Princess Mononoke (20th Anniversary Reflection)

True, the poster is in Japanese, but I have faith that you can figure out which of those two is the princess.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a 20th Anniversary screening of acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated classic Princess Mononoke. The film is an important one for me, and it was true joy to be able to see it in a theater.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Princess Mononke is an epic that tells the tale of a prince named Ashitaka, who, after an encounter with a demon, becomes cursed. He sets out on a journey to try to find a means of lifting his curse. Along the way he gets caught in a battle between a technologically sophisticated human village, Iron Town, which is slowly destroying the forest surrounding it, and the creatures of said forest, including a human woman who was raised by a pack of wolves (the titular Princess Mononoke*).

The film is a parable on environmentalism, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying the issue as so many other films of this sort have (I’m looking at you, Avatar). It doesn’t demonize the people of Iron Town that are destroying the forest; rather, it goes out of the way to show that it’s full of decent people who are just trying to improve their lives. Even the village leader, who is the driving force behind the destruction and is shown to be too stubborn and violent for her own good, is nevertheless given positive qualities as well, such as how she has taken in lepers and prostitutes into her village to save them from tortured lives in the outside world. Concomitantly, not everyone fighting on the side of the forest is shown to be noble. Some of the creatures are depicted as overly blood thirsty and bullheaded; and the film more or less explicitly spells out that they are damaging to their own cause. While the movie still takes a strong stand on the side of the environment, it’s refreshing to see it respectfully give each side nuanced, three-dimensional characters.

Ashitaka himself is in a strange middle ground in this conflict; he falls in love with Princess Mononoke and wants to save the forest; but he also respects the people of Iron Town; he constantly argues for peace between the two sides and an end to bloodshed. It’s interesting to note that, for all of the three-dimensionality in character of the opposing sides in this conflict, Ashitaka himself is somewhat uncomplicated as a character caught in between. He always seems to know the right thing to do or say, and he doesn’t really undergo much development. He’s never the less interesting as the movie’s moral center, though, and he does get some good action scenes throughout the film. Furthermore, to the extent that he helps his love interest, Princess Mononoke, to change in the movie (he convinces her to be more peaceful and less violent towards humans), he’s arguably an example of my Self-Respecting Labrador Dream Guy trope (see this link for further clarification). Also, if you can’t tell, though she is the titular character in the story, Princess Mononoke is not the pivotal character in this picture, or even the character with the most to do. That said, her name makes for a more interesting title; and I don’t really mind the picture being named after her.

This film is clearly very much a fantasy story. This movie features gods and demons, a kind of elemental magic, and a rich mythology. There’s a great deal of imagination on display here, particularly with some of the creatures of the forest that we see. The highlights include playful child-like ghosts that can appear and disappear at will and the Forest Spirit, a divine being with an elk’s body, bird-like feet, and a human face that transforms into a towering apparition at night. Like the best fantasies, it fills you with a unique sense of wonder and awe, and it’s very inspiring. Having said that, this is not a children’s fantasy; this is very much a work aimed at adults. There’s quite a bit of violence, death, and gore in the movie; and some of the language is very intense as well. However, I think it’s nevertheless appropriate here in order to emphasize the film’s thematic weight and earnestness. It helps the viewer to take what it’s saying seriously, and it adds a unique kind of gravitas to the story.

Though more for adults than children, I confess that I did see this movie as a kid. I was fortunate enough to have cousins who exposed me to quite a bit of Japanese animation over the years, and they showed me this movie circa the winter of 2000. It absolutely blew my mind the first time I watched it. With only Disney features and Saturday morning cartoons as my reference point up until then, I had no idea that animation could be like this: mythic and imaginative yet also serious and mature. This is one of the few films in my life that really redefined my sensibilities about cinema; and I admit to being somewhat obsessed with this picture for a while. After seeing it at my cousins house, I begged my parents to rent it for me, which they did; and, if memory serves right, I watched it about ten times in a span of about four days, such was its effect on me.

As I previously said, I was lucky enough to be able to see Princess Mononoke in theaters recently; which was nice both for the experience of watching it on the big screen as well as having an excuse to watch it again in general (I hadn’t sat down to watch the film in full in over a decade). On this viewing I was reminded of all the things I loved about the movie. In particular, I was reminded of how great the animation in this picture is. It is colorful, vibrant, fluent, and amazingly detailed; and nearly every shot is a work of art. Twenty years on, this is still a high-water mark for non-CG animation, and the animators should be very proud of themselves for their accomplishments. I also found a new appreciation for the musical score, which is very powerful and atmospheric and, with the animation, creates some truly amazing sequences.

I must also admit, however, that, now being older and my cinematic sensibilities being more developed, I noticed, for the first time, what I consider to be legitimate flaws in the movie. For one, some of the dialogue is a little awkward. To be fair that could be partially due to the English dubbing. It does an admirable job of trying to match the original Japanese as close as possible, but at times I think it can’t quite account for the rhythms and syntax of the Japanese language in an acceptable way. The result are some clunky lines here and there and rather rapid deliveries of key exposition. Another issue is that, though the movie is far from short at 134 minutes, I think it should have been longer.  As is, there are instances where seemingly major shifts in the plot happen a little too sudden, and I feel as though the picture misses scenes that could have helped build them up more and create a smoother flow. I think the picture should have been closer to three hours than two, though I am aware of the unique difficulties with trying to animate movies with that kind of run time.

With that in mind, on my most recent reflection, I do have to admit that Princess Mononoke is not a perfect movie; but it is still a very special one. It’s a beautifully crafted, imaginative, mature picture that takes its audience seriously. It’s one of Hayao Miyazaki’s finest achievements — although he has several other masterpieces** under his belt — and this is a must-see if you’re interested in Japanese animation. I definitely recommend checking it out sometime.

*Technically, Princess Mononoke is actually referred to by another name, San, for most of the film; but to keep things simple in this review, I will only refer to her as Princess Mononoke.

**Nausicaa, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro, to name a few.


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