fire iron bullets and engage in a constant battle with the forest gods. Princess Mononoke is a human girl raised by the wolf god, and she fights viciously for her animal family. Ashitaka wants to find a way to make peace between these two forces before things go too far, but it is not sure if he will prevail.
This was a film Miyazaki had been working on for decades, starting in the 1970s with sketches he made of a forest princess. Some images made there way into other ecologically-centered projects like Nausicaa and Totoro, but they were never as entirely on the nose as what he needed. Miyazaki became influenced by the Westerns of John Ford when developing the story, which led to the creation of Irontown and the constant fight with forces outside the fortress, parallel the colonists and the natives of America. This was also an opportunity for Miyazaki to play with computer animation, with about 10% of the project drawn digitally.
Miyazaki revisits his themes from Nausicaa about the conflict between humanity and the natural world. Here, the female lead is not the peacemaker but one half of a violent equation. Equal to her in determination is Lady Eboshi, who has very reasonable intentions and goals. It can be inferred that Eboshi may be a lady, but her sympathies lie with the vulnerable because of unspoken elements of her past. She finds lepers and brothel women better company than the aristocracy. That makes her a complex character and one that is hard to write off as a pat villain. Mononoke has her own rightful justifications about defending her forest home so passionately.
Ashitaka is the character in the middle. He’s marked by the sins of Lady Eboshi with the growing demon scar. This causes him to be sympathetic to Mononoke at the start. However, his constant motto of “To see with eyes unclouded by hate” allows the prince to tour Irontown and discover the positive aspects of what Eboshi is doing. She has given them a home, safety, the dignity of work. The former prostitutes talk about how much more empowered they are now, no longer having men force themselves on them. Ashitaka understands he cannot destroy Irontown, but it would also be wrong to allow the forest’s continued destruction. In a very Star Wars move, the story becomes about finding a way to balance these two opposing forces to live in harmony.
Within a seemingly traditional fairy tale structure, Miyazaki once again finds rich moral complexity. Instead of “good vs. evil,” this is a film about finding balance in the conflict. Humanity has to strive to improve its condition by harnessing the resources around it; people who are abused & used deserve to be lifted out of those situations. However, nature cannot be wantonly pillaged without consequence. The leader figures that Ashitaka encounters are so stubborn in their refusal to compromise, they believe success is achieved through the annihilation of their perceived enemy. By the end of the film, almost all of them have been destroyed or toppled from their power positions. Ashitaka only overcomes the demon scar when he accepts his responsibility as a part of this conflict to find peace. There are moments where he must kill as an act of defense, but he finds ways to atone and never takes those acts lightly.
Princess Mononoke is a gorgeous modern fairy tale, something for the middle school set, elevating Miyazaki’s surface-level content to something more mature. I still argue that all of Miyazaki’s films play on a deep level thematically, though. If you are tired of the Western portrayal of “good and evil” as purely binary concepts and not something more akin to yin & yang, Princess Mononoke will satisfy that need. Even after 20 plus years, the messages in this movie ring so real and are so urgent.