In a cinematic landscape inundated with sequels, reboots, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to step back a decade or two and watch something wholly original and incredible. Princess Mononoke was Hayao Miyazaki’s seventh feature film and remains the longest that he has directed. At 134 minutes long and with a story as grand as the world it depicts, Mononoke is far from the standard animated output of either the US or Japan. This one is violent. It is epic in the truest sense of the word. It shows us all the world in which we live, only completely different, and it does so brilliantly.
We hear two distant drum blasts, and the film opens on vast, forest-covered mountains. Trees fall and plants die as a monster passes through the them. This, we learn, is an angry demon in the form of a giant boar, and it charges to attack a nearby settlement. Prince Ashitaka (Matsuda/Crudup) meets the monster outside of his village and defends his people from it, but not without sustaining a cursed injury. He must leave his village and head west to search for a cure.
As he travels, he comes to Iron Town, which is under constant attack from the forest that it has been destroying. Leading this attack is San (Ishida/Danes), a human girl who was raised by a wolf deity and has vowed to kill the town’s matriarch, Lady Eboshi (Tanaka/Driver). As the conflict escalates far beyond the town’s mountain, Ashitaka must choose where his allegiances lies and how he can end the war.
I consider this to be one of the few truly great, mainstream environmental films. Its treatment of the nuanced issues at hand is equally nuanced, and unlike the easy “nature good/people bad” moral of so many others, Mononoke is able to leave us with the message that there is a balance that must be maintained. Humanity will always develop and progress, but it must do so with the knowledge that our lives and our resources all depend on the world that we inhabit.
This film pulls no punches. Limbs and heads are shot clean off, and hard questions don’t get easy answers. Perhaps most challenging, though, is the character of Eboshi. She acts as the antagonist of the film but is benevolent toward those in her town, buying prostitutes out of nearby brothels and offering lepers employment and respect. She is destroying the environment surrounding her land but all for the sake of her people. The cultures and relationships depicted in Princess Mononoke are uncharacteristically real for a blockbuster release.
Mononoke‘s animation is top-notch, even compared to Miyazaki’s other works, as the landscapes, characters, and monsters are given incredible life and depth throughout. Joe Hisaishi’s score is epic and has got to be among the greatest scores in an animated feature. The sound design as a whole is incredible; through it you can feel every arrow landing around you and smell the dust as it flies up from the feet of Ashitaka’s elk. Princess Mononoke was supposed to be its director’s last film, and while I am glad that he changed his mind, this would have made for a fine final work.