Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

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